Banshee (Season Four)

This review contains mild, early episode spoilers for Banshee season four.

Thus far when reviewing Banshee, I’ve talked a lot about the show’s pacing. For all its bombast, it’s a very smartly constructed show, always advancing stories and informing you about the characters and their dynamics. With season four, the show crescendos wonderfully as it sunsets its various pulpy heroes and anti-heroes; but not without a brief stumbling block along the way.

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Banshee (Season Three)

This review contains spoilers for Banshee season one and two. There are mild spoilers for season three.

In my review of the first season of Banshee, I talked about how its gung-ho violence and titillation were satisfying in a shallow way, but there was undoubtedly heart and (some) brains beneath it all. With season two, I felt they really amped up the emotional stakes without compromising the show’s visceral nature; delivering a more thoroughly engaging season of TV. With season three, the show’s status as a cult classic became crystal clear, with a breathless, twisting, wrenching collection of ten episodes that showcased all its best elements, with scant few complaints.

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Banshee (Season One)

Here’s a brief synopsis of Banshee season one.

The fuckin’ coolest guy in the world is released from jail, where was locked up for 15 years for being too much of a badass. He briefly stops shagging every woman he looks at to track down the love of his life, another ex-con who has taken on a new identity to hide from their former mob boss patriarch; a scary stoic Russian with a cool nickname. When sombrely drinking whiskey at a bar, like a cool guy does, our hero bodies some troublemakers – but a soon-to-be-appointed sheriff is killed in the crossfire. Because he’s an antihero, the most badass of character alignments, our protagonist steals the sheriff’s identity in an attempt to cover his own tracks from the afformentioned big bad Russian.

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Making A Murderer (Season 2)

This review contains major spoilers.

There’s a scene in episode nine of this newest season of Making A Muderer, where Barbara Tadych (mother of Brendan Dassey) calls Steven Avery. Tadych unleashes an angry tirade at Avery, whose new attorney has just pointed the finger at her husband, Scott, as a possible suspect in the murder of Teresa Halbach — the murder for which Avery is currently incarcerated. Scott is also heard in the background swearing, screaming, and professing that he always hated Avery. It’s a very jarring scene, where the show’s primary functions come to a head; the pursuit of the truth, and to offer a compelling, bingeworthy drama with a few twists for Average Joe, before he moves onto the next thing. People played Armchair Detective after season one, with some theories implicating Scott and stepson Bobby Dassey, so seeing the theory somewhat vindicated was undoubtedly thrilling; but at the expense of Barb’ Tadych, the long-suffering mother whose human interest story has been a source of levity in the show.

Making A Murderer’s second season is a different beast to its first; an evolution of the core idea. These might typically be read as compliments, but honestly, I’m not so sure.

The true crime mega-hit has tried to come of age somewhat; taking in criticism with the best of intensions, and barfing up something of a response. Where they were lampooned for showing no real compassion for the murder of Halbach, they’ve kinda sorta tried to illustrate how beloved she was by her peers. Where they were knocked, rightly, for leaving out compelling evidence against Avery, they’ve kinda sorta outlined how it’s not valid. Where they were called one-sided… well, they paid lipservice to some of the awful things that happened as a result of their sensationalism. Ken Kratz is undoubtedly a skin-crawling presence on both seasons of the show, but a sub-10 second clip of him saying his family have recieved death and rape threats isn’t exactly doing justice to the mess that’s been made of this story in the last three years.

That’s very much a microcosm of the season as a whole; feeble attempts at broadening their horizons, making something of a haims of it, but still managing to make me think more broadly about this case, and the true crime genre itself. This is far from the first show to milk a tragedy for its creator’s gain and for punters’ amusement. It’s far from the first one I’ve watched this year. But for whatever reason this one felt the need to try and rationalize it’s place in the world.

There’s an extended sequence early in the season dedicated to speaking with what few friends or peers of Halbach are willing to meet the filmmakers. It’s sincere enough, and tastefully done, but rings somewhat hollow when you know her family still disavow the show, and are viewed as villains by some of the audience as a result. If anything it makes the show almost feel seedier, more disingenuous; continuing to make a media circus of this woman’s death, but acting like ‘hey, we really care though.’

Later in the season, the aforementioned pantomime villain Ken Kratz is on a media tour to promote his book, and he speaks to reporters from CRIMECON(!) — a Comic-Con-esque venture for true crime fans, which honestly made me question the very nature of fandom itself in 2018.

Central to the show’s mix of stone-faced seriousness and hollywood twists and turns is Kathleen Zellner; Avery’s previously mentioned attorney. She’s prolific and respected in her field, notable for getting dozens of convictions overturned in her career. She’s also something of a showman; leading the charge for Avery’s freedom with rallycries on twitter that almost read as blurbs for episodes of the very Netflix show she now stars in. New evidence! New suspects! A man robbed of his life! All this and more, tonight! She couldn’t be more perfect for this show; a talented legal mind who seems very aware of the fanfare surrounding the case and loves every second of it.

For a season so bogged down by its own place in pop culture, it also remains thoroughly poignant in places. As you might expect, the legal trials and tribulations are much slower in this season compared to the last, so things are padded out with more interviews with the Avery and Dassey clans. Steven’s ageing parents are easy to root for, struggling to keep their families together and merely hoping to see their son free again before they pass on. It might sound like a brutal summation of things, but that’s explicitly stated by everyone involved. Likewise the turmoil suffered by the Tadych/Dassey family, as Brendan comes SO close to freedom, is an upsetting reminder of the human cost of this story, outside of prison walls.

Making A Murderer season two is a compelling mess. For some reason it feels determined to draw your eye to the dehumanising mess it’s made of this story, stroking its chin about what it all means. Every slick montage of Wisconsin scenery set to their ominous score feels more like a work of fiction than any kind of documentary. But the story at its core is so hard to tear yourself away from. The term guilty pleasure should really be taken back from lowbrow comedy and the like, and be applied here. It might be award-winning, prestige TV, but I’ve never felt quite so conflicted during a TV show as I did during this.

Danger Zone (2017, PS4)

In an era of remakes, remasters, sequels and spiritual successors, there’s never been a better time to peruse your gaming catalogue and wonder which ageing franchise deserves a return. After playing Danger Zone, I am confident that we need a new Burnout game in the coming years. Unfortunately, I am also confident that Danger Zone simply will not scratch that itch.

Danger Zone serves as a standalone version of the ‘Crash Mode’ feature in the later Burnout games. You drive into traffic and try to cause as much damage as possible. As the pile-up grows higher, so does your score. Eventually you can detonate an explosion and use in-air controls to steer the wreckage into yet more cars.

In theory, DZ has all the necessary parts to make this work. Some former Burnout devs are on board. There are cars. There are busy intersections. There are explosions. There are no drivers, thank god, so you can enjoy all this unadulterated violence without feeling awkward.

But to say these are the only parts you need to recreate the magic of Burnout is to sell the franchise very short indeed. In hindsight, Crash Mode was a fun diversion from what Burnout was really about; racing. It was a clever way to give players a new objective other than racing from A to B, and it also let them maximise the explosions-per-second ratio. It was a wonderful compliment to the whole experience, which was ultimately still about driving fast and ramming other racers off the road – not Average Joe commuting to work.

When the controller is in your hand, Danger Zone feels like Burnout. Purely in terms of second-to-second gameplay, it’s a reasonable approximation. But unlike any Burnout game I ever played, I found my attention waning after 30 minutes. Very quickly, a routine is established in how you get an ideal score on each map; you need to bounce from one ‘smashbreaker’ collectible to another, each offering an additional explosion and bounce. The extra bounce lets you hit more cars and grab more cash bonuses – and the smashbreakers are usually positioned in such way that there is a perfect line through each level. This is similar to the classic Burnout levels, which were often structured in such a way that you had to try and navigate your twisted wreck into as many new lanes of traffic as possible, to ensure the highest level of collateral.

But, again, these were fresh objectives sprinkled in between more traditional races, and thus the formula wasn’t exposed as quickly.

It isn’t just the variety of Burnout that is stripped away, however. DZ has a bafflingly dry presentation, utterly soul-less and quiet. It feels like a proof of concept whipped together to impress investors and secure funding for an actual game. Literally every level takes place in a sterile warehouse environment, with no music, and no vehicle selection options. You drive a white sedan into traffic, to silence, and if you fall off the track, you’re told the ‘simulation’ is terminated – I guess suggesting this is some kind of fake warehouse – a somehow less exciting venue than a regular warehouse.

While the mid-2000s pop-rock of the PS2 games isn’t exactly hip any more, DZ opting to not include music of any variety is simply confusing. The title has a humble price tag, so maybe major-label music rights were a no-go, but anything would have been better than this.

The same can be said for location variety and some unlockable car models. At a budget price, this didn’t need to be Grand Theft Auto proportions — but it needed to be more than this. The graphics are dated, with completely unremarkable destruction modeling and physics, so at a certain point you have to ask what exactly did they spend money on?

The price is an interesting sting in the tale for this game. As you can tell; I didn’t really like it. But it does play ok. There are fleeting moments of Burnout nostalgia. Some levels, especially in the third tier, are actually kind of creative. They use the ‘simulation’ narrative to do away with real life constraints and have some fun with the level design. At just over a tenner (EU), with about 80 minutes of gameplay, there are worse investments. If you are absolutely starved for Burnout-esque content and looking for something cheap – it’s a tentative recommendation. Just don’t expect to be satiated for long. In some ways, Danger Zone has only worsened my pining for the legendary racing series to rise from the ashes (and glass, and rubber, and steel).

Horizon: Zero Dawn (PS4, 2017)

As the story of Horizon began to show its hand, about 40 or so hours into my time with it, I was excited to see it through to its conclusion. The bizarre dystopian world was starting to unravel, and I was very close to learning how it all came to be. With that in mind, I started to focus entirely on the game’s main quest – foregoing side activities and miscellaneous sight-seeing.

When I did this though, it didn’t​ sit right with me. In my own head, I wasn’t playing the game properly. In the dozens of hours that had come before this, I enjoyed Horizon as a real ‘stop and smell the (robot) flowers’ game. A game of exploration as much as a game of action. A game where I relished talking to villagers who were selling their wares at the local market, just as much as I did the large-scale dinosaur battles.

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Horizon is so much more than the sum of its parts. On paper, it’s an open world action game with crafting, RPG elements, and a post-apocalyptic setting – you know, every triple-A video game ever. But with its wonderfully well-developed protagonist, jaw-dropping visuals, and a very unique twist on the ‘after society has fallen’ setting, it manages to elevate itself above other games with those very over-done descriptors.

If the world of Horizon was confusing to you when it was first revealed (a Native American-inspired society of tribes, juxtaposed with robot dinosaurs? And it’s set on Earth just a few hundred years in the future? What?) then, like me, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the story of the main campaign. The world of Horizon is more than just a backdrop for our protagonist’s arc – how it came to be is a major plot point. You’ll spend as much time learning about what happened to society as you will about what drives the tale’s heroine; Aloy. It serves as great motivation​ – a legitimate sense of discovery driving you forward.

The gameplay is similarly compelling; offering solid stealth and combat mechanics that develop over time. The second half of the game introduces foes five times the size of the first half, and gives you more tools to experiment with when taking them down. Tripwires, ropecasters, proximity mines, freezebombs, electric arrows – the list goes on. The arsenal is robust enough to allow you to play as you please, but there are strategic bonuses to using certain items in certain fights. Aloy’s ‘focus,’ a plot-device MacGuffin that gives her ‘video game protagonist analysis vision,’ highlights the various parts of each dinobot, with suggestions on how best tackle them. In some instances, mounted weaponry from the machines can be blasted off and used against their former owner; it’s wonderfully satisfying. Some gear is locked behind side quests meaning the aforementioned deviations from the main campaign are often worth it. You’ll meet a colourful cast of warriors, get some new toys, and accrue XP to unlock new abilities in the game’s simple skill tree.

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The nuance and variety in the robot battles is juxtaposed by the idiocy of fighting human enemies. Foes of the homosapien variety have uninspired AI patterns, and even fail to live up to them on occasion. Whether they’re snipers, brutes or beefy sub-bosses, most rival tribesman just charge at Aloy mindlessly, often getting hung up on level geometry or immediately losing interest the second you disappear around a corner. It feels antiquated and lacking in polish – which are not terms I’d use to describe the other 90% of Horizon. Goons fumbling their way through scenery aside; Horizon wows at almost every turn. The game is an almost never-ending series of vistas, with ‘god-rays’ poking through the clouds every morning and a giant pale moon at night. Almost every location is sprinkled with airborne snowflakes, flower petals or ash, which along with the swaying brush and trees makes the environment feel alive. The elegant orchestral score, along with Aloy’s charming monologues about the scenery or weather, mean the game is beautiful to listen to; a ‘podcast game’ this is not. With a robust ‘photo mode’ at your disposal, it feels like developers Guerilla were well aware this was a world worth poking around endlessly.

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Horizon: Zero Dawn is a beautiful and satisfying game. It establishes a fascinating premise and actually sticks the landing in the final act; a rarity in video games. The gameplay is open-ended and varied, with the silly human enemies and repetitive side quests not tarnishing the thrill of the game’s core missions. While Horizon works magnificently as a stand-alone title, this is certainly a world I’d happily revisit in years to come.

Injustice: Gods Among Us ‘Ultimate Edition’ (PS4, 2013)

With the release of Injustice 2 looming, I thought now would be as good a time as any to finally play the first game’s single-player story mode.

I’ve had a soft spot for Injustice ever since it first came out. I like NetherRealm‘s current output, with the engine they debuted with 2011’s Mortal Kombat reboot being easy for fighting game novices like me to get to grips with, and Injustice throwing some silly gimmicks into the mix to boot. Industry pros weren’t fans of the interactive environments, but I thought they were a nice addition, befitting the game’s superhero theme – and the core fighting system was still satisfying and deep.

Me and my pals have sunk countless hours into the game’s multiplayer, but I had never made time for the story mode until now.

The five-ish hour yarn is a fun, dimension hopping superhero romp that didn’t quite hit as hard as the studio’s Mortal Kombat stories, but was still leaps and bounds ahead of most of its genre contemporaries. It does have an evil Superman as the antagonist however, so at least that’s something fresh as far as recent blockbuster movie/TV offerings go.

The mode sees you switching to a new character every four or five fights, meaning you’ll have the basic tactics for half the roster down by the time you finish. The frequent swaps mean the story is rarely dull and no one outstays their welcome. There aren’t many twists and turns outside of the opening cinematic, but it’s a decently put together story considering the number of characters involved.

It’s worth noting that I played the ULTIMATE EDITION(!) which is a PS4 remaster of the PS3/X360 original. It is unfortunately far from perfect, as cutscenes are rife with slow down and video artefacting, and in general the game looks very blurry and rough around the edges. Thankfully, the in-game action runs beautifully, with responsive controls, detailed, destructible environments, and characters that come with a bevy of additional costumes.

Despite its many gimmicks, Injustice: Gods Among Us is still a rock solid fighting game with tonnes of single player game options and huge amounts of multiplayer value. Playing it as a primer for the sequel has me excited for what next week holds.

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (PS4, 2017)

The closing hours of Resident Evil 7 make for one of the most disheartening final acts in any game I’ve played recently. It meant that my lasting impression before I sat down to write this review was pretty negative. But, looking back on the experience as a whole, this was still a satisfying reboot of the Resident Evil series – one that showed it still has potential to tell a mostly compelling story. Moreover; the gameplay was arguably the best it’s ever been, delivering a tight survival horror experience that melded old and new genre philosophies.

Venturing into the realm of first person horror, which has massively come into vogue since Resident Evil 6, RE7 takes a number of cues from its genre peers. The gorgeously rendered, meticulously detailed household hallways feel akin to P.T. The emphasis on running and hiding in some sections is reminiscent of Outlast and Amnesia.

However, most importantly, this game’s biggest influence is its own history. Gameplay involves intensive inventory management, lots of scares as you duck and weave through tight corridors, picking your battles wisely due to tough ammo restrictions, and simple yet rewarding puzzles. It’s the classic Resident Evil formula, with the insane plot reigned back and all the modern bells, whistles and quality of life improvements you’d expect from a big release in 2017.

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Me and the lads played through Resident Evil 7 in full. Watch here: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLftMG3gVCguWXY5bMdi5s3VtfHnESp_Te

The plot is set in the same universe as all previous RE games, but largely unrelated bar some late game teases and nods. Wandering around a creepy mansion (see? Classic Resident Evil!), protagonist Ethan must find his girlfriend, rescue her from the monstrous Baker family, and escape in one piece. It’s refreshingly small-scale and focused – especially early on. No grander conspiracy, no world-endagering evil – it’s a claustrophobic horror with elements of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Saw, The Blair Witch Project and other horror staples.

Where it goes off the rails is the aforementioned final act. Things get, well, a little too Resident Evil-y for me. While certain elements of RE’s past are welcomed back, some aren’t. The creepy, small-scale plot is sacrificed for goofy boss battles and set pieces that feel like the exact type of thing the first half of the game was successfully getting away from. The plot peaks far too soon, limping across the finish line with a needless final hour and boss battles that wouldn’t be out of place in a forgotten PS2 era spinoff in this long running series.

Setbacks aside, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is still a reassuring return to form for the series. The locations are beautifully realized in their disgusting details, the gameplay is tight and satisfying, and the plot at least has signs of getting away from the series’ bloated past, even if it lazily falls back on tired tropes on the home stretch. Resident Evil 7 is a must own for survival horror fans, and one of the most enjoyable games of 2017 so far.

Mafia 3 (PS4, 2016)

Here’s a video review I produced last year.

It was a format I was toying around with a lot in 2016, and hope to revisit in the future. I enjoy editing but it is a tiring process, especially on a budget — you might be able to tell this isn’t made with elite level tech or software.

Regardless, I like how it came out and hope to get back to video reviews soon.