Still Alive

You might be forgiven for thinking that perhaps I had died and decided that in this new state of unliving, I would abandon my blog. This is, you will be ecstatic to hear, not the case. I have been busy with a death that doesn’t belong to me, the following despicable family behaviour, a job, a new car (it has GT on the back!), moving house, trying to get internet, and making my beta readers cry.

Yes, finally, the third book in the NEXUS series is (kind of) finished. I started writing it as soon as I finished Temple of the Sixth and set it aside time after time to write Kira, Acts of Violence, and Kira Part II, but at last the most abused book I’ve worked on is nearly ready. It still needs a bit of rewriting and then editing and proofreading, but it’s not too far off now. Hopefully.

Trip To Space

After this stop-start, stop-start, I hope at least the next two books will come quicker and smoother, but thinking about other projects is what got me into this four year crawl in the first place, so let’s ignore that for now.

So, sooner or later I’ll be posting again with a synopsis and release date…or just a cover. Or a rant about another film.

BvS: Dawn of Unjustifiable Nonsense

Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman

I have just watched the new Batman v Superman trailer for the second time and I wanted to rant about it. I needed to rant about it.

The first few teasers and trailers were okay. I felt a bit better about the film with each one (not including the teaser that came just before this new trailer). But now comes the three minute trailer that basically gives us the entire skeleton of the film. Obviously the following rant will contain spoilers.

So basically, Clark Kent – the super journalist – doesn’t have a clue who Bruce Wayne is. Bruce Wayne calls Superman a ‘freak dressed as a clown’ in a stare-down that kind of alludes to the possibility that Bruce knows who Clark really is.

Then the ridiculousness that is the new Lex Luthor pops in to tell Bruce not to pick a fight with Clark…oh ha ha…ha? How awfully humorous that writing is. How clever. I don’t know if the personality Lex displays in that scene is just his public persona and is completely different from the real him (I hope so), but it is terrible. Jesse Eisenberg is quite a good actor, yet his acting in this scene was a little embarrassing to watch.

Then the part that we all knew was coming, but weren’t necessarily expecting to be shown outright in the trailer: Lex Luthor creates Doomsday from Zod’s corpse. And he looks like one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fell into an acid bath while he was injecting himself with steroids.

The penultimate scene contains the worst case of ‘seriously?’ of the entire trailer, which is saying something. Wonder Woman saves Batman from Doomsday’s attack with her shield, and then Superman asks ‘Is she with you?’, to which the witty and original response is ‘I thought she was with you’! Oh what amazing writing this film will contain.

I thought Chris Terrio taking over the writing of the film would be a good thing, but it seems like the stain of David S Goyer can’t be cleaned off that easily.

Batsignal

It’s not just the few bits of awful writing that gets me, though. It’s Batman. From the line ‘You will’ at the end of the original teaser (about whether Superman bleeds), I’ve wondered if they were going in a decent direction with Batman. The scene at the end of the first proper trailer where Batman stands up from his wrecked Batmobile to face Superman was a brilliant scene that partly allayed my fears…but now we have this.

In the newest teaser, Batman looks terrified of Superman. It’s almost certainly a nightmare sequence, so it’s forgiveable. However, he seems to show too much emotion for my liking in the main trailer. There’s too much baring his teeth, too much slack-jawed…stuff (‘I thought she was with you’). And what the hell is with him throwing his arms over his face when Doomsday attacks? Batman wouldn’t do that. A) Batman would have a way out, as he always does. B) Even if he didn’t, he wouldn’t hide from his death, he would simply narrow his eyes and glare at it, striking terror into the heart of the poor Reaper sent to collect him.

It’s true that trailers can give a false impression of a film, and I really hope that is the case here, but if they aren’t going to get Batman right, then I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that the entire DC movie universe that they are setting up is kind of doomed before it gets going. The Trinity – Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – are the foundations of that universe, and if they aren’t done right, said universe will crumble.

One of the things I knew would make a big impact on whether Batman works or not is the voice that Affleck chose to use. I still don’t know about it. He does speak as Batman without the armour that changes his voice drastically, but it’s not enough to go on. It sounds as though he’s just using the gravel that’s already in his voice, which could be okay. But it also sounds as though he may still be using a voice modulator, which I don’t really like. The main thing is that it sounds okay. But Kevin Conroy is still the best Batman voice.

Damn it, Batman doesn’t do crap like ‘I thought she was with you’! No, I can’t get over it, shut up. Batman does the ‘Thanks, Batman, we couldn’t have done it without you’, ‘I know’ lines. He does the hilarious, usually scathing one-liners that don’t take away from his terrifying Dark Knightness. And he doesn’t show the kinds of emotions that he does in this trailer. Fear of Superman, fear of death, shock at seeing Wonder Woman. HE’S THE GODDAMN BATMAN!

And now that abysmal Frank Miller line has made me feel unwell.

Incidentally, here are a few semi-related articles that you might like read:

The Big Blue Boy Scout

Birth of the Superhero (I used the same top image 😦 )

Batman: Arkham Knight (review)

The Force Will Soon Awaken

The Force Awakens poster, landscape

Are you ready to desperately want to be a Jedi again/still? Star Wars Episode VII is coming soon (December 17 in the UK) and we know little about it so far, aside from rumours and speculation. So here’s some more! I could babble on and on about it for ages, so I’ll just briefly give a couple of my theories.

I don’t really know what I think about the idea that Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) are Han Solo and Princess Leia’s children. That might align too much with the no-longer-canon Expanded Universe books and be too predictable. But it might go some way to explain why A) Kylo is apparently obsessed with Darth Vader, and B) He says (or his toy does anyway) ‘That weapon is mine’ about, presumably, Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber.

I also wonder if Luke Skywalker might not be on the poster because he isn’t really in the first film or even dies fairly early on. My theory, kind of, is that Kylo was one of Luke’s students when he restarted the Jedi Order. Because Luke was never properly trained, he didn’t know how to handle a difficult student and it led to a clash – a physical clash that perhaps resulted in Kylo having to wear that mask. Luke, feeling like he failed, goes into isolation.

Kind of carrying on from that, I have another theory which I don’t think I actually believe. But I wondered if the Knights of Ren – the group that Kylo takes his name from – are either A) The Jedi Order that Luke failed, or B) Simply Force-sensitive people banding together to create their own group that is neither Light- nor Dark-side. The fact that they are supposedly hunters of Sith relics could simply be in an effort to better understand their powers. Or not.

Daisy Ridley - Rey

Rey, I think, will be the Jedi rather than Finn (John Boyega) – I think him having the lightsaber is misdirection. I also think she may already have some Jedi training. I even wonder if her ‘scavenging’ is actually a mission that Luke gave to her, and she is hunting for Jedi relics just as the Knights of Ren are hunting for Sith relics. Will that be one of the big twists/reveals? She seems to be a normal person and then suddenly uses the Force, perhaps to save Finn in that snow scene. (EDIT: The new trailer pretty much destroys this theory.)

That doesn’t cover the ‘There has been an awakening’ line. I have no theory for that. I do, however, have some theories about who some of Kylo Ren’s toy’s lines are delivered to:

‘I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time.’ – Following my Luke/Kylo theory, this could be delivered to Luke when Kylo tracks him down again. This time, I think Luke will lose.

‘You know what I’ve come for.’ – This could be, as everyone assume, referring to Anakin’s lightsaber, but it might also be delivered to Luke along with the previous line.

‘Don’t fight it. You know you can’t’ and ‘Together, we will destroy the Resistence and the last Jedi’ – These could both be delivered to the terrified-looking Finn in that snowy scene from the second teaser trailer. Or the second line could just be delivered to Snoke (his boss/master, voiced by Andy Sirkis).

‘Is it true: you’re just a scavenger?’ – This is almost certainly delivered to Rey, as she is…well, a scavenger. But the way it is delivered is odd. Could it be that he has reunited with his sister and is disappointed with who and what she is?

Again, I could go on for ages with conflicting theories, but I won’t. What do you think will happen?

Kylo Ren lightsaber

E.T. And Earth 2.0

In light of the discovery of Kepler 452b in July (or at least its announcement then), I thought I would repost an article I wrote a year ago about the search for life, and the possibility of another habitable planets. It’s interesting to see how things change in the space of a year. Also it means I don’t have to write anything new.

Kepler 452b/Earth

“I would venture to say that most of my colleagues here today say it is improbable that in the limitless vastness of the universe we humans stand alone.”

This was said by NASA administrator Charles Bolden during a panel discussion on the search for other forms of life in the universe, about a year ago.

There was a claim at the time that NASA had said they would prove extraterrestrial life within twenty years, but where the twenty years part came from was associate administrator John Grunsfeld saying that scientists are closer to finding another Earth-like planet than people realise. Apparently, with the telescopes we have now, and those we’ll have in the future, we may be able to find life on other planets in as little as twenty years.

The agency has plans to launch the Transisting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite in 2017 and the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018. These will be used – as the former’s name suggests – to find and study new planets and determine if they are capable of harbouring life. Or if they already do!

Thanks to our existing technology, we already know of at least one potentially habitable planet. Considered a prime candidate for life, Gliese 832-c is a super-Earth. The term sounds pretty promising, but in fact a super-Earth is only defined by its mass, which is higher than Earth’s but no more than 10 Earth masses.

Gliese 832-c – a very catchy name – is about five times the size of Earth and closely orbits a red dwarf star. It’s thought to have Earth-like temperatures and is one of the closest potential habitable worlds to us, at about 16 light-years away [Edit: Kepler 452b is actually only 1,400 light-years away]. But we don’t really know much more about it. Because of its orbit, the planet could suffer from drastic seasonal shifts. It could be a gas or water planet. Its atmosphere could preclude life. We don’t know.

Gliese 832c

In fact, because it’s so massive, Gliese 832-c quite likely possesses a massive atmosphere too. If so, that may well render the planet inhospitable. Such a dense atmosphere would trap heat and make it far too hot for life – more like Venus than Earth. So while it’s potentially habitable, it probably isn’t.

But let’s put things in perspective. Go to Google Sky and start zooming in. How many stars can you count? Perhaps I’ll save you some time and tell you that there are around about 300 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone. Astronomers estimate that there actually are up to 400 billion. And that’s our galaxy alone.

How many stars are there in the universe? Well, there are some galaxies out there with up to 100 trillion stars. Others are smaller than ours. There are an estimated 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Again, that’s just the part of the universe that we can see.

So if we use our galaxy as an average, and we multiply the number of stars in the Milky Way by the number of galaxies in the observable universe we get something around a septillion.

That’s 1024­­. That’s a 1 with twenty-four zeroes. That’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars.

So how many planets are there? That’s a bit tougher. The Kepler Space Telescope, between 2007 and 2013, found that there may be an average of about three planets orbiting each star in our own galaxy. So to make an unscientific estimate, that’s a potential of over a trillion planets. The lowest scientific estimation is between 100-200 billion. And that’s conservative. Others think up to 10 trillion. That might be a little on the high side.

But let’s forget that average of three and imagine for a moment that every star has one planet. That’s still a septillion planets in the observable universe alone. Or perhaps three septillion? Let’s not even touch on the theory that ours isn’t the only universe…

Consider now that in May 2014, Dan Werthimer and Seth Shostak, respectively director of and astrobiologist at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, told congress that billions of the planets inside our galaxy are Earth-sized and within the ‘Goldilocks’, or habitable, zone. That is, not too close to and not too far from their sun – not too hot and not too cold. Of course, that doesn’t automatically mean those planets are habitable, simply that they are a lot more likely to support life than those not in the Goldilocks zone.

Shostak apparently also said that he believes we’ll detect alien life within twenty years.

So what do we think? What do you think? I think it’s incredibly foolish to think that, in all that space, among all those stars and all those planets, there’s no life but our own. Foolish and arrogant. What kind of life that may be, though, is another matter. Bacterial, perhaps. Sentient life like our own is a bigger leap.

Alien

Of course, what we’re talking about is life as we know it – carbon-based. It’s entirely possible that there are life forms with another chemical basis, such as silicon. When we talk about whether life is possible elsewhere, we can’t really be too sure what other kinds of life there may be. We may say that planets are inhospitable to life, but again, it’s only life as we know it. Even on Earth, we have found life in places we previously thought it wasn’t possible to survive.

I would say if we’re here, then perhaps somewhere else there are similar life forms, cutting down their own rainforests and killing each other. There is a theory that our life here was seeded from elsewhere; that Earth’s organisms and whatnot came here via an asteroid, perhaps. If this is the case, then it would make sense that those same organisms would have hitched a ride to other planets. Whether or not those planets were conducive to that life is another matter. We already know there are plenty of planets out there in their star’s Goldilocks zone, and so are potentially habitable, but the ratio of those to uninhabitable ones lowers the odds somewhat.

How life may have come to be on Earth is a fairly interesting topic in its own right, but it isn’t this one.

So we’re perhaps more confident now in the possibility of life elsewhere. But what about sentient life?

We think of intelligent life as a natural stage of evolution, but that’s not necessarily the case. Life elsewhere might be mostly bacteria and plants. Stephen Hawking posits that intelligence may very well be just one of a large number of possible outcomes of a largely random evolutionary process. He says it’s not clear that intelligence actually has any long-term survival value.

Let’s stick with Stephen Hawking. He likes the idea of there being life out there. He supported SETI, until it lost its funding. However, he seems to be of the opinion that, should we receive any radio signals from space, we should be very wary of answering back. It seems he thinks that any intelligent alien beings who have developed enough to be able to communicate with us, or indeed travel to Earth, could very well be hostile. In fact, I seem to recall him saying this last bit was more than possible: it was likely. Don’t quote me on that, though.

Stephen Hawking's aliens

I can kind of see why he would say that, as we ourselves have developed to be quite an aggressive and unpleasant species. If we were to encounter alien life less advanced than us, we would almost certainly exploit it. I don’t entirely agree with this theory, but nor do I entirely agree with the idea that a species more advanced than us must also have evolved into wise, benevolent beings. Quite probably, they’d be like us: nice and complete ass****s, all in one.

Hawking says that to meet an advanced civilisation while at our stage of development might be like the Native Americans meeting Columbus. This makes more than a little sense and does make me stop to consider how wise it is to be looking for life. But that’s just one of many possibilities.

As for whether aliens have already visited Earth, there’s interesting evidence (or ‘evidence’, perhaps), but who knows? That’s a whole other topic, too, and one more suited to conspiracy theory forums.

So, in the end, I think we’ll find life at some point. Perhaps it will be fish in the oceans of Europa, bacteria on an asteroid, or Asgardians patrolling the outer reaches of the universe. But we are not alone, and the truth is out there!

Batman: Arkham Knight

Batman Arkham Knight

I was going to write a blog post about how I don’t think it’s okay for the Ask EL James hashtag to have been hijacked by people just wanting to be abusive, but then I decided, ‘nah, I’ll write about Batman’.

Everyone is aware that I like games and I like superheroes, so it’s no surprise that I like games about superheroes. The best of these games (not that there are that many) is the Arkham series from developer Rocksteady. There is also the one that the publisher made themselves with their own development studio, but that was a bit rubbish, so we tend not to mention it. But I will mention it. Later.

First, we had Arkham Asylum, which took the gaming world by storm, appearing out of the blue from a little known studio with only one other game under their belt. It had Kevin Conroy, THE voice of Batman; it had Mark Hamill, THE voice of Joker; it had you play as the goddamn Batman (I don’t know why I enjoy quoting that so much). It wasn’t just the best superhero game ever made, it was one of the best games. It had the comic book, animated series feel about it, but was darker and grittier than anything a lot of people had seen from the franchise.

Next came Arkham City, where Batman took to the…well, the city. Rather than being cooped up in the Asylum, he was free to exercise his cape and glide about a large portion of Gotham. Fears that it wouldn’t be able to match up to the original were quickly allayed as it turned out to be even better than the first.

So the news that Rocksteady’s third Arkham game would also be their last was bittersweet. Although it would mean no more Batman from the studio who handled him so well, it also meant that the series was sure to go out with a bang (and that something very exciting might come next). Okay, hearing that Scarecrow would be the main villain of the game was a little bizarre, but with him would come a brand new villain – one that had been created alongside DC Comics themselves: the Arkham Knight.

This mysterious new villain seemed to have styled himself after Batman and looked as though he would be the ultimate match for the Dark Knight. Early trailers showed the Arkham Knight getting the upper hand in fights with Batman, and he seemed to have similar tricks and gadgets. We were all sure it was going to be good.

Well, the short version is: it wasn’t good. In my opinion, anyway.

The long version can’t really be put across without spoilers, so I’ll be sure to mention when they’re coming and start with the non-spoilers. As usual, there is no real structure to my ramblings, so let’s just start with, uhh…

The Batmobile

Batmobile

This looked like a promising addition to the series. The Batmobile is an iconic part of Batman’s arsenal, and so far we had only seen it in a few cutscenes in the other games (or game – I can’t remember if it was in City). Arkham Knight was going to take place in a bigger area than City and so Rocksteady were able to bring in the car. Car/tank, that is. The new Batmobile is one designed for this war that Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight have waged on Batman, and it transforms from car to tank in a fancy second. All the better to deal with those pesky drones driving and flying about (drones – i.e. conveniently unmanned so that Batman can blow them up).

My immediate thought was that the Riddler challenges that were sure to reprise their place in the game would be Batmobile-heavy. I was right. In fact, the entire game is Batmobile-heavy. To the point that several boss fights take place purely between your tank and theirs. Finish enough of the side missions and a new, unexpected villain appears to challenge you. One who is so sure of his skills, he would certainly give you a good fight and definitely wouldn’t cower inside a…why is he in that giant tank?

Yes, taking the place of the unique and varied boss fights is driving about trying to get behind powerful tanks to shoot their weak points, then doing pretty much the same on the boss’ tank. Except that each shot to the boss’ tank has to be followed by driving away very fast because it can somehow keep up with your jet fighter on wheels.

And that’s it. That accounts for most of the boss fights. There are two sneaky, ‘predator’ sections later on against two villains, but as far as I can recall, that’s it. Well, there is the Riddler fight too, but you’re not really fighting him in it. But THAT’S it.

It felt like Rocksteady spent so much time with the Batmobile that they couldn’t bear the thought of it being underused by players, so they forced us to use it over and over and over. In very uninteresting ways. Either that or they spent so much time on it they forgot they had to make the rest of the game.

It shows just how important it was to them that it gets damaged and worn over time, but Batman doesn’t. In the other games, his suit and cape get more ripped as the game goes on, they get dirty, his face gets bruised and cut. Not so in Arkham Knight. Not until the last 5% or so of the story.

I also can’t help but feel it’s a little stupid that you can drive into people, but it’s okay because they’re tased. Yes, tased by the front of a tank driving into them at 100mph. They’ll be perfectly fine. Even though Batman just reversed back over their unconscious bodies multiple times.

Disappearing Acts

Not too far into the story, something happens that causes Commissioner Gordon to get all stroppy with Batman and, at the time he needs the Dark Knight most, tells him to stay the hell away from his family. Makes sense. What also makes sense is that Gordon then disappears for most of the rest of the game. Only in the last two sections of the game does he reappear, with no sign of the temper tantrum he threw earlier.

Something similar could be said of other supporting characters. Nightwing, Robin and Catwoman all make an appearance and are all only in very small sections of the game. Robin has an excuse for most of his absence, but Nightwing is out there in the city, yet only appears to help beat up Penguin’s men and then disappear again. Catwoman is used only as bait. As a damsel in distress. Which I’ll complain about in a minute.

This is war. Batman is being targeted by an army. Where the hell are his allies? He had more help in Arkham City.

Underwhelming Villains

Scarecrow

Scarecrow was an odd choice. It was weird from the start. He’s not one of the more menacing villains in the Batman universe, is he? Maybe Rocksteady wanted to change that. Maybe they were just cashing in on how much people liked the Scarecrow fear-toxin-induced sections in Arkham Asylum. Who knows. They did make him a little more unpleasant this time, but they also made him a lot more sane than he seems to be in anything else – including Asylum. He has a very clear plan, a very clear goal and, it seems, a very clear mind.

But Scarecrow isn’t really the main villain, is he? Or is he? I can’t tell. I thought he was more of a backdrop for the Arkham Knight, who is working for him, but then the Knight seems to take the place as the backdrop. I think the real villain is the demon in Batman’s head. I’ll rant more about the Arkham Knight himself later.

[Potential mild spoilers here] Other villains were in the game – Two-Face, Penguin, Harley Quinn, Firefly, etc. – but they were very badly used. And under-used. They were were the result of completing some side missions. Stop a few bank robberies and Two-Face will show to take you down. There’s not even a boss fight: just take out his men and then do the same for him, just like any other enemy. Destroy enough of Penguin’s weapons caches with Nightwing and he’ll show (in a pretty ridiculous way, I might add) to teach you a lesson. Press one button and he’ll be the next one you’re driving to GCPD. It’s pretty pathetic.

Riddler is both the best and the worst of these side-villains. The others are minding their own business until Batman involves himself, but Riddler comes after Batman, just like he does in the other games. Except this time, he has built a very elaborate series of underground race tracks. Because those count as riddles, right? That’s the way to show that he’s smarter than Batman: make him drive the Batmobile round and round irritating courses. But at least there’s some form of boss fight with him…kind of.

Be The Batman

That’s how the game was marketed. It was probably how the other games were marketed too, actually, but whatever. The idea of Arkham Knight was that it was going to be the ‘ultimate Batman game/experience’. Yet, no Batcave, no meetups with Alfred for sage advice, no well-paced, meaningful encounters with other series characters. In fact, the whole game seems rushed. Not in the sense that they rushed to get it made, but that the player is rushed to get to the end. And not in a sense of urgency kind of way. Just in a ‘we can’t really be bothered to write anything much, so go and beat up the next person’ kind of way.

I think the biggest problem of all is down to…

No Paul Dini?!

Paul Dini was a writer for Batman: The Animated Series – the cartoon that is, to this day, considered one of the best animated series ever made. And for good reason. It was dark and scary, despite being for children, and really got the world and atmosphere of Batman across perfectly in those 20 minutes or so.

Batman Nightwing and Robin

Paul Dini knows Batman. He knows the supporting characters. He knows the world. He knows how to write! The same, it seems, cannot be said for the writers of Arkham Knight. According to Dini himself, he asked Warner Interactive (the publisher) about doing the third game and was told that they might not be looking so much to freelance writers for the next game. He took it to mean that if he had anything else interesting coming his way, he should take it. It sounds, then, like someone – whether Warner or Rocksteady – had already decided that they didn’t need to hire Dini for the last game. And what a massive mistake that was.

The writers of Arkham Knight actually wrote the other two games alongside Dini. It seems from this one though that Dini did all the heavy lifting. The writing here is incredibly weak, unsatisfying, nonsensical and lacking in substance and quantity. It feels like they wrote a game half the length of the game they actually made. It’s not just the writing, though; the directing is off a lot of the time. But then, the director is also one of the writers.

Even from the start, something felt off (I only later discovered that Dini hadn’t written it). The game just kind of…is happening. It doesn’t seem to start – you’re just playing. Things happen without explanation, characters know things that they have no reason to know. For [spoilerific] example, Scarecrow kidnaps Oracle at one point, but he doesn’t actually tell Batman she’s been kidnapped. He says ‘Let me go or she dies.’ A quick call to Oracle shows that she is still okay until the feed cuts off with her screaming. Which part of that says ‘kidnap’? Yet Batman starts talking about her having been kidnapped. Not to mention that atrocious writing where Oracle ignores Batman telling her to get out. She just tells him no one knows she’s there. What a moron! She’s Batgirl. She’s Oracle. She’s been Batman’s friend for a long time. She should not be so incredibly stupid and she should know better than most that when Batman shouts at you to ‘get out now’, you get the absolute hell out!

In short, the game was hit badly by Paul Dini’s absence.

Sexism

Yes, when I noticed something on Google about the game’s sexist treatment of women, I rolled my eyes and assumed it was probably Anita whatsherface spewing more hate and lies at anything that will get attention for her. But the more I played, the more I began to agree. ‘Sexism’ might be too strong a term for it – one that people love to use as much as possible for the smallest things, thus diluting it – but it’s certainly bad use of female characters. There are only three female characters of note in the game: Oracle/Barbara Gordon, Catwoman, and Harley Quinn. Harley barely counts, because she’s in it for a very short time. That said, the DLC that gives you 10 minutes playing as her does have her telling Penguin where to stick his umbrella more than once, so that’s…something, I suppose.

[Mild Spoilers] Catwoman is so badly used it’s almost laughable. She is there for no other reason than some weak justification for starting the Riddler’s challenges. He has taken her captive and will detonate a bomb collar around her neck if you don’t complete his challenges and help her get a series of keys to deactivate said collar. So she sits there while her Dark Knight in dull spandex armour goes off, heroically…driving his car round and round underground racetracks.

[Still Mild Spoilers] She does at least help you beat up some of Riddler’s robots, but even her part in some of the ‘riddles’ is as helper. Then as soon as you’ve freed her, she disappears. She comes back to help fight him at the end, but that’s it. Even her dialogue isn’t what it could have been. She tells Batman to be careful and thanks him at one point I think (in a roundabout way at least), which just doesn’t fit her character.

Oracle

[BIG Spoilers] Oracle is the worst though. I already mentioned one part of her awful writing. But even that bit goes a little beyond just bad writing. It’s making her the stereotypical helpless, oblivious female character who doesn’t realise the danger even though it’s being practically spelled out for her. Then, of course, getting herself hurt/killed/kidnapped/whatever. It’s the moronic ‘You’re in danger, you have to run!’, ‘Don’t be silly, I’m fine’ kind of nonsense trope. But it gets so much worse.

[Still BIG spoilers] Let’s not forget that Oracle – aka Barbara Gordon – was Batgirl until Joker shot her through the spine. So to have her kidnapped so easily and then dragged away without a fight is just ridiculous. Yes, she’s in a wheelchair. So the hell what? The character of Oracle has been, as far as I’m aware, something of an inspiration to comic book readers with disabilities. Being wheelchair-bound might have changed her life, but it didn’t destroy her. It put an end to the Batgirl alter ego, but gave birth to Oracle: the leader, among other vital roles, of her own team of superheroes. She makes people pay time and again for underestimating her either for being a girl or for being in a wheelchair. Rocksteady decided to brush that aside and make her just another damsel in distress, whimpering and screaming as she’s taken away.

[Still BIG spoilers] The best she could do while being taken away was cause the car to crash, giving her a chance to leave a clue for Batman. That’s it. No doubt had Rocksteady decided to show us that from inside the car, it would have involved her slapping and scratching the driver ‘like a girl’. But the worst was still to come. When Batman finally caught up with her, [Seriously BIG, BIG spoiler!] Scarecrow releases his fear toxin to make her fear Batman. In order to stop him ‘getting her’, she shoots herself in the head. Now, [Even bigger more seriously BIG spoiler!] I know that later on, it’s revealed that it was actually Batman who was under the influence of the toxin, and she didn’t shoot herself, but that happens so much later that the player is left with that impression of an incredibly weak and pathetic version of Oracle ingrained in their mind. Not to mention Batman should have known she wouldn’t behave like that.

The Arkham Knight

The Arkham Knight

I’m running out of steam, so let’s talk/ramble/rant about the biggest let down. The Arkham Knight is a ludicrously weak villain. From my first encounter with him, I was underwhelmed. Rather than the anti-Batman that I expected from the trailers, he just sounded like a whining, spoilt brat. He didn’t really get the upper hand on Batman, save for one time that had no repercussions at all. For the majority of the game, he just became one of those voices on the other end of the enemies’ earpieces that get on your nerves quite quickly, always throwing insults and empty threats at you – oh, they’re going to kill me this time, just like the last five times you told me that? He was a pitiful, disappointing character as the Arkham Knight and it only got worse once his helmet came off.

I wrote an article about who the Arkham Knight could be. My favourite idea was that he was actually Batman himself. The Dark Knight’s worst fears realised – an evil version of himself. The idea of Scarecrow’s fear toxin creating the villain was an intriguing one, but the moment the two interacted, it was obvious my already far-fetch idea was wrong.

[The BIGGEST spoilers!] I did, accidentally, mention the true identity though. It turns out that the Arkham Knight is none other than Robin number 2, Jason Todd. Which…is absolutely ludicrous. First, there was no mention of Todd in either of the other two games, even though Rocksteady said they had laid down their plans for the entire trilogy from the start. Second, and most important, Jason Todd is already Red Hood! I dismissed the idea as ridiculous, not only for this fact, but for the fact that Red Hood would feature in DLC for the game.

[Still the BIGGEST spoilers] Rocksteady did a stupid twisty thing, where this is kind of Red Hood’s origin story. He comes back as the Arkham Knight (thanks to Joker brainwashing him, rather than killing him), and then goes on to become Red Hood – because Batman talks to him for 10 seconds. It’s insanely stupid and weak. And if I hadn’t been so sure that Rocksteady wouldn’t be that stupid, it would have been blatantly obvious that it was Jason Todd. Not only from all that the Knight knew, but from the fact that Batman keeps seeing flashbacks of Todd in his mind.

The End

Not the end of the article/rant, sorry. The end of the game. I won’t even bother going into detail. I’ll just say it is absolutely atrocious and mildly insulting. There’s not even any proper closure to it, and it even gives rise to questions. Worst of all, it pretty well destroys any chance of an eventual Justice League game, which a lot of players were hoping was the long term goal. And why didn’t Superman have a cameo?!

The Good Bits

Naturally, it wasn’t all rubbish. Just most of it. The switching between characters mid-fight was pretty good, though kind of pointless at the same time. I think they just needed to add new features. The Batmobile was a good addition, just far too heavily featured. The fear takedowns were also very good but, again, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to put them to good use.

[Joint BIGGEST spoiler!] The best thing of all though, was the Joker. Yes, the Joker is dead, but he also lives on in Batman’s mind. A combination of the tainted blood Joker injected him with in City and the fear toxin. Although it gets a bit much at times, his scenes are mostly pretty good. And while I thought the series was over-saturated with Joker, I found myself not minding the way he was in this game. Again he was kind of the main villain, but in a far more interesting way: trying to take over Batman, trying to make him kill.

So, although I really don’t understand how it got so many 10/10s (I think I’d probably give it a 7 at the most), at the end of the day, you get to glide about being vengeance. Being the night. Being Batman.

Batman

No Man’s Sky

No Man's Sky splashscreen

Science fiction is arguably the most freeing genre to write in. Almost any other genre can be slotted into it, and the range of hard to soft sci-fi means a writer/director/artist can do just about anything he or she wants. It’s one of the main reasons I’m drawn to write sci-fi (science fantasy, in my case).

No Man’s Sky, an upcoming game from Hello Games, seems set to relight the fire under our imaginations and renew our love of sci-fi. This isn’t the bleak dystopian or post-apocalyptic sci-fi that we’ve got used to lately. This is the colourful, vibrant frontier imagined in so many 70s and 80s sci-fi book covers. Sean Murray, the game’s creator, specifically credits the cover artwork of Chris Foss as inspiring the game. That is his view of what science fiction is.

I was watching when the game was first announced and have been looking forward to it ever since. I wrote an article about it not long after, saying:

During Spike’s VGX 2013 awards – catastrophically co-hosted by Joel McHale – a little game studio called Hello Games showed us a glimpse of their new game, No Man’s Sky. In the midst of games such as The Last Of Us, Titanfall, Grand Theft Auto 5, etc., this unknown game – from the tiny group of indie developers of Joe Danger – stole the show.

No Man’s Sky is, for all intents and purposes, infinite. We could buy the game on release day and we’ll have died of old age before we’ve explored every planet in it. A single planet could easily be the size of Earth. Think about that for a moment. Think about a game like Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto. It takes a while to wander around them, doesn’t it? No Man’s Sky has Earth-sized planets that you can get out of your spaceship and walk around. You could probably spend a few months exploring every inch of a single planet (on foot). There are billions and billions of these planets. Actually, I think the number is eighteen quintillion, give or take.

This is all made possible by the procedurally generated worlds. To put it simply, it would be impossible for the Hello Games team (initially 4 people) to create the galaxy and planets and lifeforms by hand the way other games are done. The team, therefore, created a system whereby they put in rough blueprints, and then the game takes those blueprints and their constraints to create unique flora and fauna, planets, terrain, weather, etc. The game does this on the fly as you play – it isn’t preloaded. And those constraints ensure that there’s a degree of realism to how and where plants grow, the physiology of animals, and so on. This results in players experiencing worlds that the developers themselves have never seen.

Most importantly to someone like me, it creates a much more real sense of exploration and discovery. You are literally, and quite genuinely, discovering these digital worlds and creatures that no one has come across before. That said, I can imagine the novelty could wear off after a while, especially when you start to recognise elements – ‘oh, look, that mouse has the same head as the dinosaur three planets ago’.

Sean Murray is reluctant to say too much about the lore of the universe and the storyline of the game. Which makes sense – it’s a game about discovery, after all. It sounds, though, like the story will be quite loose and in the background. Rather than having goals, we’ll have reasons to do things. This is where our imaginations will take over.

I’m not too sure what kind of things we’ll be able to do. We can mine, we can shoot things from our spaceship, and we can buy new ships and equipment. Other than that, it’s a bit of a mystery. My biggest concern for the game is that it will rely too much on the player’s sense of wonder and expect us to keep playing for the sense of discovery. As I said, the novelty of this won’t last long, so there needs to be actual gameplay that keeps us playing.

No Man's Sky

That said, we will no doubt end up creating our own storylines, our own narratives to go along with what we’re doing. That will be a fresh take on gaming for some people – we’re used to being told this is who you are, this is what you’re doing, and this is why you’re doing it.

I’ve said before that I hate how most games throw in a story as an excuse for shooting anything that moves, and that proper writers, like Rhianna Pratchett (Tomb Raider, Heavenly Sword, etc.), need to be employed from the start to create an immersive, properly next-gen (now current gen, I suppose) game. I might even write another post ranting about that at some point. But the equal of creating a story-rich game is perhaps to do just what No Man’s Sky seems to be doing: let us create our story.

It won’t surprise regular readers (or as regular as you can be with my infrequent ramblings) to hear that I have my own ideas for games if anyone was foolish enough to give me a game studio. No Man’s Sky is, amongst others, the kind of game I would want to make. Create a rich galaxy, a background story, and let the player do whatever they want. I want to craft a galaxy and its inhabitants and then let the player loose to make their mark on it.

Of course, I would want to go a little further – put more options and whatnot in. That would mean more funding. More funding means more constraints by a publisher. There’s a reason most games these days are so formulaic. The publishers are terrified of putting money into something that isn’t tried and tested. Much better to take a game that sold well, put a new coat of paint on it, change the name slightly, and push it out into the wide world.

Hello Games doesn’t have this problem, because they are indie developers. This is probably the only reason they are able to do what they are doing. Sean Murray worked at EA, so he knows the industry well enough to know to stay away from becoming the industry.

Anyway, there are many articles out there about No Man’s Sky, so there’s not much point in me going on and on. If you’re interested enough to have got to the end of this article, you’ve probably already read some of those other articles.

Suffice to say I am looking forward to become a frontiersman.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

I know you miss my clever titles, but…SEO.

As you may have noticed, I enjoy superhero films. And games. And sometimes graphic novels. So, naturally, I have been looking forward to The Avengers: Age of Ultron since it was announced. Admittedly, I actually found myself less enthusiastic about it as time went on, to the point that when I woke up on Thursday morning, I didn’t remember that I was going to see it. But, I was happy to be going back in to see Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, et al. Mostly, I wanted to see one of the new additions to the Avengers team, The Vision. Well, I say mostly, but it was half that and half wanting to see James Spader’s Ultron.

From the trailers, we got the impression that Ultron could be the first villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe who was truly menacing, intimidating, and scary. Someone who posed a very real threat to the Avengers, powerful as they are. Unfortunately, what we got was…a comedian.

Avengers Age of Ultron

Let’s start from the start. The snowy, forest scene that we saw plenty of pictures of gets blasted apart by the Avengers and Hydra. Already, about 1 minute in, the film made its first mistake. It tried to copy the impressive single-shot sequence from near the end of the first Avengers. The one where the camera moves from one Avenger to the next, to the next, without cutting. It looked good in that film. In this film, it was some of the worst CGI I’ve seen for a long time. It was contrived and looked simply awful.

And that just, for me, sums up a lot of Joss Whedon’s writing in Age of Ultron. He seemed more concerned with getting cheap laughs than telling a story. With forcing ‘cool’ scenes than actually telling us what the hell was going on. Although the story is simple, I found myself confused more than once. Ultron himself seems to go through a few different variations of his evil plan but we, the audience, seem to find that out by accident. Of course, the story itself is the biggest cliche there is when it comes to stories involving artificial intelligence, but that should have been okay. After all, it’s how a story is told that’s the main thing. Unfortunately, it was told quite badly.

Ultron. It’s James Spader! How do you get a voice like James Spader’s to come out of your villain’s mouth, and still manage to make him benign and unthreatening? Yes, he’s more powerful than any of the Avengers and, yes, he kills a few people, but he also jokes constantly. It takes a very special writer to write a character who is both witty and scary, and Joss Whedon is not that writer. So yes, Ultron is funny. Very funny in places. But what do you want from a big, bad villain: threat and menace, or some laughs? The humour of the Marvel films is one of their attractions, but set yourself a damn limit!

It’s Iron Man 3 and Mandarin all over again. Remember how good the trailers seemed? How menacing and threatening The Mandarin sounded? We knew it was going to be good. Then we watched the film and…Trevor Slattery. What? Not that Ultron isn’t a threat. He’s just not threatening.

It seems like Whedon wanted him to be like a moody teenager at first, since he has only just been created. But he never really bothers to push the character down that route. Which leaves him a bit all over the place (like most of the film).

James Spader is, naturally, very good as Ultron regardless of the writing.

avengers-age-ultron-poster

You’ve probably noticed that the writing is the main let down of the film for me. It had little structure. Things just happened. It was simply ‘Oh now this is happening’, rather than ‘This is happening because he did that, and they need this outcome, blah blah blah…’ Rarely was there much cohesion between the scenes and the storytelling.

So those are my main complaints.

It’s less of a complaint, but I was disappointed with how little Paul Bettany’s The Vision was in it. He appears late on in the film, and only really has 4 or 5 scenes. And a very small handful of lines. Yet, despite that, he was one of the best things about the film. Him and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, who was much better utilised this time round. And funny.

Thor seemed a little redundant this time, despite practically being a god. In fact, he took more of a beating from Ultron than any of the mere mortals, who held their own against him perfectly well. But there was no real story to his character, other than in a set up for future films. Though in light of the other issues, this didn’t really bother me. He was still Thor as we know him – though perhaps not taking quite as much punishment as we know he should be able to.

Overall, I did enjoy the film, you might be surprised to hear. I will definitely watch it again, perhaps at the cinema with the free ticket I got to make up for the flickering of the screen throughout.

I should probably list all the things I liked about it now, but it’s actually a lot harder than listing the things I didn’t. The memory of the film seems quite blurry, thanks to the aforementioned lack of structure.

Ah, but I know what I will complain about again though! Coulson. No Phil Coulson. The current events of Agents of SHIELD do mean that it kind of makes sense that he wouldn’t have a cameo, but I’d hoped they would find a way. After all, his death in the first film caused such outrage that Marvel had to bring him back!

But then I read Whedon’s comments on the topic. As far as he’s concerned, Coulson is dead to the MCU. Basically, he sounds extremely bitter, with his ego bruised by the fact that Marvel decided to undo his decision to kill the character. I wouldn’t be too happy either, but at the end of the day, these characters are Marvel’s not Whedon’s. The fans are Marvel’s, not Whedon’s. So I’m as disappointed with Whedon as I was with the film. More so, actually.

What I found amusing by his statements concerning Coulson, though, was that he said that the plot device of someone dying and then coming back can be used to the point of there never feeling like there’s something at stake. While that’s true (and let’s ignore the fact that it doesn’t lessen the impact at the time), he’s saying this after putting out a film that contains the utterly pointless death of a main character. Not only is it utterly pointless, and only there so that we feel like the whole thing had been dangerous and they didn’t all get out unscathed, but it seemed like he had been thrown into the film for that purpose.

age-of-ultron-the-vision

I understand the idea that characters might need to die, otherwise it’s all too easy and clean and nothing really feels like it’s at stake, but that’s not necessarily the case. Ultron could have been the villain who tore the heroes apart on the inside. Who got in their heads and broke them. After all, as someone said: Ultron probably knew more about each of them that they knew about each other. He could quite easily have used that knowledge. No one needed to die in order for them to not make it out unscathed. But more to the point, if you are going to kill a character, don’t make it so entirely contrived.

But anyway, that’s probably enough ranting. Go and see it. It’s quite good, despite what I’ve said… I’d probably rate it 4th or 5th out of the Marvel films.