Monday, 15 May 2017

Out of the Ashes


The tabletop hobby is home to a fickle, restless bunch of people. However much we have just spent on a new game, there’s always something else to catch our eyes. Some shiny, must-have that’s hitting the shelves.

If you’re into collectible or Living Card Games you always have that pending thrill of a new release, but being stuck in that release cycle can also make new games outside that cycle all the more tempting, if only to mix things up a bit.

For many, Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn was exactly what was needed.

Revealed at GenCon 2015, Ashes is an expandable card game from Plaid Hat Games and designer Isaac Vega in which you pit your Phoenixborn against your opponent’s in a back and forth battle of attacks and counter-attacks, full of incredible spells and powerful units.



With a less aggressive release schedule than what we are used to with CCGs and LCGs, it became accessible for those already neck-deep in expansions and cardboard and all was going swimmingly for the game at first.
Spreading through word of mouth and players introducing the game to others, Ashes developed quite the following. Some Magic players even came over to the game as it scratched that Magic: The Gathering itch, while still feeling fresh.

And the art. My goodness the art. With wonderful work from Fernanda Suarez on predominantly white cards, the game has an amazing, clean look to it that looks great on the tabletop.

Tournaments were held, forums, blogs and podcasts for the game started to appear and the first two expansions were released to the eager players, hungry for more.
                                                                                                                    
And then.......nothing.
The supply of the first expansions dried up and became incredibly hard to find. Game kits for tournaments were suddenly unavailable and any official talk of the deluxe expansions rumoured for the end of the year, fell silent.

Forums and Facebook pages for the game turned from enthusiastic discussion to frustrated speculation and the assumption amongst some that the game was dead.

So what happened?
Seemingly, a number of things. Plaid Hat were simply not prepared for the popularity of the game and couldn’t keep up with demand via their parent company F2Z Entertainment.
Then F2Z was acquired by Asmodee.
While many thought this would result in greater, more reliable support for Ashes, there would inevitably by a further delay during the transition period as the two companies settled and the suits all met to discuss supply and demand issues the game was suffering from.

So is Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn dead?
Well on 27th February 2017, the silence was finally broken with this:


The long-awaited deluxe expansions were announced along with news of a series of tournaments that would shape the creation of a new character for the game.



More previews followed along with word that we would soon be getting an update to the Ashes rules which would look to tidy up and clarify a few elements of the game.

Inevitably, dormant podcasts and blogs quivered back to life. Ashes was on its way back.

But will this be a triumphant return for the game?

We are, as I said, a fickle bunch, liable to move on to new things and a lot has happened since Ashes first graced our tabletops and game stores.
Fantasy Flight Games released a Collectible Card Game in Star Wars: Destiny, currently emptying many a gamer’s pockets. Arkham Horror: The Card Game is out and has been well received. And the colossal form of FFG’s reimagining of Legend of the Five Rings looms on the horizon.

It is a crowded market that Isaac Vega is bringing his game back to that’s for sure.
But it was crowded the first time around too; and if any game can rise from the ashes, surely it’s this one.


Sunday, 17 January 2016

JD's Film Awards 2015


It’s that time of the year where I hand out my 2015 film awards. I saw some of them on DVD/Blu-ray and some at the cinema, but to qualify, all the films must have been released in UK cinemas in 2015.
 
There were a few films I missed out on and didn’t get around to seeing. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Macbeth are up there and I heard great things about the likes of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Song of the Sea, Brooklyn and The Falling. I will strive to see all these eventually, but I had to draw my line in the sand somewhere.
 
So here we go - JD’s Film Awards of 2015:
 
Best Music
Whiplash
 
Best Sound
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
 
Best Visual Effects
Ant-Man
 
Best Cinematography
Ex Machina

 
Best Story
The Martian
 
Best Screenplay
Birdman
 
Best Supporting Actress
Alicia Vikander - Ex Machina
 
Best Actress
Julianne Moore - Still Alice



Best Supporting Actor
J. K. Simmons - Whiplash
 
Best Actor
Eddie Redmayne - The Theory of Everything
 
Best Director
George Miller - Mad Max: Fury Road
 
Best Film
Mad Max: Fury Road


Monday, 21 December 2015

Rome Wasn't Built in a Day - How 2015 in the WWE was the story of one man


A lot has happened in the WWE in 2015 - Wrestlemania 31 became the highest grossing event in the companies history; the legendary Sting’s career hangs in the balance after a neck injury; an injury also cut short Seth Rollins’ 7 month reign as World Heavyweight Champion. The Divas division went from strength to strength at the hands of competitors like Paige, Nikki Bella and Charlotte; The Undertaker put in more than one day at the office with a very physical feud with Brock Lesnar and one with the Wyatt family. We saw the return of the Dudley Boyz. We witnessed Kevin Owens step up from the developmental organisation of NXT to become one of the most interesting heels on the main roster today and his three matches with John Cena which will surely go down as the best of the year.
 
But despite all of this action, all these stories and all of these twists and turns, 2015 was really about one man and his story…….Roman Reigns.

 
After The Shield fell apart in 2014, Reigns looked to singles competition and with a record setting performance in the Royal Rumble, he was clearly being pushed as a main event player. A win at the Royal Rumble the following year secured his spot on the grandest stage of them all to face the champion, Brock Lesnar. But the WWE fans are a fickle bunch. As the bell signalled the end of the Royal Rumble and Roman’s victory, the crowd made clear their disapproval. Even the presence of The Rock holding Roman’s hand aloft couldn’t get the fans on side.
 
Why was this happening? Well first off, it isn’t anything new. Look back to the Attitude Era and that whole period was built on the fans responding more to the edgier, bad guy characters than they were to the babyfaces. Stone Cold Steve Austin was the bad guy and they cheered him. Rocky Maivia was all smiles clean wins and the crowd hated him. Myself, I’m quite traditional as a fan. I like to be led by the stories I’m told by the company and I root for the good guys. Triple H was one of my favourite characters in the Attitude Era, but he was still the biggest heel in the company, and so I didn’t want him to win. And today, I think Bray Wyatt is probably the best character on the roster, but he’s a bad guy, so I’ll be booing from the sofa at the same time as loving everything he does.

 
Most wrestling fans are like this, I think. Sure there’ll be a bunch of them who just like to hate and do the exact opposite of what is expected/hoped of them by the industry, but for the most part, the fans like to be taken on a journey. But here’s the thing - the fans want the superstar getting the push, the guy at the top, to be a guy they’ve chosen. The wrestler they have decided to get behind, the one they believe deserves it. The boos that greeted Roman Reigns, I believe, came from a feeling that he was being cast into the limelight by the company too soon, that he hadn’t earned it. The fans hadn’t chosen him. It was artificial. Couple that with the general expectation that fan favourite Daniel Bryan would get that top spot and instead got eliminated from the Rumble early on, and you have a hotbed of derision towards the unsuspecting Reigns.
 
So what could the WWE creative team do? They could change everything, put the belt on Daniel Bryan and give the fans what they wanted. Or they could stick to their guns and continue down this road with Roman Reigns.
In the end, they’ve combined the two and in the process have perhaps created a year-long storyline that will go down as one of the best in the company’s history.
 
The WWE believes in Roman Reigns and why wouldn’t they? Look at him for crying out loud. Sure his mic skills need developing, but that will come. He puts on great, physical matches and he looks the business. And so the WWE chose to stick to their plan of putting Reigns on top, but they made him earn it in the eyes of the crowd and at the same time developing him as a character.

 
It began at Fastlane, the first pay-per-view after the Royal Rumble and Reigns found himself having to defend his spot at Wrestlemania against Daniel Bryan. Having Reigns win this was a brave move on the company’s part but win he did. It was a nice twist too as the crowd surely expected to be given what they were clamouring for. Instead they got Reigns and Lesnar in the main event at Wrestlemania.
 
Now the company had to find a way to further the development of Roman’s story and protect the unstoppable aura they had generated around Lesnar. And so Seth Rollins put the fly in the ointment and stole the title from both men with a well-timed cashing in of his Money-In-The-Bank contract.
 
A collision course between Reigns and Rollins looked likely, but first Roman had to go through the Big Show in a Last Man Standing Match at Extreme Rules before getting his shot at the Payback pay-per-view. It would be a title shot he would lose to the cheating ways of Seth Rollins.
 
Money in the Bank was his next chance, but with his fingers just inches from grabbing the briefcase that would secure him a title shot, he was toppled from the ladder by Bray Wyatt who proclaimed in the weeks that followed that when it came to winning the title, he would allow “anyone but you, Roman. Anyone but you.”

 
The feud with Wyatt raged for a further 3 months until finally culminating in a terrific Hell in a Cell match that saw Reigns come out on top and set his sights once again on the world title. A win in a fatal-four-way number one contenders match on Raw secured him the title shot, but it was then that Rollins had to vacate the title due to the injury sustained on tour in Ireland.
 
Storyline-wise this only added to the adversity that the company were piling on Reigns as a tournament was set up for the vacant belt. Given the opportunity for a free pass to the final by Triple H, Reigns declined, preferring to earn his spot all over again.
 
After beating the Big Show, Cesaro and Alberto Del Rio, Roman finally won the title after defeating Dean Ambrose in the final at Survivor Series. It would be short-lived. With ticker tape streaming from the rafters, Sheamus took advantage of an altercation between Reigns and Triple H to cash in his Money in the Bank contract and screw Reigns out of his title with a well-timed boot to the face.
 
Roman Reigns was the champion for 5 minutes 15 seconds.

 
Sheamus - aided by his “League of Nations” compatriots, Rusev and Del Rio - retained the title in a tremendous TLC match against Reigns in December. In what has to be one of the best moments of the year, Reigns snapped post-match, attacking the League of Nations and the boss Triple H - putting him through the announce table. Fueled by a year of frustration, back-stabbing and near misses, Reigns was a seething ball of rage and the crowd lapped it up.
 
The next night on Monday Night Raw, Mr. McMahon granted Reigns a title rematch against Sheamus, with the added stipulation that if Reigns lost, he would be out of a job. Fighting off McMahon, Del Rio and Rusev, Reigns defeated Sheamus and captured the WWE World Heavyweight Championship for the second time.

And so culminated a year of great story-telling and the validation of a character in Roman Reigns. Sure there are a few divisive voices still out there, but winning more and more of the crowd over with every appearance, putting in some of the best performances in some of the best matches of the year, Roman Reigns has proven that Vince McMahon’s faith in him was well placed. However long this second title run lasts, Roman belongs at the top.


Friday, 11 December 2015

3 Guys, 1 Spy: From Russia with Love



As news of the new Bond film surfaced, we sat down to watch the second film in the series - From Russia with Love.
 
Nick kicked things off with a bit of historical background:
 
1963:
 
In January, the Viet Cong win their first major victory in the Battle of Ap Bac while back in the States, African-American student Harvey Gantt enters Clemson University in South Carolina, the last state to hold out against racial integration.
 
From February to May, travel, financial and commercial transactions with Cuba by United States citizens is made illegal by the Kennedy administration; The Beatles record their debut album at Abbey Road Studios; Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary closes and Lawrence of Arabia wins Best Picture at the 35th Academy Awards.
 
Over the summer, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc commits self-immolation to protect the oppression of Buddhists in Saigon; the Moscow-Washington hotline is established; the Great Train Robbery takes place in England and Martin Luther King Jr delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in front of over 250,000 people.
 
On October 8th, Sam Cooke and his band are arrested after trying to register at a “whites only” motel in Louisiana. In the months that follow, he records the song “A Change is Gonna Come.”
 
On November 22nd, President John F. Kennedy is assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald during a motorcade in Dallas Texas.

 
 
Next up was me, Jamie, with some facts about the film itself. From Russia with Love was chosen as the second of Ian Fleming’s books to be filmed largely thanks to President Kennedy naming the book as one of his favourites in an interview with Life magazine. The film would become the last seen by Kennedy in the White House before taking his ill-fated trip to Dallas.
 
With double the budget of Dr. No, the film would go on to exceed its predecessor in takings with over $78 million in box office receipts and is widely regarded as one of the best entries in the franchise.
 
The film introduced many of the conventions we now associate with Bond, namely the cold open, gadgets, a helicopter sequence and the words “James Bond will return” at the credits.
 
The character of Blofeld was also introduced here, albeit referred to in the film as Number 1. In the end credits Blofeld is credited with a question mark.
Desmond Llewellyn made his first appearance in the film as Boothroyd from Q branch and of course he would go on to be known simply as Q and appear in all but 2 films in the series until his death in 1999.
 
If the Kennedy and Q facts didn’t bring you down enough, here’s another sad story. Pedro Armendáriz who plays Kerim Bey in the film - Bond’s contact in Istanbul with what appears to be about 50 sons - was diagnosed with inoperable cancer while filming. Though in pain, he continued to work until he was unable. He returned home and took his own life.
 
That’s enough death for one blog, he’s one more snippet of factual goodness before we talk music. The 2005 videogame From Russia with Love saw many of the cast return to provide their voices - including Sean Connery who allowed his 1960s likeness to be used and recorded the character’s dialogue, returning to the role of Bond after a 22 year absence.
 
 
Finally, Rich told us about the music of the film. The title track was sung by Matt Monroe and composed by Lionel Bart, though the vocal version doesn’t appear until later in the film, as music played from a radio. The title sequence is largely instrumental before turning into the James Bond theme.
 
The main soundtrack to the film was composed by John Barry, who joined the film crew on location in Turkey, with the intention of recording music from the region. The local music wasn’t dramatic enough for his tastes though and he ultimately composed his own, albeit with Turkish instruments to add an authentic, oriental feel.
 

With the intros done, we set off with the film. From Russia with Love follows Bond on a mission to aid the defection of a Soviet clerk named Tatiana Romanova who is bringing with her a Lektor cryptograph. All the while shady organisation SPECTRE tries to prevent this (as they want the Lektor to sell back to the Russians) and extract revenge on Bond for killing Dr. No.
 
From Rosa Klebb’s comedy walk while she has her boot-blade out to Kerim Bey’s seemingly never ending supply of sons: “This steam train is also my son.” - From Russia With Love has things to laugh at, though it is free of the camp and the gimmicks we would see later in the series. It has a stately pace that today’s audiences are simply not used to, but when the action scenes kick off, the frantic camera work and music give it real momentum.
 
You can’t mention From Russia with Love without talking about the fight scene on the train between Robert Shaw and Sean Connery. Doing their own stunts, the pair knocked seven-bells out of each other in the small confines of the train compartment and it still stands up today as one of the best fight scenes in any of the Bond films - recently echoed in the new film Spectre.
 
From Russia with Love has always been one of my favourites and it is rightly seen as one of the better Bonds. But next up is the film that many believe tops the list: Goldfinger.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

WWE: Is the women's division ready for Ronda Rousey?


Cast your mind back to March 29th 2015 - Wrestlemania 31 at Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara California. 76,976 fans going bananas as The Rock invites Ronda Rousey into the ring for a confrontation with Stephanie McMahon. Rousey - Olympic Gold Medalist in Judo; the highest paid fighter in UFC; the organisation’s current Women’s Bantamweight Champion; undefeated in her 12 professional fights and regarded by many to be the world’s deadliest woman.
 
Rousey was an imposing, confident presence at Wrestlemania, unaffected by the thousands in attendance at the greatest stage of them all. And why should she be? She legitimately beats people up for a living.
 
After an almighty stare down, Rousey judo throws Triple H and catches Stephanie in an arm lock, casting her out of the ring. The crowd lapped it up and the segment was over - but the speculation was just beginning.
 
Would Rousey make the jump from mixed martial arts to sports-entertainment, as Ken Shamrock had done before? The likes of Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar had taken all they had learned from amateur wrestling and gone on to amazing careers in the WWE. Could Ronda Rousey do the same? Did she want to?

 
She is known to be a big fan of the business, is quoted as saying she had way too much fun at Wrestlemania not to return and when asked outright if she’d pursue a career with WWE she said: “You never know”. With a simple, but thrilling tweet she sent out after her actions at Wrestlemania - “We’re just getting started” - it seems Ronda Rousey is ready for the WWE women’s division. The question now is whether the women’s division is ready for Ronda Rousey.
 
Although it is currently called the Divas Division for reasons known only unto Vince McMahon, womens’ wrestling in WWE has nevertheless come a long way since the bra and panties debacles from the likes of Stacey Keibler and Torrie Wilson. Ronda Rousey simply wouldn’t have fit into that dynamic. From several photoshoots she has done, the UFC champion enjoys her femininity, but to truly capitalise on the character she would be in WWE, it wouldn’t be believable for her to have been a part of that.
 
We all know the WWE is sports-entertainment, but the action lives and dies on our suspension of disbelief. We want to believe in these characters and the stories they are telling in the ring and to have had Rousey battling, say, The Kat and it being a fair fight - would that be believable? Of course not. But what about today? With an influx of hungry competitors from the developmental promotion of NXT, the Divas Division, in my opinion, has never been better and hark back to the pure wrestling of the days of The Fabulous Moolah, albeit quicker and with more frequent highspots for today’s shorter attention spans. Nikki Bella vs Charlotte at the recent Hell in a Cell pay-per-view very nearly stole the show and the crowd, while always being somewhat muted during women’s matches historically, are now very much behind the action.


Of course there’s still titillation there in some ring attire and during entrances, but it now comes across as “sexy, smart and powerful” as the Diva’s mantra has it, rather than leaving that uncomfortable taste in the mouth.
 
Brock Lesnar’s recent run in the business could be a great model for the company’s approach with Ronda Rousey’s character were she to make the jump. Lesnar is having the squash matches where he completely dominates, but he’s having the closer, more hard-fought matches too and they are protecting his character even when he loses - having his opponent’s cheat or win in some other controversial finish.

If handled well, with smart storytelling, Ronda Rousey would fit right in to the current womens’ division picture - Diva or not. So come on, Ronda, finish what you have to do at UFC and sign the dotted line - Let’s get rowdy.

Monday, 28 September 2015

EGX 2015



A lesson learned - Don’t go to EGX on a Saturday. Take a day off work and go on the Thursday or Friday.
 
This was my second EGX - the first being back in 2010 at Earl’s Court, London when it was still called the Eurogamer Expo. The longest queuing I did was 20 minutes or so for Medal of Honour. I was expecting the same again this year in Birmingham and was excited at the prospect of a day’s gaming on upcoming titles - some of them playable for the first time in the UK.
 
How wrong I turned out to be.
 
I had an 11am - 6pm day ticket. As I reached the arena, the traffic slowed to a crawl and that was followed by my first queue - for parking. After that, a long queue to actually get in. It was 11:40 by the time I was in the event area and heading straight for Star Wars Battlefront. I joined a queue that snaked back and forth. Not to worry, I thought. This game was 20 v 20 so getting rid of 40 people each time should get this queue moving pretty quickly. Just a couple of minutes into the wait and we were told by a member of staff that from where we were stood, we were looking at 3 hours. What? That’s going to wipe out the day?!


 
I left the queue and scouted around elsewhere - Mirror’s Edge Catalyst (on only ten consoles) - 3 hours. Rise of the Tomb Raider the same. Halo 5 the same. 2 hours + for Need for Speed. This wasn’t going well. I headed into the 18+ area where all the Ubisoft games could be found. The queue snaked for Assassin’s Creed. It was a 3 hour one again for The Division and Rainbow Six was looking at 2 hours +.
 
With a slot booked for a demo of Project Morpheus at 1:40pm, I knew I couldn’t commit to any of these queues even if I was prepared to. I grabbed some lunch and re-evaluated my plan.
 
While Star Wars Battlefront was at the top of my list for trying out, the beta was just 2 weeks away, so I scratched it off. I’d already played the beta for Halo, so that went too. I was in the beta for Rainbow Six, so I ditched it. The rest, I’d take a look at after the VR demo and see if the queues had gone down any.

 
PlayStation VR - Project Morpheus demo
As I waited for my slot I watched a guy playing a game that combined the headset with the PlayStation Move controllers. He was the passenger in a vehicle, looking around with his head, grabbing a coffee off the dashboard and bringing it to his mouth etc - the coffee fell to the floor when he tried putting it back. Needless to say the car was then attacked by armoured cars and bikers and he had to shoot them out of the window. It looked fun, if a little dated and proof of concept-like.

 
  
My turn next and I got a normal controller, the headset and Battlezone - a remake of an 80s tank shoot em up effort. With about 100 degrees of view it was cool to look around the game space and it is certainly immersive with nothing between you and the game. It was also blurry as hell and within 5 minutes I was feeling sick as a dog.
 
This is supposed to release in the first half of 2016 and at this stage it feels like it needs work. Even then though I just can’t see people sat around at home with these headsets on, certainly not for any real length of time. And the thought of 2 hours watching a film on it (the likes of Netflix and Hulu have signed up), I just can’t imagine it being preferable to a TV or cinema screen.
 
Feeling a little ill and not necessarily walking in a straight line, I headed back to the event floor.
 
I’d spotted earlier that the queue for Homefront: The Revolution was manageable. It was still over 30 minutes, but I went for it. The game looks well and has a cool escalation mechanic where more enemies and friendlies arrive at your location if you get rumbled while on a mission. Sprinting though was unbelievably slow. Crushingly slow. I don’t know whether they were going for realism or not - considering you are playing a guerrilla resistance fighter rather than a trained soldier - but I could run faster than this and I’m not fighting for my life against some crazy Koreans.

 
Next up I wanted to get hands on with the Elite Controller. The controller looks and feels great and you can tell with the materials used, the finish and the weight, that this is a quality product. I was worried your fingers wouldn’t rest well on the paddles at the back, but they are well placed and you can have as many of them attached or unattached as you like anyway. No regrets on the pre-order from me.
 
I had a quick go on Forza Motorsport 6 while I was at the Xbox booth and if you haven’t already seen it, I recommend downloading the demo, it’s a beautiful game that plays great.
 
Tomb Raider wasn’t in the 18+ area and instead was behind an enclosed section at the Xbox stand, so I couldn’t see it over anyone’s shoulder. A shame, but we know it’ll be a winner anyway. I got to see Need for Speed, albeit from a distance and that is looking very pretty. I’ll definitely be trying out the EA Access trial.

 
Mirror’s Edge queues remained long and I didn’t get to play, but it is looking stunning and the gameplay looks smooth and more varied than the original.
Call of Duty Black Ops III queues were long enough to put me off, but certainly not as long as you’d expect from the once mighty franchise.
The Division was being played on the Xbox One and is looking great, though I still worry that anticipation for this has waned since the reveal blew us all away.
They’d obviously anticipated Battlefront being a big deal and so there was a big screen for people to watch it on, right next to a life-size Tie Fighter. The game looks amazing and I can’t wait to get on the beta (8th to 12th October).

 
Towards the end of the day I got to play Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. It looks every bit as visually stunning as we’ve come to expect from the franchise and the climbing mechanics are better than they were in Unity. The threat indicator that encircles your character wasn’t as distracting as I feared and the hand to hand combat is a lot more brutal than we’ve seen in the series before. Really good.
 
I’m glad I went as it was fun to be around it all and see these games in action, but it was a real shame I didn’t get to play more due to the queuing. I’d certainly go again, but I’d try a week day and an “early bird” ticket that gets me in at 9am.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

JD's Videogame Awards 2014

It’s time for me to hand out my videogame awards for titles released in 2014.
 
Games like Tomb Raider: The Definitive Edition, Halo: The Master Chief Collection and GTA V are not eligible, as they are re-releases.
 
Best Graphics
Assassin’s Creed Unity
 
Best Gameplay
Titanfall
 
Best Story
Watch Dogs


Best Music / Score
Alien: Isolation
 
Best Sound
Alien: Isolation
 
Best Acting
Call of Duty Advanced Warfare
 
Most Innovative
Alien Isolation
 
Best Local Multiplayer
Call of Duty Advanced Warfare

 
Best Online Multiplayer
Titanfall
 
Favourite Game
Titanfall
 
Best Game
Alien Isolation


 
Games on my watchlist for 2015:

Tom Clancy’s The Division
Star Wars Battlefront
Mirror’s Edge
Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt
Call of Duty
Battlefield Hardline
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Forza Motorsport 6
NHL 16
Madden NFL 16
Assassin’s Creed
 
What are you looking forward to?