Culpability

I guess you have to own up when things aren’t going quite to plan. I had every intention of upping the level of productivity going into the various web properties that I’ve got kicking around, and that’s happened. Not exactly to the extent I’d hoped, but I’ll keep trying.

One thing that was a hasty, poorly considered decision with the benefit of hindsight was attempting to marry up posting an image with posting a screed of text, with nary a connection between them. Baffling decision, and completely confusing to everyone.

Also, splitting out the old stuff and leaving it in an old WordPress install, with the new stuff in a new WordPress setup was a very dumb idea. Not necessarily in the philosophical terms of a clean break, but in pure technical sense of maintaining updates to prevent security holes, which is pure drudgery – less so these days, admittedly, but not exactly fun.

So, I’d better remedy this. From now on, words go here, the bulk of my photos go on my Flickr, and I’ve put together what is, I guess, a portfolio of my ‘best’ photos over here – best being, of course, a relative term.

The posts from the old blog are back on here, and I’ve futzed around with the theme, and created a massively egotistical front page. Booyah.

Alan Wake …to the end

I have acquired a hell of a lot of games over the past few years that I haven’t really given much attention to. Before buying anything else, it’s time to play them …to the end.

The following is a rambling log of thoughts, experiences and opinions that might, if you squint a bit, loosely be termed a review.

As an aside, I wrote the bulk of this some time ago and promptly forgot about it. My memory’s not so good these days. As a consequence this tidied up version may be a little light on details, but I think it gets the spirit of the game across quite well.

It wasn’t long after the completion of Max Payne 2 that rumours surfaced of a new game from Remedy, and if nothing else Alan Wake cut a mean trailer, back when you could call the Xbox 360 and PS3 ‘next-generation’ machines with a straight face. After it’s lengthy gestation period it was unleashed upon a world that seemed largely to have forgotten about it. Now an Xbox 360 exclusive, it received almost universal acclaim in the press, although these days sadly this is more an indication of the quantity of advertising placed with the press than of quality of the game.

Regardless, it’s the only game that willingly describes itself as, at least in part, a survival horror that I had the slightest interest in playing over the last decade, so let’s plunge into the world of thriller writer Alan Wake as he investigates the disappearance of his wife during their holiday in the remote town of Bright Falls.

Day One

So, a few hours in and I’ve completed the first, half tutorial episode and most of Episode Two before my interest waned. My initial thoughts are that someone’s been spending a hell of a lot longer on the concept of the game rather than the mechanics.

While the concept of nightmares within nightmares seems interesting enough, the sections of trudging through forest occasionally stopping to shine a light on some lumberjacks before shooting them isn’t exactly setting my world on fire.

Given the way the narrative’s going, I suppose there’s no point picking up on any of the plot holes that occur fairly frequently, given that the “J.R. stepping out of the shower” scene towards the end is pretty clearly signposted.

What sticks out like a sore thumb is the character models, specifically the granite-like fizzogs on display when characters try desperately to emote. For a game that’s been in development since, I believe, the beginning of recorded time, you’d think they’d have come up with something better looking than a launch title. The ‘actors’ seem to be walking around with a stick up their collective ass, but on closer inspection they’ve really got more in common with the sticks.

Why am I trying to collect a hundred coffee pots, by the way?

Day Two

I find myself concluding Episode 2, and trudging my way through Episode 3. So far, still an awful lot of traipsing through woods, shining flashlights at lumberjacks. For a game that took five years to create, I had figured that there would be a touch more variety shown in the mechanics. I suppose there’s not a vehicle to drive between the locations for the bouts of flashlight wielding, and some poltergeist thrown objects to shine a torch on, but this is hardly redefining the boundaries of video gaming.

I suppose I shall play on for the sake of continuing the story, but so far it’s doign very little to draw me in to the narrative. I think I’m being put off by the continued references and namechecking of Steven King, a writer up with which I shall not put.

While we’re at it, if this game is supposed to be narrative based, would it not have been a sterling idea to get a few decent writers in? The dismal writing is showcased not only in some dreadful, grating voiceovers, but also in the hamfisted, clunky manuscript pages I have no interest in reading, let alone scouring the levels trying to find. I’m afraid the Cheevo points alone are not that strong of a draw for me to engage in arbitrary gameplay extension.

Day Three

A radical departure for the game in Episode 4, as we find ourselves traipsing through a garden and a farmyard, shining flashlights on lumberjacks.

I sure hope this game has something unexpected and special for its ending, as if it goes the way it’s been threatening to go for the first half of the game then the storyline as developed in this chapter would completely undercut any building of tension.

That said, I still struggle to work up any interest at all in the plot and find most of these daylight cutscenes to be an excellent opportunity to play Slingo on my iPhone. I’m multi-tasking.

I’m growing more than a little bored by the recurring contrivance of stripping your weapons and flashlight at every available opportunity. Once might have been fun, but this grows tiresome quickly

I had wondered why I was finding your occasional in-game companion Barry so irritating, given that his characterisation is far less annoying and pretentious than our nominal hero. Eventually I placed it as residual hatred for Max Payne 2‘s Vinnie Gognitti, sharing as they do the same voice actor. You will remember Vinnie, of course, as the ‘star’ of the stupendously annoying Captain Baseball Batboy suit section that was so obnoxious I’m half-convinced it was a parody of all computer game escort missions.

Day Four

The fifth chapter of the games sees a radical departure from the previous formula, consisting of a few arbitrary equipment strippings followed by running through woods shining flashlights on lumberjacks. Oh, hang on, that’s not actually a radical departure at all.

Perhaps I’m not being fair to Alan Wake. After all, there’s is a short section set in town where we have to take a needlessly circuitous route through buildings because the quick way is ‘blocked’ by a three foot fence that has become unscalable, somehow. That’s not at all annoying, nor is Barry’s accessorising of his puffy jacket with Christmas lights.

I have to give this game some credit. For being composed entirely of lazy writing, filler action sections, pointless platforming puzzles, unlikable characters and sub-standard acting I’m really only finding it a trifle dull rather than teeth-grindingly dreadful.

One oddity that occurs to me, seeing as it shows up in this chapter more, perhaps, than any other. There’s what amounts to this games’ equivalent of landmines scattered throughout, that are dealt with by — what else — shining a torch on them. As I’ve yet to encounter them at the same time as being attacked by the Taken, they’ve reduced to the role of another very minor roadblocks on the narrative path.

The most questionable aspect of their inclusion is really there visual design, as they look for all the world like piles of haunted horse manure. Terror incarnate, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Day Five

I take it all back. The thrilling final chapter radically ups the ante of game mechanics with a exhilarating ‘push a cart out of the way by tapping the “A” button’ segment that really ties the game together. It’s repeated a few times, but that’s okay. It remains just as brain-meltingly non-awesome as it does on the first time.

Actually I have been doing a grand dis-service to the variety on display in Alan Wake. There’s also the frequent stops to start up diesel powered generators by tapping the “A” button a few times. Finally, video games have delivered on the promise of the old ‘interactive movies’ of the 1st gen CD-ROM games. It’s just like being in a movie!

Other than these, the bulk of the level consists of dodging poltergeist-inhabited oil drums and running through woods shining flashlights on lumberjacks. The final boss, such as it is, at least presented an interesting visually break from the norm, but mechanically isn’t much more than another object dodging session.

I suppose I was a little disappointed, if not overly surprised, to see that the game did not end with a satisfying, neat conclusion. I suppose at best I can credit it for not overtly flashing up a billboard telling me that “THE NOT-AT-ALL DREARY TALE OF ALAN WAKE WILL CONTINUE THROUGH AN INTERMINABLE SERIES OF DLC FLEECINGS”. Hey, at least the first one’s free, right kids? Well, free to folks that bought the game, but seeing as I’ve only borrowed Alan Wake from my good friend Baron Sir Lord Craig of Eastman I’d better not redeem that token, so it’s really all over bar the finger pointing.

Finger Pointing

I think by this point I’ve made myself clear that I didn’t enjoy this game. It’s very far from being the worst thing I’ve played on the Xbox, and if I’m being fair there’s not really any one aspect of the game that falls below competent.

However, basic competency is the bare minimum that we’re demanding of a game, and Alan Wake doesn’t go a hell of a lot past this. The gameplay mechanics, and for the most part the entire gameplay engine might well have been lifted wholesale from Max Payne 2. Or perhaps Max Payne 1. Amongst its peers it feels clunky and stodgy, and I’m not buying the excuse that you wouldn’t expect a writer to dive around like an action hero either.

Perhaps I would, had this been more immersive. It’s trying to be, I’ll grant it, but if your lead character (and by extension, you) are represented by a whiny, spoiled brat of a character suffering inordinately from first world dilemmas then it’s not going to be remotely effective.

If you don’t care about the character, you’re unlike to get into the narrative, so its shortcomings become all the more obvious. I suppose spoilers are less of a concern this far from the game’s release, but nonetheless I’ll leave it at saying the story, like all of the Steven King works it charmlessly apes, is as stupid, annoying and obnoxious as the game’s lead character.

The best I can say about this game is that I played it all the way to completion, and it didn’t feel too much like I was only doing it for the sake of this article. Without the dangling carrot of another few thousand easily ignored words of content for my corner of the internet, I’d still have finished this game having started it – which is rare for someone with limited time for gaming.

That’s hardly the best recommendation for the game, and it does rather make me wonder if I’ve played a different version to the game so glowing reviewed in the glossy magazines and major websites. It was hailed as a leap forward in storytelling for games, and for it’s pacing. This is straight-up mental. It’s a games that screeches to a halt and throws cut scenes at you, with the barest of attempts at linking or enhancing any narrative revelations in the gameplay sections.

There’s very little atmosphere built, and the attempts at scares fall very flat. Had this game appeared a year or two after Max Payne 2, it would have been a revelation. As it stands, it’s a very real disappointment and barely worth playing, and certainly not something I’m going to recommend.

Requiem for a Lenscap

Farewell, then, Lens Cap for a 12-60mm Olympus lens. You leave behind a quality lens shorn of your protection, falling in the line of duty somewhere on the Paris metro system.

It is unkind to speak ill of the departed, but in this time of despair we must be honest with ourselves and each other. The only surprising thing about this tragedy is that it took so long to occur, given your predilection for leaping from the lens at the slightest brush.

We must reflect upon your creator, the good Lord Olympus, and ask him why He cannot create a lens cap across His entire range of otherwise brilliant lenses that does not suck wholeheartedly.

Lo then, for the great circle of life must continue, and we can only hope that your generic 99p replacement that, I note, comes with a lanyard which recent experience suggests will be useful, will be at least as good as you were.

Which isn’t saying much. Until then, I’m patenting my temporary protection method as the revolutionary LenSock™ – It’s Better Than Nothing. Purchase your LenSock at any reputable photographic or underwear stockist.

Octopussy

The Alai Minar, from my increasingly distant trip to Delhi.

So, Octopussy.

Octopussy.

Octo. Pussy.

Octopussy.

The name says enough about it that there seems to be little point elaborating on it. But, I knew this day would come when I started on the project, so better to take my punishment and live with it. On the plus side, things can only get better from here on in.

The thirteenth Bond film, then. John Gruber of the Talk Show podcast reminds me of a salient point that, if not excuses Octopussy, goes some way to explain it. The thirteenth Bond film. Consider that for a moment. The thirteenth entry in a series. How many franchises have we seen that run out of ideas and quality halfway through the second entry? The answer, of course, being “most of them”. Thirteenth. Thirteen films.

It’s unprecedented and impressive. I suppose after having to make twelve Bond adventures, it’s natural to get a little sick of him, which I can only assume to be the reason to put the man known for his suave sophistication and put him in a clown outfit.

I suppose after finding twelve at worst competent actors to play Bond villains, you’d have to get to Steven Berkoff eventually. I’m sure no-one was looking forward to it, or wanted it, or thought he’d be anything better than the dreadful screeching annoyance that he is. There just wasn’t anywhere else to go.

After twelve plots, even by the variable standards to which Bond films are judged, you’d have to cobble together some loosely connected bullshit with jewellery smuggling and a corrupt Soviet general attempting to arrange a nuclear ‘accident’ at a U.S. Air Force base using a Trojan circus. I’m sure no-one thought it was a good idea. There just wasn’t anything else for Bond to do.

I’m sure after filming a scene where Bond swings from vine to vine, no-one wanted to overdub Tarzan yelling on to it. Nobody would want that. There just wasn’t any other option.

I sure after twelve films, there just wasn’t any other option than to replace the series’ trademarked car chases with a motorised rickshaw chase.

I’m sure there wasn’t any other way to make this thirteenth Bond film without the god-awful, more stop than start stop-start pacing, and ham-fisted action scenes, and structuring it to go on for another half hour after the obvious dramatic conclusion, and to bafflingly turn Q into a field operative.

There just couldn’t have been another way to do this film. Surely. The alternative is patently ridiculous. The alternative is that someone thought that all of the above was fine, and that Octopussy would make for a good Bond film.

I’m not prepared to believe so unbelievable a scenario. I’d find it more believable to find out that this had been planted by David Icke’s reptile people to prepare us for their unveiling, as told in the holy text V. I’d find it more believable that the script had been sabotaged by the makers of Never Say Never Again to give them an advantage in the War of the Bonds.

In fact, I think I shall reject this reality where Octopussy exists, because logically something like it cannot exist, so I must be delusional.

Yes, that’s it.

This isn’t a worse film than On Her Majesties’ Secret Service, because this film doesn’t exist.

Yes, that’s it.

Yes.

For Your Eyes Only

I have been caught slacking on the Bond front for a couple of weeks. I shall try to rectify this as best as possible before the looming duelling responsibilities of a holiday and covering the Edinburgh International Film Festival get the better of me.

However, I’m going to be put at an immediate disadvantage by For Your Eyes Only, the twelfth Bond outing, having apparently been so forgettable it has already faded in my memories. Over the course of this ill-advised experiment I’ve made reference to all of the Moore era Bonds merging together in my mind. I’d assumed this was just a function of the time since I’d last seen them, but it appears that the root cause is simply that few of them are memorable.

So, Wikipedia assures me that the main through line of this piece is the need for the British government to recover a missile command system from an accidentally destroyed spy vessel. This is also exactly the sort of thing the Russians would like to get their hands on, so the race is on to retrieve the dohickey. This leads, after what’s close enough to an investigation, to Bond being placed in the middle of duelling Greek crime bosses, one still sympathetic to British interests from wartime resistance efforts, the other having made a career of betraying his compatriots.

I guess the first thing you’ll note from the above potted recap is that no portion of it requires Space Marines, or a plot to kill everyone in the world, or suchlike. Why, if you squint a little, it’s almost plausible! It’s said that ex-Bond editor John “not an astronaut” Glen’s directorial stint for this and the next four “official” Bond films was part of a move back to reality from the fanciful plots and pitched battles of prior films. It’s partially successful, with a relatively sensible plot and characters that, from some angles, approach at least 2.5D rather than the cardboard cut out characterisation we’ve been treated to over the past few films. Some of these guys even seem to have motive for their actions! Wild concept for a Bond film, I know.

For Your Eyes Only‘s problem in this regard is that for every step forward it takes, it walks into a lamp-post, staggers back, falls over, hits it head and soils itself. It’s not starting from a position of strength either, with hands-down the dumbest and least explicable pre-credits mission yet, as Bond foils another attempt by a wheelchair bound Blofeld to kill him in a remote control helicopter, turning the tables and dropping him down a chimney (!) while Blofeld bargains for his life by offering to buy Bond a delicatessen in stainless steel (!!).

If you were looking for your take on the series to have a patina of believability, why on earth go to the bother of resurrecting a happily dead villain to kill him in such a daffy way? Perhaps it’s an attempt to symbolically bury the excesses of the SPECTRE-esque grand designs on the world, but if so it’s undercut by the both the rest of the film and the means of dispatching Blofeld. Walking up to him and shooting him, point blank, would send a message that there’s a new Sheriff in Bondsville. Picking up his wheelchair from a helicopter and dropping him down a chimney – that’s sort of business as usual, but much worse than usual.

Of course, we can’t be sure he’s Blofeld and not just some other cat-stroking psychopath with a grudge, thanks to the ongoing legal wranglings over film rights that resulted in Never Say Never Again, but we’ll deal with that when we get to it.

The rest of the film is a curious mix that’s not altogether unpleasant to watch, although all of the memorable elements in the film are memorable for entirely the wrong reasons. Why is this massively annoying, largely superfluous teenage skater given any screentime? Why are there ice-hockey playing assassins? Why must we have the a supposed KGB spy/assassin break cover by leaving during a cross-country skiing race to take a shot at Bond? Did we really need that bobbins bobsleigh bit, especially considering the human cost? Why film cliff climbing scenes with an actor who’s afraid of heights, and have to fake “underwater” scenes because the actress can’t go in the water? Assassins in beach buggies?

Now, while perhaps it’s damning it with faint praise, this is my second favourite Moore era Bond thus far, after The Spy Who Loved Me. Despite the uneven mix of striving for sensibility at the same time as embracing the ridiculous, For Your Eyes Only is an enjoyable watch. Just don’t expect to remember any of the reasons you found it enjoyable a few weeks down the line.

Moonraker

When our civilisation is called to account for itself by some deity or other, or perhaps a sufficiently advanced alien civilisation, somewhere on the list we will eventually get around to Moonraker, the fourth outing for Roger Moore’s iteration of Bond. It will, of course, be fairly low on the list of crimes Humankind has committed, but there’s at least one definite chargeable offence committed here. Sure, Diamonds Are Forever had its excesses, but at least it could say that it stopped short of having a HoverGondola.

Bafflingly, that’s not even the silliest element of this film. It’s the reactions to the HoverGondola. I’ll accept the bemused denizens of Venice taking a double take at this breathtakingly stupid mode of transport. I have a somewhat lower tolerance for the very obvious looping a short section of film to suggest that a pigeon is also giving a double take.

It’s a minor thing to get hung up on, I suppose, although it does seem to be the point at which any hope of returning to anything approaching an espionage drama was extinguished forever. How, exactly, am I going to taking anything that happens to this ludicrous clown of a spy seriously in any future endeavour? Is this now a comedy franchise?

So, we’ve mentioned before the tendency of Bond to unashamedly lift any elements of popular culture that are kicking around at the time, such as Live and Let Die‘s Blaxploitationisms. There wasn’t much more popular a slice of culture at the time of Moonraker’s creation than Star Wars, which unexpectedly took the world by storm and prompted a slew of me-too cash-ins, and it seems that Bond wasn’t above attempting to hitch a ride on the gravy train. Eagle eyed viewers of the credits of The Spy Who Loved Me will have perhaps been expecting the scheduled For Your Eyes Only, which was swiftly sidelined in favour of this… thing.

I claim no insider knowledge of the genesis of Moonraker, but if this wasn’t hastily assembled from the scripting equivalent of scraps and leftovers I’ll eat my hat. Essentially, this lifts the plot almost wholesale from The Spy Who Loved Me, itself an expedition in mining Bond films past, and swaps out Stromberg’s undersea utopia for Hugo Drax’s spacestation utopia. So much so, I’m not altogether sure what to say about this film, other than it manages to avoid lifting any of the worthwhile elements from its predecessor, and mixes it with copious buckets o’stupid.

Called in to investigate a hijacked space shuttle, Bond quickly tracks it back to the multi-billionaire Hugo Drax, builder of said shuttle under sub-contract to NASA. He’s also secretly built a few for himself, along with a space station, and a toxin designed to wipe out humanity. You might have thought some of these activities, like, say, shuttle launches or constructing an orbital death platform would have come to the attention of someone before now, but apparently not. Jimmy’s poking around is the first anyone’s heard of it. I think the CIA and MI6 ought to hire a few forensic accountants.

Also returning from The Spy Who Loved Me is Jaws, for whatever reason, which I suppose is understandable from a certain point of view. Returning, recurrent villains, even if they are henchmen rather than the Big Bad, aren’t a bad idea. In a film that wasn’t so identically structured, this would be a plus point, but here it feels even more like someone reprinted the previous script, scratching out “Stromberg” and “ocean” for “Drax” and “space”.

Hugo Drax himself is rather too understated and forgettable, especially for a supposed megalomaniac trying to reshape humanity in his own image. He seems more like David Brent from The Office rather than a proper nutter. If I’m going to have someone attempt to wipe out mankind, there ought to be a little more emotion and snarling, otherwise I feel like I’m getting my annual performance review rather than watching a drama-laden Bond film. In common with Stromberg, I’d have appreciated even the vaguest, handwaving-laden explanation as to why Drax has embarked on this course of planetary genocide, but none is given. This might matter more, were it in a film that had any hope whatsoever of being enjoyable.

In theory, this ought to be a reasonable enough film, if massively familiar. After all, I did rather enjoy The Spy Who Loved Me. Sadly, Moonraker has dated abominably. The effects, even for the time, are massively shonky and look embarrassing in hindsight, in a way that’s not afflicted the other Moore Bonds. The story, admittedly rarely the strong suite of any Bond film, is a thinly veiled rehash of the last film which feels at best lazy, and at worst downright insulting.

I’m going to give this a pass on the science or lack thereof, as it’s pretty much the least of this film’s problems, but suffice to say that accuracy is not a friend to this script. There’s no chemistry between any of the characters, with performances that are perfunctory even by the franchise’s occasionally lax standards. There’s very little in here that would pass muster back in ’79, and nothing that does in Space Year 2011. Skipping this entry in the series is recommended for all but the most masochistic of fans.

That pigeon. Christ.

The Spy Who Loved Me

It’s a goblet of fire! Sort of. Okay, it’s more of a tumbler with a candle, but it’s very nearly a Harry Potter prop.

I am perhaps going to do The Spy Who Loved Me a disservice, especially because it is one of the rarest of beasts, one which I perhaps thought was mythical – a Roger Moore Bond film that I like, without any caveats. However, I am quite ruinously exhausted for a variety of reasons not sufficiently interesting to examine, so this may perhaps sound a little more perfunctory and less enthusiastic than it deserves. My apologies.

The British and Russian secret services must swing into action when each country has a nuclear submarine go missing, no doubt related to the sudden black market auction of a system that tracks the movement of said subs. Bond (Moore) is initially in a mildly antagonistic relationship with his opposite number Major Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach), codenamed Triple X long before the ill-advised Vin Diesel attempt at establishing a modernised Bond franchise, but before long they’re on the same page trying to figure out who’s behind this plot. Perhaps someone who has seen You Only Live Twice, from which the plot borrows heavily.

The main force working against our AngloSov Alliance come in the hulking, brutish shape of Jaws (Richard Kiel), the metallically-beteethed monster who can rip cars apart with his bare hands, and for whom the movie of the same name was more of a serving suggestion than a tense, terrifying thriller. He certainly provides a memorable and iconic wall of muscle for Bond to bounce off of, although he’s not going to be stunning you with his rapier wit. He’s more of the very strong, very silent type.

Throwing in an essentially invulnerable, at least as far as this film presents him, villain to square off against the essentially invulnerable Bond is an interesting idea, although in practise it just means that in the situations that would have dispatched lesser henchmen for good merely causes Jaws some slight inconvenience, and requiring the dusting off of his horrendous power blue sports jacket.

This, to my mind, is the first of the Mooreian Bonds that has its own character, rather than desperately trying to co-opt others. The franchise has never been above borrowing elements from contemporary popular culture, but the prior blaxploitation and kung-fu fever influences of Live and Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun felt like desperate, needy attempts at relevance. By focussing on something more akin to the Great Game of From Russia With Love, combined with the more bombastic supervillain schemes, we get something close to the best of both worlds in The Spy Who Loved Me.

There’s not much I like about On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but The Spy Who Loved Me at least pinches the most remarkable element by introducing a Bond Girl that’s portrayed as being as competent as Jimmy himself, although it can’t resist falling back to last act damsel-in-distress-isms which tarnishes its feminist credibility somewhat.

My only problem with The Spy Who Loved Me is the ultimate villain of the piece, Curd Jürgens’s Stromberg. Certainly, he’s thinking big. Destroying civilisation and restarting under the sea is a fittingly over-the-top scheme, although I would perhaps have had more invested in the character if I was given any inkling as to why ol’ Stromberg’s so peeved with the world that he wants to blow it up. Blofeld might have only been looking for money, but as The Way Of The Gun teaches us, at least money represents motive with a universal adapter. Regardless of genre, it’s always less satisfying when we know whodunnit without knowing whytheydunnit.

I shouldn’t dwell on the only real negative, as there’s a number of nice touches and details throughout the film, to the extent of even caring about some of the disposable redshirts assaulting Stromberg’s control rooms. The (very) junior officer of the British sub, having just been informed of the death of his captain, volunteers to take on a head-on assault that looks exactly like the suicide mission it turns out to be, but for perhaps the first time in the franchise I felt sorry for the cannon fodder pseudo-sidekicks rather than finding some amusement in the act.

The scripting appears to finally have got to grips with Moore’s take on Bond, and plays to the strengths of his incarnation. The locations used are suitably exotic, and give a globe-trotting feel that’s been a little lacking over the previous few flicks. While by today’s standards the compositing effects are a shade shonky, I’m probably seeing some worse effects work in cinemas today. What this may lack in execution it at least makes up for in scope, and in that sense at least compares favourably with more recent, shinier, completely soulless exercises in pixel-pushing. I refer you to, well, any of the godawful retrofitted 3D brigade we’ve seen of late.

Perhaps the odd thing about The Spy Who Loves me is that when coldly analysing the constituent elements of the film, it reads like a wholly derivative mix of elements of prior art. That’s not the way the film comes across at all, and would do it a grand disservice. It’s a wholly enjoyable movie, and while it’s not close to reaching the giddy heights of ‘Best Bond Ever’, it’s certainly in the uppermost basecamp. Well worth a look.

Eternal Legacy

At some point I’ll get through all of these photos from China. This is a statue in Tiananmen Square, dedicated to the People’s Army, if memory serves. While there’s a number of folks who will insist that there’s no point taking photographs in the harsh mid-day sun this was taken in when there’s perfectly good light coming, maybe, in the golden hours, that’s pretty rubbish advice if you’re not going to get an opportunity to go back wherever you are in a hurry. It’ll be a while until I’m back in China, and if I have to go under my own dollar, perhaps I never will. This was taken with the sun directly behind the statue in an attempt to do something interesting with the hand dealt to me, with limited success as you can judge from the above.

Readers of a certain age and predisposition may remember the infancy of videogaming in the home, with unsuspecting “serious computers” such as the ZX Spectrum and Commodore VIC-20 being abused into displaying some primitive ancestors of the modern gaming multimedia extravaganzas we take for granted on our Xboxes and Playstations. While Atari might have been a little more strict about intellectual property rights, given that they owned a good chunk of the good arcade games at the time, other formats were the rip-off equivalent of the Wild West.

Cue a massive number of barely, if at all, disguised versions of Pac-man and Space Invaders and the like, often of wildly varying quality. A simpler, more innocent time, where people shared and shared alike, or at least when game companies didn’t have legal teams larger than their development teams.

I’m apparently not the only one nostalgic about this era, or reckless enough to base a company’s release schedule entirely around quite blatant idea theft. Gameloft have been making games for mobile phones for as long as they’ve been capable of running the rudimentary Java-based games that seemed fabulous at the time, and as barbarous as Speccy games in retrospect. The release of the iPhone, however, seems to have turned them into full time rip-off merchants.

You’d have to be incredibly charitable or completely dishonest not to feel that there’s a massive degree of similarity between N.O.V.A and HALO, or the Modern Combat and COD: Modern Warfare games, or Starfront and Starcraft, or as we’re interested in here, between Eternal Legacy and Final Fantasy. In particular, Eternal Legacy draws on the graphical styles of Final Fantasy VIII and the plot of Final Fantasy VII, so I suppose if you’re being astonishingly generous that counts as innovation.

I’d get a little more shirty about Gameloft’s outright clonery were it not for the generally high quality of all of these cover versions. While N.O.V.A and Modern Combat are shadows of their inspirations on the massively more powerful consoles, they’re still very competent, fluid games and arguably as close as anyone’s come to making great FPS’s on the Apple iThingys. Eternal Legacy in some respects one ups the others mentioned, by being a better game than the Final Fantasies it apes.

Of course, this is coming from someone with a very low tolerance for Final Fantasy games, so factor that in your calculations of whatever that’s worth. Astrian, a spiky haired fellow carrying a ridiculously oversized sword in no was resembling FF8’s Squall and his buddy, in no way reminiscent of Zell, are rebels attempting to steal an oppressive government’s shiny crystal trinkets, Varsh Stones, the source of power in this world, which is the first hint that you’re playing a game heavily indebted plotwise to FF7. In fact, I’m going to stop pointing out character similarities to FF8 and plot similarities to FF8, as otherwise we’ll be here all day. Please just assume that any character you play is a barely disguised version of someone from FF8 and most of the plot’s a homage, shall we say, to FF7.

Mechanically, the game also shares elements with the FF series, although by extension it shares elements with pretty much every RPG with turn based combat. There’s the usual combinations of physical attacks, element based attack magic, stat altering buff/debuffs and assorted healing items and spells, which different characters will use to differing levels of effect depending on their abilities. There’s also a rough analogue of Limit Breaks, and a stat/effect boosting system thankfully far less tedious than FF8’s Junctioning, as Varsh Fragments found throughout the game can be attached to the weapons and armour you use, granting either access to spells that could not normally be utilised by the character, extra defence or attack, and so forth.

So far, so familiar, and the overworld sections aren’t going to blow your mind with their originality either. It’s the usual RPG deal of wandering around a town talking to people, either getting a quest or receiving information that involves heading somewhere else and fighting your way their through a variety of whacky enemies and beast that seem to have no particular storyline reason to be getting up in your grill. At least, thankfully, there’s no random encounters, as the enemies are clearly seen wandering around and thus can occasionally be avoided completely, and you can perhaps sneak up on them. Why this isn’t the way all RPGs deal with this is beyond me. I can almost accept it as a limitation on earlier machines, but there’s no excuse for it in the modern age.

So, there’s a brownie point for it, but there’s a number of less successful decisions made in the game. The combat and customisation systems are far simpler than in the games it apes, which to my mind is entirely appropriate and laudable for a game designed to be played on the move. As the iDevice format is more conductive to playing for short bursts as a time filler rather than full-on gaming sessions, shortening the normally interminable 40 hour RPG grind to a more compact 8 or 9 hours fits quite well.

Fits well for me, at least. Given that JRPGs these days seem to make their hay based entirely on how ludicrously complex and padded they are, what’s fine for me may not be so good for the intended core audience. The plot’s suffered a little under the baton of time compression, taking a few sharp right turns that could leave you flatfooted if you were hoping to actually care about the storyline or characters. It also presents a novel twist on the ‘early doors unwinnable battle with eventual boss’ trope, as you face off against the game’s main antagonist, kill him with ease, and are immediately taken to a cutscene showing you on prone, defeated and at said antagonist’s mercy. Somehow. Buh?

There’s a few mechanical annoyances that should really have been fixed remaining in the version available as I write. When you equip a new weapon, the Varsh fragments do not automatically transfer over to the new weapon from the old, which means another fiddly trip to the menu system. That I can deal with, but the menu system in combat is a complete pain in the ass when trying to navigate the lengthy item menu. Or at least, it’s lengthy by the end of the game which is about the only time you’ll ever need to use healing items.

You see, the main problem I have with Eternal Legacy is that it presents no challenge whatsoever to anyone with the slightest experience of these sorts of games. I had wondered if there was some sort of bug in the game, as my characters were very quickly levelling up to silly degrees. Turns out that’s a function of the shorter game length, but between the stats boost gained and the free healing gained from levelling up there’s practically no danger of dying, at least until the game pulls one of it’s somewhat frequent dick moves, splitting the party and leaving you without anyone that has a healing spell. At which point we’re often relying on healing items, and the cumbersome menu for selecting them that can take so long to get at that you might be in danger of dying more through menu inefficiency than through lack of tactical nous.

It’s not game-cripplingly unusable, and to be fair I struggle to see how else the menus can be organised. However, even this problem stems from the core problem – a lack of challenge. The menu becomes unwieldy because the game is massively generous with dispatched enemies dropping healing potions. Apart from this meaning you’ve no excuse no to go into each battle in top shape, it also leaves you with a ridiculous number of items in your inventory, making finding particular things more difficult. By the time the game ended, I had something like four hundred spare healing thingys. I could sell most of them to a trader, but in the absence of a “sell all” button that meant tapping ‘sell’ something like four hundred times, and, well, screw that noise. It’s not as if I needed the money for anything, as the few items that the merchants sell were easily affordable from the money dropped during the normal course of the game.

Disappointingly, for a relatively short RPG there’s still a bit of arbitrary gameplay padding as you return to previous locations for pretty poorly laid out reasons. Thankfully, it’s pretty rare, and there’s no need to spend hours in one locations grinding out either level gains or draw spells, mechanics from FF8 that still give me nightmares to this day.

Okay, perhaps it’s a little slapdash in places, and I’m not sure if it’s going to completely satisfy the JRPG / Final Fantasy loving crowd that it’s aimed at. But it’s a reasonable mobile facsimile of familiar concepts, and it certainly kept me coming back to it for those eight to nine-ish hours with only relatively minor complaints. Look at it this way – if you had told the younger version of myself playing that there Pacman rip-off on the Speccy all those years ago that they could play something of this quality and scope on a mobile phone, he’d have been blown away, at least once you had further explained the concept of a mobile phone to him. I am very old, remember.

And all this for a price less, in absolute terms, less than the budget game releases of the day, even before you take inflation into account? Lunacy. However, we’re not judging Eternal Legacy in comparison with Chuckie Egg, we’re judging it amongst its App Store compadres. There are a few more polished RPGs that I’ve seen, but most are either opting for a SNES-y, cartoony, Zelda-y look, or have more in common with the Western, Oblivion-style RPGs. Nothing wrong with either approach, but it’s left a gap in the market for something a little more modern and JRPG-influenced to exist, and Eternal Legacy is a very credible game to fill that gap.

It’s currently £2.99 in the App Store, a trivial amount of cash for such a game on any console, but thanks to the unusual metrics of the system it’s in a more expensive tier than most games. It’s certainly worth that much, but perhaps you may want to wait (as I did) for one of Gameloft’s frequent sales to knock that down a little before taking the plunge. At fifty nine pence, it’s damn near as good value for money for a game as I’ve ever had. There’s also a free demo version, should the prospect of parting with less than the price of a mediocre cup of coffee concern you greatly.



The Man With The Golden Gun

One day, I hope to have processed the shots from China and India from the start of the year. This is from the Red Fort, if memory serves.

We should start at the start of The Man With The Golden Gun, or at the very least close to the start of it, with a few words about the theme tune that the poor, unsuspecting Lulu was lured into singing. If there’s a worse theme tune, or one with more asinine lyrics, I have yet to experience it. It sounds something like an alien might imagine a Bond theme would sound like, were you only able to communicate the concept of music through a series of rudimentary clicks and whistles, but the lyrics are more akin to a plot recap for the hard of thinking. It’s only very marginally better written than “There’s a man with a gun, and it’s golden, and he kills people, lala la lala”. Now, Bond themes might not traditionally be the deepest, soul-rending explorations of the human condition, but they often have a little more mystery and soul than just describing, in broad terms, that this is a film about a man who shoots people.

Or indeed two people who shoot people. Roger Moore’s Bond may be officially licensed by Her Majesties’ Government to go about busting caps in evil’s collective ass, but this film is concerned with the world’s most prestigious and expensive assassin, “San” Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee). In retrospect the only surprise about perennial villain Lee appearing in the Bond series is that it took so long. It is brought to the attention of HMSS that a contract is out on Bond, a not-so-subtle warning being sent in the form of a golden bullet with 007 engraved on it. Pulling Bond off his current mission, tracking down a missing solar power expert and his revolutionary efficiency enhancing McGuffin, M gives Bond tacit permission to go off and get shot of Scaramanga before Scaramanga shoots him.

It’s funny how intelligence gathering works. Although, as M says, nobody knows where Scaramanga is, or what he looks like, but somehow we do know he has a third, superfluous nipple. Although one could argue that all the nipples on a man are superfluous. The point being that there’s no solid leads on how to get hold of Scaramanga, which must make hiring him difficult, let alone killing him. However, Bond has a solid lead on the maker of the hand crafted custom ammo that Scaramanga uses, and from there on it’s just a matter of shaking the right trees until Scaramanga’s island base drops out. Not literally, obviously. In accordance with Chekhov’s gun, Scaramanga is tied up with a firm of Thai engineers who are, I suppose, evil, although in no particularly well described fashion, other than trying to get their mitts on that there solar power gizmo.

I had remembered The Man With The Golden Gun quite fondly, which rather goes to show how tricky this whole memory thing can be. This really isn’t a good film, although as I believe some people do with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, if you cherry pick the more successful and interesting elements from the movie and fill in the remainder with something a shade less ridiculous you can imagine a very good film. Sadly, in the boring old conventional reality my doctors tell me I’m supposed to be dealing with, this film kinda sucks.

Generally, a Bond film is only as good as the bad guy Bond’s facing. You could argue that The Man With The Golden Gun has as good a chance as any to be one of the best Bonds. The idea of Scaramanga, mysterious hitman, and Bond’s nominal equal sounds like a far surer recipe for success than, say, a jive-talkin’ voodoo-backed island President. Taken in isolation, Scaramanga has all the hallmarks of a great Bond character and Lee delivers his role convincingly, with the self-assurance of someone who knows he’s at the top of his game.

The problem is, we’ve only really got his word for it. Scaramanga says he’s the best. Everyone agrees that he’s the best. We are continually told that Scaramanga is a very credible threat. However, we’re never at any point shown why he’s the best hitman around. We’ve only got one straight shot from across a deserted road, some ridiculous tomfoolery in Scaramanga’s private house of mirrors and an expensive taste in munitions to back it up, none of which really passes muster. Show, don’t tell, is as old a canard as you could care to bust out, but it’s no less appropriate in this instance.

Moore looks comfortable in his second outing as Bond. It seems I don’t loathe Moore’s interpretation of Bond as much as my addled memory would have had me believe at the start of this endeavour, I just find him remarkably bland. Still, at least this storyline plays more to the smooth, sophisticated side of this new Bond, which works reasonably well. While I don’t find Moore as convincing as Connery in action sequences, We should all be thankful he’s not flailing around like Lazenby’s drunken marionette impersonation.

So, it’s not that there aren’t some good elements in The Man With The Golden Gun. Sadly, they are weighed down by some dreadful decisions to arbitrarily play for laughs, which undermines any dramatic tension it could be building. This should be a tense cat and mouse game with a legendary assassin, not a borderline sexist double act with Britt Ekland’s bumbling, incompetent secret agent whose only plot function appears to be enabling a damsel in distress act for the last half hour, and indeed giving an excuse for the last half hour to exist at all. Had she displayed even a borderline level of competency, Bond would back in the hotel with tea and crumpets just after first meeting Scaramanga.

There’s just too much stupid on display to take the film seriously. Scaramanga ought to be an imposing figure by sheer dint of his reputation, but it’s difficult to take him all that seriously when he’s carting around a comedy dwarf manservant called Nick Nack (Hervé Villechaize). There’s a few chases that ought to be exciting, but thanks to the entirely unwelcome, inexplicably coincidental return of Clifton James as walking Deep South U.S.A. stereotype Sheriff J.W. Pepper, they instead become teeth-grindingly irritating.

Still, if The Man With The Golden Gun has taught me anything, it’s that the most time effective way to become CEO of a large multi-national company is to shoot the previous chairman. I assumed there would be more paperwork to fill in, perhaps some Board approval or regulatory oversight. No, here at least, promotion is by dead man’s boots.

I’ve seen it mentioned somewhere that Scaramanga is the best Bond villain stuck in the worst Bond movie. That’s wrong on both counts, but I can see where they’re coming from. I still can’t bring myself to outright dislike The Man With The Golden Gun, but there’s certainly a number of things to hate in there. Idiotic sidekicks, idiotic returning characters and the single most idiotic sound effect in Bond car stunt history as they execute the otherwise impressive corkscrew river jump.

There’s certainly far worse movies that The Man With The Golden Gun, and there’s certainly far worse Bond movies than The Man With The Golden Gun. In the cold light of day, it’s just such a frustrating film to watch. There’s very nearly something great hiding underneath the layers of obfusticated idiocy. Ultimately, it’s not a entry in the franchise I can recommend as anything other than homework for those who like constructing a better film in their heads than is actually played on screen.

Live and Let Die

The above is the guts of a bargain basement Android tablet that would make a barely adequate ebook reader, were it possible to get any electricity into it’s woefully underdeveloped battery. You get what you pay for, I guess. If nothing else, smacking it with a hammer was fun.

Live and Let Die proved quite the surprise for me. By which I don’t mean that it’s a far better film than I recall, or that, actually, the newly installed Roger Moore was a better Bond than Sean Connery. The surprise for me is that it doesn’t start with that ludicrous sequence of Moore picking up a wheelchair-bound ‘Blofeld’ in a helicopter and dropping him down a chimney like some evil, dead Santa.

That happens about eight years later in For Your Eyes Only. My addled memory had put that scene as Moore’s first actions as Bond for the obvious reason that it makes a hell of a lot more sense, providing at once a continuity with the prior films in the series as well as break, and a new beginning with a new actor and, inevitably, a new actor’s take on Bond.

Choosing Moore as Bond seems, retrospectively, almost inexplicable. I can’t have been the only one to think that by the time Diamonds Are Forever rolled round, Connery was looking a little too long in the tooth for this spy caper. Casting someone older than Connery to replace him must have, fittingly enough, raised a few eyebrows.

I’m not the biggest fan of Moore’s interpretation of Bond. While the character as a whole has deviated considerably from the colder, more calculating persona of Fleming’s novels, regardless of how daffy the scripting of the films became Connery often managed to present the idea that his charm and swagger was a front for not really caring about anyone other than himself. This is a sensible self-preservation mechanism given the turnover of Bond girls in his life.

Starting here, that side completely vanishes. I don’t want to give the impression that it’s been particularly prevalent over the end of the Connery era either, but losing all hint of it makes the character measurably less interesting. By making Bond easier to like, and by playing up comedic elements in the scripts to degrees that are often laughable in entirely the wrong way, it becomes far less compelling.

That said, perhaps there’s the least of the playing for laughs in Live and Let Die, which is odd, because it’s probably the most ridiculous of the scenarios that Moore finds himself in. Not so much in the sense of the overarching plot, concerning a Caribbean tinpot dictator cum crime boss Dr. Kanaga (Yaphet Kotto) attempting to flood the United States with cheap heroin, driving his competitors out of business, increasing the number of junkies then creaming money from the monopoly he’s created.

This is quaintly small scale, in comparison to SMERSH’s hi-jinks. Why, this doesn’t even require a rocket launch pad! It’s surprising Bond even bothers to get out of bed for it. No, the plot is believable enough. It’s the ancillary nonsense that surrounds the central story that’s bizarre, almost to the point of outright racism.

Appearing at the height of the Blaxplotiation era, this makes no bones about hitching on to that bandwagon. Almost from the outset, Bond’s being chased by what’s described as a pimpmobile, and from there on in there seems to be approximately one black person around who isn’t in some way connected to Kanaga and by extension, evil. Which is, I imagine, to be expected in the investigation of a crime syndicate run entirely by black folks, and shouldn’t feel any more racist than a plot centred on the Mafia being full of Italians or Italian-Americans. Except somehow it does.

In isolation, I doubt I’d have a problem with the portrayal of Big Mister Doctor Kanaga’s restaurant fronted heroin distribution scheme, if it wasn’t for the assorted nonsense that Kananga ties himself up with. Despite seeming sane and rational, he places an inordinate amount of trust and faith in the guidance of his personal fortune teller, Solitaire (Jane Seymour). He’s involved with a bunch of loincloth-attired lunatics who are tying people to stakes and waving rubber snakes at them, although come to think of it they were perhaps supposed to be real snakes. One of his henchmen, if the ending of the film is to be believed, is actually an immortal voodoo spirit, or at the very least a chap who is surprisingly resilient to snake venom.

Frankly, Live and Let Die seems to be about one step away from shouting “ooga-booga” at you and starting tirades with, “I’m not racist, but…”. Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be an undercurrent suggesting that we should all fear black people that I found off-putting, if not outright offensive. Perhaps it’s just a child of its time, although that’s something of a lame excuse even if it is.

I shall perhaps hold major judgement on Moore’s Bond for a few more films. It only seems fair to give the man a little time to get his feet under the metaphorical desk, but I’m certainly not alone in finding his initial outing lacklustre. He displays such a casual, off-hand attitude to everything up to the prospect of being eaten by an alligator that it removes almost any of the impact the events shown should have.

Mechanically, it’s competently made film, and I suppose the march of time has made the effects work far more effective. There’s no real comparison between, say, the car chases of Goldfinger and the car and boat chases of Live and Let Die. It’s no longer a film than the other Bond movies, but there does seem to be a little more deadweight to be carried here that perhaps ought to have been excised.

I’m thinking mainly of a seemingly interminable sequence of Solitaire and Bond tooling around on San Monique before finding Kananga’s heroin poppy crop, and the closing chase sequence’s continual interuptions to introduce us to hick Lousiana Sherrif J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), who I’m guessing was supposed to provide comic relief rather than the massive, massive irritation that he actually induces.

While Paul McCartney’s post Beatles work (and to be honest, a lot of his during-Beatles work) aren’t exactly my cup of tea, for reasons I would struggle to adequately explain (unfortunate, given the nature of this increasingly unweildily parenthesised paragraph) the Live and Let Die theme is one of my favourites. I think it’s because it sounds like three seperate songs crudely glued together with some sort of rudimentary musical adhesive.

I realise now, as I draw this monologue to a thankful close, that I’m almost giving the wrong impression of this film. There’s not really any single element, music aside, that I could say that I particularly enjoyed. It certainly wouldn’t be the Bond film that I recommend to anyone looking to get into the series, and I have issues with most of the subject matter. Yet still, there’s enough polish and structure to the movie that I, if not exactly enjoyed it, didn’t mind passing the time with it too much,

“Inoffensive” might not exactly be glowing praise for the movie, but given some of the horrors we’ll be subjected to over the coming weeks as we delve into Moore’s stint as Bond, I’ll take what I can get.