The Wind Rises Review

Originally Published for MCM Buzz on the 10th of May 2014.

"All I wanted to do was make something beautiful"

This is it. Studio Ghibli’s The Wind Rises marks legendary animator, director and inspired storyteller Hayao Miyazaki’s final voyage, and what a voyage it is. This partly autobiographical tale reimagines the life of aeroplane designer Jiro Horikoshi, innovator of  some of the most iconic World War II fighter planes. It draws from Miyazaki’s own love of aircraft and the fantastically serene tone of Ghibli animations to produce a refined and visually astounding masterpiece. This could well be the last film of its kind.

The film follows Jiro from childhood to the heights of his success in aviation, taking on all of the themes that the world has come to expect from Miyazaki and studio Ghibli alike. From the value of kindness to the futility and destruction of war, life is shown to be complex but always beautiful. The story itself is bittersweet from start to finish, yet ultimately it is a celebration of all parts of life that urges you to be creative, determined and caring.

The animation itself is simply stunning, showcasing gorgeous watercolour landscapes, charming character designs and captivating flight scenes that boast vibrant colours and an incredible and classic style. Miyazaki’s direction shows a cinematic sensibility that is unmatched, not only in the world of animation, but in cinema as a whole. The Wind Rises masterfully captures the peaceful beauty of flying. Jiro’s ethereal mentor and Italian design pioneer Giovanni Caproni muses that “engineers turn dreams into reality”, and this is certainly true of Miyazaki and the endlessly talented Ghibli animators. The score is also truly astounding, bursting from peaceful silence into wave after wave of emotion throughout.

This plot itself excellently paced, taking the viewer through critical moments in Jiro’s life whilst keeping the wonderful fantasy of Ghibli’s previous features alive through gorgeous dream sequences and a sense of positivity, which creates a level of quiet maturity none of its predecessors can compete with. The characters are brilliantly fleshed out to the point that it becomes easy to forget they are animated. From Jiro’s cynical but loyal friend Honjo to the kind-hearted but comically irritable Kurokawa, every person Jiro encounters feels honest and proves to be memorable and inspiring in their own way. It is hard to forget the absurd but hauntingly aware figure of Castorp, a visitor to Japan who warns Jiro of the impending war. The adult complexity of the film is often found in the tension between innovation and destruction, from Jiro’s contribution to war as a result of his inspired pursuit of a profound dream.

The Wind Rises Nahoko

Whilst flight gives The Wind Rises a sense of scale and incredibly well crafted visual spectacle, the emotional aspect of the Wind Rises shines through Jiro’s understated but intimate relationship with the strong willed and compassionate Nahoko. Their story is inexhaustibly charming, and the direction their lives take together is both captivating and heartbreaking. In many ways their love reflects the film’s depiction of flight, as it is both beautiful and harmful, but Jiro’s inspired optimism shows how the wonder that is found in life is well worth the pain. Miyazaki’s own experience comes through here as much as in the environmentalist and pacifist tones that emerge throughout Jiro’s adventure.

The Wind Rises stands out as Miyazaki’s most personal picture. It confounds you with beauty, complexity, love and loss and dreams and heartbreak, all the while reminding you that life is a wonderful thing. This message is all the more important considering that this marks the last film directed by one of the great cinematic pioneers of the century. Despite the absence of any nature spirits, magical creatures or wicked witches, Miyazaki’s last outing as a director is inspired, magical storytelling at its absolute finest.

The Wind Rises soars into selected UK cinemas on the 9th of May.

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Interviewing Infinite Crisis Lead Designer Ryan Bednar

Originally Published for MCM Buzz on the 28th of February 2014.Infinite Crisis Wonder Woman

With the announcement of their open beta launch and after a hands-on with the game MCM Buzz catches up with Ryan Bednar, Turbine’s lead designer. We talked about his break into the gaming industry, MOBA (Multiplayer online battle arena) tactics and their upcoming DC Comics project Infinite Crisis.

Me: So you are the lead designer on Infinite Crisis, that’s exciting.

Ryan: It is pretty exciting!

Me: What inspired you to work in the videogames industry? Was it something you always wanted to do or something you just came across?

Ryan: So I went to university for Industrial Design, graduated in 2003, and I knew my entire life that I was always into videogames. And I remember the year before I graduated I was talking to my parents in my kitchen and I was kind of figuring out or trying to figure out what I wanted to do after college, and I decided out of the blue then and there I wanted to try and get into the games industry somehow. Really at the time there wasn’t really any clear road to actually making that happen at all. You didn’t have any friends who were like, “Oh, this is how I broke into the games industry,” ’cause everyone who wanted to do it was kind of scattered all around. So I moved to Boston, because there were a couple of industrial design firms up there. About a couple of months after I moved to Boston, Turbine posted an internship for Lord Of The Rings Online, the MMO they developed a while back. I applied for the internship, I got it, and I’ve been there ever since. I started out as an intern on Lord of the Rings Online, became a world builder, then a lead world builder, then a lead systems designer, then I moved over to this project as the lead designer.

Me: It’s got to be exciting working with all those incredibly different worlds. The Lord of the Rings universe to start is tremendous, and now you’ve got the DC Universe, the DC Multiverse even!

Ryan: We’ve had some great opportunities to work with the best IP (Intellectual Property) that are possibly out there. We’ve just been really fortunate in that regard.

Me: Have you always been a fan of DC comics? Was this something that you were excited to do?

Ryan: I would say that I’m a medium fan for DC Comics, and I say that knowing that a bunch of people on our team are superfans! My level of comics knowledge does not compete with theirs, but it takes a team to make a game and we have the people that are super-into the comics doing the back-stories, the writing and the character development side of things. My area of interest and expertise was on the competitive MOBA side of things, so we all collaborate together.

Me: How do you think the DC Universe translates to the MOBA genre?

Ryan: It’s perfect! When we were deciding to build a MOBA at Turbine we were looking to build on a new genre. MOBA seemed like a great thing for us to get into with the RPG background we have. The MMO’s translate really well into managing all the systems and advancements that you have, and that’s worked out really well for us. When we were acquired by Warner Brothers, the DC Comics IP was something we really wanted to build games with, and we saw that as the perfect marriage of genre and an IP. The main content of a MOBA is its characters, and DC has fantastic characters. If you add the concept of the multiverse in on top of that, then we have an opportunity to make our own characters. For people that are super into the comics this is the thing they’ve wanted to do for their entire lives, the fact that they can take a character like Green Lantern and get two versions of him, it’s been a ton of fun and everyone loves working on the project.

Me: It’s great the way that instead of the standard class systems this is implemented into different versions of the same superhero, it’s a smart way to do it.

Ryan: It’s really interesting that if you’re a Batman fan one of the great things about having this multiverse is that you have three Batman’s, and they all have a different skill set. So if you’re a Batman fan who likes to play a bruiser character, you play Batman Prime. If you like ranged attack characters like marksmen, Gaslight Batman’s your guy. If you like assassins, Nightmare Batman. You can really be a fan of the IP and still find a play style that suits you.

Me: One thing that’s noticeable is that this game is catered to fans.

Ryan: Yeah, because we’ve had all these different people working on the project, people that add the really tight competitive balance in the game, and people who are working on the voice and video that’s driving all the action between the characters. When Green Arrow ends up fighting against Batman they’ll say something as they are fighting, so when Batman gets low on health Green Arrow will have some line to say in response to Batman being on the other team or his health bar. There’s all these interactions; you might not be super familiar with all the characters that are in the game, but because they’re always talking to each other and about what their state of mind is in the game you get an insight into their backstory without having to read a book.

Me: Right, even in-game it definitely gives the characters personality. Now Turbine has been at the front of online gaming since the very start, you guys have been doing this since dial-up.

Ryan: (Laughs) Yup! Asheron’s Call has been around since Ultimate Online and Everquest, those were the big three that started everything MMO, eventually that genre evolved into what it is today. We saw MOBAs gaining the same kind of traction and [when] we really got the chance to play a bunch of them ourselves we realised that was something else we were very passionate about and I think that’s why we’re here, we were excited to make this for ourselves.

Me: And that’s part of why Turbine is so exciting, you guys are at the forefront and it gives you opportunities to build on what you have already done and tweak it.

Ryan: We have a lot of experience in managing online games and keeping them running and pushing out updates and figuring how to take a game that you’ve launched and evolve it over time, and that’s something that we’re really excited about in this game. We’re getting to the point where it’s in open beta, we don’t have a long list of features that we really really want to add to the game. There are no features that are notably absent from the game. Now we’re just polishing it up, and then we’re into the world of live content, that’s what we’ve been really good at for a long time and we’re excited to get there. We are kind of already there with the champion releases that we do, they’ve been steady for a long time now every three weeks, we are about releasing three of them at a time, we have a backlog of about 20 that are in development in different stages so that’s starting to get going and then there’s going to be even more content available afterwards.

Me: That’s what’s interesting about designing an online game, there’s not really a point where it stops.

Ryan: No, it just keeps going and going; Asheron’s call is still going! We have thousands of people that are still playing that game and are die hard fans. We’re just getting started with this one and we plan on keeping it going for a very long time.

Infinite Crisis Screen

Me: Do you feel like some of the features in the matches themselves put a slight spin on the MOBA genre?

Ryan: The big thing that we’re pushing for in this game is aggression. If there’s one constant that we’re trying to steer everything towards, we want to build a MOBA where it’s okay and incentivised for you to go fight the other players. We’re making a game where Batman faces off against the Joker, and you can make that game and have it be about Batman fighting tiny robots for 15 minutes and then he finally decides to fight the Joker, or it can be that Batman’s there and the Joker’s there and they have a lot of reasons to actually fight each other right out of the game. You can see that with the currency drops we’re doing, as the tiny robots fight each other, if you don’t last hit them they just drop their coins to the ground. You have to walk over there to pick them up, when you walk over there the other team can either spend their time attacking robots or they can start attacking you, and if they do you’re probably going to attack them back. It’s all there to drive that point of tension between two or four people in your lane to fighting for the resources that are available to you. In addition to that in standard MOBA’s, you can only buy items at your base, for us we wanted to give people the opportunity to get stronger whilst playing without having to recall and then walk all the way back. You can actually buy artefacts, which are the items in our game, at your turrets themselves. That gives someone the incentive to potentially be lower on health but not go all the way back to base, actually to stay out there and try to get stronger while also running the risk of getting ganged by others.

Me: It can be a numbers game that’s for sure, if you’re on your own and there’s five people around you, you’re done.

Ryan: Oh yeah!

Me: It is great when you’re in that group though.

Ryan: Yeah, when your team shows up and you get a couple of kills and just push forward and seeing how far you can get. That’s part of the cadence of a MOBA too, and I feel like that’s why they’re so popular, because the game starts off slow and less is happening because everyone is distributed pretty evenly, and there will be those stand-offs where people are fighting against each other, and then all of a sudden it evolves into play between two or three people fighting for objectives. One thing that is specific to our latest map Gotham Divided, there are objectives out in the jungle between lanes, and if you kill these creatures they give out beacons that a member of your team can pick up. What happens is they get a new skill that they can use that drops that beacon pretty much anywhere in the map. You’ll be top lane, someone from your bottom lane can pick up a health pack and drop it that you can pick up, and that might be enough to can swing the battle in your favour. We want to make sure that as people are getting those objectives there is a lot of opportunity for skillful play, that you’ve got this thing that you can use in a variety of different ways. 

Me: Are there any plans to bring social features voice communication to Infinite Crisis?

Ryan: Voice definitely helps, we don’t have any plans to integrate voice at the moment. MOBA communities can be kind of all over the place with these kind of features. So we are hesitant to investigate voice, but it’s something that we’ve done in the past and we could see in the future. Turbine has a lot of experience in developing social features. I think something like a Guild would be great to add to a MOBA, just to give you a social identity right out of the gate, it also gives you a great way to meet other people that will be supportive of you, there’s a lot of comradery there and I think there’s a great opportunity for us to have that. At the same time too we have a whole range of audiences, there are a bunch of people whose friends might want to play the game or people who are curious about this new genre, and a Guild-type atmosphere you could have players to help new players. Perhaps even implementing a game mode with less stress for new players, something like that that would be great.

Me: I guess with this being a DC Comics game, there will be a lot of people who may be new to the genre but fans of the universe?

Ryan: We have a lot of people who have checked out the game but never played a MOBA before because they like Batman or Superman, and they want to play the game. We want to make sure those guys have a fun time too.

Me: One last question, if you could have any superpower from the DC Universe, what would you choose and why?

Ryan: (Laughs) I’ll take Aquaman’s ability to talk to sea-life! I’m curious, who knows what could happen!

Infinite Crisis goes is out now on Steam.

Grand Theft Auto V Review

Originally Published by MCM Buzz on the 28th September 2013

The Devil is in the Detail.

Helicopter Chase

Welcome to Los Santos, where being bad has never felt so good. In Grand Theft Auto V, developers Rockstar North have created nothing short of a masterpiece, an engrossing, exciting, dizzying tale of friendship, atrocity and insanity that succeeds not only in providing opportunities for high-octane mayhem, but produces a layered storyline packed with blockbuster action, humour and tension centred around our lovable band of criminal misfits.

The game follows three criminals at different stages in their lives, a retired thief who struck a shady deal with the Bureau, Michael; a young, ambitious car-booster Franklin; and the mentally unstable crystal meth distributor and “entrepreneur” extraordinaire Trevor. The story sees the three thrust together, Trevor and Michael after a long separation and a job that went south for the two, and Franklin as a new kid on the block, looking to shadow some more experienced (but not wiser) members of the Los Santos crime underbelly. In a town filled with corrupt government agents, private militia, drug kingpins and every criminal in-between, the three try to make it and take it in a world where no one can be trusted and everyone’s a threat. The scope of GTAV is beyond cinematic blockbuster, this game is massive, in every sense of the word.

Let’s start with the first thing you notice when the game begins, acting on your most twisted and violent impulses has never looked more incredible. Every area in the game, from house interiors and smaller details to the mountains of Blaine County, is gloriously detailed and perfectly done, the lighting in the game gives a cinematic feel that is really brought home by the pain-staking effort placed in developing realistic faces and very human expressions. From the start the player can see Michael’s frustration, Franklin’s cocksure swagger and quick flickers of insanity behind Trevor’s eyes. The cinematic mode that can be activated whilst in a vehicle really demonstrates what Rockstar were trying to achieve, and they have succeeded in spades. If you’re in the middle of an elaborate heist, driving through busy streets or taking your chop for a walk, the game takes hold and catapults the player into the devilish world of Grand Theft Auto.

Grand Theft Auto 5

Aside from the missions, in true GTA style there is no shortage of things to keep you occupied, with randomly activated events, optional side missions gained from people you meet and even hobbies to adopt, this game keeps you busy between heists and story events, not to mention all those spontaneous killing sprees. The vehicle list grows ever larger with cars, bikes, lorries, quad bikes, off-road vehicles, planes, helicopters, jet skis, speedboats, ribs, pushbikes and even submarines in the vast setting of Los Santos and Blaine County. The world itself is of course huge, but the buildings are all so immensely detailed that the city has a much bigger impact than any of the previous games. As if the game wasn’t big enough, there is an online mode that will be released in the near future set before the events of the story mode.

Michael, Franklin and Trevor

The characters themselves are a central part of what makes this game great. Each character is associated with a different kind of crime. Whether it is Michael’s has-been bank robber, Franklin’s aspiring car booster or Trevor’s meth-cooking, weapons-smuggling anarchist, one of the great triumphs of the game is that players begin to change their gaming style depending on who they are controlling. Trevor is one of the most perverse but also entertaining characters to ever appear in a videogame, yet he quickly becomes a guilty pleasure as the game continues. As well as having their own in-game abilities their stories all have decent themes, and the quick-change system that has you jumping between characters is yet another part of the game’s control system that keeps everything flowing and fast-paced.

The controls are sharp and intuitive, which is important in a game with such varied modes of gameplay. Whether it’s shooting, scuba diving, playing golf or tennis, running a triathlon, playing the stock market, stealing a helicopter or manning a submarine, the game manages to seamlessly switch to a control system that is perfect for that particular activity, although bring some deep heat for your thumbs on any of the running activities. These immersive, accessible controls help to give Grand Theft Auto V something special, a feeling that anything can be done in this game.

Heist

The heist system is something to be admired, taking RPG-style tactics selection and applying it to the usually unadulterated mayhem makes it all the more engaging. If Michael makes the wrong choice or hires the wrong guy, you are going to pay for it. The stakes are higher, and the fact that each choice has an impact on the mission really adds tension to every single job. The game also has a replay mission function that not only allows players to retry missions and gain gold classification on each, but allows you to choose the alternative heist options to experience your other options. Sometimes the smartest way to go is going to be focused on stealth, but you can go back and get your fill of explosions the second time round. This mode is available at any time (outside of a mission) in the game, and is accessible from the start.

Rockstar North have taken Grand Theft Auto to the next level, but the mammoth scale, incredible style and complex storytelling are not the reason for its success. The incredible thing about this game is that it takes every great aspect in the free roaming parts of its predecessors and implements them in the narrative, enabling the player to unleash hell upon the unknowing citizens of Los Santos whilst adding weight to your most maniacal exploits through a focused and engaging story. The variety of the gameplay, the incredible detailing and the charismatic characters from our protagonists to the people we simply love to hate all make this game what it is.Grand Theft Auto V is the last instalment in the franchise on the current-gen consoles, and it is perhaps the most explosive send-off in videogame history. Simply put, this game is a perfectly crafted, enormously addictive one-stop-shop to all things violent, devious, deliciously immoral and outright insane.

Grand Theft Auto V is available now for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, with an online mode launching on 1st October. 

Pokemon X and Pokemon Y Review

Originally Published for MCM Buzz on the 23rd of October 2013Official Xerneas Illustration

Pokémon is a rare franchise; few titles have had the steady, impossibly colossal impact on the role-playing, pop culture and entertainment industry that Game Freak’s flagship title has boasted for nearly ten years. The latest additions to the series, Pokémon X and Pokémon Y keep up the tradition, showcasing a completely engaging, engrossing and wonderfully charming experience. With a host of new features and some welcome changes in one of handheld gaming’s longest-running adventure series, the latest title builds on some of the most endearing adventure RPG’s to create something truly astonishing. Whether you are a super nerd when it comes to Pokémon or a complete newcomer to the games, this is an essential title for 3DS owners, and a reason for any Slowpokes without Nintendo’s handheld to buy one.

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The adventure begins once again for our ambitious would-be trainer in the Kalos region, a stylish and beautifully crafted 3D world that is overflowing with activities for aspiring trainers, breeders, collectors and even fashionistas as you set out on an adventure that will completely absorb players. Our budding trainer begins their tale in true Pokémon style; starting in a new town the ambitious young Pokéfan sets off on an adventure, makes some new friends, challenges the warped leader of baddies Team Flare and goes on to make history in the Pokémon League. The story is a familiar one, but as usual this does little harm to the experience, instead you are catapulted into a journey of discovery through a vibrant world with strange and wonderful creatures, and Pokémon X and Pokémon Y certainly is that. In saying this, however, there are some moments of real intrigue in this story; the tall old man is a beautiful and eerie addition to the plot, and X and Y is certainly one of the more action-packed Pokémon tales. That being said, the real merits still lie with building up and getting to know your team, catching new Pokémon and interacting with your friends.

As the first RPG Pokémon game for the next generation of handheld consoles it’s visually all fans ever hoped for. In Pokémon battles the sprites are animated and your Poképartner’s moves look incredible, whether it’s a Blastoise leaning in to shower an opponent with a hydro pump, or a Pikachu darting across the battlefield with its agility, each Pokémon’s attacks feel like they are coming from the creatures themselves as opposed to the forced movements of stiff sprites. For such a long running series with so much history, there really is something special about playing with your all-time favourite Pokémon as a three dimensional character. The towns are so impressive you might think twice before jetting off to the equally gorgeous mountains, caves and landscapes set out in between, the world creation is nothing short of marvellous.

Whilst the plot may stick to a tried and tested formula, there are many features that breathe new life into a previously rigid structure, the most obvious of these is Mega Evolution. In Pokémon X and Pokémon Y, certain Pokémon have the ability to mega-evolve into more powerful versions of themselves for a short time, changing form and turning the tide in a battle. The ability to mega-evolve gives both new and classic Pokémon the chance to become some of the strongest fighters in the game, as well as giving fans an interesting look at mega versions of favourites such as Charizard and Lucario. Charizard even has two mega-evolutions depending on the game version purchased. You can also customise your own clothes, add accessories and change your hair from a wide range of options, allowing gamers to express themselves through their character. On top of this, Sky and Horde battles have been introduced. Sky battles take place in mid-air and can only be carried out by Pokémon that can keep off the ground, and Horde battles take place when five weaker Pokémon attack the player all at once. Both are fun additions to the game that creatively vary the different ways for a trainer to battle. Another huge addition is Fairy Type, which provides an edge against Dragon types and challenges even the most experienced players to rethink type advantages.

A major difference in Pokémon X and Pokémon Y from previous titles is the larger number of characters you interact with throughout the game. Now your group of friends have their own interests in the world of Pokémon, and encourage you to explore different ways of playing. The characters seem more present in the story, and although most are not complicated people, it is no bad thing to have more than one companion on the journey ahead. One thing that the characters contribute to is the overall difficulty of the game. Many long time fans may be surprised at this, as it feels considerably easier at the start. There is no drawn out quest for Poké Balls, the first gym is quicker to beat, a friend offers healing in the forest and the story is regularly given direction through the supporting characters. The game itself feels more linear. For the old school fan, it needs getting used to, but after taking a step back these changes don’t always make the game less enjoyable, but gently remind you of the story whilst the player explores this new world. There are less new Pokémon too, with only 69 originals the game pays more attention to revisiting both classic and often under-appreciated Pokémon of previous generations. The result is an incredible balance, encountering both new and old favourites really highlights both the discovery of new friends and remembers old companions kindly.

One of the biggest draws that Pokémon has always possessed is the relationship between a gamer and their team, and Pokémon X and Pokémon Y are perhaps the best games in the entire series to show this. On top of the wonderfully created moving sprites and the perfectly balanced variety of old and new monsters, new featurePokémon Amie allows players to play with their Pokémon in a way they have never been able to before. The mode not only allows for a closer look at the stunning graphics, but is the perfect platform for strengthening a bond with a Pokémon in the game, as well as for the gamer themselves. The new feature also includes some mini-games that help to increase the happiness of your squad. The bond you have or how happy your Pokémon are has certain effects that make this a welcome addition for both serious trainers and affectionate adventurers.

Pokémon X and Pokémon Y has one other feature that really makes things easier for hardcore trainers and evens the playing field for newer or casual players, and that is Super Training. Like Pokémon Amie, Super Training takes the once difficult task of training specific stats for Pokémon, makes it more accessible and frankly, eliminates hours of fighting the same Pokémon over and over. Super Training introduces both active and passive features, where a player can increase a Pokémon’s particular stat by giving it the matching punching bag in the game, or play another mini-game in order to instantly boost a certain value. Though it may seem trivial, this is a real game changer, especially for online battles, allowing every player the chance to get the best out of their favourite Pokémon.

Another impressive development here is the significance of online play. With in-game access to the online features the process feels more fluid and with the improved wireless capabilities of the 3DS console the game can reach its full potential as both a global and local experience. For players who have missed a few generations, the online mode will be staggeringly impressive, as Pokémon X and Pokémon Y build on the improvements of each version making a vibrant community full of life and shared enthusiasm. Online exclusive Pokémon events such as the recent Torchic giveaway are also much easier to access, and players can battle and trade in dozens of ways almost instantly with few restrictions and against both friends and other players from across the world.

As the first central Pokémon games in their generation and dimension, Pokémon X and Pokémon Y had a lot to live up to, and largely they soar past expectations. Whilst keeping many of the greatest features in the previous games, Pokémon X and Pokémon Y take some important steps for the development of Pokémon games as a whole, and demonstrate incredible promise for the future. With a vibrant world to explore, memorable new Pokémon and positive enhancements in almost every aspect of the Pokémon title, the games’ greatest achievement has to be pushing new features whilst keeping the feeling of friendship, nostalgia and discovery, earning its rightful place in Pokémon’s own Hall of Fame.

Pokémon X and Pokémon Y are available now worldwide for Nintendo 3DS.

Interviewing Cyanide and Happiness Co-Creator Rob Denbleyker

Originally Published for MCM Buzz on the 26th of October 2013

It was early on the first day of MCM London Comic Con when crowds began to filter through the doors in a flurry of excitement, and we managed to catch Rob Denbleyker in his natural habitat, at the Cyanide & Happiness booth. As one of the terrifically twisted cartoonists for the wildly funny web comic, we were grateful that he jumped in between sketches for a quick chat.

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Me: So how did you get involved in Cyanide & Happiness, was it all planned out or did it just seem to happen?

Rob: There was no plan whatsoever, my friends and I all met online doing animations together and we decided that, after a while, comics were a lot easier to make. So we figured we could get more ideas out there if we started doing comics together instead of animations. So we started doing this daily comic in 2005 just for fun, just entertaining each other and about 200 people that were reading it. Over time that 200 became 2,000, 20,000 and it started growing until the point where Cyanide & Happiness just became our full time jobs in 2007. So we’ve been trying to stay at it as long as we can, because at this point we figure we can’t be hired. Our job prospects are kind of done (laughs).

Me: I think this would be alright on a CV.

Rob: I couldn’t see myself sending faxes.

Me: Is there anything that you have posted and thought “Should we have said that”?

Rob: We try to be funny before we’re offensive. If it is offensive so be it, but we never try to be offensive for the sake of antagonism. It’s kind of a side-effect because we have very few barriers, but most of the stuff that I do I’m proud of; I don’t put stuff up unless I am.

Me: Is this your first time at MCM London Comic Con?

Rob: I came here last year, and it was so crazy that I had to come back again.

Me: Is there anything you’re looking forward to, do you get a chance to leave and look around?

Rob: A little bit. Last year I met some of the Eddsworld guys, so I try to have drinks with them at least once when I’m here, but I always have a good time here and I always make new friends, especially in the comics community. It’s a really fun trip.

Me: It’s an amazing atmosphere here.

Rob: It’s great, it’s really casual. Especially after the show’s over and you can just wander round and get to know people, and strike up conversations with people whose work you admire.

Me: If you had to choose any of the Cyanide & Happiness members (Kris, Matt and Dave) to…

Rob: Murder?

Me: (laughs) Well I was going to say snog, marry or kill!

Rob: I would kill them all, marry myself and f*** the consequences.

Me: Good answer! Thanks, you’ve been great.

Rob: Thanks.

Rob can be found all weekend at the Cyanide & Happiness stall at MCM London Comic Con until the 27th of October, and for rib-tickling comic strips, video shorts and more be sure to visit explosm.net

Batman: Arkham Origins Review

Originally Published for MCM Buzz on the 31st of October 2013

The Batman: Arkham series has set the precedent for stylish, engaging comic book games for almost five years. Warner Bros. Games Montréal’s first original crack at the series (after porting Batman: Arkham City to the Wii U) is a strong addition in the same vein as the others, whilst also exploring the rich and often unexplored tale of Batman’s development past the origin story and before the height of the Dark Knight’s powers. The game sees Gotham’s caped crusader around two years into his career, a more inexperienced vigilante getting to grips with one of the world’s most dangerous cities as he encounters lifelong friends and mortal enemies. On Christmas Eve, Black Mask puts a bounty on the head of the Batman that attracts eight of DC Comics’ most dangerous assassins. This night has a huge part in shaping our hero Bruce Wayne as a crime-fighter, and what a tale it has to tell.

It is crystal clear from the very beginning that Batman: Arkham Origins is ruthlessly faithful to the previous games. It is the first game to be set in Gotham city in its entirety, and yet it just feels like an expansion of Arkham City. This reveals two things about our masked hero’s latest outing; either it is playing it safe and lacking in any groundbreaking creative input, or the game is seeing a new studio successfully coming to terms with Arkham lore. Warned Bros. Games Montreal have successfully recreated the look and feel of an already expansive game world, but when a new studio makes a prequel for an existing series, some may be focusing more on how the game has moved on from its predecessors.

The gameplay itself is almost identical to that of Batman: Arkham City, with a few additional gadgets taken from your defeated assassins. The strange part about this is that the player is provided with stronger weapons, particularly electric shock gloves, that make the most difficult crowd control situation a walk in Gotham city park. One thing that could have been really incredible to see was Batman learning to use his gadgets, and how he coped without them, or at least how he coped if the prototypes didn’t work. The combat system is the same albeit for some new enemies, as is the detective vision system, although entering a crime scene mode has made some significant changes. Here the world’s greatest detective can flex his thinking muscles as the player uses evidence around the area to reconstruct the crime scene and produce a video interpretation of what happened. It is not used much in the game, but it adds to the cinematic feel of Arkham Origins and really absorbs the gamer into the investigations.

One way in which Arkham Origins builds on its predecessor brilliantly is the storyline, everything from the cutscenes, characters and core gameplay feels like being thrust back in to the wonderfully dark world created by Rocksteady Studios. In fact the game does develop the universe immensely when it comes to the addition of this engaging, rich and fulfilling plot as you refine Gotham’s protector. Where Batman is more inexperienced, when he faces up against his lifelong adversaries it is all the more nail-biting as he struggles to fight heavyweights like Bane or understand the Joker.

The game follows the footsteps of the previous entries to create a wholly immersive experience. The supporting characters themselves are grandly fleshed out, adding even more depth to the lore of the Arkham series. There is something deeply interesting about the way the game explores Batman’s relationships with his future allies, including a young Captain James Gordon. The best example of this, however, is found in Alfred Pennyworth. In seeing an Alfred who doesn’t understand Bruce’s cape and cowl, their dynamic in this game feels much less stable than in his later career. His questioning of Bruce’s methods placed at odds against their bond that came out of so much grief is beautifully handled, and makes for some of the best moments in the game.

The Joker has always been central to the Arkham series, and in this prequel it is no different. Whilst all Joker origin tales should be taken with a pinch of salt, as you never can trust the blighter, the beginnings of Arkham lore’s Joker are told from the psychiatrists chair, which give a brilliant and interactive beginning to Batman’s anarchic arch-nemesis. The Joker’s origin brings in elements of the tale told in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, but the plot itself (even when drawing from other incarnations) creates a specific lore for the Arkhamverse, one that goes deep into each character’s backstory and shows the layer that defines them.

Batman’s world is filled with iconic characters, and with the departure of both Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill’s voice talents many were left unnerved. Troy Baker (The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite) does a sterling job of bringing back the devilishly delightful villain to Arkham Origins, keeping the same vibrant energy and (literally) razor sharp humour. On the other side of the field, Roger Craig-Smith (Resident Evil, Assassins Creed II) brings the required raw emotionality that is absent in the later, more experienced Dark Knight. Both actors manage to keep in sync with their previous incarnation, and yet still bring something new to Arkham Origins, which is no easy task.

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Another significant gameplay difference is the boss battles. Early in his career, the enemies Batman faces are a mix of classic villains and new faces from the comics, including Deathstroke and a now female Copperhead. For each boss the player has to implement new tactics in order to overcome their adversary depending on their own abilities. The game combines these brief flashes of new gameplay modes with quick, beautiful cutscenes, again adding to the cinematic feel of the game, but taking you out of the fight and slowing down the pace for the player. In many cases the last moments of the fight are not actually played by the gamer. Whilst the effects are stunning, it is slightly dissatisfying to work through the boss only to have your moment of triumph snatched away by some dazzling footage. This, however, is only a bad point because it takes away from some of the best gameplay moments that are present.

The largest new feature in Arkham Origins is the online mode (which for Xbox 360 is inconveniently on another non-downloadable disc), and sees Bane and the Joker’s gangs face off against the other, all whilst being picked off by Batman and Robin. The idea itself is promising, and whilst it is gleefully amusing and surprisingly challenging to take down your friends as a hero, when playing as a thug the combat system seems less polished and the gameplay clunky. There are rank systems in place that allow for players to become more advanced, which gives you a better chance against the dynamic duo, but with few players online at the moment the teams are often unbalanced. With only four maps available at launch, the multiplayer could do with some more variety in an update soon, otherwise this game mode with some serious potential will grow stale quickly.

Taking the game as a whole, there are some real gems in Arkham Origins, with a whirlwind story that shapes Gotham’s finest and perfectly portrayed characters, as well as a wealth of side quests and little secrets, especially features like the Joker’s Christmas song and a Dark Knight Returns-esque news commentary played during the credits. The game gives fans of the series a solid foundation for the Arkham universe. Batman: Arkam Originsmay not push the envelope when it comes to innovation, or change much when it comes to gameplay features from the previous games, but it has to be said that it has not lost any of the exceptional features either. With a stunning plot to follow for hardcore batfans or casual admirers the game succeeds in giving what is one of the best comic book game franchises a different origin story that is not often told and hours of action, detective work and stealthy skirmishes that will have any Gothamite left breathless.

Batman: Arkham Origins is available now for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.

Gravity Review

Originally published by MCM Buzz on the 7th of November 2013Gravity1

Gravity begins in the way every film should, with a list of simple facts about space. Most of this information is already common knowledge, but if you don’t work for NASA and are not a physicist, these things are never dwelled on for too long. The brainchild of director and co-writer, Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), alongside his son Jonas, this dazzling shuttle ride starts as it means to go on, emphasising the very real and rarely explored fact that space is an abyss of deadly silence. The last fact about the final frontier reads “Life in space is impossible”, and this wonderfully dizzying, brilliantly executed, unfathomably beautiful film truly puts that to the test.

The story sees innovative medical engineer and first-time astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) sent out to install her device to the Hubble Space Telescope, under the command of easy-going space veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). After the destruction of a satellite orbiting Earth causes debris to scatter and pick up pace, shooting around the planet with rapidly increasing speed and ferocity, their shuttle is destroyed and the two are left in the staggeringly stunning void, fighting to survive in the dark.

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From the very first sequence, Gravity asserts itself as a major player in the world of film with one of the most dazzling, disorienting and rousing scenes in cinema, certainly in the last few years. In one gloriously extended shot Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki introduce the characters, perfectly capture their personalities and demonstrate an entirely new method of technical filmmaking all while showing just how intoxicatingly beautiful space itself can be. Even when the setting becomes the deadliest place on the planet it is never in question that this deadly force is simply breathtaking, from the beginning Cuarón creates a sense of awe that just doesn’t go away. Danger really has never been so astonishingly gorgeous.

The pace picks up immensely along with the shuttle debris, and because of the inconceivably fluid direction, convincing performances and state of the art special effects, it’s impossible not to be swept away with it. The action is so fast and well executed that Gravity really does pull you in. There is something of a balance in the action sequences, with the intense speed at which everything is shooting across the screen you only find your feet when the camera does, which creates this terribly exciting feeling of being hurled into space and laid at the mercy of the film. After a barrage of entertaining stasis, silent dread and lightning fast action this film is powerfully and brilliantly unpredictable when it comes to pacing. In the scenes where shrapnel is on the horizon, even in the zero gravity conditions, you could hear a pin drop. In fact the film as a whole is continuously surprising and refreshing in an industry becoming ever-crammed with remakes, sequels and re-imaginings. Here it is inspiring to simply see an imagining.

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The back and forth between Clooney and Bullock is nothing short of sublime. The amiable, free-spirited Kowalski is perfectly matched for the sceptical, wounded Dr. Stone and it is truly interesting to see their very different reactions to the hopelessness threatening to engulf them. As the two bounce off each other both verbally and, at times, literally, their dynamic makes for a complex and touching relationship in the nothingness of space. The film is as much about the two characters interactions as it is about the disaster surrounding them. Clooney has his charm levels set to maximum as he captivates the audience and manages to be a strong and guiding force before the first sequence has even finished. Bullock is expertly cast and succeeds in portraying the troubled engineer’s vulnerability, but is also versatile enough to handle the impossibly broad spectrum of emotion explored in this terrifying, enthralling and often sensitive journey.

The soundtrack is powerfully understated, really bringing to the fore the contrast that is constant in the film between silent beauty and subtle emotion, and with it an eerie and malevolent darkness when disaster strikes. The sound itself is an integral part of the film for the very same reason, there is no sound in space, and so when it is present it has a staggering impact that feels so heightened. Everything about this film feels right and remains in keeping with the rest of its parts, it would not be a stretch to say that Gravity exhibits a masterclass in tone. But even without the acting, the direction or the effects, Gravity succeeds first as a film about life, and not simply on a physical level. The film sees Dr. Stone undergo a life-changing transformation that focuses on the value of a life, and why it is a very part of human nature to fight for our lives even when hope is entirely lost, creating a film that is both rare and immensely moving.

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The Big Kowalski

Gravity is visually stunning and wonderfully written with a layered plot, likeable characters and technically revolutionary camera work and visual effects. One thing that has to be noted is that whilst being all these things it remains to be a completely engaging thrill ride that has never been done before in quite the same way. From the initial idea to the cutting room Gravity succeeds in releasing a breath of fresh air into the vastness of space. If you are a seasoned space-veteran or a rookie astronaut, this film has something for you; it captures a glimpse of humanity where there is none, and how it gets there is one hell of a story.

All images are courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

World War Z Review

Originally Published for MCM Buzz on the 23rd of June 2013.

Marc Forster’s World War Z, loosely based on Max Brook’s zombie novel of the same name, follows ex-UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) through the events of a deadly worldwide epidemic. Lane fights to protect his family and uncover the secrets behind the undead pandemic that is tearing civilisation apart, but does this summer zombie blockbuster leave you on the edge of your seat or at the end of your wits?

World War Z (26)The film starts off sprinting, as do the zombies, and once the scene is set and the characters are briefly introduced things take a turn for the worst. You wont find any of Romero’s zombies here as the ravenous creatures hurl themselves at the crowd, even running and jumping with superhuman speed. Another radical change for Forster’s living dead is their motivation, instead of the usual desire to eat your brain or rip out entrails these zombies seem to just have a bite, and when their victim is bitten they move on.

There are a few moments where the frenzied infected will cause brief jumps in the audience, the zombies look the part and the teeth clicking is a great unnerving touch, but ultimately the tension is hindered by the toned-down gore and PG-13 action. In the place of nail biting suspense there are huge action sequences involving swarms of zombies, here the infecting becomes more a global game of tag than a gritty fight for survival. Even a scene where Lane has to save a soldier’s life by cutting off the source of her infection, it seems more of an inconvenience than a serious threat to her survival.

Although World War Z begins in Philadelphia, it quickly moves across the globe to various locations from South Korea to Israel as Lane single-handedly begins to prevent the extinction of the human race. Not only do the wide variety of locations allow for impressive set pieces to take place and some large-scale CGI to be used, but the sets also nod to the sheer attention to detail supplied by Brooks about the different methods of survival each nation would employ. These grand scenes are certainly exciting as zombies begin to form masses of flesh-eating waves beating against cities, but the film can’t seem to find the balance and shifts erratically between small skirmishes in hospitals and apartments to scenes that take place through entire cities, often moving on before the effects of the zombie plague in that area can be fully seen or appreciated.

World War Z (13)There seems to be a nod to the zombie films of old with a concluding skirmish in a quiet and closed off environment, but it seems out of place in this large scale blockbuster. This global scale tale of a plague spreading across the world is definitely entertaining, and the plot itself is not lacking, but it seems that the film itself had not found its footing before it was released.World War Z sets out to thrill audiences in the broadest sense possible; it may be lacking a focus on the arguably essential horror element of a zombie movie, but as a global thriller about one man stopping a deadly virus it’s a fast paced and engaging film with plenty of action and sharp visuals to top it off.

Interviewing Pixwoo Founder Pascal Vielhescaze

Originally Published By MCM Buzz on the 6th of June 2013

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“I’ve designed the website that I wanted to use, and sometimes life is simple.”

Gamers are passionate about what they do, from those who just can’t put down that pesky mobile game to those with hundreds of hours clocked shooting zombies, fighting evil, jumping platforms and unlocking secrets. Pixwoo, the social media site for gamers, is dedicated to helping videogame enthusiasts share their pixelated achievements. With major publishers such as Ubisoft, Namco Bandai and Capcom already signed on to the service with professional accounts, Pixwoo creates a hub for gamers everywhere that displays news, views and constant active discussions on your favourite games all in one place.

In a room filled with consoles from the last 20 years and a monster television, I caught up with the CEO and brain behind the rapidly expanding gaming community, French entrepreneur Pascal Vielhescaze. He took us through the site before we asked him a few questions. Pascal demonstrated the functionality of the site, and began to pitch his vision for a global gaming community.

Pascal Vielhescaze: When it comes to videogames you want to share immediately if you’re taking a picture of your Candy Crush achievement or spot something on the screen in the last Tomb Raider, you want to share it. We designed the app making sure that people can very quickly share, post, comment, and I can see the difference because now I can see people posting 20 times more on the apps than on the website, because it’s so easy, you don’t have your computer by your side every time. Most of the usage is there, and what I like with the feed for example is once you start to dig a little bit on Pixwoo you start to have some friends, you start to have some groups, you’re fully aware of some pros, you’re a fan of some game pages and then suddenly your feed is filled with a bunch of information that really reflects who you are as a gamer. It turns your experience into something unique. Pixwoo is unique, your feed is unique; you wouldn’t get such a feed of information anywhere else, I designed it for that purpose.

Me: Pixwoo has an interesting feature, with five slots given to describe your preferred style and genre. Can you tell us about Pixwoo DNA on the site?

Pixwoo ProfilePascal: I want people on Pixwoo to feel comfortable to express themselves as a gamer, and as a gamer when you express yourself you have this DNA. Once selected everybody knows I’m not a pro, I’m not a journalist, I’m a power gamer, I play RPG’s, strategies and hack-and -slashers. This is a way I can express myself, and you don’t express yourself that way on Facebook or anywhere else. If I’m saying I have these consoles I’m not saying it to show off, I just want to say this is what I’m interested in.

Me: You’ve got a very good balance. One problem that a site like Facebook suffers is that you have a lot of content that you don’t necessarily want to see, with Pixwoo you’re saying that it’s catered to your interests as a gamer.

Pascal: On your feed if you’re a member of a group you will get a post on your feed. It’s a way of making sure your feed is not too crowded and you don’t get posts from people you don’t necessarily know, but you do get posts from your friends and the groups you follow. I do not consider that we are competing with Facebook, that would be ridiculous. Firstly because they are so huge and we are very small, and secondly, we’re having Facebook in mind because there is some stuff that we don’t want to reproduce. I know that on Facebook there are some things you won’t share what you will on Pixwoo, firstly because 90% of your friends may not be interested in that and secondly because you won’t dig that deeply on something like Animal Crossing there. But the spirit of it really is to make sure that people feel comfortable and we want to make sure that there is no limitation on Pixwoo when it comes to videogames. Whatever it is about the videogame culture you like you can share it. I’ve designed the website that I wanted to use, and sometimes life is simple.

Me: Yeah absolutely, and you’ve had great success with the app in France. It was recently top of the app store.

Pascal: Yeah, but that’s a beginning, it was our launch. It was a good move, it provides me with some face and some confidence in the fact there is something. We never reached that amount of users with the website but we never really launched the website because we were facing technical issues. I think I’m going to consider the website more as something you’re using as a back office, so you will manage quickly your page, but mainly it will be for heavy users that want to manage it in a marketing way or a professional way.

Me: Microsoft and Sony have put a lot of effort into getting apps up and running on consoles, is that something Pixwoo would be interested in doing in the future?

Pascal: You can even ask Samsung now as they have integrated TVs. I’m not sure Microsoft and Sony would be interested because they’re considering Xbox Live or Playstation Network as a social media service, which is not the case if you’re asking myself. No I didn’t consider that, what I considered is to get the trophies so people can integrate that on their profile, but I’m not sure it’s that interesting, it’s a way to show off on Pixwoo, but I don’t really care about that. I’m more interested in the fact that if somebody is playing Candy Crush you can directly post on Pixwoo, I would like to achieve that. I went to San Francisco in March and I met a lot people from the mobile gaming industry, and some might be interested. I think we simply need to achieve an amount of credibility based on the number of members. The more members we get, the more the industry will be focused on Pixwoo and the more developers we will register and manage their page. I don’t have the secret recipe for that, I’m trying everything so we’ve got to see.

Me: Obviously you’re very passionate about games, and you used to be a game developer in the eighties. Can you tell us about that?

Pascal: I developed an adventure game on Apple II when I was 18. At that time you had the ability to develop a game almost alone; I was with a friend. I developed Scoop on Apple II and Invitation on Amstrad CPC, it’s an RPG. Both are names that work in French and English.

Me: It’s certainly the same area of interest, but what led you from designing games to social media?

Pascal: My professional activity after being a student was developing videogames just for pleasure. I sold them so that’s good and we were quite successful at that time, we were published by a huge publisher in France. Then I developed some marketing skills and I worked with these advertising groups and then I created my own company called Spiderdreams, it’s a digital agency mixed with consulting and suddenly the idea came. I know about videogames, I know about digital and social networking, let’s create the website I want to use. There was nothing and there still is nothing I would say that you can compare to Pixwoo, so the idea was to say I want to design something I’d be happy to use. I want Pixwoo to be on the tablet, not just as an adaptation of the iPhone app on iPad. I really want to develop something for the tablet, and if we want to implement ourselves everywhere we will need additional funding. We have already invested quite a lot I have to say, I won’t give figures but, yes, so this is where it comes from. I’ve also always been interested in technology and marketing so little by little I started to consider that I would love to be a member of a social network dedicated to videogames. I’m not going to be like Groucho Marx and say, “I would never become a member of any club that will have me as a member.” I’m the opposite, I’m really happy to be a member of Pixwoo.

Me: The best way to get results when it comes to a passion is to be involved in it directly.

Pascal: I absolutely 100% agree with you on that, I could have said that.

Me: It’s great to see you are not going down the same route as other social media sites but are more focused, arguably that makes for a better community.

Pascal: I also think it’s a market move. I think the market will move to more dedicated networks. I think eventually everybody will be on Facebook because it’s like the Internet, but it’s gonna be your life, but when it comes to more specific fields of interest I’m not sure Facebook can deliver because it’s the exact opposite of being universal. The more people are on Facebook the less able it is to become focused on a dedicated feed or activity. I think the market will move to that. I also considered that with videogames for example you are developing features specifically for them, you don’t develop achievements for books or films, so there’s a need for dedicated features too. I think the market will move in that way because it sounds logical.

Me: What’s next for Pixwoo?

Pascal: Next I want to make sure that our mobile app is fully functional, that you can only use the app if you don’t want to use the website. We are thinking of more dedicated features that will make it more seductive and exciting.I would prefer to be small in 20 countries than be big in one country, because videogame culture has no borders. I want to prove indeed it is a global website and the best way to do that is have resources to communicate with some countries and there are so many different approaches. My partner is helping me to realise we need a presence everywhere in the world, even if we are not successful or huge, little by little all of these people will start to connect themselves. First people watch, then they navigate through groups, then they start to post and then they start to invite somebody. There’s a lot to do, and it takes time.

Me: One last question, you’re a big fan of gaming, what games are you playing right now.

Pascal: I’ve just started playing the new Tomb Raider. I am playing Ni no Kuni, from Studio Ghibli, it’s really good, really in the spirit of Miyazaki. I’m playing Small World, a board game adaptation, I think iPad are really good for board game adaptations, and I’m playing Animal Crossing on the 3DS. I didn’t finish Final Fantasy XIII-2, so now I keep going back and playing it ten hours at a time. So, yeah!

Me: This has been fantastic, thank you.

Pascal: Thank you.

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