Monday, 30 March 2009

TV Snark - Robin Hood: Total Eclipse OR The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same



Robin Hood is back - hooray!

Yes, season three of Robin Hood has begun and now so have my recaps. So join me in dissecting this amazing piece of television.

By amazing I do of course mean awful.

The show begins with no recap of the previous season's events whatsoever. This is a problem as Robin Hood hasn't been on the BBC since January 2008. This episode carries over a lot of baggage from the season two finale so if you didn't see it or can't remember what happened, then there's no help from the show. Thanks guys.

Luckily I was stupid enough to recap that very episode here. Basically the Sheriff and Guy travelled to the Holy Land to assassinate King Richard. The scheme was foiled by Robin Hood and co, but along the way Marian was killed by Guy of Gisbourne and Will Scarlet and Djaq decided to stay in the Holy Land together.

Knowledge of the previous series is quite important in understanding why Robin is running around like a stroppy teenager at the start of the episode. Why the show decided that you didn't need to know all of this before embarking on this episode, I'll never know.

The episode begins with a boat pulling up to shore. A large man disembarks, picks up some beach pebbles and states, "England." Thanks for telling us mysterious stranger.



We then cut to Robin and his small band of Merry Men charging through the forest. Robin is trying to run away from his gang but they won't leave him alone. It seems that he's intent on REVENGE! Robin hits Little John, calls Alan-a-Dale a traitor (to be fair Alan did side with the Sheriff last season, and tried to set fire to Robin while he was hiding up a tree) and calls Much a leech. The Not Very Merry Men let Robin run off to kill Guy of Gisbourne.

At this point I started to wonder about Robin's appearance. He's looking a lot scruffier in this episode than he ever has before. He's not even wearing his hoody top (although he does have a green hood under his leather). Also Robin seems to have lost some hair since his adventure in the Holy Land.



That looks like a comb forward in an effort to hide a receding hair line. As someone who is also gradually losing his hair, I offer my sincerest condolences to Jonas Armstrong and his haircut. Still, it does give Robin a more naturalistic medieval hairstyle than Alan-a-Dale's highlighted 'do.

Robin wanders into a village and almost shoots a small girl who makes the mistake of stepping out of her front door. Robin decides not to ruin his reputation by shooting a small child and instead fires an arrow into Guy's bedroom. The arrow lands in the headboard of Guy's bed and Robin cries, "Gisbuuuuuuuuuurrrrrrnnnnnnnn!" which wakes up Guy. Guy's response? He says, "He has come" to himself. Hahahaha.

Guy has apparently stopped washing his hair and let it grow wild (I'm obsessed with hair today, what's wrong with me?) and taken to sleeping on top of his bed in his clothes. He's so depressed that he's not even wearing his usual eyeliner. He probably has some poetry about his feelings that he'd like to read to you after the show.

Guy charges at Robin. Robin charges at Guy. "Grrrr!" says Robin. "Graaar!" says Guy. Some Hungarian extras get involved (I love those guys, they play the guards and don't ever talk, or react to anything, or act in any way at all. They're fantastic) but Robin makes quick work of them. Guy uses the Hungarian extras as a distraction so he can kidnap the small girl from earlier and take her to the conveniently placed cliff next door to the village. Guy threatens to throw the girl off the cliff but Robin manages to convince Guy to release her to her parents. So much for that plan Guy, you gave up your hostage for no benefit. No wonder you're one of the worst TV villains ever.

Robin and Guy exposit and emote at each other about Marian's death and they go back to the finely tuned dialogue of "Grrr!" and "Graaar!" Robin bangs his head on a rock so Guy uses the opportunity to pick Guy up over his head and throw him off one of Nottingham's famous cliffs(?) like a poor man's Ultimate Warrior. At this point Guy gives a triumphant cry of "Aaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwwwrrrrrrrrrrr!" This is a more positive and triumphant version of the traditional doom laden "Nooooooooooooooooooooooo!" so I award this show extra style points for trying to avoid cliche and aim for the ridiculous instead. Take a look at Guy's triumphant face.



Much attempts to avenge Robin but manages to get punched out by an exhausted Guy. That Much, he's the useless one. Alan helpfully points out that Much has just been captured. Thanks Alan but WE JUST SAW IT HAPPEN!

Meanwhile the Sheriff of Nottingham receives a guest. It's Prince John's messenger from last season who looks and acts like Boycie from Only Fools and Horses! The Sheriff is ordered to pay a penalty tax for failing to kill King Richard. Oh yeah, Boycie adds that the Sheriff should also get around to killing off Robin Hood. Guy arrives and announces that he has done the deed but doesn't have any proof other than Robin's outlaw medallion. Guy is sent off to find the body...

The mysterious stranger from the beginning of the episode fishes Robin's unconscious body out of the river and takes him to his humble cave. He then tries to treat Robin by rubbing him vigorously and shouting, "Come on!" It just looks wrong.

Guy happens to wander into the same area as Brother Tuck's (for it is he, I can't be bothered typing mysterious stranger anymore) cave but Tuck distracts him by being helpful and priestly.

Tuck heads back to his lair and this episode begins to turn into Misery. Tuck notices that Robin has awoken and decides to reset Robin's dislocated shoulder without warning. He then tells Robin that he didn't want to fix it "...until he was on the mend." What? Just five minutes after being fished out of the water, after an almost fatal plunge, is enough to be "on the mend"? Robin wants to leave so Tuck punches him out. Yep, he's becoming Kathy Bates.

Back at Nottingham Castle the Prince's messenger uses the word 'spondulics'. I'm pretty sure that wasn't a word in common use in medieval England. Hell, it's not even a word in common use in 21st century England. Anyway Fake Boycie mentions that Robin probably has a stash of money (FACT - Robin had loads of money in a secret hidden stash last series) and the Sheriff should probably find it so he can pay Prince John's new tax.

Back in the cave of Misery, Tuck has tied Robin to a rock and prepared some kind of soup for him to eat. Robin refuses at first but eventually gives in to his priestly stalker. Tuck explains that he has returned to England to seek out Robin so he can help to revitalise the people of England. Robin doesn't care anymore though, he'd prefer to stay dead to everyone.

Back in the castle dungeons the Sheriff decides to torture Much. As usual the show can't decide between light and dark in tone and almost shows Much being branded by the Sheriff. Then we cut to Little John and Alan trying to figure out how to break into the castle and free Much. Here's a suggestion, put your hoods up guys! It has worked in every other episode! Much conveniently drives past the two of them in a prison cart so they follow him into the forest.

Robin tries to escape from his number one fan again but is stopped by some nameless soldiers who happened to be in the area. There's a brief sword fight and Tuck convinces Robin not to murder a young soldier. Is this show for kids or what?

Much continues to cheek the Sheriff as he fails to reveal where the stash is. The Sheriff is about to have Much buried alive but John and Alan turn up and rescue him.

Guy raids a village as he demands the peasants' money and valuables. Tuck tries to convince Robin to intervene but Robin is still feeling sorry for himself and doesn't want to. Waaa, waaa. That's all this show needs, more excuses for Robin to moan and mope about. Tuck tries to convince Robin to reform the band but Robin won't because of the horrible things he said to them at the beginning of the episode.

Tuck visits Guy and tells him where the remaining outlaws will be (at Dead Man's Crossing apparently; I think it's next to Pirate Cove). Meanwhile the Merry Men hold a funeral for Robin but it's interrupted by Tuck who tells them that Robin is alive. He invites them to meet up with Robin at Dead Man's Crossing. Ooooh, subterfuge.



Unsurprisingly the Merry Men are captured by Guy when they arrive at Dead Man's Crossing. This of course means that the episode has gone back to formula as Robin now has to save his friends from being executed by the Sheriff. For a change. Robin grudgingly rediscovers his passion for being a famous outlaw and decides to rescue his men with the help of Tuck.

The Merry Men are restrained in front of a multicoloured board and are sentenced to death by ballista. That's pretty funny actually. Unfortunately it's stupid too as the Merry Men can still move around and proceed to step out of the way when the ballista is fired. The Sheriff thinks it's great entertainment, everyone else is too afraid to tell him that it's a pretty stupid method of killing three slightly restrained men.

Tuck arrives and distracts the Sheriff by ranting and raving. The sky turns dark due to an eclipse and Tuck says, "Soon the skies will turn dark..." THEY ALREADY HAVE DONE! He's also holding ye olde medieval flare.



The peasants begin to panic and flee at the sight of the eclipse whereas Guy and the Sheriff think it's one of Robin Hood's tricks. Yes, they're so afraid of the man, they now think he has the power to snuff out the Sun. The Sheriff decides to shoot the Merry Men himself but is shocked when his ballista hits nothing, and discovers the Merry Men have escaped in the confusion. Robin appears as the eclipse ends (the eclipse lasts all of ten seconds) and delivers a patriotic speech. Robin attempts to kill Guy but discovers that Guy has a death wish so he lets him live instead. Robin and Tuck throw money to the poor and escape from the castle.

Later on Tuck joins the Merry Men in their forest lair and he becomes an official member of the gang. You see, stalking and betrayal does have its rewards! Robin apologises to his friends and they all have ice cream.

NEXT EPISODE: The Irish! A new girl! Arrows!

Friday, 20 March 2009

DVD Review - No Heroics


No Heroics is a comedy show that focuses on superheroes during their off hours. The characters spend most of their time in The Fortress, a bar where ‘capes’ can drink and relax, so long as they don’t use their powers or wear their costumes. The show follows the lives of four capes; The Hotness (an incompetent wannabe hero with heat powers), Electroclash (foul mouthed controller of electrical machinery), Timebomb (a recently retired cape with the ability to see 60 seconds into the future), and She Force (the na├»ve, third strongest woman in the world).

The DVD collects the first series of six episodes that were originally broadcast on ITV2 (and then eventually on ITV1 in the graveyard slot). The show’s comedy is mainly based around pub based banter with the occasional foray into capes’ everyday activities. There is an impressive amount of world building for a half hour comedy show; the sets are covered in subtle geek references (especially within the Fortress), there are several cape magazines that are much like real world celeb magazines like Heat, and mentions of capes taking part in the Falklands and Gulf War.

The depiction of superheroes in this show is that of cynical celebrities, desperate to raise their public profile via great heroic acts so that they can appear on shows like Power Hour. This struggle for celebrity is represented by Excelsor and The Hotness. Excelsor is Britain ’s most powerful cape and hero to millions but he is also an unpleasant bully when he’s in The Fortress. He constantly torments The Hotness for his inferior powers and desperate attempts at becoming famous. The Hotness is on the bottom rung of the cape ladder, despite being trained at an academy for heroes and having a useful power. The Hotness’s problem is that he’s a fame hungry, self absorbed idiot which always causes him to make poor decisions and usually ends in public humiliation.

Timebomb represents the other side of celebrity, the burned out, indie-cred cape with his own cult following. He’s a gay, Spanish, alcoholic, drug user who has sex with strangers when he’s bored. Timebomb isn’t a publicly famous hero but is well known in The Fortress and amongst villain circles as a very dangerous cape due to his skills in torture. Timebomb is really a parody of the late 80s, early 90s ‘dark’ superhero movement. The funny thing about Timebomb is that he’s comfortable in his own skin and, despite his terrible deeds, is a good friend. I always enjoyed Timebomb’s subplots the most, the episode where he has to protect a rich Saudi prince from assassination is my favourite.

Electroclash is another side of celebrity – the famous offspring. She’s the daughter of the “Richard and Judy of the capeworld” and resents them for setting a standard that she feels she can’t live up to. Electroclash stumbles through life acting like a delinquent rule breaker and using her power to control electrical machinery for her own petty gain (like getting free cigarettes from the pub machine or cash from an ATM). It’s clear that she’s a cape only because that’s what her parents did. Electroclash is the source of a lot of the cruder dialogue in the show but it seems to be appropriate to her character. She claims not to care about her celebrity profile but still gets upset when she gets a bad review.

She Force isn’t famous (although she’s the third strongest woman in the world so I guess there’s a certain amount of celebrity with that) and she tries to keep her cape life and normal life separate. She’s unique in being the only hero in No Heroics who attempts to maintain a secret identity (although she doesn’t wear a mask with her costume!) which everyone else declares to be pointless. In fact, the irony is that The Hotness desperately wants to be famous but wears a mask on his costume, hmmm… there’s probably something smart to be said here, so just imagine I did. Anyway She Force is insecure, desperate for a relationship (going so far as to entertain the idea of dating a cape hater) and sickeningly positive at all times. She Force used to team up with Electroclash to form the duo known as Lady Trouble, but it didn’t last long.

The show is very British, it’s cynical, grounded in realism, but sharp. This show is well worth checking out if you’re a fan of the genre and worth a peek even if you’re not. I’m surprised that ITV commissioned this show as it’s a concept that doesn’t usually translate well on British TV (have you seen “My Hero”?) but I’m glad they did. Although the humour isn't laugh out loud hilarious, there are plenty of chuckles and smiles to be had provided you're not easily offended by bad language or crude references.

There’s no news as to whether there’ll be another series of No Heroics but there’s an American version in the works which I hope will do well, although I can’t help feeling that without the misanthropic streak that the British version has, it’ll become Friends in capes.

DVD Extras – I was shocked to discover this but the DVD contains no commentary whatsoever. What it does contain is a behind the scenes film, a bloopers reel, a geek guide to the show which points out all the background jokes and references in The Fortress, and the perennial but pointless extra – still photos. The behind the scenes film is entertaining enough but there are very few interviews with the actors involved which is a shame. The geek tour is fun and writer Drew Pearce is an amiable host and the level of detail put into the set design is impressive. The extras are a fun addition but my no means groundbreaking or overly insightful.


Arbitrary Rating out of Ten: 7

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Game Review – Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War 2



Dawn of War 2 (DoW2) is a strange beast; it’s a blend of Diablo and Company of Heroes (CoH) with lashings of the original Dawn of War (DoW). Gone is the base building and resource management of CoH and DoW and in are the colour coded collectible items (or ‘drops’) and character leveling from MMORPGs. Does this mash up of gaming styles work or is it a disgusting mix of milk and Coke?

This is my very simplified version of the game setup. I could mention the names of the factions involved but let’s face it, if you’re a Warhammer fan you already know and if you’re a newcomer I don’t want to overwhelm you with silly names. You play a Force Commander of the Space Marines. You spend your life flying from planet to planet killing aliens in the name of your boss, The Emperor. Aliens are currently invading your Chapter House planets (where you gather recruits) and it’s your job to boot them out of your sector of space. To help you achieve this you have several specialist squads armed with various weapons and abilities. The game usually involves crossing a map to combat the enemy and destroy a boss character. Along the way you can capture strategic points in order to respawn and heal your troops and give you bonuses for later missions.

For the most part DoW2 is a success but there are some annoyances that may grate after a while and some aspects of the game can be a little underwhelming. Allow me to break it down in my usual lazy Pros/Cons fashion:

Pros

It’s a pretty game. The troops are detailed, the environment and buildings explode in a satisfying fashion and the character designs are spot on.

It’s a game that can be played in small chunks. There are many missions and all of them are short, which means you can get a 20 minute fix if you’re strapped for time.

You can level up and improve your troop’s skills. Your troops improve after every battle which allows them to eventually unlock fearsome abilities such as teleportation, Terminator armour, and invisibility (to name a few). This means that your troops don’t stagnate and become even more effective as the game goes on.

The campaign is flexible. You can complete the mission in any order and there are plenty of ‘side’ missions to distract yourself with before you decide to complete the final mission (also the game warns you that it’s the final mission, allowing you to potter around a bit more if you’re not quite ready to finish the game.)

Loot. The game contains loot drops. Everyone loves loot, especially when it’s torn from the corpse of a dead Ork. The equipment varies in quality but they all offer bonuses to stats and whatnot like a regular RPG. Some Warhammer fans may hate this but I personally think that it’s a decent approximation of the tabletop game where commander characters are usually weighed down with ridiculous artifacts. Also, obsolete loot can be trashed for experience points, which is nice.

There’s a campaign co-op mode. I haven’t tried this yet but I heartily approve of co-op strategy/RPG titles (I especially can't wait for the Empire Total War patch that will allow multiplayer campaigns, but I digress).


Cons


The strategy element is rather basic. Due to a combination of map design and a cover system that doesn’t quite work, the strategy on offer isn’t very challenging. Most challenges are overcome by a combination of heavy weaponry and melee-death-from-above. Or you could be a sneaky git like me and use the Scouts to destroy everything before letting the other troops sweep up. Either way, there isn’t much variation. You certainly won’t be having the glorious battles that could be found in CoH and the original DoW.


The artillery bombardment power is rubbish.
I love the artillery strikes in Company of Heroes, they were beautiful and horrible at the same time as troops and buildings were instantly ruined by explosive rounds, and I expected a similar devastating effect in DoW2. Unfortunately the artillery strikes do very little damage and don’t last very long. Rubbish. The Cyclone Missile Launcher and the Dreadnought’s Hellfire rounds do make up for some of this disappointment but it’s just not the same.

The Dreadnought unit is a pansy. In the original DoW the Dreadnought was a one man army, capable of singlehandedly ruining bases and slaughtering squads of Eldar. Now he’s a waddling machinegun emplacement or a lumbering melee troop that is outclassed by the Assault Squad. He doesn’t even have great dialogue like the originals. Boo hiss.

There are very few maps.
You will become bored of playing the same layout over and over during the campaign. Whilst the campaign makes clear that you’re revisiting the same planets and sections thereof, it doesn’t make it any less boring. A few more maps would have helped to maintain long term interest here.

The boss fights. I think this is probably one of the most controversial aspects of the game; basically each level ends with a boss character, complete with a giant health bar, which you must defeat to complete the mission. The boss fights are challenging but it just seems so, well, WRONG. The boss fights lack personality and I found them to be very jarring in what is essentially a strategy title. Plus they were very repetitive; there isn’t much variation in their attacks or behaviour.

The installation process. I have already complained at length about this.

Overall

I enjoyed DoW2 but I wouldn’t go running back to it to play through the campaign again. There are certainly many positives and it’s an interesting experiment in fusing the world of RTS and RPG but I think it ultimately suffers from trying to be two things. This could almost be a casual version of a strategy title or a sampling of the RTS experience without the fiddly base building and resource management bits. This could entice an audience that the original DoW didn’t have and I’m intrigued as to how well this title will do in the long term. I’ll certainly be watching for news of expansions or mission packs with great interest. If you’re a fan of Diablo or Titan Quest then you may want to give this a try even if you don’t usually enjoy strategy titles.

Arbitrary Score Out Of 10: 7.5

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Further Adventures With Installation

This rant about Empire Total War is very similar to the Dawn Of War 2 one I posted two weeks ago except this time I was confused by terminology. Was it my fault or the fault of the menu screen? You decide!


Steps to install Empire Total War:

1. Receive Special Edition box and realise that it’s not shaped like a mighty battleship or a tri-cornered hat.
2. Stifle disappointment and insert the first disc while wondering what constitutes a Special Edition other than a box that feels a bit like parchment and some extra troop content. Remember that the Medieval Total War 2 box included a small metal knight and a soundtrack CD, which was much better.
3. Remember that you never did finish that campaign against the French or finished subjugating the Americas.
4. Remember that in fact, you’ve never completed a Total War campaign. Wonder why that is and then notice a new Tweet on Twitter…
5. After an hour of roaming the internet, realize that your attention span is a lot shorter than it used to… Hey! A squirrel.
6. Finally get around to inserting the disc.
7. A setup screen appears where it presents several options:



8. Hmmm, this is confusing. Select Play as the other option is Reinstall and you guess that would probably just reinstall Steam.
9. The Play option helpfully sends you to the game’s page in Steam where it suggests you purchase it for £34.99. Swear at Steam as you already own the game.
10. Explore the disc for a setup icon. Click on the icon and discover that it just takes you back to the original menu.
11. Sigh and click Reinstall.
12. Witness messages that indicate that it is reinstalling Steam. Use Task Manager to stop the process as you really don’t want to reinstall Steam.
13. Look at your Games List in Steam and see that Empire Total War hasn’t magically appeared.
14. Have a brief flash of inspiration as you decide to refer to your Play.com pre-order bonus email and see what that says.
15. The email points you in the direction of the Activation button on the Games List within Steam that you’d never noticed before.
16. Enter the code from your copy of Empire Total War.
17. Sigh as Steam now tries to download a copy, which at your connection speed will take approximately 3 Ice Ages.
18. Pause the download and become confused and frustrated like an elderly escapee from a residential home.
19. Insert the disc again to get to the menu and select Reinstall having resigned yourself to reinstalling Steam in the vain hope that this will work.
20. Watch as Steam isn’t reinstalled but instead marvel as Steam finally acknowledges the game files and begins to install.
21. Look at the time remaining on the installation and discover that it will take 25 minutes.
22. Think back to your days as a Spectrum owner and wonder if there were any games that took 25 minutes to load back then.
23. Feel somewhat stupid for not selecting Reinstall in the first place which would have saved you 15 minutes of frustration and a lengthy blog post about your own confused, muddled thinking.

So was it just me or was anyone else flummoxed? Why did the setup menu offer to let you play the game before it was installed? Why use the term Reinstall? Is this all an indication that I’m becoming a befuddled old man or has PC game installation become a dark art again?

Your thoughts…