On… Batman vs. Superman

Bat-cards on the Bat-table first: I loved Batman vs. Superman. The thing is, though, I was always going to. The film could have centred around Batman playing a six-hour game of Ludo against his Kryptonian counterpart and I would still have gladly given money to Warner Bros. to go and see it. As a huge fan of both characters – and DC stuff in general – there was never a chance that I wouldn’t enjoy the film on some level. And, indeed, I did, though I have thought a fair amount since watching it about whether or not it’s a good film.

The short answer is no, it isn’t. Given the pretty terrible reviews it’s had (at the time of writing it was on 28% at Rotten Tomatoes), this probably comes as a surprise to no-one. I can certainly see why this is the case, and in part it’s because of what BvS is and isn’t. What it isn’t is a fully-formed, singular narrative piece that can stand in isolation. It isn’t a great example of how to tell a story, nor how to draw convincing characters. This, I imagine, is the reason why critically it has failed.

As far as I can see, there are three major problems with BvS. The first is that it is trying to do too much. It’s been advertised from the very beginning that this is intended as the start of a DC Cinematic Universe, and just the first in what Warner hope will be a long-running series of films. As such, it’s trying to be a gateway to a larger world than we’ve ever seen in a DC film. Previously we’ve been concentrated solely on Superman or Batman or (shudder) Green Lantern, and – throwaway references aside – there has been no attempt to link them together. Many people who haven’t got knowledge from the comics or cartoon series may not even know that the characters are even meant to inhabit the same fictional universe. BvS is thus attempting to be a starting point for the shared continuity, as well as a blockbuster film in its own right, an introduction to a new Batman and  a semi-sequel to Man of Steel all at the same time. I can’t help feeling that’s a bit too much for any one film to handle. The Marvel films had a slightly easier job, with snippets across individual early entries eventually going together to make up a shared cinematic universe that, let’s face it, probably wouldn’t have happened if Iron Man or Captain America had been poorly received.

On the subject of Marvel, another problem with BvS is that it seems DC are attempting to distinguish themselves from their old competitors by being the ‘dark’ and ‘gritty’ counterpart to the lighter, more humourous (dare I say ‘Disneyfied’?) Marvel films. Whilst I don’t quite go along with some commentators and think they that this film (and Man of Steel) go too far down the ‘dark’ path in totality, there are moments when you just wish they would take it down a peg or two. There’s the problem that the tone and the subject matter are a bit dichotomous. Whilst it’s relatively easy to make Batman into a dark, brooding figure, it’s harder to do that with Superman without losing some of the essence of what makes the character so appealing. Superman is meant to be an ‘overgrown boy scout’, a figure of hope that Batman can never be. There are moments in the film that allude to this, but they’ve overtaken by the number that concentrate on the fear of the character. It’s hard to see how the Justice League films are going to be able to carry on in this style when they introduce characters like Aquaman and the Flash.

The final main issue I had with BvS is that the central conceit as a whole was slightly doomed from the start. Okay: any superhero fan would probably want to see two of the most iconic figures in the oeuvre battle it out on the big screen, but deep down, I think we all knew it would never really match our expectations. We always knew the story arc would have to include them meeting for the first time, fighting and then – because this is Hollywood – making friends at the end before fighting a common cause. Echoing what I said before, this was just too much. The upcoming Captain America: Civil War has had the luxury of building character relationships across at least three films beforehand. BvS just had to leap into it. Any storyline would have been pushing credibility, but in honesty the film doesn’t help itself by the tack it takes. It just rather left me asking myself whether Batman truly would have been so gullible.

For all its faults, though, I did enjoy the film. I’ve read elsewhere that some people think it will be better viewed in several years time when the later films have arrived and make it a more ’rounded’ story. Whilst this isn’t meant to excuse any of its flaws, I think that’s arguably true. It’s worth noting as well that Ben Affleck – who I must admit I have previously doubted – is fantastic as Batman, and dominates every scene he’s in. Henry Cavill, returning as Superman, is also very good. Perhaps a different interpretation of the character than we would like, but still very good. Some of the supporting cast are less impressive. I can’t work out whether I thought Jesse Eisenberg was a good Lex Luthor, but then I don’t think I’ve ever seen a decent live-action interpretation of him, save maybe John Shea in Lois and Clark (Gene Hackman is a great actor, but the character wasn’t well-written in the Christopher Reeve films). Amy Adams returns from Man of Steel as Lois Lane with a surprisingly large role; she’s good but still strikes me as not having enough ‘spunk’ (no sniggering at the back there). Gal Gadot makes for a decent Wonder Woman, though we don’t get a great deal of time here to explore much about her.

If you’re on the fence about seeing the film, I’d say go and watch it. It’s definitely worth the price of admission and, whilst I can’t say you’ll come out of it thinking that you’ve just witnessed the greatest piece of cinematic entertainment since Orson Welles lost his sled, you’ll at least enjoy it on some level.

Riddle me this, riddle me that, who's afraid of the big black Bat?
Riddle me this, riddle me that, who’s afraid of the big black Bat?

On… The Order 1886

Oh, The Order 1886… You were doing so well, weren’t you? Graphics so lovely you could lose yourself in them, competent and enjoyable shooting mechanics, and a world that is relatively unique in the world of videogames. But… but… Alas, at the end of the day I just don’t think you’re a very good game.

Quite why it’s hard to put my finger on. I wish I could say it wasn’t you, it was me, but I think we both know that would be a lie. Part of the problem is that you seem so dead inside. Yes, you’re sumptuously beautiful outside but it’s all style and precious little substance. I walk through an ornately detailed room and find a mirror, only to discover that I have no reflection. I make my way through the back alleys of Victorian London and stumble upon a policeman and a lady having a conversation. They are flawlessly attired: every crease, every detail attests to the period setting. But walk between, stand right in the way of their conversation and they don’t even bat an eye-lid. They’re lifeless mannequins, displayed for the purposes of atmosphere, providing you don’t go too close.

The Order 1886
It looks lovely, doesn’t it?

Early on in The Order you find yourself engaged in a gunfight in a gentleman’s club in Mayfair. There are billiard tables that you can duck into cover behind, and – like everything else – they are exquisitely detailed. Whatever you do, though, don’t fire your gun at one and expect the balls to move even one iota. If you do then the whole illusion will be shattered like a wrecking ball through a hall of mirrors, and it becomes painfully obvious that it’s just a texture placed on a 3D object.

The Order suffers more than most from a problem I’ve touched upon before, whereby the more realistic something looks the more jarring it is when things don’t behave in the way you expect them to. It’s such a shame, as it’s obvious so much effort has gone into the way that the game looks. Unfortunately the effect you end up with is a bit like dressing a corpse: it might look alive, but it doesn’t take much to make you realise it isn’t.

Once you take away the glamour of the graphics, what you’re left with is a reasonably competent third-person cover-based shooter with a love of cutscenes and quick-time events. Ah, the cutscenes. I’m old enough to remember the mid-90s obsession with full-motion-video-based games when the CD-ROM first appeared as the game storage medium of choice. Sometimes The Order made me feel like I was playing a modern version of one of them. The pattern of many encounters, particularly near the start of the game, is: watch cutscene, walk slowly down corridor, press triangle to open door, watch cutscene, walk into room, watch cutscene, press triangle, watch cutscene, shoot something, watch cutscene. And so on.

Thankfully, the cutscenes are well-produced and serve to bolster a storyline that is intriguing if a trifle undercooked at times. Set in an alternate Victorian London, you play the role of Sir Galahad, one of Her Majesty’s Order of Royal Knights who, since the reign of King Arthur (yes, yes, I know) have protected England from half-breed werewolves, vampires and – presumably – other things that go bump in the night. It’s a well-developed world, refreshing in the way that pretty much all the detail about it is provided through the main game rather than by scores of codex entries as is often the case. I enjoyed the story itself, though was disappointed by the ending which seemed just to be begging a sequel to finish it off.  One of the game’s main twists was also painfully obvious from the get-go, and I did feel like shouting at the TV to tell Galahad not to be so stupid. That never works though, and you just end up with a sore throat and neighbours who think you’re crazy.

The Order 1886
Barry had waited a bit too long for the cutscene to finish.

Many people have criticised the length of the game, which I feel a tad unfair. It is  short: I think I probably finished it in about seven hours or so. However, had it stuck around any longer I think it would have outstayed its welcome. What hurts the game most in terms of its longevity is the replayability, or lack thereof. As a story-driven game where the main hook is discovering what happens next, and with no branching narrative path structure, once you’ve finished it there’s very little incentive to ever go back to it. The lack of multiplayer component also harms it in this regard.

As mentioned earlier, the game’s combat mechanics are serviceable, if nothing spectacular. They very much follow in the vein of Gears of War, whereby you spend the majority of your time crouching behind some conveniently-placed scenery and popping your head at now and again to shoot/be shot at. Some enemies will rush you, others lob grenades in your general direction. There’s not a great deal of variety, as you’re mainly fighting people in different colour uniforms, but it’s largely enjoyable nonetheless. The battles with werewolves are rare and disappointing, though. I seem to recall only about three or so encounters during the entirety of the game, and they all consisted of me being attacked by three werewolves who, one at a time, would charge towards me, give me chance to dodge, and then run away for a while before coming back. I’m no expert on fighting tactics, but it did strike me that they would have been better off if they’d all swarmed me at once and didn’t give me a chance to pick them off one at a time. Ah, well, I guess that’s why you never see a werewolf on Mastermind. Or do you? (No).

Oh, yes, there are also a couple of QTE battles against certain super-powerful werewolves. These are dull and it was never entirely clear how much involvement I was actually having in their outcome.

I know I’ve been excessively negative here, and it some ways that’s unfair. The Order isn’t a bad game, it just isn’t a very good game either. In fact, for several long stretches, it barely feels like a game at all. When it does let you play, and you’re in the midst of a decent gun-battle, it’s very enjoyable, but these patches don’t last very long and you’re soon back to walking at a glacial pace around environments that are aesthetically wonderful yet interactively barren.

On… Gears of War Ultimate Edition

Shamefully, I’d never played Gears of War when it was originally released back in 2007. Maybe it was the character models, perhaps the relatively short length of the single-player campaign, or it may just have been that I was a real man enough to appreciate it. Whatever the reason, I didn’t play it, so the Xbox One’s remastered version was my first time with Marcus Fenix and Dom, erm, whatever-his-second-name-is.

And did I enjoy it? Oh, yes.

Some real men, in a real game about a real war with real guns etc.
Some real men, in a real game about a real war with real guns etc.

One of the key things to know about GoW is that it’s far, far more than the sum of its parts. On the face of it, the game appears to be ‘just’ a third-person, cover-based shooter populated by men so burly they’d make Arnold Schwarzenegger blush if they stood next to him at a urinal. In fact, the game is a superbly crafted piece of entertainment that is immense fun to play and never outstays its welcome. I have to admit, I haven’t played the multiplayer component which – many would argue – is the actual meat of the thing. I can’t therefore comment on that, though by all accounts its fantastic fun.

What impressed me most about GoW was the level design and pacing. Though there are a few sections which descend a little bit too much into a routine of ‘go into room, shoot bad guys, proceed to next room’, by-and-large the flow of the game is extremely well thought-out. One moment you might be knee-deep in a fire-fight with the grotesque Locust, the next you’ll be nervously making your way through a deserted building, anxiously creeping around corners. The middle acts of the game in particular stand out for me as being a masterclass in how to build tension and design a linear path through a game. Note, incidentally, my use of the word ‘linear’ there: this isn’t a title for those who enjoy wandering off the beaten path. There are a few collectables to be found in hidden corners, but for the most part there’s no deviating from the route the game has in mind for you. This isn’t meant as a criticism; in many ways its rather refreshing to play something where you always know what you should do and where you should be heading, especially having been burned out over the last few years by massive open-world games. What makes GoW so good is the way that it all fits together, and that wouldn’t be possible were it not a linear experience.

Admittedly playing the campaign in single-player does expose the rather ropey companion AI, and as a result there are some fights that end up being much harder than they should be just because you’re having to compensate for the idiocy of the CPU. The last boss battle in particular must have taken me about twenty attempts. Okay, most of those were probably due to my utter incompetence at these kinds of games, but a good three of them at least were caused by the computer.

Never mind that, though: Gears of War is a fantastic game, every bit worthy of the ‘generation defining’ blurb splattered across the inlay of this remastered version. If you have never tried it because it just doesn’t seem like your kind of thing, do yourself a favour and give it a try, it may just surprise you.