Wednesday, 30 November 2011

5 Old-School RTS Games That Hold Up Today

A cult hit, Stronghold could never lay claim to the snazziest graphics or the most fiendish AI, but it had heart, character and a genuine affection for its own gritty, grisly, yet blackly comic spin on the Middle Ages. Even more importantly, it was an absorbing dual simulation and strategy game that let the player indulge their fantasies of medieval despotism, wage war against teeming enemies or just build the best damn castle they could. Stronghold’s strength lay in that it could be enjoyed in multiple ways. There were the wholesome pleasures of logistics, in which the player immersed themselves in the economics of running a castle. There was the appeal of castle design, crafting impressive, sprawling fortifications. And there was war, lots and lots of gory, desperate battling, against swarms of lemming-like soldiers and cartoonish theme-named villains like the Snake and the Wolf.

Red Alert 2
Kane aside, the colourful, ludicrous Red Alert games have the highest camp entertainment value of all the various Command and Conquer franchises. Set in an increasingly convoluted alternate timeline, it pits teleporting Allies with laser weapons and shape-shifting tanks against extra-dastardly Soviets with zeppelins, mind-control and killer squids. The second entry in the series is perhaps the most popular, with straightforward mechanics and a wide range of memorably deadly units. Play tended to be accessible, frenetic and ultraviolent, with a storyline (told through those infamous cut-scenes) that preferred overacting and no-nonsense objectives (Destroy that base! Zap those nukes!) to subtle drama and strategic intricacy. What’s more, the Soviet war machine so cheerfully stereotyped real-life Communist propaganda that it made the return of the Cold War seem a weirdly appealing prospect. In games, at least.

Warcraft 3
Warcraft’s popularity remains massive, even if the venerable RTS franchise will forever languish in the shadow of its MMORPG successor. Its game-play, with four distinct feuding factions and some basic RPG elements for Hero characters, was entertaining but not ground-breaking; it was simply a solid, well-crafted game. Its lasting appeal came from its lavish game-worlds (which rewarded critter-hunting exploration), it’s plethora of units and (fantasy clich├ęs aside) it’s surprisingly epic story, which gave genuine motivation to some of the savage single-player battles. More about micromanaging special powers than assembling vast hordes, it made ripping the Scourge to shreds with a well-timed barrage of spells endlessly satisfying.

Age of Mythology
A spin off from the legendary Age of Empires franchise, Age of Mythology is still a very good-looking game, with lovely environments that evoked ancient mythologies while playing fast and loose with the source material. It married familiar AOE game-play mechanics to nifty new features like God Powers, giving conventional warfare a fantasy twist. Having a deity on your side added excitement to the usual RTS brawling, as you rained flaming meteors on the heads of enemy hoplites and Minotaurs. The different mythologies had different styles, with the Egyptian religion rewarding frantic monument-building and hordes of cheap troops, while the Norse literally earned their god’s favour through combat, encouraging speed and aggression. Even a slightly awkwardly-inserted Atlantean faction in the expansion pack couldn’t ruin it, though sadly a proper sequel looks unlikely.

Age of Empires 2
One of the grand-daddies of the RTS genre, Age of Kings may have crude graphics by present-day standards, but it makes up for it through sheer potential for epicness. The game can produce vast armies without breaking a sweat, locked in sprawling, rock-paper-scissors medieval warfare. The game is both ideal fodder for back-stabbing LAN parties, and a challenging single-player experience, especially with the Conquerors expansion pack bringing Aztecs, Huns, and Koreans to the party. Massed cavalry charges, castles under storm from scores of rams and knights, cannon galleons sacking elegant towns in a frenzy of destruction…the strategy genre may be evolving, but classics like AOK still have the power to entertain armchair warlords everywhere.

100 Greatest Fictional Villains: Lotso

Appears in: Toy Story 3 (2010)
Setting: Pixar’s wacky universe of anthropomorphic toys.
Type: Corrupt authority figure, tragically twisted.

It might seem crazy that a greatest villains list that includes serial killers and arch-criminals includes a stuffed purple bear from a family film, but in the context of the wonderful world of fiction, it makes perfect sense. In real life, butchers and tyrants get the lion’s share of morbid attention, but in the world of fiction, the effectiveness of a villain’s characterisation and the sinister energy that accompanies him are the key markers of his place in any nefarious pecking-order. This list isn’t being organised around anything as prosaic as fictional body counts.

Lotso-Huggin-Bear, despite his recent appearance in a single film, is one of the best animated villains ever. This is mainly because your standard animated baddie, the sort that crops up a lot in the Disney canon, is a simple soul. They want power for the sake of power, or to hurt the heroes out of pointless spite. Lotso wants power, and he definitely messes with Woody, Buzz and co out of spite, but the addition of a tragic back-story and blatant deep-seated psychological anguish adds the spice that makes him the nemesis of the Toy Story trilogy. Sid from the first film was a bargain-basement sadist (who obviously didn’t know that the toys he was torturing were sentient), and Stinky Pete in the sequel had just snapped from frustration; he’d gone overboard, but you didn’t sense he was Evil with a capital “E”.

Lotso, however, is profoundly damaged goods. The fact that he starts out looking like a stock amiable grandfather-type character makes the reveal of the festering nastiness underneath pack more of a punch. Unwittingly abandoned by his owner, he got so hung up on self-pity that it warped the way he saw the world; he lost the ability to contemplate love and playfulness, and only saw the bleakness and the betrayal. Using his size and newfound bullying, manipulative tendencies to spread the pain around, he turned a supposedly idyllic day-care centre into a tiny police state. It takes a SERIOUSLY mangled psyche to turn a place where pre-school children hang out into a police state, even if it was after closing time.

Lotso’s sullen, pettily malignant presence helps turn the last Toy Story into one of those awesome youngster movies that have massive, unabashed streaks of darkness running through all the colourful hi-jinks. The grimness of having such an unlikely brooding Dark Lord figure for the heroes to define themselves against makes his spectacular karmic defeat, and their life-affirming triumph, a fitting capstone to a mini-epic of pop culture.

Friday, 4 November 2011

A review of Danny Boyle's Frankenstein (Repost)

Danny Boyle’s lavish production of Frankenstein (a bold adaptation of Mary Shelley’s original novel, penned by Nick Dear) lives or dies on the strength of its two alternating lead performances, in this case Benedict Cumberbatch’s arrogant Victor and Johnny Lee Miller’s wretched, embittered Creature. Though the play is hampered by the occasional grating issue with script and supporting cast, these ferociously impressive leads ensure a memorable and ultimately satisfying experience.

Shedding the cumbersome framing devices of the novel, Dear has written the play as very much the Creature’s story rather than Victor’s, beginning not with the driven scientist’s first experiments but with the Creature’s tortured first moments of consciousness. Miller rises to the occasion, bringing an energetic physicality to the role that demands fascinated attention. The extended opening sequence, in which he struggles pitifully to figure out the use of his limbs, writhing, staggering and sobbing with frustration, make you yearn for someone to step in and help him, to coax him through his initial terror and confusion. All he gets, however, is a fleeting appearance by Frankenstein himself, who reacts with panicked revulsion and spurns him, driving him out into the world. After a series of formative experiences, some tender, usually harrowing, the Creature returns for a reckoning, its motor skills now advanced enough to give it the threatening agility of an ape.

Miller’s use of speech shines too, as his awkward, halting tones, seemingly straining to escape his throat even as his intelligence soars, invoke vast pathos, whether yearning for a mate or brooding on the cruelty of his unnatural existence. It is a wrenching, arresting performance.

As for Frankenstein himself, Cumberbatch makes him a monster, a man of towering vanity and callousness who ironically could learn a few lessons in humanity from his inhuman creation. A truly villainous Frankenstein has precedent in the murderous Peter Cushing version, but Cumberbatch’s steely confidence and crippled emotional life (there is genuine bitterness in his voice when he questions the Creature about its feelings of love) make him both impressive and pitiful while remaining an utter cad. The role is less meaty than that of the Creature, with Victor absent for a sizeable stretch of time, and the roots of his character are given less exploration, but Cumberbatch holds his own.

Unfortunately, in comparison to the leads the supporting cast are reduced to ciphers, with the honourable exception of Karl Johnson, who plays the role of the blind old exile who educates the Creature (before their relationship is cut tragically short) with paternal warmth. The script is also hit-and-miss. There are clumsy moments, such as when Frankenstein’s pure, bland, boring bride Elizabeth lectures him on his interference with “the natural order”, in a painfully unnecessary spelling out of the novel’s most famous theme. When she berates her husband for “trying God’s work” it’s difficult not to suppress an irritated sigh at the redundancy of the rebuke; Cumberbatch’s performance has already succeeded at putting across Victor’s blasphemous enthusiasm.

The production values are suitably memorable, somehow simultaneously grand and understated, rolling out a mock steam train with a hideous industrial cacophony one minute, and efficiently evoking the beauty of nature with little more than a strip of grass the next. It also sports perhaps one of the most ambitious and effective uses of atmospheric lighting to be attempted on stage recently.

Overall the production sports genuine substance underneath all the directorial flash, staying remarkably faithful to the spirit of Shelley’s words, albeit sometimes awkwardly expressed. It may not be well-rounded enough to qualify as a genuine masterpiece, but is certainly worth watching for the bravura acting of its leads, who summon up a duality of fascinated enmity and grotesquely oversized passions.