TV Review: The Walking Dead Season 3 Part 1

The fundamental problem with setting an ongoing television series in a post-apocalyptic, zombie infested wasteland is that, at some point the show is simply going to reach a plateau of depression, a kind of “Despair Event Horizon” if you will. With the drama and danger ramping up in each episode is there only so long the audience can go without throwing their hands up in the air and saying “I’ve had enough!”? As Season 2 of AMC’s The Walking Dead shambled on it became clearer and clearer that this inevitable destination was where the comic book-based show was barreling towards.

The Walking Dead boasts an exceptional cast of actors.

The genius of The Walking Dead Season 3 (airing over here on Channel 5) is that it actually manages to pull the story back from this abyss and the audience along with it, ironically in an affecting twist by having the show’s main character, the rock by which the audience remains grounded, go almost entirely off the rails. Helped by the phenomenal Season 2 finale, 3 kicks into high gear right from the get go, eliminating the procrastinating feel that had dogged the show previously. Our rag tag group of survivors are off the farm and have survived a harsh winter, pushing their survival skills to the limits and forcing them to grow closer as a unit. Rick is still the de facto leader and without the constant challenging from Shane has become a more effective protector, with the help of the ever-loyal stoic fan favourite, Daryl. Carl is no longer a whiny pain in the backside and has been trained by his father to become a 13-year old zombie killing machine and Glenn and Maggie’s adorable romance brings some much needed joy and humanity to the group. Even Carol has become an effective member of the squad, dealing out her fair share of zombie headshots.

Breaking from the rather group-focussed structure of the previous seasons, Season 3 is actually split fairly evenly between Rick’s group who find shelter in an abandoned prison and Andrea, who having survived the storming of the farm is rescued by new character Michonne (a fan favourite from the comic books), a katana wielding badass and expert zombie slayer. The two stumble across an entire village of survivors, known as Woodbury which at first appears to be a safe haven but in true Walking Dead fashion not all is as it seems, especially with the town’s shifty leader known only as “The Governor” and a familiar face that is best left forgotten.

The opening episodes pull no punches, almost immediately killing off a significant character that simultaneously radically changes the group’s dynamic and addresses some of fan’s biggest complaints from Season 2. Rick is slowly losing his mind, as other characters are growing into experienced fighters; bonds are forming as others are eroded and the tension never lets up. The show is dark, no doubt but there is just enough light to keep the audience engaged and not let the show slip into monotony. The characters in Season 3 don’t spend episode after episode going back and forth over decisions, they are decisive, they take action, and the explosive results create some of the most thrilling viewing ever seen on television. The characters are clearly weary from a world in which humanity is dying and their actions reflect the claw of doom that is constantly looming large over them.

The ragged survivors are ready for war,

Like all good zombie fiction The Walking Dead is a show about the people rather than the zombies and with it’s engaging character development, expert pacing, shocking twists, pulse pounding action and unrelenting atmosphere, Season 3 truly comes into it’s own finally living up to it’s potential, rivalling even the best zombie films.

It all builds to a truly chilling cliffhanger ending that has me and many other fans on tenterhooks until the final half of this season airs in mid-February. Fight the dead. Fear the living. Love The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead returns 10th February on AMC.

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Game Review: Ratchet & Clank HD Trilogy

Boy, am I a sucker for HD re-releases. Even though re-releasing the same games I bought 10 years is undeniably a cynical move, every time one of my favourite collections of games is released under the “HD Classics” banner it seems that the additions of HD visuals and trophies are enough to tide me over to giving up another £30 for that sweet, sweet taste of nostalgia. Most recently I have parted cash for the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection, The Jak & Daxter HD Collection and the subject of today’s review The Ratchet & Clank Trilogy, a series of Playstation 2 platformers from Insomniac, the studio that would later be known for alien shooter Resistance.

Ratchet & Clank’s main gimmick is the plethora of crazy weapons.

Like any video game series, Ratchet & Clank has been steadily refined with each release to be the reliable source of platforming/3rd person shooting hybrid we know and love, and the R&C Trilogy are a great example of how game design can improve over time. After playing recent iterations of the franchise such as 2009′s A Crack In Time, the original game feels very primitive, the controls are loose and at times frustrating and the level design inconsistent, often repetitive. With that said, R&C deserves recognition for trying things that had not been done before, splicing together light platforming with creative weapon design, with some cheeky puzzle solving thrown in for good measure. This first game was praised for it’s colourful and cartoony visuals, that in HD and 60 frames per second, do still look pretty and the introduction of the series’ trademark humor  Originally released in 2002, Ratchet & Clank is unfortunately an example of a stellar game for it’s time that has not aged well. While there are still fun times to be had here, if you are looking for a platforming romp on par with more recent titles you may want to look elsewhere.

Snow rating: 7/10

Ratchet & Clank 2 is in some respects, two steps forward and one step back. This is the game that introduced weapon and armour upgrades, that gave you more of an incentive to use a variety of weapons rather than sticking to the reliable blaster and rocket launcher. A focus was put on collecting bolts (this universe’s currency) to acquire as many weapons as possible as the difficulty of enemies would scale quite considerably, the further you progress. The controls are noticeably tighter, the strafe mechanic is a life saver that makes the shooting a whole lot more natural and enjoyable. While the simple gameplay mechanics are addictive and polished, it still suffers from the same flaws as it’s predecessor; levels often feel repetitive and enemies are often overly tough, requiring 9 rockets to destroy and the platforming too basic, not offering the variety and creativity of games like Super Mario Galaxy.

The third installment is the best of the three.

Where the trilogy really shines is the final game in the collection Ratchet & Clank 3 (In America known as Up Your Arsenal, I guess over here that sounded too much like “Up Your Arse”). With many tweaks made to the core mechanics, 3 feels like the best parts of the first two parts with the fat trimmed. There are upgrades galore, weapons can be upgraded 5 times, 10 if you count the Omega upgrades unlocked after you finish the game as well as armor and health upgrades. Each weapon has a specific use and the unnecessary ones are cut, with the possible exception of The Infector. The combat is more satisfying, enemies are not needlessly tough, but still keep you on your toes, however the AI is still rather slow. The controls are tighter than ever and the visuals are so colourful and vibrant they practically pop off the screen (especially if you have the 3D mode turned on). The writing is the best it’s ever been and is genuinely laugh out loud funny in more than one occasion (especially when series staple Captain Qwark is interacting with his monkey friend Scrunch); there’s a good reason why bumbling villain Dr. Nefarious has been a recurring character ever since his introduction here. Flaws are still present, the levels can sometimes drag and turn into a plateau of destruction but the quicker pace of this game means that you rarely get bored. This game also features the addition of online play, a welcome distraction from the single player campaign. Ratchet and Clank 3 is a game evolved from the best elements of it’s predecessors and despite some small niggles, earns a place as one the best platformers on the Playstation 2.

Even Clank’s gadgets are upgradable.

For hardcore fans of the Ratchet franchise or fans of the Playstation 3 titles who wish to find out more about the series’ roots, this collection is well worth the price tag and gets a recommendation from me, but be prepared for flaws that are more noticeable with age. For anyone not familiar with the franchise I would recommend they play the Playstation 3 games (Tools of Destruction and A Crack In Time) before delving into this collection but for fans, The Ratchet & Clank trilogy is an enjoyable trip down memory lane.

Movie Review: Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone (Anime)

Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone is a “rebuild” of the first episodes of classic 90′s anime television series Neon Genesis Evangelion which is often celebrated as one of the greatest science fiction anime series of all time. Having an interest in anime I was obviously eager to check this much praised series out however it seems that, in England at least, DVD copies of the original series are suprisingly hard to come by, so I opted to instead try the Blu-Ray release of Evangelion 1.11, a movie version of the series’ origin. This release is allegedly not a direct remake however, making some departures from the plot of the original series, however from fan reports You Are (Not) Alone sticks fairly closely to the plot of the original, with major changes coming in in the second part 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance.

The Rebuild of Evangelion films are sometimes referred to by fans as “REO Evangelion”

The story concerns a 14 year old boy named Shinji living in the futuristic city of Tokyo-3. In this dystopian future the human race is under a constant attack from celestial beings known only as “Angels” who intend to wipe the human race from the face of the Earth. Humanity’s only hope of salvation from these collosal monsters lies in the hands of gigantic humanoid robots known as Evangelion. Shy and insecure Shinji is asked to pilot one of the Evas by his estranged father as for an as of yet unexplained reason, the Evas can only be piloted by children. Shinji begrudgingly agrees and joins the fight for Earth with the defense unit NERV. Another child pilot is introduced named Rei, a girl who is even more introverted than Shinji, rarely communicating with anyone but Shinji’s father who shows her more affection than he does his own son.

1.11 is more than just a remake, it is a re-imagining of the story.

The set up for the film is very vague and leaves many questions that the viewer hopes will be answered; why can only children pilot the Evas? Where do the Angels come from? What is the human instrumentation project Shinji’s father talks about? While these questions linger they also keep the viewer hooked, hints of the bigger picture are dropped in here and there to wet the viewer’s appetite for what plot revelations are to come. The character’s are the main focus of the plot at this point and the characters set up in this film are likeable and interesting. Shinji may come across to some as whiny however the film does a good job of illustrating how heavy the burden of being a pilot bears on Shinji. Rei is emotionally distant yet interaction with Shinji begins to inspire subtle changes within her as she slowly realises that he is strikingly similar to her and that she is indeed not alone. While this relationship is built on further in the second film, we can see an unspoken emotional bond begin to form between Rei and Shinji in this film. While the plot is heavy and often very bleak there are enough tension breaking moments of comic relief that it does not become to depressing. Misato and her pet penguin Pen-Pen create a sense of home for Shinji and her bright outlook on life provides a nice contrast to the other serious characters. There are some smatterings of fanservice here and there that may make more mature veiwers groan but this is easily overlooked.

“Taste my hot pink fury!”

Regardless of how you feel about the story, one thing cannot be denied the animation in this film is simply gorgeous. The animation is fluid and intricately detailed, especially noticeable when viewed on Blu-Ray disc. The colours are vibrantly bright and the characters are animated with an energetic sense of fun. The Evas and Angels are a mixture of hand drawn animation and CGI which are blended together very well and is not jarring at all. The Evas are not your standard giant anime mechs, they are not hard edged and technological, but rather possess a unique organic quality, moving almost like enormous giants rather then robots, this allows the Evas to convey with fantastic detail the emotions of the pilot. When Eva-01 tears apart an angel’s torso and begins to stab it’s core the effect is raw and visceral, the mechs even bleed and have humanoid joints that can and are broken. As such the combat is not detached Transformers style, the viewer can connect and feel each attack with shocking impact. This makes each fight scene brilliantly exciting, this is too helped by the soaring orchestral score which builds tension with the ominous semi-religious choir.

I have a toy of this. It looks awesome. Seriously.

The biblical references in Evangelion are many and blatant  Shinji’s father comments that the Angels are humanity’s punishment for “eating from the fruit of knowledge”, every time an angel is killed they explode blood in the shape of a crucifix, hell the gigantic celestial being known as Lileth introduced in the third act of the film is even straight up described as a God. Almost every scene in the film contains some kind of religious reference if you look closely enough. What point, if any Evangelion is making about religion at this time remains a mystery to me but it’s my hope that this will be expanded upon in coming entries to the series. There are at the moment two Evangelion Rebuild films released and another two set for release that will conclude this iteration of the Evangelion saga.

Misato: possibly the hottest babe in anime.

As a newcomer to this franchise I found Evangelion 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone a great introduction to the mythology. While some of the many unique concepts introduced are difficult to get your head around at first, like most animes of this genre the more you watch the more you will understand the world and the more hooked you will become. I would sincerely recommend this film to any casual or hardcore anime fan who wishes to find out what all the fuss about Evangelion is about. If you are anything like me you will be watching this series intently to find out what direction this action packed and emotionally engaging anime will take in the future.

Album Review: Enter Shikari – A Flash Flood Of Colour

A Flash Flood Of Colour is St. Alban’s quartet Enter Shikari’s 3rd full length LP and is arguably their most ambitious effort to date taking the their metal/hardcore/trance/dubstep hybrid and pushing the dynamics to the nth degree. The electronics take a much more prominent role on this album, which is not to say the guitars are pushed into the background, but that both elements are equally essential to the structures of the songs.

A Flash Flood Of Colour is Enter Shikari’s third full length effort.

While Shikari’s debut “Take To The Skies” was mostly a post-hardcore album with some synths thrown in, albeit in a confident and appropriate way unlike the way similar bands such as Attack Attack or Asking Alexandria would sloppily tack on to a song, AFOC is a true hybrid of the rock and electronic sounds, the heavy guitars and fast drumming blend seamlessly with the bouncy synths and pounding dubstep beats. It seems strange that no other band has though of mixing a hardcore breakdown with a dubstep drop and the result is a satisfyingly heavy explosion of noise. Rou’s vocals are eclectic as ever, incorporating shouting, screaming, singing, rapping even a select few spoken word sections.

Sophomore album Common Dreads represented Shikari branching out into new territory and occasionally stumbling over their own ambition, Flash Flood is the band finding their feet and defining the Enter Shikari sound. The political theme is once again present in Flash Flood and is more prominent as well as more focused.

The St. Alban’s boys are here to kick ass and drink milk. They still have some milk left though.

While Common Dreads seemed to be all doom and gloom, sixth form political rhetoric, Flash Flood is more positive and importantly playful about it’s subject matter. Shikari know they aren’t pioneering journalists exposing injustice, but their job is to send a rallying call of awareness to the youth and the lads do so with smirking cockiness and sincerity. The band recognize the growing separation with the youth and the way the country is run and overall apathy to any idea of inspiring change in government and economy. The overriding message of this album is to recognize your surroundings and to know with confidence that with solidarity positive change can be made. On “Pack Of Thieves” Rou defiantly roars “Don’t be fooled into thinking that a small group of friends cannot change the world”. This is the type of music I could see me and my peers blasting as we protest the Tory’s latest move to increase University fees or something (more relevant).

Shikari shine on their quieter moments such as “Warm Smiles Do Not Make You Welcome Here” where their knack for writing catchy hooks with bizarre lyrics comes into play (“They need to be drowned in condiments and left to ponder sense”). “Constellations” is the stand out track, recalling the electro-acoustic slow burner “Adieu” from “Take To The Skies”, this song closes off the album spectacularly bringing in a personal angle from lyric writer Rou, “Packing the last few shirts into a bloated suitcase…I’m lost so lost you are the constellations that guide me”. This ballad builds to a fist pumping crescendo with the anthemic lyrics speaking of solidarity and a sense of unity with like minded individuals.

Once again Enter Shikari’s unique Electro-Post-Metalcoretrancestephip-rock stylings have earned them one of the best rock albums of the year and with sky high aspirations of changing the world in whatever way possible what could possibly stop them from achieving them. After all greatness often emerges from humble beginnings.

“Fear begins to vanish when we realise

That countries are just lines, drawn in the sand with a stick.”

Album Review: A$AP Rocky – Long Live A$AP

Ringleader of the A$AP Mob is back with his first full length LP, following up the renowned 2011 Mixtape Live Love A$AP. Rocky has never been celebrated for his groundbreaking lyricism (many detractors claim him a Spaceghostpurrp-lite) and this has not changed on Long Live A$AP, however the prevailing swagger and immaculate production across the board manages to carry it along. While Rocky’s flows are fairly basic, the cavernous,sweeping beats that at times resembles a Massive Attack instrumental meld into a dreamlike smog lulling the listener into a dazed stupor that lingers on for the whole 60 minutes.

Rocky’s sophomore LP is surrounded by hype.

Similar to his contemporary Tyler The Creator, Rocky’s tales of violence and debauchery are presented in a tongue-in-cheek almost jokey fashion with his gangsta fantasies resembling a weed hazed dream, with Rocky donning the persona of a stoned gangsta jester. Rocky doesn’t desire to be taken seriously, like his trendier-than-thou photoshoots he is shooting for maximum style and carries the songs along with his larger than life persona and never wavering coolness, like a modern day Snoop Dogg.

Standout tracks include ethereal opener which flows between Rocky’s trademark bold and abrasive rhymes and an entrancing mellow, floaty sung chorus. Fan favourite Goldie makes an appearance, both a party anthem and a tongue in cheek middle finger to haters. Standout club banger F***ing Problems is sure to be a radioplay regular featuring guest spots from Drake, 2 Chains and prodigy Kendrick Lamar, with it’s infectiously catchy beat and hilariously crass chorus this tune is sure to be stuck in your head for days. Sonny Moore collaboration Wild For The Night marries Rocky’s bouncy rhymes with EDM, with Rocky spitting over Skrillex’s reworking of a Birdy Nam Nam joint. But where the album shines both in production values and lyrical strength is actually marathon collaboration1Train, Rocky kicks the song off in style with a darker take on his technique, conjuring images of dilapidated late night subway rides filled with sketchy characters and growing up on the mean streets of Harlem. Rocky then passes the mic to Kendrick Lamar who shows his true lyrical skill with an exceptional verse that gets progressively desperate to the point of hearing his voice cracking as he gasps out the last lines of the standout guest spot of the album. The song also features Eminem protégé Yelawolf, young buck Joey Bada$$, the brilliant and manic Danny Brown, Queens heavyweight Action Bronson and rounded off by the irreplaceable Big K.R.I.T.

Fashion Killa.

It doesn’t always gel this well however, while it is a welcome change of pace to hear Rocky’s sensitive side onFashion Killer it is ultimately a tribute to Rocky’s penchant for designer clothes rather than a moment of emotional openness and ends up feeling just a little shallow.

A$AP Rocky is as much a fashion icon as he is a musician, and if you buy into Rocky’s cult appeal you will probably get a lot more out of this record, however even without that level of context, Long Live A$AP is still a tremendously fun listen even though it is slightly lacking in diversity and definitely can’t match up to the depth found in other recent releases such as Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid M.A.A.D City. This may be a case of style over substance but like a recent Tarantino film this has it’s place and Rocky’s effort is authentic enough to make even the squarest of us feel supremely cool.