Review – Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge 

I have an odd relationship with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. I loved the first one, but I’ve struggled with the sequels. However, if someone asks me to watch one with them I’m always up for it, only to regret it later. I honestly do not think they’ve got it right since the first one, and I think that’s a shame.

We now have Salazar’s Revenge, and Captain Jack Sparrow is thrust into a new adventure; this time he must survive killer ghost sailors led by the very ruthless Captain Salazar, who has just so happened to escape the Devil’s Triangle. Into that mix are characters that Jack must forge an alliance with; Carina Smyth, an astronomer who is accused of being a witch, and the young British sailor Henry. Together they must explore the seas to find the legendary Trident of Poseidon, which is their only hope for survival. The premise sounds like another Sparrow-led narrative as before, but the movie does try to use its strengths by grouping a trio of characters trying to achieve a sole goal.

The film is okay. There is nothing much to shout about, but there is not too much to grumble about either, and that is the most obvious way to summarise it. My first praise of it is something that really bugged me in the previous four – length. Salazar’s Revenge is only two hours and nine minutes in length, which is still a decent time, but for what its premise is worth that is acceptable. I’ve recently watched At World’s End and that is 2 hours and forty-eight minutes in length. I was losing my mind. Despite the shorter length I still suffered from bouts of boredom that are always inflicted on me in this franchise. You are introduced to Captain Jack Sparrow whilst he is carrying out a bank robbery, and the sequences of scenes for this part of the story went on for so long that I nodded off briefly. To my dismay, the bank robbery was still happening when I fully woke up again.

The shorter film length does not prevent it from being messy either. The plot at times is all over the place, which does not help the development of the new characters. They are trying to introduce a new Will and Elizabeth for all intents and purposes. Henry and Carina are not exactly the same but it is quite obvious that there is a set-up here for future movies in the franchise. The problem with this is that it’s difficult to pass on the torch when the bigger characters are trying to take ownership of the screen. Elizabeth and Will worked because there were clear boundaries that prevented them from being together in the first film, and it was a crucial plot device to the narrative. Carina and Henry do not have the same impact, especially when you have Barbossa and Sparrow, who have been major characters from the start, and have similar goals to the new characters. Although the screen time is quite balanced I do not feel the film sold the new ‘leads’ of Pirates of the Caribbean as much as I would have liked.

The story itself is interesting. The stakes have been raised in this, where even the deadly (and dead) sailors seem very ruthless compared to the villains in its predecessors. My issue since the first film is that they’ve never really managed to provide a villain (or opposition) that is as effective as Hector Barbossa. I felt they placed efforts in CGI and the fantasy pirates look than trying to sell a villain to the audience. They follow a similar path in this, but Captain Salazar is actually okay. You are not as invested in him at first, but when you learn his back story you actually understand the motive and it isn’t just one big onslaught for no reason. There is also the usual pirate feeling too it which gushes over you with the theme music which I’ve always liked. The only problem which I’ve kind of touched upon before is that the story does not really piece together well. It is a bit clunky with the many elements thrown together and in the end, it felt a little average.

That said, Kaya Scodelario’s performance as Carina is quite impressive and surprised me the most. Geoffrey Rush always impresses me as Barbossa, but Kaya really played Carina to her advantage. I’ve always been a fan of her since her days in Skins (UK series) and I’ve always believed she will get the big lead roles eventually. I understand she was in Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials too, so she really is starting to make her mark.

Unfortunately, I have to discuss Johnny Depp. I have no idea what is going on but he literally goes on set in this film, picks up his pay cheque and then walks off. Sparrow slurs way more than usual in this movie, such that I was actually convinced that Depp is drunk whilst acting. If the narrative is that Sparrow is drinking more than in previous stories then at least explain it, but the fact his voice is just way more slurred and different to the others does not make sense in the slightest.

Overall, I think Disney are really trying to continue dragging this on as much as possible. It’s money, I get it, but let’s not kid ourselves. This is Pirates of the Caribbean 5.  They are still continuing a story that started way back in The Curse of the Black Pearl and the gaps between the releases of each film are getting longer and longer. It’s better than the terrible On Stranger Tides, but good cameos and funny jokes do not stop the fact that this franchise needs to end and they need to start again. Maybe that opportunity will happen on the next one, but I highly doubt it. The overuse and obsession of Captain Jack Sparrow and the money they roll in means we will continue to keep getting fed a continuation of the same adventure that started so long ago. I was 12 when they sold us this story. I’m now 26 and I cannot believe I’m still talking about Johnny Depp in this franchise.

It’s still worth the watch which is frustrating.



Review – King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Somewhere in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, there’s a Guy Ritchie movie. You can see it, occasionally. For two or three scenes, the FX-leaden sky peels open just enough to let a glimmer of light shine through; and with it comes personality, comes style, comes wit and verve. Ritchie has reimagined the Arthurian legend as a deliberately anachronistic working-class Cockney Herbert soap opera, and when this movie is allowed to be that, and only that, it’s great. The trouble is that two or three scenes in a two-hour movie don’t amount to very much. The rest of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword could have been made by anyone. And it’ll probably displease everyone.

Not that it’s bad, necessarily. But there are worse crimes in blockbuster fantasy filmmaking, especially since Game of Thrones colonised the murky stratum of swashbuckling that this movie lives in. Legend of the Sword might not be bad, but it is rote, derivative, listless and uninteresting. Which is quite a feat, considering the opening scene contains a 300-foot CGI elephant. The movie leans so heavily against its visual effects that it’s a surprise the thing didn’t topple over and flatten the rest of the movie.

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Review – War Machine 

There is a scene in War Machine where four-star General Glen McMahon is having a casual conversation with a journalist from Rolling Stone magazine. The conversation quickly turns awkward when Glen asks the journalist to place him on the front cover on the next magazine edition. The journalist tries joking back with Glen but he is being deadly serious. He wants that front cover. In that moment, I genuinely believed I was watching a sit-com created by Ricky Gervais. There was something Extras or The Office about it, where the character seems so unreasonably desperate that it was really funny. And that kind of sums up Netflix’s original War Machine. It’s a war story but it’s extremely absurd, because by the end of the film you do not feel it is a war story anymore.

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Opinion – Why Saw: The Video Game Sucks

So, a while ago I wrote a few words about atmosphere in video games. During that piece, I used Saw as an example of a bad game made playable by its creepy, unsettling atmosphere, which in turn led a few people to surmise that the game itself is actually good. Because I’m all about the people, I thought I’d take some time to clarify why it isn’t.

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Top Ten – Video Game Tutorials

Following on from my previous post about this subject, I thought it might be useful to take a look at some examples of video game tutorials which are considered to be effective and try to figure out whether or not they actually are.

Because I’m lazy, I did a single YouTube search and just chose the first video that came up. So yeah, there are probably better examples out there which would facilitate more interesting analysis, but whatever. I’m a busy man.

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Opinion – Video Game Tutorials

Once upon a time, there was always a little booklet nestled inside the packaging of a video game. It was called an instruction manual, and you could usually judge the complexity of a game by how thick it was. Once upon a time, the first thing I did when I bought any new game was read that thing cover to cover, sometimes more than once. Often it would have lots of interesting flavour text about the game’s world and its characters, alongside all the usual stuff about control schemes and mechanics. Once upon a time, these things were really important.

“Once upon a time” refers to relatively recent years – within the last decade, certainly. There’s probably a generation of gamers who don’t remember manuals at all, but there are many more who remember them as a fundamental component of a game’s whole experience. Instruction manuals weren’t just for giving the player necessary information; the best were stuffed with all kinds of ancillary content, from artwork and maps to pages full of interesting storytelling.

Contemporary gaming has rendered these things pretty much obsolete. I can’t remember the last time I even looked at one. Very few releases these days include them at all. Nintendo 3DS games, for example, have digital manuals installed on the software itself. You can have a quick look if you need to, but you probably won’t.

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Video Game Cutscenes: Dos and Don’ts

A lot of video game purists have a real problem with cutscenes, despite the fact that they have been a fundamental part of the medium’s storytelling in one guise or another pretty much as long as it has existed. The most popular reason for this seems to be that leaving the interactive world and entering the cinematic one is sacrificing the integrity of the video game. Gameplay must remain king, or at least so it would seem.

I don’t personally subscribe to this belief. I think cutscenes are a valuable component of interactive fiction. One reason is that a pre-rendered sequence is a great way to dump exposition or otherwise flesh out a story without running the risk of players interrupting or wandering off to do their own thing. Another reason is that they provide a concentrated space within which designers and animators can emphasise character gestures and movement which isn’t always possible during gameplay. There are plenty of other reasons too. What it basically boils down to is that cutscenes are useful in a number of ways which are going to remain useful until the video game develops its language enough to take over.

I do, however, have certain issues with cutscenes, namely that the vast majority of them are terrible. That’s what this post is about, essentially. I don’t imagine any video game designers have enough spare time that they’re going to be wasting it reading anything that I have to say, but I also figure if we can whine and complain about it loudly enough then someone, somewhere is going to have to take some notice. To that end, let’s take a brief moment to establish some of the things we’re going to be shouting out.

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The Alpha Protocol Conversation

It’s all too easy to criticise Alpha Protocol for its mechanical shortcomings, loose characterisation and unfulfilling combat. Indeed I have, multiple times, during the hours that I spent with it. This is not a genre-defining role-playing game, a revolutionary shooter or a masterclass of stealth gameplay. It’s a far cry from all of those things. Yet, it utterly compels me, often in a way which very few video games ever have in the past.

My version of international super spy Michael Thorton is a sneaky, tech-savvy lurker who finds solace in the shadows and the dull thud of silenced weaponry. He’s a thinker, more suited to finding alternate, more intelligent solutions to problems which a noisy assault could just as easily solve. The customisation options Obsidian provide not only allow this kind of approach, but present me with the tools I need to complement such a style of play. All this is irrelevant, however. How I progress through the shooting galleries has no real impact, nor is it the most fulfilling element of Alpha Protocol. I appreciate the freedom I’m given, but I don’t really and truly care.

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Motion Controls and Adaptive Difficulty

[This was a piece I wrote maybe three years ago now. It was my first published piece for Pixels or Death, back when I was the News Editor over there. Even though the main focal point here is something which has largely become irrelevant – that is, motion controls – I still feel like a lot of the points about difficulty and the medium’s lack of an appropriate entry point for newcomers are still valid. So, here’s the whole thing. I did some general edits, but the gist is pretty much identical. Do take this with a pinch of salt because it’s a bit out-of-date in certain respects and the tone is one I don’t tend to use these days, but nevertheless it was fun to write and I think there’s some merit to it yet.] 

Motion controls. Let’s face it; they’re pretty shit, right?

The answer to that question is a resounding “yes”, and anyone who disagrees with me should be hung by their thumbs and beaten with a Wiimote until their eyeballs switch places.

I’m not talking about those games for fat people, either – if Wii Fit offers you a perfectly-tailored workout program, that’s fine, but that’s not a game is it? It’s just your insecurities digitized and plastered all over the TV for your entire family and social circle to point fingers at while giggling at your Body Mass Index.

The unfortunate reality is that the video game industry needs motion controls. Or, more appropriately, it needs the impressionable casual-gaming types that motion controls attract. Those guys and girls we’re laughing at, jumping around in front of their television screens playing tennis with a poorly-rendered, swollen-headed midget – those are the next wave of core gamers. There’s a revolution coming, people. We need to prepare for it.

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