Film | Review: The Hunger Games | This Is Entertainment

It’s not every day you watch a film about children fighting to the death, but in the dystopian future of The Hunger Games it’s as normal as watching Big Brother.

Following a rebellion 75 years before, the authorities decreed that each ‘district’ offer up a boy and a girl between 12 and 18 as a tribute to peace and prosperity to compete in a televised battle for survival known as The Hunger Games.

Our introduction into this troubled world is through the eyes of the hippy-named District 12 tribute Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who volunteers herself for the games to protect younger sister Prim. Katniss is immediately transported from a world of hardship and destitution, living on the breadline and hunting deer in the forest for food, to the brightly coloured land of plenty that is the central city: Capitol.

The contrast between the two settings is emphasised by the garish and fluorescent clothing worn by those in the Capitol, who immediately see Katniss and the other tributes as celebrities.

Those of you thinking the story sounds familiar, chances are you may have heard of or seen the 2000 film Battle Royale – a Japanese film which centres around a group of ninth grade students forced to fight to the death. While it was something of a television phenomenon in the world of Royale, it is the centre of everyone’s lives in The Hunger Games.

The comparisons to the Twilight saga are founded by the central love triangle, between Katniss, life-long friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) – who she is forced to leave behind – and fellow District 12 tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). There’s not much to this through this film though, with Katniss not showing any affection to Peeta despite his longing and no hint of more-than-friends in her introduction with Gale. Later Katniss plays up to the hints of love between her and Peeta for the watching public, but there is no real attraction.

In all Katniss comes off as driven and focused, showing very little emotion to anyone but her family. Lawrence is generally very stiff and has no natural chemistry with the rest of the adult cast, which is either a reflection on her acting prowess or her commitment to the character’s general lack of empathy. To compensate, one stand-out scene towards the finale floods the screen with emotion, and Lawrence earns her top-of-the-bill status.

The supporting cast vary. Hollywood middle-weight Woody Harrelson (Cheers, 2012, Zombieland) as Haymitch Abernathy, a previous winner of the games, initially makes a forgettable impression, but becomes more and more likeable. Mentor Cinna, played by none other than rock legend Lenny Kravitz, seems underused for what is such a crucial part of building Katniss’ confidence during training ahead of the games and the heavily made-up Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) is little more than a piercing voice.

The film is based on the first of a trilogy of books, and despite the faithful reproduction the background feels a little rushed with only a minute-long propaganda video (barely) explaining the reasoning for killing 23 children a year.

Director Gary Ross also helped shape the story as screenwriter, where he made his name with films like Big and Seabicuit, alongside original author Suzanne Collins. The care and attention of the pair shows through here, with the spirit of the source material translated on screen smoothly and all the doors left open to bring in an almost inevitable sequel.

There’s plenty that’s done well here, but the plot as a whole plays out predictably and with toned-down action scenes and ‘magic’ healing gel to fix stab wounds, some of the point of the story is lost. Despite the constant danger you rarely fear for the characters, but you do root for them, making it a story suited to its watershed-friendly certificate.

Rating: 3/5

James Michael Parry

Gaming | Review: Mass Effect 3 – Part 2 | This Is Entertainment

Take back EarthAfter 45 hours of fighting, the Earth has been saved. Mass Effect 3 is undoubtedly the greatest conclusion to Shepard’s fight against the Reapers we could have hoped for, but it’s far from faultless. Just like in the first part of our review, in part 2, you can expect minor spoilers, but will stop short of ruining it for you (hopefully), just enough to explain ourselves.

After countless disc-swaps, we reached the midpoint in the story (see part 1), which is centred around the Citadel – the same could be said for the entire series to an extent. Needless to say once it is over, things have changed over at the hub of the galactic community, and this brings up the first of a few bugs.

You will find the map highlights ‘places of interest’ as well as people on the right hand side. Unfortunately, due to the endless number of plot threads, the game can often get confused about which people should be there and which aren’t. For example it assured us banking Volus Barla Von was behind his desk at his store in the banking area in the Presidium Commons, but after Act 3 he could no longer be found there. Luckily, the journal marked his quest as completed, so we weren’t short of his war assets for the grand finale.

Other issues with the game stem from its cover system. While leaps and bounds ahead of Mass Effect 2, the game still struggles with cover at various points, sometimes taking you around a corner rather than mantling over cover, and rolling into cover often ends up with you just standing there looking at a wall. Generally it isn’t a major issue, but in the occasional fight, particularly the more frantic battles you face towards the end (think four Brutes at once…) you feel as though the game restricts you rather than enables you.

Scanning, while now dealt with in systems rather than planets to an extent, is still a fairly laborious process, with no clues as to whether there is even anything to find in a particular system, and some entire clusters seem to be pointedly empty, as if DLC might unlock something to do on one of their many worlds. The impending danger of scanning revealing the Normandy to the Reapers provides an initial fear, but quickly dissipates when you realise the auto save merely takes you back to when you entered the system – meaning if you can remember where the assets are, it is a simple case of trial and error for the game to give up its treasures.

Cut scenes too are riddled with issues. The usual conversation wheel loops from ME2 remain, which allow you to ask for elaboration on a point multiple times, and at one point in a conversation with Liara on the Normandy, both she and Shepard decided eye-contact was for losers and instead looked to their left and right respectively, while continuing to talk normally.

Can you beat Cerberus AND the Reapers?Despite this, it isn’t enough to ruin what is an incredible tense build up to the finale. In the second half there are a number of side missions (depending on how many you did in the first half, obviously), which see you meet up with more members of your ME2 crew. In our playthrough, we only had one squadmate missing – sociopath biotic queen Jack – and we didn’t miss her. Some squadmate appearances seem more significant than others, and you feel that without mainstays like Garrus and Tali you would lose a lot of what makes the game fun.

Passive conversations take a step up a notch as well, depending on your personal story. Some moments we enjoyed from these were Garrus and James Vega’s verbal sparring, EDI and Joker’s romancing in Pergatory and Tali drowning her sorrows in the lounge after Shepard meets up with Miranda to face-off with her controlling father.

The From Ashes DLC provides you with a brand new squadmate, a Prothean called Javik who was preserved in a life pod back on Eden Prime to be discovered by Shepard. The debate rages over whether this content should have been included in the retail release, and for 800 points the price is high for little more than a simple side mission, but having a Prothean in the ranks makes for some interesting encounters through the game.

As you near the end of the game, you feel the urgency of the mission build, in what is a masterstroke from BioWare in terms of their much boasted ‘integrated storytelling’. The occasional line is often thrown in to hark back to the first title in the series, but sadly the memorable side missions from Mass Effect, such as collecting Keeper data, aren’t tied up in what would have been a great opportunity to reward veteran players.

Combat difficulty gains momentum as you take the plunge and commit to finally taking down The Illusive Man, something many players have been begging for since the shifty head of Cerberus (voiced expertly by Martin Sheen) appeared on the scene at the opening of ME2.

The War Room in the Normandy gives you a breakdown of your forces, as well as the chances of success, ahead of the final assault to take back Earth, and it’s here that the Galaxy at War multiplayer really makes a difference to your final fighting strength.

The odds are always stacked against Shepard and his crew, and setting down on Earth – in London no less – this time around is no exception. While the setting raises a smile from a British perspective, (little other than big ben’s clock tower and some traditional English phone boxes set this apart from any post-apocalyptic warzone) the streets lie strewn with rubble and destruction as all manner of Reaper-class enemies advance on you almost relentlessly, particularly the instant-kill weilding Banshees, created from biotically charged Asari.

Despite the uncertainty of a war zone, Shepard still makes time for a chat, catching up with each of his squad members – end even video calling those who aren’t in the thick of it – for what is a deep breath before the plunge of the final big push.

The games ending  (which will try our best not to spoil) is the biggest bone on contention with the game as a whole, with Facebook campaigns and petitions already well underway in outrage at how BioWare could have ended the game as they did.

The truth of the matter is that there is no way the ending could ever have lived up to the events that paid the way to it, and the team have ended up tying things up with a head-scratching moment rather than a definitive ‘The End’.

While many would argue the conclusion alludes to the finale of Deux Ex: Human Evolution in its simplicity, the result is that players can discuss their ending knowing that the context of others’ games – which are infinite in complexity – are irrelevant, which is both and a strength and a weakness at the same time.

However players decide to end their game, the fact that their is still a choice goes back to what BioWare set out to do, and the ride always had to end sometime.

In the end, Mass Effect 3 is up there with the likes of Skyrim for epic story, but has a wealth of different experiences for each player in a totally different way. If a character is there or not changes the experience significantly, but doesn’t disadvantage or penalise the player as other games would. In the case of our playthrough, it was easy to work out where Jack should have been, but the mission was still hugely enjoyable without her.

Shepard’s story is one which everyone who plays ME3 will have a different level of investment in. To get the best possible experience, an import is crucial, and too an extent a lot of the emotional weight from the story just wouldn’t be possible without it.

Regardless of your choices, ME3 is a game which helps define this gaming generation, and makes the best stab at a Hollywood-esque franchise ever committed to disc. The issues tackled, romantic sub-plots, combined with the action and drama, make Mass Effect as a whole the most affecting story in gaming history, and one which demands attention from anyone who has ever picked up a control pad.

Rating: 5/5

James Michael Parry

Gaming | Review: Mass Effect 3 – Part 1 | This Is Entertainment

Prepare to take back EarthWith so many countless variables in Mass Effect 3, one person’s game will play out very differently from another’s. What is certain is that the game, so far, is one of the most involving, rich and diverse titles in the Xbox 360’s history. In this (spoiler free) first part of our review, we will look at the game up to the events on the Citadel, the political capital of the galaxy, around half way through the game.

The first thing to note is that importing a save is vital to the complete experience of Mass Effect 3. The story so far adds to every event which unfolds in the game, so if you haven’t seen the ancient Prothean beacon on Ilos, pondered the Krogan’s mass fertility disease the Genophage with Mordin or punched a reporter in the face, then you won’t be as invested in the galaxy as Shepard is.

Even so far there have been over a dozen occasions when characters who you have previously met, or decisions you have previously made, directly affect the outcome of plot points, from relatively minor side-missions to the main story arc.

The line between Paragon and Renegade has never been more blurred as Shepard must do whatever it takes to gather as many ‘War Assets’ as possible to take down the Reaper threat.

You’ll see many characters from Mass Effect 2 return as well, who have varying levels of integration with the story, since you have to bear in mind they could be completely absent from the game for some players if they did not survive 2’s Suicide Mission.

Many were disappointed with the Citadel in 2, and those criticisms have been met head on in part 3, with six areas of varying size to be explored, and selling more than just fish and space hamsters.

The most common difference you will notice between Shep and his shipmates is that they are far more dynamic. Far from static characters, you will find squadmates both all over the good ship Normandy and across areas like the Citadel, which makes them far more convincing as independent characters rather than just vaults of information which have to be teased open by talking to them at just the right time.

Another difference is the dialogue in general. There are far more ‘passive’ conversations, which don’t leap into a face-to-face conversation wheel, but just play out between characters. Often there will be conversations or arguments going on between NPCs and Shep can decide to back one side or another, but even when you can’t get involved you will see conversations progress as you re-visit areas, with characters offering new dialogue and giving you a glimpse into their personal struggles with the war. It’s details like this which really fill out the world and make it authentic, or as authentic an end to the universe as you can imagine.

Mini-games like hacking, bypassing and planet-scanning are gone, streamlining the experience, but instead you will find a more dynamic edge to the galaxy map. With the Reapers spread across the galaxy, zipping around isn’t as care free as it might have been. Some systems are being attacked by the Reapers as you visit them, meaning there is a chance you will run into one by passing through. What makes this more likely is the Normandy scanning the system for War Assets, since the sonar-esque signal reveals its location and draws the Reapers in. A bar indicates their alert level and when it fills you will hear the tell-tale Inception-horn of their arrival, often it’s a close call just to get away.

While you can read our initial impressions of combat in our previous post about the demo, which was representative of the finished product, there are a few more aspects to combat which are worth noting. The most pesky thing to come across is the deployable turrets put down by Cerberus Engineers. These shielded death-doers can cut down your character in a matter of seconds if you find yourself caught out of cover. The easiest way to avoid these confrontations is to beat down the Engineers before they deploy them, but this is far from easy.

While combat in the main game is more epic than before, and the accompanying cut scenes really show how BioWare have opened out the world so it’s more than just a collection of corridors, the real hard-as-nails nature of the enemies is revealed in the multiplayer mode.

A new addition for Mass Effect 3, the  mode contributes to the single player campaign by boosting ‘Galactic Readiness’. AS you kick ass and take names in multi player, the galaxy’s armies gain confidence for the final confrontation. While not essential, even a few multiplayer games can make a real difference to the effectiveness of your war assets.

Expect more on Mass Effect 3 in the next week or so as we polish of the single player campaign and give a verdict on the reportedly controversial ending, as well as the oft-mentioned From Ashes DLC. In the meantime read our interview with Commander Shepard’s male voice actor Mark Meer both early in development and deep in the middle of it.

James Michael Parry

Music | Live review: The Joy Formidable – Factory 7, London – 02-03-12 | This Is Entertainment

Acoustic sets are usually a gimmick or a cheap trick at gigs, something to fill out the time while seemingly doing as little as possible. This isn’t always true of course, and there’s nothing like an acoustic set for intimacy. The Joy Formidable set the scene sublimely with their ‘campfire’ moment and took the concept to a whole new level, playing out their finest moments as the crowd swayed along peacefully just inches away.

All of this was only a warm up though, and the best was yet to come. The Joy Formidable are somewhat out of step with their contemporaries in that they don’t sound quite like you think they should. Every time you think you have their sound pinned down, they throw in a bit of electro or a bit of folkiness or even heavier rock to confuse you.

Ending up somewhere between the upbeat rhythms of Blondie, and not just because of blonde-haired frontwoman Ritzy Bryan, and the melodic pop of Ellie Goulding. Luckily the mix translates well on stage, and the crowd are quickly stirred into an uproar as the band begin to fire out tracks like ‘I Don’t Want To See You Like This’ and ‘Austere’, building to the epic ‘Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie’.

Ritzy’s tortured expressions as her crisp, clean voice fill the room (or, in this case, shed), hint at the passion and enjoyment she takes from performing. Her fellow band members Rhydian Dafydd (bass) and Matt Thomas (drums) share her enthusiasm and all three throw themselves into the musical sections with their entire bodies and then become suddenly subdued as the anarchy calms down again.

Even with a captive crowd at the event, the audience were drawn into the band’s spectacle, joining in with their easily followed melodic moments and listening intently as the band teased with new material – reportedly all recorded but not yet mixed, suggesting a release may be due later in the year.

The combination of energy and simplicity through the set was relentless, leaving a sharp intake of breath from onlookers as the band teased with the traditional encore. The finale itself brought the evening’s energy to an absolutely nuclear climax, to the extent that the stage took some punishment in the fallout. Cymbals and drums were strewn across the stage as Thomas exploded with energy in the final moments.

A convincing performance which mixed a considered approach, commonly found in bands with far more experience, and anarchic energy of youth to create a captivating display, which undoubtedly left them wanting more.

Rating: 4/5

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Gig hosted by Clarks Originals:

James Michael Parry