The 40th Anniversary of Ridley Scotts cinematic masterpiece.

HARRY DEAN STANTON IAN HOLM JOHN HURT VERONICA CARTWRIGHT TOM SKERRITT SIGOURNEY WEAVER YAPHET KOTTO ALIEN (1979)
(Copyright: Alamy Stock Photo)

Its just a classic really isn’t it? Regularly appearing in the top 50 films ever made, Alien, directed by Ridley Scott, burst out of its egg for the first time in the Summer of 1979. On a personal level this is nicely paradoxical for me, since it was also a point in time when I was gestating in my  mothers womb. Twas an unplanned pregnancy I’m told…… but I think its amazing what a few bottles of cider and a cosy night indoors, listening to a Leonard Cohen record can bestow.

Since I’m therefore also 40 years old myself this year, I thought it was only fitting to briefly divert away from video games to one of my favourite films. Like most people my age, I only came to know of this films  existence through its spectacular sequel Aliens, which I watched when it was first aired on British TV in 1990 after begging my Dad to stay up and watch it one Saturday night. I kept it on a Scotch VHS tape  and it was always my favourite of the series for many years but as I’ve grown older, Ridley Scotts original 1979 movie has since grown on me a lot more.

Throughout my own 40 years here on Earth I’ve often heard people say how wonderful it would be to travel back in time and visit the 1970s. This is usually in reference to their favourite music such a Abba or Led Zepplin or sometimes with reference to their favourite football team, yearning to watch them again ‘back in the day’ at a time when going to the match only cost a few shillings and players never dived or faked injuries. I tend to nod my head in agreement but only for different reason, which is my love for films and indeed the 1970s produced some of the best. Furthermore, the whole decade was utilised by the film industry as a stepping stone towards the mass production of what we now refer to as the ‘Blockbuster.’

Cinema had changed drastically in 1970s. Its often mentioned that cinema reflects the prevailing attitudes and underlying emotions of a given society. In the 1970s, America was rife with social upheaval and cynicism, since it was struggling to come to terms with Vietnam and the Watergate scandal (to name only two)  Here, in the UK, I’m told that we were enduring with perpetual discontent due to economic malaise.

Cinema became the greater escape for Western people and throughout the 1970s, the art of film making appeared to react by becoming subversive. It became less bourgeois, more adventurous and less conservative. After the success of Easy Rider in 1969, the Hollywood film studios opened their arms out for fresh ideas and new directors. Some of the new directors were young working class colleague graduates fresh out of film schools scouting for their first jobs. They were fearless and had a natural desire to produce movies that weren’t afraid to portray a more gritty and darker projection of society. They had no qualms about making films about modern crime syndicates, vigilantes or serial killers. There was a longing for actors to star as characters who were underdogs or anti-heroes. The studios also became more bolder and daring with their budgets, allowing directors to explore terrors deep underwater or beyond the stratosphere. Whether it was grimy B-movies or Blockbusters there were no longer any boundaries drawn. On the one hand of the spectrum was the underground birth of mainstream pornography and the other, a rebirth of satanic horror and Sci-Fi. Throughout the decade, these gestations, whether moral or immoral, proliferated to become immensely profitable for the studios and loved by audiences worldwide, for the simple fact that they offered a few hours escape from reality. As per usual what the audience wants the audience gets and during the second half  of the decade, Hollywood responded by producing films that would become bigger and better. The only problem for the studios were the production costs, since these were also beyond the stratosphere. It became common place for Hollywood to produce some movies here, in England, in order to reduce such costs.

One perfect example would be Alien.

 

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Almost all of the sets in the movie including the Nostromo and the unknown planet was built entirely in Shepperton Studios England. This includes the most expensive set of the film which was the “Space Jockey.” Scott divided the production of the movie into two groups; the first was a team solely involved with the ‘human’ element of the story such as the ship and its crew and secondly, a team solely involved with producing any aspects related to the ships “8th Passenger” , be it the planet , the Space Jockey, the egg , Facehugger etc….The latter team was captained by the Austrian conceptual artist H.R Giger, whose dark, macabre and visceral imagination had caught the eye of Scott. The adult alien creature was the first to be designed and yet its not until the end of the film where we actually see its whole body albeit a few seconds. Throughout most of the film we only see parts of the creature, mainly its telescopic mouth and fangs. Indeed this motion picture was virtually Dracula or Jaws but set in space. The original title for the film was ‘Star Beast’ but was later changed to Alien as it was a more elusive title which didn’t advertise or pre warn the audience about what behaviour the creature would display.

Earlier that year, the entire story of Alien was sketched out on paper by Ridley Scott personally in a long series of story boarded illustrations. He completed it in a space of 3 weeks and presented it to 20th Century Fox. The script for the film had actually been presented to them a few years before but was overlooked and forgotten about. (That was until the global success of Star Wars and then all studios went space mad). The original budget for the film was 4.2 million USD but 20th Century Fox were so impressed by the scenes conveyed in the sketched storyboards, they doubled the budget to around 10 million.  The story boards had assisted Scott to demonstrate the full scale and effects of what could be achieved. Furthermore they allowed the studios bosses to realise how simple and straight to the point the movie was intended to be. (Scott has since joked that he truly demonstrated the value of a pencil when making Alien)

Hence one of the greatest aspects of Alien is its streamlined simplicity embedded within its own originality. There isn’t much thought required by the viewer; the audience is left to simply react throughout. The opening soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith reels in the audience during the brief opening credits with a gentle but eerie instrumental score which is quickly overpowered and subdued by an unnerving sound that we can only presume to be the the cold harsh vacuous nothingness of space. It serves to provide a subtle pre warning of any forthcoming hostility the movie may reveal.

Scott then takes his camera and slowly introduces us to the spaceship ,  the Nostromo, via a whistle stop tour of its dormant, submarine like claustrophobic interior. We’re informed via a simple synopsis that the ship is a commercial towing vessel and its crew of seven are returning to Earth with a refinery of twenty million tons of mineral ore, which nicely explains why the whole thing looks like an industrious floating version of Sheffield. The interior of the ship appears to be a real inhabited place of work and rest, almost as if its the cab of a giant articulated lorry. The ship doesn’t have the smoothness, cleanliness or officialdom of those ships seen in Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey. From the get go the audience is subconsciously told; “this is a real ship worked by and frequented by real people.” The film really begins when the crew are awoken from cryogenic sleep as a result of a Mayday distress signal received from an unknown origin on a non-colonised planet.

The alien egg in the film was also utilised for what has now become one of the most recognised movie posters worldwide and was clever way of both reeling in curiosity and hiding the creature from the audience until they watched the film. The egg used in the movie was actually made from fibre glass to allow for its contents to be seen. There was no CGI back then…..everything had to be physically crafted and a lot of spontaneous creativity was always welcomed. In the film,the excited embryo we see fluttering in the egg was actually Ridley Scotts hands in oven gloves flapping in water. The fleshy lining of the eggs interior was actually cows intestines delivered into the studio from a local butcher.

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The goal in this film was for everything to look real as opposed to fiction. The greatest trick any film director can pull over the audience is making the unbelievable appear to be believable. Stephen King once said that fiction is actually the truth inside a lie, which I think this helps explain the films success. The visions bought to life in the film were astounding for its time and the out worldly environments displayed all looked alive, as a living yet hostile ecosystem. Whether it was the respiratory gas being ejected from the tops of the spacesuits, the moisture oozing from the insides of the derelict spacecraft or the condensed water dripping from the hangar of the Nostromo, the science behind the fiction was perfected before the scares even began. Its no surprise that the final product won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

All that was required as a final ingredient was a flawless cast who could produce some great natural method acting performances. The calm but directive Captain Dallas played by Tom Skerritt contrasted smoothly with the ships cold and clinical Science Officer called Ash. His character was written in the stars for Ian Holm and its impossible to think of who else could have played the part. The character of Ash provided an unexpected twist in the movie which added an alternative source of distress to the ships already distressed crew. It makes a good excuse for a second viewing just to see if there were any missed giveaway signs that he was a “product” of the Company, in league with Mother. His departure from the story will of course be the most memorable, giving the term “Milky Way” a totally new meaning.

The ships 2nd Officer, Kane, is the first character we’re introduced to, as he awakes and sits there in his meditative state, giving us time to become accustomed to him. John Hurts  performance as Kane was effortlessly astounding. What’s more remarkable was the fact that he was only bought in to play the part after filming had already began. The original actor was taken very ill on the first day shooting started. Scott then found himself going to a hotel meeting with Hurt that night to cast him as an urgent replacement and the next morning he was on set. His participation in the film will  be mostly remembered for his body motions and grimaces during the ‘last supper’, which quite literally became one of the most gut wrenching scenes in cinema history. Upon the films release in May 1979, people in America were walking out of the cinema. During filming, none of the film cast knew what was going to happen in that scene either – They were told something would happen but not what exactly. They were kept in the dark for around 5 hours whilst the film crew and gory makeup artists rigged John Hurts body with the ships dormant stowaway. The reaction of actress Veronica Cartwright, who played the ships navigator Lambert, was the icing on the cake, not just in that scene but throughout the movie. She didn’t have the conventional look of your usual Hollywood actress, but rather that of a worn out check out clerk in Sainsburys. She appeared quirky, emotionally drained and helpless. All of this of course made her character more successful since she appeared more normal and believable. Scott utilised the character of Lambert as a conduit between the audience and the camera. His clever film direction therefore manipulated the audience to react to scenes in the same manner as she did. Whenever Lambert portrayed feelings of helplessness, fear and vulnerability, so did we.

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Other members of the cast which helped make the crew look believable was the tag team duo of Parker and Brett, played by Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton respectively. They did a great job of representing the blue collar aspect of the crew. We’re made aware at a very early stage of the film that they’re at the bottom of the hierarchy in terms of seniority and the senior crew members are constantly subjected to their claims of being overworked and unfair pay. Parker is the muscles of the two whereas Brett more so the subtle brains. The pair are managed and overseen by Warrant Officer Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver.

Alien was Sigourney Weavers first ever movie. What’s ironically interesting is that although she played a senior character higher up in the crews hierarchy of command, when the camera stopped rolling she was still regarded as the newbie actress with little experience. In the real world there was a real hierarchy amongst the cast, based on their on screen acting experience which bought about a certain degree of scepticism of whether or not Weaver was actually good enough in certain scenes. Regardless of this, Scott persevered, as he was certain the role was for her and I think its safe to say the casting team had a eye for talent. Not only did she nail it but 9 years later, Weaver would go on to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Gorillas in the Mist. Both the roles of Ripley and Lambert had originally been written as male characters but were changed prior to production as it would of course been more realistic to add female crew members. Its hard to imagine what the film would have looked like without the two actresses. In fact I believe it wouldn’t have been half as successful. The fact that the main protagonist was a female actually gave this film a breath of fresh air inside, what has always seemed, an alpha male controlled industry.

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But what about the horror and our friend, the alien? I mentioned earlier that we don’t actually see that much of the ships 8th passenger. We believe we do, but we actually don’t. This was indeed done deliberately. The film was edited in a way to make us become more fearful of what we don’t see or can’t see, rather than what we do see. With the exception of Kane who dies at the Last Supper, we don’t really see the unpleasant deaths of the other crew members in great detail. Even when Ripley discovers Parker and Lambert massacred, we don’t really see them. Instead we see the fear and repulsion on Ripleys face and we’re left to guess what the alien did to them, as she fights back her tears as she sprints towards the self destruct chamber. We’re left to imagine with our own devices what their gruesome fates were and nothing is more scary than our own imaginations. Quite often our own anxieties are comprised of what could happen as opposed to what is happening, which is why quite often in life our own worst enemy is the enemy within ourselves. Maybe that’s what the Alien symbolizes for us all? A dormant manifestation of our  fears and anxieties which will hatch open when we attempt to push ourselves towards ambitious goals perhaps, which always presides with our inner conflicts with self doubt?

The scenes of tension and mystery throughout this film are second to none. The crews walk around the space jockey genuinely appeared alien and we were left guessing as to what the hell it actually was. Kanes slow descent down the egg nest in unison with Jerry Goldsmiths score is quite simply unearthly . Before we have time to take it all in we then see Kane walking through the elusive mist and peering down into the egg. Bretts hunt for Jones the cat (here kitty) is also a scene of great tension as the audience already senses his fate after being split up from the group. Its only through the fearful eyes of the cat that our guess is confirmed. The air duct hunt also demonstrated great directing. We see the crews plan to flush out the alien fail when Dallas panics and all we can see is the serpentine blob on the motion tracker get closer and closer. As one by one each crew member is picked of we pen ultimately see Sigourney Weavers career as a newbie movie actress proliferate in front our very eyes. She steers Ripley into that of a natural leader who becomes more direct and dominant over the other remaining crew members.

Sure, over 40 years the movie has dated a little. The green computer screens in the Nostromo look very reminiscent of the old BBC Micro computer monitors used in British schools across the UK in the mid 1980s. I’m also certain that smoking cigarettes in a spacecraft would be prohibited. Any communication made between Mother and Earth would now be made by video link rather than a green text message. The explosion at the end of the movie would be done much better now thanks to CGI  but regardless of the movies age its without a doubt that Alien has and always will be regarded as a classic. Scott has always commented that the film was really a B-Movie but made well. He stuck to the plan of his storyboards and wasn’t afraid to ruthlessly edit large scenes from the movie.  A directors cut of the film was released around 15 years ago and it was very clear why some scenes were removed. The one scene in particular was when Ripley discovers the Alien nest with Dallas and Brett glued to the wall. It interrupted the frantic pace of the films climax and removed the ‘edge of your seat’ feel with regards to the self destruct countdown. It also contradicts any logic behind the deaths of Lambert and Parker. Why would the alien have killed them but not Dallas or Brett? It needs more live specimens to guarantee more chance of its species survival after all.

The legacy Alien has created has inspired not only a franchise of itself but many other non related titles which I won’t go into. I enjoyed Prometheus and the questions it attempted to answer surrounding the genesis of the Alien but I felt that the film had no soul and subsequently I had no connection or care for the well being of its dull characters. (I can only remember the name of one character and its David the android)

The franchise has also produced many video games, most of which were inspired by the sequel Aliens along with Predator. Most of them haven’t exactly been great. The best games in my opinion were the ones based on Alien 3, whether it be the 2 dimensional platform style home release in the mid 1990s or the 3D arcade shooter entitled Alien 3: The Gun, which was an Operation Wolf style shooter set in the prison of Fiorina 161. Like most arcade games it was deliberately difficult, designed so that folks have to keep pumping in more money to avoid the feeling of disappointment or feeling like a loser when the ‘Continue’ countdown screen appeared for all impatient spectators waiting behind you to see.

In 2014 we finally saw the the release of Alien Isolation which put the player in the shoes of Ripleys daughter Amanda, who, like her mother has become a flight officer. She is trying to find answers regarding the missing Nostromo and crew. The whole game takes place on a torn apart space station  filled to the brim with desperate humans and rampant androids. Amandas mission is to navigate her way through the station without causing too much noise, to prevent detection from the Alien. This survival horror game was orchestrated to inflict a high level of fear and tension so its best avoided if you’re not a fan of games that induce scares or anxiety. You can pick it up along with all its DLC releases all for around a tenner now in the UK and although its slow and repetitive, its worth a play through if you’re a fan of the original movie. One of the DLC chapters actually allows you to step in the shoes of Ripley in the Nostromo. There’s also the option to toggle the presentation of the whole game so that it has the old 1970s grainy movie look and since its in first person view its almost like being in the film!Furthermore, if there’s one game screaming to be released in VR then Alien Isolation is a sure contender.

Well, that’s a wrap from me. Evidently I could talk about films and games all day long and before you know it , the Days Gone. (See what I did there)? If you’ve been living on a another planet for 40 years and haven’t seen Alien yet, you may want to add this to your to see list.

Thanks for the entertainment Mr Scott and Happy 40th Alien!

An English Centrist, signing off…………

May 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resident Evil 2 – The 2019 Remake of the 1998 Gaming Classic

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(Warning: This blog post doesn’t contain scenes of explicit violence and gore…..but it may contain spoilers)

It was the Summer of 1998……and  I had it all planned out. I was 18 years old and I’d recently finished my A Levels so I  was rejoicing in the fact that I no longer had to trek across the Black Country each day to attend a stuffy Sixth Form College in Stourbridge. My Part Time job in a sports shop in the Merryhill Centre suddenly became a Full Time one, which meant I had loads of money all of a sudden. My friends and I had a holiday booked on a Mediterranean island. This, along with England winning the 1998 World Cup in France meant that everything was going to consist of bright lights, bright sights and true delights. As I was soon to discover, not everything we hope for in life comes to fruition. The holiday went ahead as planned but no, England didn’t win the World Cup.

I stood there, motionless like a zombie in my local pub at the end of the England vs Argentina game and I felt my bottom jaw start to tremble as David Batty missed our last penalty. The eyes of all the grown men around me wearing flags and war paint began to permeate. An enclosed room of alpha male sweat and tears was about to come tumbling down. Bright thoughts became encapsulated in a void of darkness that not even the females in the pub could console. They wandered off in their usual feline groups to the toilets with their all too familiar “its only a game babe” eyes and revealed their hidden relief that yes, another World Cup was over. As they did, the children of St George slammed down their pints of Stella in anger. Someone was to blame for this World Cup defeat and in perfect unison, every bar room jury across England came to a unanimous verdict; it was quite simply David Beckhams fault.

I’ve often wondered since what life would have been like for Beckham if social media had been around then. Life was different back in 1998. This thing called the internet was still considered alien and a bit of a hassle. And we all had new technological house bricks wedged in our pockets called mobile phones. DVD was unheard of and Playstations needed memory cards in order to save games. The idea of Wi-Fi and tablets would have been scoffed at.

I slumbered through the fire exit door to take my mind off Englands loss. A shot glass of fresh air hit me and I gained a moment of clarity that provided sustenance for my memory. As I watched the contents of my local pub disperse, my sadness turned to smiles as I remembered my latest purchase from HMV earlier that day. 1998 had been a great year for video games. There was Tenchu and Metal Gear Solid to name two, but tucked away in a fresh plastic bag beside my Playstation at home was a copy of another one that had been on my must play list for months. It was a game that would become regarded as one of the best sequels in video game history and would plant an even bigger seed for future dark gruesome horror games. And now in 2019 I’m experiencing the dark enjoyment all over again. I mentioned last month that January is dull and lack lustre but thanks to a recent game release, January 2019 became even darker. A survival horror remake of that same memorable game from Capcom I played throughout the Summer of 1998………Resident Evil 2.

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In all honesty I don’t usually get excited about remakes. They’re usually just money spinners and there’s a sense of revisiting well-trodden ground. It also breeds a trail of thought that there could be a lack of new fresh ideas, especially when we’re dealing with a remake of a sequel. On the flip side we also need to remember that video game sequels shouldn’t be held in the same regard as Hollywood movie sequels. Quite often in the world of films, sequels aren’t usually as good as the original but in video games, its usually the opposite; sequels usually are significantly better than the original, for many reasons. Nevertheless, when it was first announced that Capcom were remaking Resident Evil 2, I had a smile on my face wider than a Cheshire Cat that had just “done the deed” with the sexiest tomcat on the block. Resident Evil 2, for many people, was not just one of the best games of its generation but it was a very important one for the genre that it represents. It re affirmed a desire worldwide for more survival horror games. I dare say that it was so good that people who weren’t gamers suddenly became gamers. Fans of horror movies for example. More adults would be going out and buying consoles, not for their kids but for themselves. There was a huge market for adult games and this sequel tapped into this niche and gave birth to not only a bona fide classic but also a highly successful franchise that’s spawned further successful sequels.

There was always something about the second game that struck a chord with fans though wasn’t there? It came with two discs for the choice of two characters, who were both new along with the environment, Racoon City. The fact that this took place in a city would have resonated instantly with most fans, since most gamers back then (and still are) working class people who live in urban towns and cities. This was a game that was no longer taking place in a mansion on some mountain retreat like its predecessor but in the places where we live and frequent such as the streets and the shops. We were thrown into a maze of abandoned vehicles, streets full of former humans from various professions staggering towards us upon sight, some with arms or legs missing, with their vocal chords slowly vibrating, mouths open ready to feed upon fresh meat.

Indeed, as a movie fan, this was one of the games I’d been waiting for my whole life. Survival horror had transferred itself from the B movies found on video rental shop shelves into the visions projected on TV from our consoles. As gamers we could now be in control of one of the main protagonists in one of the darkest nights in video game history. George A Romeros Dawn of the Dead may aswell have been placed in the same hands that now held our joypads. Its no surprise that fans had been crying out for Capcom to remake this for many years. What would it look like now, in a modern graphics engine?

For those of you who have never ever played the original, Resident Evil 2 is the story of new rookie police officer Leon S. Kennedy who is reporting in on his first day on the job, only to discover the whole city has been infected with some kind of ‘epidemic’ for want of a better word. He bumps into an out of towner called Claire Redfield who is in town looking for her brother Chris from the first game. The game takes us on a journey to not only escape the city but to find out what caused this unleashed bio hazard. The pair get split up at the start of the game and we follow their separate stories through (and under) the zombie infested city.

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The decision to use a police officer as one of the main characters was a clever choice by Capcom. This gave them the perfect excuse to use a police station as the main setting of the game……. but why would that be important? Why not a hospital or a fire station? Or a college? What is it about the setting of a police station that made this game more memorable? What’s the significance? Well firstly, it wasn’t an ordinary police station. It had the guise of an official Government building with its double doors and long dark and almost gothic labyrinthian corridors. We discover in the recent remake, it’s a former museum that had recently been converted into a police station which nicely explains the old statues and the clocktower…………but secondly and more importantly, the sight of a torn apart police station instantly projects a sense of loss and desperation. A police station of any typical US town would be the last bastion of hope and sanctuary for any community in society……but there we are, as the player, exploring with a sense of trepidation,  the desolated defeat of Racoon City’s first line of armed defence. The discovery of mortally wounded armed police officers promotes an intrinsic sense of no hope or any chance of survival. A sense of futile hopelessness and dread without any sense of sanctuary. A sense of isolation begging one question, “is help on the way?”

One of the greatest changes made to this game is the fact that any sense of safety has been greatly reduced and you always find yourself two steps away from being cornered. Whilst its easier now to navigate and walk around due to the loss of tank style controls, this is offset by the fact that the walking dead now have the ability to follow you into the next room. In the original game you always felt a sense of the outside world being shut out but this time around it’s a different. The zombies outside constantly remind you that they’re there and if the window isn’t boarded up they will climb through. They all have unique faces and features, different injuries and swaggers. If there’s a desk in the room between you, they won’t walk around, they will crawl over it towards you. They will mindlessly hoist themselves over stair banisters and fall down stair wells. Sometimes more than one will attack you simultaneously, taking off twice your health. They will trip over one other and their heads will sway from side to side making headshots more difficult to execute. But that’s the catch…..

Unlike other games, this remake is not quite as rewarding for those who make the effort with their accuracy. Most players will have a primordial instinct to go for the headshots in order to put a zombie out of commission but this time round you will have less luck. You can sometimes empty a whole clip of bullets into their head but they will still get back up a carry on coming at you. This gives the player a sense of helplessness and forces them to change their game. (I love the fact that Claire and Leon now spout out expletives and swear their heads off when this happens). The use of stealth becomes more important along with a change of tactics. It doesn’t take long for the penny to drop for most players…….I can’t help but echo the words of Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. “Go for the legs, its our only chance of stopping them”

That’s right, it’s safer to take out their ability to walk and then if you can, finish them off with your knife. The secondary weapons in this game are vital for survival and I include the flash grenades there. The flash grenades are sometimes ignored by players since they inflict no damage but don’t be fooled. They not only blind zombies but also the mutated boss fight who are ruthless. So ruthless in fact that the player is forced to save any bullets for them rather than use them on the zombies. The irony here is that the first boss fight can be defeated by only using a few knives with out firing a single shot.

Another huge difference with the remake is that the station is darker. It’s very easy to miss things in the corner of your eye whilst playing this remake since most of the players’ journey through the station requires use of a flashlight. For the remake (and maybe the original) I can’t help but guess that someone at Capcom must have visited US Police stations and had a guided tour through some of them to assist them with the conceptual art during preproduction. It kind of reminded me of the set used in John Carpenters Assault on Precinct 13. The attention to detail is a sharp as the teeth of the zombies. The reception desks, vending machines, the armoury, the back office white boards with case notes scribbled on them, the press room, the dog kennels for the canine unit….. I could go on. There are even spare sets of handcuffs lined up against the walls of one of the corridors. There’s the feeling of a sudden unscheduled abandonment during a normal hectic working day life and all that we’re left with is scribbled clues and gore ridden aftermath of the stations last stand. Its inhabitants now transformed and replaced with the walking ….and lying dead. We see the last remnants of the stations last attempts to barricade survivors of Umbrellas plague, be it chairs wedged under door handles or electrical components deliberately removed to jam shutters down. A futile struggle against a new unexpected and horrific enemy.  Look carefully and you will see bullet holes in the walls and long claw marks along doors. During the heat of battle it’s even easy to miss the more blatant objects. During my first play through I completely missed the “Welcome Leon” banners hanging from the ceiling in his new departments’ office. One thing I did cotton onto however was the old style fat backed computer monitors.  Although this was a 2019 remake, Capcom had chosen to keep the setting of the game in 1998 along with other elements of the original such Marvin, Ada Wong, Sherry, Chief Irons, the medallions and of course……. a valve handle. We can’t have a Resident Evil game without the appearance of a valve handle now can we? Oh, one thing I didn’t miss was the way that Leon and Claire rest the flashlight on their shoulders whilst reloading their weapons. That’s kind of cool.

The real star of the show in this remake is Mr X. He creates an unwanted tension in an already confined and claustrophobic setting. Whilst running away from him you can sometimes lose your bearings and stumble into a dead-end or  into a group of zombies. The new up dated music has a respiratory feel to it whenever he appears. The style and speed of this music becomes synchronized with your increased anxiety as it appears to mimic his breathing as he ruthlessly pushes zombies aside in order to pummel you to death. In fact one could argue that the deliberate menacing design of the game reaches its climax where Mr X chases the player once the Lickers have also emerged in the game. The  Lickers are blind and only react to sound. This forces you to stop running and try to walk around them…..but with the heavy footsteps of Mr X getting closer and closer behind you, what do you do? Once more, new tactics are called for and it delivers a totally new sense of survival horror never felt before.

The boss music along with the Mr X music is unfortunately the only good music in the game. All other instrumental music in the game is nothing to shout to the rafters about. This was done deliberately I feel, since Capcom gives the player the option to switch from the new music to the music used in the original 1998 version. (at a small cost) Does it work though? Can old music still work in a modern remake? Hell yes….. like nails in a coffin. The lobby music, the Stars Office theme and oh of course, the Save Room music. That’s right, after all these years, the original music is still effective. Another simple reminder of how great the original game was.

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The sewer section of the game can be as quick or lengthy as you like depending upon how slick your inventory skills are. You can sometimes find yourself over encumbered with items and have to travel backwards and forwards to the save boxes. It’s a little tedious but that’s part of the challenge of the game. It’s vital therefore to collect the hipbags to increase your capacity. I must confess here however that I preferred Claires playthroughs since it gave the player more engagement with the streets, back alleys and parking lots which is something I believe this game could have done with more of. I thought that the orphanage section of the game was downright unnerving and creepy rather than dark and gory. This was a different kind of evil that meddled with corporate corruption fused with human abductions. And a human doll? What’s that all about? In Leons play though there was also the emotive cut scene with the gun shop owner and his daughter which is a back story that could be explored further. I would have liked to have seen more usage of the city streets and back alleyways and shops but instead we’re down in the dreary sewers and then doing a U turn back up to the station again.

The game utilises the new RE Engine and the graphics are state of the art with outstanding sound effects. It’s a carefully thought out and mostly flawless game. Whilst I would agree that this is one of the best remakes ever made, there were still a few bugbears. Resident Evil games have not been great with scripts over the years and I would have thought that this would have been a perfect opportunity to refresh its script and dialogue throughout the game. There were cheesy one liners which could have been discarded perhaps and maybe it would have been better to have seen more scenes and gameplay where Leon and Claire meet and fight cooperatively side by side. It’s almost as if the two characters forget about each other until the end .Then again the same can be said for the original and I guess Capcom wanted to stick to those roots. There were times where I thought Claires emotions and dialogue was out of synch with what was going on in the game. She would sometimes be all teeth and smiles rather than radiate any sense of fear. I thought that Ada Wongs costume design also made little practical sense. Why would she be wearing an evening dress and stiletto heels on a mission? The sunglasses didn’t work for me either. How would she be able to see in the dark? I also felt her segment in the game was a little boring.

Whilst I thought the Lickers in the remake were a vast improvement I can’t say the same for the dogs. They offered little challenge and at times their motion and animation was terrible. There were a few bugs with their AI too I felt. Often I would see some of them running against walls on the spot. I’m not a fan of the recently released DLC either. It doesn’t really add more to the story of the game. Its kind of like an added Arcade mode that’s just been thrown in there but maybe I shouldn’t moan, since it was free after all. I thought the alligator scene was a waste of time and just like the original I’m not a huge fan of the sewer section. By this point in the game the zombies have become less ubiquitous so we’re introduced to underwater mutations known as ‘G’ or at least that what I think they’re called. They look like unimaginative blobs with one eye but at least we didn’t get tarantulas.

I enjoyed the NEST sequence. It was the discovery of a new hidden world and again the feeling of a failed last stand as we see the remains of a final struggle. We discover the back story to William Birkin and his cold and miserable scientist wife. Again I found that Claires bosses were more enjoyable because we’re gifted the Minigun. Leons gun fight against the Mr X, err Tyrant, or whatever his name is, is just boring.

Could I look someone in the eye and recommend they buy this game? Yes, definitely. Its with out a doubt the best remake I’ve played and we need to remember that one of the main reasons this game was remade is because the fans asked for it. There’s a feeling that this was the game that Capcom always wanted to make back in 1998 but were technologically restricted. There’s definitely more focus on the survival rather than the horror though…..I would rather have seen more jumpy moments but you can’t have everything. (If you want more scares I would suggest to play the first Outlast game). I would advise players to try and obtain the “Infinite Knife” prior to attempting Hardcore mode. You can unlock this by shooting all the Mr Racoon bobble head toys found throughout the game, across both scenarios. You can’t say you’ve completed the game unless you’ve done it on Hardcore mode. Dem da rules innit?

But heres a thought…….I wonder if this remake will ever be released in VR? Oh Jeez……..

Thanks for reading!

An English Centrist – March 2019

The Good, The Bad and the Boring. (Contains Spoilers)

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Well here we are, 2019 and I wish a Happy End of January to you all. It’s a dull and lack lustre month here in the UK but I must say, I’m having a blast. Quite literally actually. I’ve spent most of its dark damp nights gunning down outlaws and nicking their horses in the old West. Yes, sure enough, after all these years I’m still playing bloody video games.

It sounds a bit childish really. An adult with too much time on his hands committing fictitious equine theft. There’s still a taboo about fully grown adults playing video games isn’t there? We’re often accused of being anti-social but that’s just a pious stereotype. As a counter argument I usually retort by comparing the amount of time I apparently waste playing games to the amount of time that my more mature and wiser preachers waste watching episodes of soap operas such as DeadEnders or Constipation Street every night. Personally, I’ve never understood how listening to a gaggle of Cockneys arguing inside a laundrette gets passed off as entertainment but, each to their own devices I guess.

The first ever Wild West themed game I ever played in my life was at a friends house when I was a kid in the late 80s. It was called Kane and it was on the Commodore 64. It took about 10 minutes for the cassette game to load and about 2 minutes to complete in its entirety at a cost of £1.99 from a pokey little shop called Comtazia in Dudley.  Now, in 2019, I’m paying £50 for a game that takes about 6 hours to download and approximately 60 hours to complete in its entirety! Our video games of today are indeed technological artistic behemoths.

Throughout my life I always assumed the habit would die off but I’m always lured back into playing a game, simply because they get better and better. I’m not the only one either. There are gamers of all ages across various demographics that enjoy games of various genres. I’ve recently read that the UK is the 5th largest gaming industry in the world, where £5.11 billion was spent on gaming in 2017!

In truth I’m more of a movie lover than a gamer but games have slowly amalgamated into motion pictures in a sense with the added extra of permitting the audience (players) to take control. They allow you to be inside the movie, become the movie and lately, some even allow you to change the ending of the movie, depending on the choices you make throughout the game. Furthermore, most game developers have enticed movie lovers over the decades anyway by buying the rights to release a game based on a new film, to rake in the coin. With the exception of Goldeneye on the N64 and a few others, most of them are churned out in mass with no intention of adding any innovation to the gaming world and hinder any progression for the industry…..although it needs to be remembered that this is a business. Without profits, there can be no games.

Once every so often however, a game will be released that pushes the bar and breaks boundaries that we’ve never seen before, that offers something new that will stay with you over years and create new memories. A game that becomes part of history…..and by putting you in control allows you to become part of the history. After all a game can’t be a game without its players.

So, after all these years………. 8 years in the making to be precise, Rockstar Games presents us with Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s a game about a gang of outlaws who’re led by a charismatic crook called Dutch Van der Linde. They’re on the run after a failed robbery in a town called Blackwater and forced to survive out in the wilderness of a new idea introduced to mankind called America. Over the course of 60 hours, the player witnesses the gangs decline and dissolution as a family along with the moral (or lack of) dilemmas they acquire and experience as a result of their choices.

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This is the first time in my life I’ve ever put pen to paper over a video game. The main reason is a very simple one. When I completed RDR2 and the credits started rolling up the screen, I did something that I’ve never done before. I put the controller down and started applauding for a few seconds whilst giving a few head nods. I sat there clapping my hands uncontrollably like a new age fan boy, listening to the amazing instrumental music (composed by Woody Jackson) and felt a natural desire to tell the world about it. Not just to report about what Rockstar did right……but sadly what they got wrong. The other reason is because I think some gaming critics are suffering from the effects of a self-serving internal groupthink where they’re calling out this game for being perfect when in fact it isn’t. I’ve seen a few 10/10s being awarded both formally and informally and I’ve asked myself the same question; would I give it 10/10? Awkwardly, the answer is yes and no.

This game is well and truly a masterpiece but for all the wrong reasons. You see, when I bought this game and handed over £50 of my hard-earned wedge in a busy Game store in Birmingham, I was under the impression I was purchasing a gaming masterpiece, but instead, in my opinion, I’ve acquired a cinematic masterpiece. You see, us gamers can forgive a few bad graphics because it’s all about the actual game and playability itself isn’t it?

Does it matter? Am I being critical for the sake of being critical? If I enjoyed it, that’s the main thing surely? Playing this game, at times, was the equivalent of walking into a new perfectly designed state of the art football stadium but only being offered the most uncomfortable seats in the world to watch the match. That may sound harsh but the fairest way of explaining this is with a balanced outlook. I’m a Centrist after all.

I’m going to assume that the reader has already played the game because lets’ face it, people who aren’t gamers won’t really care and won’t know who John Marston is or won’t really care about the level of detail given to Arthur Morgans beard. I’ve read about some gamers not liking spoilers but we need to remember that this game is a prequel. Ergo any new characters in this game that didn’t appear in the previous one will be due to meeting their demise as an outlaw (gunslingers tend to get shot you know) or by retiring from their life as an outlaw and settling down somewhere else. There’re no other logical conclusions, whether you’ve played the game or not. Besides, you’ve had since November to saddle up and get your guns oiled (revolvers, not your biceps).

Am I trying to be funny you may well ask? Absolutely not, you see, you can change your saddles in the game……. and you can oil your guns so that the bullets retain a speedy discharge. These are just two examples of the level of true to life detail presented in this game. Furthermore, people you meet in the towns and small hamlets will remember any good or bad deeds you commit throughout the game. The more you nurture your horse with respect, the faster it will gallop for you as it becomes accustomed to your friendly and lovable companionship. You can steal hats from deceased outlaws and wear them. You can see the hoof marks and stagecoach wheel tracks appear in the mud and hear it splosh up your boots as you stroll towards a saloon. Any animal skin that you attempt to sell in towns will always fetch less of a price if the pelt is soiled with bullet holes. I could go on forever at pointing out the minute details but indeed, the level of detail that has gone into this game is stratospheric. The game has a deliberate slow narrative for the most part. It’s a slow burner for sure. Its engrossing although somewhat predictable and at times far- fetched to the extent where you feel the writers had exhausted their selves. This, along with the clunky and unrealistic combat system often contradicts the high level of realism created out in the wild. The player is always tempted to stray off the track of the main story and this is done in a very coy fashion. Whether it’s a damsel in distress or a kidnapped victim screaming for help, there’s always something out there in the wild to distract you. You will stumble upon animals you’ve never seen before and feel the urge to shoot them and sell their pelts. Maybe new plants to harvest or an abandoned stagecoach to pillage. There are also bounties advertised in the Sheriffs’ office which offer rewards along with any offerings the Stranger missions offer.

I wasn’t overly thrilled with the Stranger / side missions. I thought that they were a step down from the previous game and I felt that some of them were just thrown in there simply to make up gaming hours and content. These side missions were boring and some simply added to the already overwhelming feel to the game. There was enough to do already, let alone being asked to hunt dinosaur bones on top of the excessive number of cigarette cards to collect. I found the wildlife photographer missions boring and the bottle balancing twins pointless. Apart from the French artist, most were so uneventful that they’re now hidden in the fogginess of my memory. I’m tempted to say the same too for some of the chores or activities enforced in some of the missions. The fishing trip with young Jack Marston is a prime example of this. I didn’t want to spend 20 minutes fishing but had no choice in order to progress the story. Had the bounty hunters not showed up, it may as well had been a lost episode of the sodding Waltons or Little House on the Prairie rather than a gun-slinging video game. There’re a few missions that do stand out. One involves a homeless guy in Rhodes longing for his lost possessions. It transpires later, when Arthur finds chains and shackles in the drunken old bastards evicted house, that he was a former slave trader. Arthur reacts with disgust when returning his pistol to him and leaves him in tears.

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One of the main impressive aspects of the game is the open world of the fictitious American countryside known as New Hanover. There have been many memorable 1st time moments in gaming history over the years. Whether it was performing a loop the loop in Sonic the Hedgehog, leading your Lemmings out of the trap door, upper cutting an opponent into The Pit in Mortal Kombat, the relief of hearing the safe room music in Resident Evil, or chain sawing a locust in half in Gears of War, there are numerous moments that will stick with gamers for their entire lives and I’m pleased to say that RDR2 contains one of those moments. There’s a jaw dropping moment after the snowy and long introduction to the game where Dutch Van der Linde leads his convoy of brigands down the mountain and the player feels fire in their eyes when they receive their first glimpse of Rockstars beautifully constructed wilderness. The mountain tops, the thawing snow, the natural swaying of the leaves on the trees and oh my……..that horizon. The wilderness is alive with flora and fauna, accompanied with a well-seasoned weather system, with hundreds of species of animals and vegetation. It’s a living breathing synthetic ecosystem which entices the player to explore. It’s a very overwhelming experience at first but it doesn’t take long for any player to feel that this offering is indeed a huge moment in gaming history. The soundtrack to this game accompanied the scenes perfectly throughout, being predominately harmonic rather than melodically bold cinematic music. It sounded indigenously smooth yet rugged, gritty and real.

I experienced some laugh out loud moments too. Whether it’s the rescuing of a drunken reverend from impending doom on a railway bridge, or a punch up with the pompous upper class gentry in a nudist art gallery…..or a right royal piss up with Lenny in a saloon, the script never strays too far from bringing a dry humoured chuckle to the player. It constantly uses the player in a game of tug-o-war between taking the game seriously or not. The story is a constant mixology of humour and satire with stone cold characterisations of the New America.  I mentioned Lenny just now. He’s a black member of the gang who is an important character in the story since Rockstar utilise him as a conduit to portray the racism that existed (and sadly still does) in America a century ago. Lenny feels the prejudice from society daily, whereas Dutch and his gang of criminals, offer no such prejudice (apart from Micah) There is also a Mexican and an Indian in the gang too, since Dutch treats everyone as equal. This pushes the player into liking Dutch from the onset, whereas we feel the exact opposite for Micah, who is hostile and repulsive. Dutch sells himself as a twisted philanthropist, where he perceives his gang to be a symbolic sticking up of two figures to the new system. The game is set in the dawn of a new America, the birth of conurbations, society, cities and Laws. The authorities have little time for outlaws and are hunting them down. They see Dutch as a criminal but as usual Rockstar portray the leaders of the New World as equally corrupt and crooked and full of greed. We’re also reminded of not only of how black people were treated but also the Native Americans who were driven from their land.

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Dutch is the leader of the posse but this isn’t a story about him nor John Marston, who is portrayed early on as a half-witted idiot. This is a story about Arthur Morgan, the level headed loyal right-hand man of Dutch, who is by far one of the best and most lovable characters that Rockstar has ever created. He is loved by all the gang, a person that each one of them turns to for help during the game including a previous lover. His facial expressions, mannerisms and movement are reflected with precision and are in constant synchronization with the mood and narrative of the game throughout. At one point he even assists one of the first suffragette demonstrators with their first protests. Arthur is a pragmatist and offers trails of thought which would resonate with any gamer. There are times when he appears apathetic and he is left in the dark surrounding the events of the botched Blackwater heist, which is a very clever method that Rockstar chose in order to allow the players to instantly resonate with Arthur from the outset. We slowly follow his enlightenment and realisation that the gangs’ days are numbered. He knows through the course of contracting Tuberculosis that his time is almost up too. There’s a symbolic and emotional passing of the baton (the wedding ring) in terms of redemption. Upon realising that he will never have a chance of redemption in life, he symbolically becomes reincarnated into John Marston in a sense and just like John in the previous game, he leaves this game as a hero in an outlaws body.

But lets not dwell on his death, lets concentrate on the epic moments in the story in which he was part of. I felt that the introduction was a tad slow in the snowy mountain although the monotonous white surroundings were all but a ruse to enable us to respect the picturesque world awaiting us beneath. I loved the bank heist in the muddy livestock town of Valentine. I chose the option to slowly crack the safe codes rather than blow them up and this only further added to the tension of the scene. The gangs slow walk in unison through the gates of Braithwaite Manor is also an iconic moment a gamer won’t forget in a hurry. That firefight is surely one of the highlights of the game, along with the Bank raid in St Denis. We see sorrow in the eyes of Dutch for the first time when he sees his old friend Hosea gunned down in cold blood and it could be said that this is the point where Dutch begins to crack. We see the gradual metamorphosis of him, turning from a father figure into a psychotic narcissist. Lenny also bites the dust but no one is given a chance to react to the fullest (apart from Arthur). This is kind of sad since Lenny was a great character. I also loved that “One Final Charge” moment where the gang and the Indian tribe storm across the landscape together to battle with the Pinkertons. All these moments were cinematically epic. All these moments provide the player with a feeling of total immersion and an escape from the real world. Its only in between these crucial moments of the story, when we bring our horse to a slow cantor between one town to the next, where we have chance to ponder on Rockstars’ desire to impress us with their endless pursuit of creating such cinematic gaming and state of the art attention to detail. I felt as if I wanted to reach out and shake the hands of the team that made this happen.

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Admittedly, the whole game is too long but that can be forgiven by some players. Too long is better than too short. The introduction dragged, the Eagle Flies story dragged. I felt that the story was spoilt with the Guama chapter as it was too unbelievable and the Lex Luther style jail break with the hot air balloon was just plain silly. I also felt that the epilogue with John Marston could have been cut and added later as extra DLC. For me the end credits should have rolled when Arthur passed away, with the sun beaming against his face. The epilogue was way too long, whoever heard of an epilogue that lasts for almost one third of the game? One can also ask a further question, did we really want to pay money for a game that enforces us to partake in farmyard chores? This is supposed to be a game about outlaws not a farming simulator!

But what is bad about this game? I don’t enjoy writing bad things about a group of people who have put their heart and soul into creating something that could stand the test of time. They took all those years to produce a work of art. The last thing they want to hear is some doughnut like me giving criticism…..but as one cowboy probably said to the other; what’s my beef?

Well there is only one elephant in the room here and it’s the in-game combat and gunplay. It spoils everything that Rockstar have achieved else where in the game. Its outdated, repetitive, slow and cumbersome. The AI is almost non-existent to the extent that the player may as well be shooting card board cut outs. I deliberately strayed away from activating the “Dead Eye” mode since this is a Western, not The Matrix. The idea of slowing down time to grant Arthur an advantage over enemies simply added more ease to an already easy and unchallenging game. Its virtually the same combat system utilised in the first game released in 2010. There’s a lack of innovation here which leads one to believe that the combat element of the game was simply copied and pasted across into this game and glossed over with a new breath-taking coat of paint. One aspect of the in-game combat which infuriated me was that sometimes it felt as if Arthur may as well have been firing blanks. You can unload 3 bullets into the chest of an enemy and they still get to their feet! This seemed to be a contradictory kick in the balls to the great levels of realism that Rockstar worked so tirelessly towards. Another annoying aspect which caused my larynx to vibrate venomously was this idea of not being able to create my own destiny during active missions. The missions had a claustrophobic feel to them and contradicted the open worldliness that was usually available to the player. Whenever the player strayed off course for too long or decided to return to their horse to change their rifle selection, the player would sometimes get punished with a Failed mission message, for “not keeping up with gang” (or something along those lines) The in-game weapon selection wheel didn’t work for me either. The “let go of L1 button” must have caught out even the best of players for sure. I often felt that I was too quick for it and the wrong weapon would be selected or not at all. These sub-standard aspects of the gun fights in my opinion spoilt the game and had it not been for this, the game may have well been a 10/10. Most importantly there was no sense of a challenge. For those of you who’ve completed the Witcher 3 on Death March mode, I’m sure you would agree.

Can this game work in the upcoming online mode? I’m not quite sure. (I have a feeling that the new character Sadie may play a large role in any future DLC, since she simply wonders out of the story and furthermore, she appears on front of the game disc rather than John or Arthur). I walked into an Electronic Exchange shop the other day in Wolverhampton and I wasn’t surprised to see just under 50 pre-owned copies of RDR2 on the shelf already. That’s quite early for a game that’s a blockbuster. The game is great fun but at times it seems to go on forever at a snails pace. Its not the type of game you can just pick up and play for a casual 30 minutes. This game requires hours of dedication and input, a perfect date for those of you who are perpetual baby sitters with countless hours to kill. The outdated combat would infuriate me on the on-line mode and after 60 hours of play the last thing some people will want to do is start all over again. Rockstar could make improvements I guess but if there’s one thing we all learn after 60 hours is this:

It sure is a long way to Tahiti…….

Thanks for reading dudes…… I’m off now to play Resident Evil 2 whilst trying not to soil my pants.

An English Centrist – January 2019