What is Defiance? – Gaming and television combined | Feature | Entertainment

DefianceThe ‘movie tie-in’ game is one of the most disrespected of genres in the computer games industry, and yet SyFy and Trion Worlds have come together to create an experience which straddles both television and gaming media. The question is will does succeed?

In short, the cop-out answer is that really it’s too early to tell. Series one of the TV show is still only just underway (as of April 2013) and the games following is swelling slowly.

On the silver screen

The action kicks of pretty quickly with Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas) making it clear she's not to be trifled with
The action kicks of pretty quickly with Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas) making it clear she’s not to be trifled with

As pilot episodes go, the first episode of Defiance sets itself up well, but you can’t help but shake the feeling that is trying hard to be ‘the new Firefly’. Of course it will want to avoid the destructive fate of Joss Wheedon’s famously cancelled series, but the setup is undeniably strongly influenced.

You have a slightly gruff, reluctant hero and war-veteran with the heart of gold – Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler) – accompanied by his young female companion who may well have one or two screws loose – Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas).

The similarities don’t end with the characters either. There’s a definite post-apocolypse Western feel to Defiance, with a real feeling that people just want to get by and go their own way.

What is different to the world of Serenity though, is that this is Earth, a place called Defiance to be precise, the city which used to be called St. Louis before the trouble began, which now stands in the midst of mini wars taking places throughout the wastelands which surround it. The landscape has been partially terraformed by the arrival of the Voltan, a race of alien refugees who’s own planet has been destroyed, and the splintering of humanity following their inevitable clash with the Voltan has left a number of different factions, all out for themselves.

Being part of the story

The gritty, brown environments actually have more variety than first glance might suggest.
The gritty, brown environments actually have more variety than first glance might suggest.

The TV show serves to set up the story for the game in many ways. Despite being in different locations (the game takes place in San Francisco), the lore of this world puts it’s own twist on the issues of politics, race and deception, much as Star Trek once did.

In the game you take the role of an Arc Hunter, a scavenger who travels the wastelands searching for the best salvage and ‘scrip’, the universe’s currency.

As the game is Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO), your journey through the world is accompanied by others from across the globe, who jump in and out of missions at leisure.

Though based around social interaction, the gameplay doesn’t push it on you. There is area chat, which can be switched off, and you can make a group or go it alone as you please.

There are some areas specifically designed for multiplayer, such as specific cooperative missions and some player vs player modes, including the savage Shadow War, a 64 player battle to control an area in the vein of Battlefield’s Conquest mode.

Bringing it all together

The mo-cap on the TV show actors is reasonably good, but the visuals in general are standard rather than jaw-dropping.Where the two feed together is the unique selling point of both the game and the TV show though, with grand promises that down the line the characters from the game (even top-ranking players) could find themselves appearing on the show and vice versa.

The latter has already been teased with a handful of episode missions set ahead of the TV show, which show its protagonists in search of a crystal which then appears in the pilot.

It’s a delicate balance to keep both a game and TV audience happy when they aren’t necessarily bought into both perspectives.

Undoubtedly the two combined are greater than the sum of their parts, and seeing familiar elements recur is a genuine thrill, but with a project with such a long-term focus, is it better to wait until things are a bit more built up?

Patch yourself up

The 'EGO' rating denotes your power or level in the game, and can be topped up by entering Arkfall codes found outside the game. Good thing, as the game has a mandatory 10GB install and you need something to do to pass the time (you COULD watch the TV show, if you had another TV).
The ‘EGO’ rating denotes your power or level in the game, and can be topped up by entering Arkfall codes found outside the game. Good thing, as the game has a mandatory 10GB install and you need something to do to pass the time (you COULD watch the TV show, if you had another TV).

The first in-game update has already fixed a long list of bugs and issues with the game, though some reviewers’ concerns such as the lacklustre visuals and limited weapon options remain.

To topple the giant that is World of Warcraft, the world’s most popular MMORPG, would take some serious doing, but the team here have made an MMO, something altogether more straightforward to engage with.

Character customisation is basic, think Mass Effect levels of detail customisation, and equally the weapons take some time and a lot of luck to get interesting. Weapon modding is perhaps the most complex sub-system, with certain weapons having ‘synergy’ mods, which work together for an overall more combined effect.

The game does warm up quickly though, granting a vehicle to zip around the surprisingly diverse landscape, filled with mini-encounters and secondary missions to keep things interesting. The whole thing has a strong Red Faction Guerilla feel, which is no bad thing.

Early days

The badlands have a number of different enemy factions in which tend to want to shoot, hurt or run you over.

The reason that this isn’t a review is because this is a game/TV series which is an investment of time as much as it is an entertainment experience in its own right. The ultimate decider as to whether the joint venture has worked will be whether they both last more then two seasons.

The potential for expansion is exciting though, and there are some good ideas and characters here begging to be developed further. Imagine teaming up with an army for a battle which spanned both the game and the TV show and your actions contributed to the outcome of both worlds. To see some real interaction and commitment to the vision both teams have set out towards could yet make the game one of the defining moments of this generation – a real trend-setter.

Hopefully these sorts of mutually beneficial collaborations are something which will become more and more common, with the one-sided affairs of old, which only sought to squeeze a few extra pounds out of a franchise, confined to the history books.

James Michael Parry

Iron Man 3 | Review | Film

You know that Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark, you know that Gwyneth Paltrow is Pepper Potts, you even know that Ben Kingsley is The Mandarin – but who is The Mandarin? Only Iron Man 3 (much like Smarties) has the answer.

Shoot to thrill

Since exploding onto the scene in 2008, Iron Man has been one of the most unlikely superhero film success stories. Far from the mainstream heights of Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, audiences went into the film not knowing what to expect, only to be (literally) blown away by the results.

Downey Jr.’s Stark is the epitome of charisma, and yet by his third official outing – set after the events of The Avengers (or Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, if you must) – he is as broken a hero as he was at the story’s beginning, if not more so.

Sweet revenge

The story is something more complex than a simple case of revenge, and despite the audience’s familiarity with the characters manages to avoid obvious pitfalls or just going in bigger and throwing in a bunch of characters. Semi-sentient Iron Man suits on the other hand…

Looking at the trailers, you’d be fooled into thinking that the team had played their hand too early, with action and excitement at every turn, but in fact the film’s most startling reveal is in the end also the most obvious – and one we won’t spoil here.

Tony Stark doesn't get comfy, he gets even...

Acting pedigree

The cast is consistently strong this time around, as (on the whole) are their characters. Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin surpasses all expectations and Guy Pierce as the slick Aldrich Killian is smug enough to make you feel slightly sick at times.

Downey Jr. steals the show as usual, but not at the expense of the supporting cast – though former Director Jon Favreau’s character Happy is conspicuous by his absence for most of the film – particularly Don Cheadle as the ‘re-branded’ Iron Patriot, who is gifted with a number of decent one-liners.

In fact the comedy output of the film as a whole surpasses both of the previous two films put together, but not in a way which seems corny or forced.

Even the consistently spectacular Paul Bettany as voice-in-his-iron-head Jarvis (who sadly is under-used) cracks out a zinger which really raises the film’s game.

A visual spectacle

For any big-action blockbuster you expect, well, action, but the set pieces here are more inventive than in the disappointing Iron Man 2.

The mix up of personnel, which puts co-writer Shane Black in the director’s chair, works well, and fellow writer Drew Pearce adds a hint of dry British sensibility which shows through most strongly in the comedic exchanges.

Special effects are on par with the films’ contemporaries, and 3D is used sparingly and for effect, something still not a given for many big-budget flicks.

Box office Kryptonite?

With the already over-hyped Man of Steel only around the corner, Iron Man 3 always had its work cut out to stay on top and the team have really put everything into this and not left the story hanging on for a 4.

Trilogies are hard to do at the best of times. Though Iron Man 2 had its disappointments, it was still a good film and had some truly unforgettable characters such as Sam Rockwell’s sublime Justin Hammer.

Iron Man 3 though ticks all the boxes and then forces you to rip up the piece of paper and make a new list as it surpasses the standard of ‘Excellent superhero film’ to reach the dizzying status of ‘Excellent film in any genre’.

Those looking for a period drama could be disappointed, but for its audience and for newcomers alike this film has something fun to offer.

Plus, a worryingly high number of Iron Man suits, which can’t hurt.

Rating: 5/5

For a more measured response to the film, check out Andy Hemphill‘s Iron Man 3 review on his blog.

James Michael Parry

BioShock Infinite | Review | Gaming

Bioshock Infinite

Nothing like a man with a gun on the box to say "shooter".
Nothing like a man with a gun on the box to say “shooter”.

It took me an embarrassing three years to complete the original BioShock, so with this new title I vowed not to get sidetracked.

Luckily the bright and colourful land of Columbia is a far more compelling and addictive setting than the murky and often spine-chilling corridors of Rapture.

A (sort of) simple tale, well told

BioShock Infinite is a game about Elizabeth. More than just a plucky young sidekick, Elizabeth is a well-educated teenager who has led a sheltered life in captivity. You, as American Booker Dewitt, must rescue her.

Don’t go thinking this is all cliché and sunshine though. First off, Booker’s motives are hardly pure – something he is up-front about from the beginning – and Elizabeth is hardly a helpless damsel in distress.

Gifted with the power to manipulate the universe through ‘tears’, doorways through space and sometimes time, Elizabeth can control reality as “a sort of wish fulfilment” (as she puts it), giving you access to munitions, provisions or even escape routes.

Your first introduction to Columbia is too good to be true. Wandering around this bright and bountiful place, a floating city filled with happy people, cheerful acapella groups and celebrations in the streets, your Spidey sense starts tingling immediately.

Getting your hands dirty

The skyhook (left) serves as transport on the skyrails as well as a brutal melee tool.
The skyhook (left) serves as transport on the skyrails as well as a brutal melee tool.

The game’s turning point, marking its inevitable slip into violence, couldn’t be more abrupt, and the bodycount grows from there. Luckily Booker is a war vet and has no trouble taking lives, which is more than can be said for your sheltered-life-d companion.

The gameplay will be familiar to BioShock players, but to a 2013 audience can be a bit clunky and slow, particularly aiming, which is relegated to a click of the right stick. The reason for this is that the left trigger is home to vigours, the Columbia incarnation of plasmids which grant special powers such as electric shock or the ability to posses enemies.

The vigours are what make this game different from other first-person shooters you might find lying around in the bargain bins across the country. As it does with its entire philosophy, Infinite commits entirely to making vigours work. Though limited to eight options, they can be upgraded and all have a secondary function – which generally grants the ability to lay traps – introducing a raft of different tactical options.

On the flipside are the guns, of which there are a reasonable selection, but since you can only carry two at a time you’ll find yourself getting comfortable with a pair and sticking to them. These can also be upgraded, and after a little while through the game you’ll find the majority of enemies a pushover.

Tried but not too trying

In fact, the difficulty (on normal at least) seems far easier than your standard modern shooter. It might be that the pace is slower than fans of Battlefield or Call of Duty multiplayer are used to, but the ease at which you can breeze through enemies at times borders on disbelief.

One aspect which gives you opportunities to try and do things differently are the skyrails. Huge rollorcoaster-esque monorails carving through the sky, you can zip along the rails and leap off onto enemies. They also provide a handy escape route if you do find yourself swamped. These, coupled with Elizabeth’s ability to call in a bunch of health kits from another reality, come in handy for staying out of trouble.

The story is a complex web, and something worth experiencing rather than explaining, but needless to say it is worthy of its widespread critical acclaim with equal parts pondering speculation.

An old-school spectacle

Bioshock Infinite
The water above looks stunning, but it doesn’t all look quite so shiny.

Visually the game is wildly inconsistent. In general it is stunning, beautiful and awe-inspiring, but if you look too closely you start to see the paint peeling in the form of low-quality textures and awkward animations – a sign that the next generations of consoles has a lot to offer.

The water effects in particular show this the most strongly in the opening scene when you see beautiful rain speckling on a rock next to the ocean, which, by contrast, looks like an odd collection of sprites leaping for freedom.

There are some missed opportunities, such as a fairly limited selection of enemies with few specific tactics needed, and less time having fun on skyrails than expected (though a scripted, literally ‘on-rails’ section would have been woeful).

From the mind of Booker Dewitt

Characters are the real strength which Infinite builds its legacy in. You wonder if it would have been as successful if Elizabeth had been a young man instead of a young girl, but you quickly dismiss these concerns as having little significance and enjoy yourself.

Elizabeth reacts quite believably to situations, investigates areas with you, and has the good sense to keep out of your line of fire in a firefight. There was one awkward moment when she entirely disappeared and didn’t shop up again until I loaded a new area, but its easy to forgive these glitches when her company is such fun. The journey between the two characters is as rich as their overall adventure and by the end you have respect and admiration for both of them.

Not to be missed?

Unashamedly ambitious and engaging throughout, Infinite is the icing on the cake for developers Irrational Games, who have worked up to this greatness from the already impressive heights of the original game back in 2007.

This is a game which should be played for the experience, and if you really want the challenge there is not only hard but ‘1999 mode’ on offer, the latter of which strips everything back to give a pre-millenium feel.

If you haven’t played BioShock, then you can enter this world without missing much, but if you have then there’s more on show here, as well as a couple of nods back to the past (as well as countless parallels).

A title filled with excitement and wonder, Infinite is a game to remind you why you got into gaming in the first place.

Rating: 5/5

James Michael Parry

Pictures courtesy GamesPress

Alkaline Trio – My Shame is True | Album Review | Music

Alkaline TrioSurviving 15 years strongly in the punk scene is no mean feat and this new release from the Chicago threesome sets them up to continue to remain relevant to a whole new generation.

Sensing the tone

While Alkaline Trio‘s ‘heart and skull’ imagery can make everything seem dark, My Shame is True is surprisingly one of their lightest albums to date. Tonally at least, the first few songs have a hint of Green Day and Blink 182’s ‘skate punk’ about them, though by track 5, ‘The Temptation of St. Anthony’, play has returned somewhat to normal.

Unlike Green Day, who’s momentum has dipped in the past few years, the band haven’t veered off in any extreme direction. Previous album This Addition was designed to bring the band back to their roots, but arguably without that goal in mind, the album they have produced here proves to be more effective.

Keeping it simple

My Shame Is TrueBased around the theme of relationships, the album reflects leading man Matt Skiba’s recent troubles with love, and delivers songs with messages relatable enough to connect with fans young and old alike.

Opener ‘She Lied to the FBI’ is a fairly basic pop-friendly anthem, but one which states the band’s case for the record without giving too much away. By the half way point ‘I, Pessimist’, which features Rise Against‘s Tim McIlrath, the momentum is really flowing, and doesn’t really let up until the more relaxed and reflective closing tune ”Till Death do us Part’.

Instrumentally the band have pushed things up a notch since the past album, with Derek Grant’s drums in particular standing out as well as a smattering of synth here and there for effect. Production is still much more stripped down than the days of Crimson though, and the album feels more ‘real’ for it.

Pleasing the crowd

The songs need time to grow before they really become sing-a-longs. Don’t expect to find the next ‘Stupid Kid’, ‘Private Eye’ or even ‘Mercy Me’ hidden here, but there is a lot to like. Dan Andriano gets front-runner time once again on songs such as ‘Young Lovers’ and ‘I’m Only Here to Disappoint’, on top of the almost duet with McIlrath on ‘I, Pessimist’.

The balance works well, as it always has, and Andriano has the strength it lacked on older numbers like ‘The Poison’. Skiba pushes the envelope too, wailing his way through ‘The Temptation of St. Anthony’ in true battle cry style, really wearing his heart in his throat.

For those new to Alkaline Trio this as excellent entry point. The album takes the best of the latter days of higher production values and more confidence and variety in instrumentation, but still holds on tightly to the emotion and relatability of its songs that the band made their name on.

Rating: 4/5

James Michael Parry