james debate
james debate

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Developed by Bungie
Published by Activision
Genre MMOFPS (massively multiplayer online first person shooter)
Platform Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3

destiny bungie halo xbox one ps4 review

Let's get straight to it. Unless you have been living under a rock you will probably have at least heard of Destiny. This is the newest game from developer Bungie, best known for the all-conquering Halo series, which they created and curated up until Halo 4.

Destiny is the developer's first new project since quitting Halo, so naturally this one has garnered a lot of attention from those wondering if Bungie have got another runaway hit on their hands. This also marks the start of a new collaborative relationship between Bungie and publisher Activision, who, to put it mildly, are not the most popular company with fans. A publisher with a reputation of short-changing consumers at the expense of the quality of their games may not seem like the ideal bedfellow, but they have the money, and to realize their vision for Destiny Bungie are going to need a lot of it.

Destiny is being billed as one of the biggest launches of all time, with funding to the tune of $500 million, an unprecedentedly large advertising campaign for a completely new IP, and bells-and-whistles that include a score and theme song written by Sir Paul McCartney, a separate iPhone companion app, and the vocal talents of Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage. It is bizarre then, considering the vast resources that have gone into this game, that almost no one seems to have had any idea what the game actually was before it came out. This has not been helped by Bungie imposing a review blackout on all media until after launch day (an act that should always set off alarm bells - they want people to buy the game without knowing if it's any good?).

So what is Destiny? Well much has been made of how the game mixes a variety of different genres, or doesn't fit into any particular genre, or creates a whole new genre, but that's all nonsense. Destiny is an MMOFPS (gesundheit, massively multiplayer online first person shooter). It looks and plays like a first person shooter, it's set in an always online multiplayer environment that requires an internet connection, and the story and mission structure is almost identical to that of any other MMO.

It's true that much of the focus is on solo play through the main story content, with multiplayer aspects coming in elsewhere (non-story missions and hub worlds are shared between players, and there is dedicated pvp content), but this is also true of a lot of MMOs. The reason for all this genre muddling talk is that Bungie have understandably tried to play down the game's MMO qualities, a genre largely associated with World of Warcraft and similar titles, that carries a lot of stigma and puts off a lot of players. It's a marketing move and nothing more, just be clear on what you're getting into before you buy.

The pre-release buzz talked about epic sci-fi story and character driven content along the lines of Star Wars or Mass Effect. This has manifested in the game's tagline "Become Legend", the focus being very much on allowing the player to create their own unique character to take on this adventure (and subsequent games, utilizing a Mass Effect style of save progression), while there was much talk about the effort being put into creating a rich and heavily detailed world full of the mythology and the internal logic that holds together the very franchises from which Destiny takes inspiration.

At the same time Bungie has been keen to hype up it's social and online features while steering clear of calling the game an MMO (see above), while a great deal of emphasis in the game has also been placed on "loot" acquisition in the style of a Borderlands or Diablo type game.

Destiny is trying to paint itself as all things to all people, and the lack of any clear description of how these disparate parts fit together should have been the second alarm bell.

Gameplay and Presentation
So first the good. The shooting mechanics are excellent. Smooth, satisfying shooter gameplay that takes many of the elements that Bungie helped invent with the Halo series that has now become standard in the genre, and refines it to near perfection. Shooting someone has never been so much fun.

All that Activision money has been put to good use in polishing the game's presentation. The game looks absolutely gorgeous on the new-gen consoles, full of vivid, imaginative settings and beautiful effects. It sounds a treat too with McCartney's wonderful score and dynamic music.

Then there's the loot system, which is both rewarding and addictive, giving players motivation to go back through old levels in order to develop and upgrade their gear and weapons. The ultimate focus of Destiny is very much on taking your unique character and creating your own story, and to this end the loot and gear system allows for a very satisfying level of customization, both with appearance and also function.

The problem with Destiny is that the player is rarely given any explanation or motivation as to why or what they should do beyond this constant search for shinier toys.

The mission objectives are almost completely arbitrary: looking for person A? Well then we need to go to location B and find item C. Why? No idea, none of it really fits together or follows any logic, it's just something to keep you busy. In much the same spirit the missions almost all play the same: go to the next room, face a series of waves of bad guys you have to kill before you can continue, go to the next room and repeat.

These problems are exacerbated by how short the story content is in the game. To beat the later story missions you need to be at a high level, but there simply aren't that many story missions. Instead the only way to progress is to grind the same missions over and over again to level up. Then when the story missions are done, the game literally becomes entirely about grinding the same levels repeatedly in order to get better guns, better armor. That might be motivation for some, but for The Ephemeric it seems shallow and disappointingly repetitive. It's a lot of fun to begin with, but gets old really quickly.

Fortunately the multiplayer keeps things fresh, but ultimately the only way the game is ever going to motivate us to keep playing is if they add on more new content. And while we're on the subject of content...

Story and Characters
The much talked about story and character is non-existent. There are maybe one or two characters in the game aside from the one you create and none of them show any form of development. The only meaningful relationship in the entire game is the one between Peter Dinklage's robot character "Ghost" (henceforth referred to as "Dinklebot") and the player.

There are very few cutscenes in the entire game with which to drive the story along, basically the only context or background you are given for a particular mission comes in the form of a (generally badly written) three second speech from Dinklebot read out over the loading screen as you begin the mission. Even these fleeting moments of exposition seem to be truncated, bringing in concepts and plot points from out of nowhere, almost as if there's a scene missing somewhere.

What few cutscenes there are appear to come out of nowhere in a completely disjointed fashion. You finish one of the early missions in Old Russia and then as if by magic you've entered a big hall you've never seen before and started talking to someone called "The Speaker", a character you've never even heard about before this point, as if it was completely normal. You will find yourself experiencing a lot of these "was there a scene missing or something?" moments. It's just a very basic lack of narrative flow or cinematic polish, which is hard to explain considering the great amount of polish elsewhere. It's honestly like someone took an axe to a completed game and chopped half of it out before launch.

Destiny was supposed to be deep and immersive, but as much as we wanted to it's just impossible to really get into this world. Outside of the missions there is one hub area, but it's completely devoid of life. There are a variety of NPC (non-player characters) standing around, but you can't talk to them, you can't find out any information about who they are or develop any rapport. There is literally no dialogue with these characters, they serve only as a fancy menu interface through which to buy items. Again, it's just a very basic failure of world-building. There's also all these factions and groups around the world of which you can become members and buy stuff from, but there's no info about who these people are or why you would want to join them. Heck you'd never even know they existed unless you wandered aimlessly around the hub area and stumbled upon them by accident.

It doesn't help that the in-game story and dialogue is generally badly written, Mass Effect this ain't. Bungie parted company with their head writer about halfway through the game's development and it really shows. Halo was hardly Shakespeare, but it's a masterpiece of writing compared to Destiny.

The truly strange thing is that all these characters and factions and locations have background story, you can read all about it in the iPhone companion app in the form of "grimoire" cards, and it's detailed and often interesting, so why is absolutely none of it presented in the game?

It's also worth pointing out that the plot is extremely incomplete. A few different plot threads are started, few get a chance to go anywhere significant before the game's content runs out. Bungie says that the plan is to keep updating the game with further story content after release, but it's as yet unclear whether this is going to be frequent, or whether it will be free or paid. We can imagine a lot of people will be pissed if they buy a largely incomplete game, and are then expected to pay extra to buy the bulk of the core content later on.

What's really hard to understand is how different the end product we see is to what was shown off even a year ago in previews. Whole features and locations that were mentioned appear to have been removed. Practically none of the story that has been created for this game has actually been implemented.

It's clear that at some point during development the scope and ambition of this game drastically changed. Destiny changed from a spectacularly ambitious Mass Effect-esque story-based game into a repetitive Diablo-esque loot-farming dungeon crawler. Is this perhaps the influence of the publisher, taking the game in a less artistic direction to make something aimed more at the app-gaming crowd? Recent word from insiders suggests this to be the reason the lead writer quit, it has also been rumored that the aforementioned "grimoire" story cards were written all in the last few months after it became apparent that none of the background was going to be in game. Whatever the true story, whatever the reasons, the end result is the same.

Destiny is a fun shooter at its core, with well honed mechanics, but builds absolutely nothing on those foundations. The much hyped immersive world is a bizarrely incomplete shell of it's potential. It feels like a very early beta version of a game, with far too much of its content missing. Something has clearly gone wrong behind the scenes during development, and now Bungie have a lot of work on their hands if they are to turn it around.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Directed by Zach Braff
Written by Zach Braff, Adam Braff
Produced by Zach Braff, Adam Braff, Stacey Sher, Michael Shamberg
Starring Zach Braff, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin
Studio None
Running time 106 minutes

wish i was here zach braff kickstarter scrubs garden state

Sophomore films are always difficult, especially when your debut is considered by many to be a modern classic. Zach Braff rose to stardom as the star of comedy TV series Scrubs, but his first film Garden State, which Braff not only starred in, but wrote and directed, saw him lauded as the next Woody Allen. But where as Allen seems to churn out a good three or four films a year, Braff has waited a full decade for his follow up.

So what has taken Braff so long? For starters he has been busy in the theatre, his self-scripted production All New People seeing an extended run on Broadway before making the jump over to London. But the main issue as far as Braff is concerned has been the freedom to make the movie that he wants to make.

In retrospect, Zach Braff was given an incredible amount of freedom for a first time film maker with Garden State. Few relative unknowns are allowed to write and direct their own movie debut, let alone produce, select the soundtrack, and have such influence over the casting and overall production. Braff's fans would be the first to suggest that the success of Garden State owes much to Braff having the freedom to pursue his vision.

And so, surrounded by meddling studios and troublesome regulations, Braff did something quite outside of the box, he turned to Kickstarter. Wish I Was Here is something of a landmark movie in at least one respect, the fact that it is by far the most prominent film ever funded through the online crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. As a backer of the film with a potential conflict of interest, The Ephemeric had reservations about reviewing Wish I Was Here, but once you reach the end of the review we think it will be pretty obvious to all that we have not simply come here to lavish unwarranted praise.

Ultimately a huge $4 million was raised from everyday fans in exchange for merchandise, preview tickets, and general insider access to the production of a movie. Braff then added $2 million of his own money, and a movie was made, one without any meddling from studios or anyone else, a truly pure Zach Braff vision. $6 million might not seem like a lot of money with which to make a movie, but it's worth remembering that Garden State was made with a paltry $2.5 million, which even adjusted for inflation comes out to like $3 million, barely half the amount raised for Wish I Was Here.

Unfortunately, Wish I Was Here is no Garden State. The latter is often credited with bringing indie film into the mainstream, and defining an entire generation of shoe-gazing youthful storytelling. Practically every romantic comedy or quirky drama owes something to the tone and production of that film, and it is rightly held up as a classic of the genre. The list of films that have merely followed the template set by Garden State is long, and the trouble is that Wish I Was Here absolutely joins that list.

There is little ground here that has not been trodden before, from the plot devices to the themes, individual camera shots and even the character archetypes. They may be archetypes and themes that Braff helped define, but that was ten years ago, and they've been done to death since then. The immature dad, the precocious child, the stern father and the goofball brother. Long slow motion strutting, nightmare co-workers, and big family drama. This can describe any of a thousand other films. While a little familiarity is no bad thing, and even a lot can be forgiven if the content is good, some moments of Wish I Was Here are true cliché.

The biggest problem is with the script. While there are some moments of genuine heart, and a few good belly laughs, too much of the dialogue lacks the natural nuance that made Garden State's script so remarkable. There are certain scenes where you listen to the characters speak it sounds just half-baked; the kind of dialogue that might have sounded witty and clever on paper, but definitely comes across as jarring and stilted on film. Certainly this is not the case with every scene, but there were too many moments that pull you out of the experience like this

The good news is that if you accept Wish I Was Here for what it is, a pleasantly watchable, if unoriginal, quirky dramedy, then there is plenty still to make it worth your while.

Zach Braff's total, unfettered freedom meant that he was allowed to pick the cast he wanted, and it is a wonderful cast. Braff, of course, is in the leading role and brings his characteristic blend of vulnerability and self-effacing humour. He also brings his usual entourage of friends, Scrubs' Donald Faison in a cameo role, Jim Parsons of Big Bang Theory fame also has a small role, and they're both pretty hilarious.

Of the newcomers, his wife in the movie is ably played by Kate Hudson, bringing an unconventional voice of sanity and reason to the film's proceedings, while some talented kids, especially the young starlet Ashley Greene, round out the family. But the absolute star performer of the movie is Mandy Patinkin as Braff's character's ailing father, a truly magnificent total performance from a wonderful actor.

The soundtrack, as with every Braff production, is another highlight. A good mix of familiar names and newcomers, with the centrepiece being the eponymous title track written by Coldplay and performed alongside Cat Power. It's wonderful music for sure, but often the film feels like it's using the soundtrack to prop up a lack of content. Soundtrack is most effective when used sparingly, but honestly how many scenes in this film don't feature a song at some point? Very few, it's overdone.

Does this film make a compelling argument for why studio intervention can sometimes be a good thing? Is it an indictment on the value of crowdfunding in Hollywood? It's far too early to answer these kinds of questions.

Ultimately Wish I Was Here is nowhere near as groundbreaking as Braff's first film Garden State, but if you enjoy it for what it is it's a perfectly enjoyable family movie; beautiful to look at and listen to, extremely well acted, with some (albeit infrequent) memorable moments. It'll be interesting to see where Braff's career takes him next, but hopefully we won't have to wait another decade to find out.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Developed by EA Maxis
Published by Electronic Arts
Genre Life Simulation
Platform PC

the sims 4 ea maxis terrible awful disaster debacle simcity electronic arts

Once upon a time there was a great videogame developer called Maxis Software, headed up by legendary designer Will Wright. Wright was the creative force behind some of the most celebrated, early genre defining games ever made, including Sim City, The Sims, and pretty much anything with "Sim" in front of it. Without doubt a legend of the industry, Wright's gift was the ability to take complex or mundane activities, like the ministerial running of a city, the management of an ecosystem, or simply just going through one's daily routine, and turn it into a game that was not only deep and compelling, but accessible to all gamers.

Unfortunately that company no longer exists. Mega-sized videogame publisher EA bought Maxis and all its intellectual properties, killed it, and hung the carcass on its mantle in the form of subsidiary EA Maxis, a company which is linked with the old Maxis in name only, with Wright and all of the original team having left the company soon after the takeover.

But without a doubt Maxis' most commercially successful creation has been The Sims, one of the last great franchises created before the takeover by EA. As most everyone will know, The Sims is a life simulation game, whereby players design an individual and play through their daily life, managing relationships, careers, friendships and family. The Sims also worked splendidly as an interior designer game, allowing players to build and furnish the homes of their dreams using the hard-earned cash their Sims accumulated during the game. Each new game in the series has gone from strength to strength, introducing new features and ever-greater depth. Then EA happened.

Blah blah blah, anti-corporate whining, right? Well hold on there sparky, EA has quite a storied history of destroying great companies and franchises. EA acquired Bullfrog, developer of beloved games Theme Park and Theme Hospital, then literally gutted the company. It doesn't exist, and neither do those franchises any more. EA acquired Westwood, developer of the hugely famous Command & Conquer, a series that essentially created the real time strategy genre, and inexplicably took out all the base-building and strategy of the series and gave us the critically panned abomination that was Command & Conquer 4.

But the most recent and high profile debacle was the new SimCity 5, one of the most famous games franchises of all time, and the first videogame ever to be nominated for war-crimes at The Hague. EA took what was once a deep simulation of huge urban expanse and turned it into a glorified Facebook game. Tiny plots of land, cartoonish art design, forced and unnecessary multiplayer components, and most unforgivably, an always online requirement (a thinly veiled security check against piracy as it turns out). Not only was it an appalling game, it was barely playable due to having to connect to their congested servers.

Given the universal shitstorm EA suffered after SimCity 5, you would expect them to learn from their mistakes and deliver a better product with The Sims 4. It's incredible then, that The Sims 4 appears to be an even bigger catastrophe than SimCity 5.

The name of the game appears to be streamlining. The Sims 4 has been designed to run faster and smoother on more low-powered computers, and to accomplish this EA have cut a huge number of features out of the game.

One of the big new innovations of The Sims 3 was that everything took place in a single continuous world, which had the benefit of eliminating the need for loading screens, and also allowed Sims to leave their home and simply wander about town, or head to their jobs, shops, restaurants etc. This was really quite brilliant, as one of the weaker points of old Sims games had always been the disjointing disconnect between the isolated home and the rest of the world, for the first time in The Sims 3 Sims had complete freedom of movement via walking, or owning their own vehicle, not to mention the possibilities for exploration and discovery of secrets out in the game world.

This has all been cut from The Sims 4, individual homes are now isolated once again. In fact homes are more isolated now than they ever have been in The Sims series before. Sims can no longer walk to other properties, can no longer own vehicles, and in fact don't even get a carpool or bus to work. Now when Sims leave the property they simply "disappear". It seems fitting then that there is far less reason than ever to leave the property in the first place, with no restaurants or shops, and lacking even the most basic ability to go visit neighbours. If all that is not bad enough, the neighbourhood itself is no longer an animated, evolving, viewable location, having been replaced by a static cartoon map where you simply select the house to play.

All of those things essentially take The Sims series back to the very basic mechanics of the first Sims game... but then it gets even worse (We're going to be saying those words a lot in this review by the way).

The most inexcusable, inexplicable, impossible to believe change in the game concerns the career paths your Sims can take. It's a fact that the vast majority of Sims players project themselves into the game somewhat, and play the game at least semi-realistically. To this extent the previous games in the series have allowed Sims to pursue any manner or real-life profession, from doctor to teacher, police officer, businessman, politician, lawyer, etc. Incredibly these most basic of things have been cut from The Sims 4. The only careers present in the game now are cartoonish fantasy careers like secret agent, criminal mastermind or astronaut. In one fell swoop, EA have taken away the ability to play The Sims the way that probably 90% of people play it. It beggars belief.

So then the life-simulation aspect of the game is essentially gone. Sims can no longer leave the home to do anything, there's no town or public areas to visit, and no real careers to pursue. We really can't stress enough just how gutted out this part of the game is. You ever see the movie Misery? Because that's the life your Sims are forced to live now, reclusive and lonely hermit existences. I look forward to the first expansion pack "agoraphobic stuff".

Most learnable skills are gone, relationship managing is hugely streamlined (read: overly simplistic, even by Sims standards), there's honestly just nothing to do in this game. And of course since it's a new Sims game all of the stuff from add-ons like pets, vacations, etc are all gone, you'll have to pay another £40 each if you want those in the near future. The most laughable omission though? Toddlers are gone. That's right, your Sims now grow from a baby (which in Sims 1 style is now simply a movable object rather than another person) to a fully grown child.

But nevermind, maybe the home-building/interior decorating has been improved? Wrong. House building is now much more restrictive. Smaller lots, fewer floors, and only one foundation allowed per lot (so no sheds or guest houses). In addition major series hallmarks have been removed like swimming pools, gardens, most things really.

Another of The Sims 3's major improvements, the create-a-style which ingeniously allowed players to create their own patterns and textures for all items and clothing in immaculate detail, is completely gone. Many familiar items like pool table, hot tub, all gone. Book shelves, gone, as are all books in general. The Ephemeric likes to pretend that The Sims 4 is set in some dystopic nuclear wasteland whereupon leaving the home at all you will be mauled by angry mutated guinea pigs, and as luxury items are so rare all one can do is mournfully watch TV until the sweet caress of death takes you to Simheaven.

Also there are no dishwashers, and The Ephemeric doesn't want to live in a world without dishwashers.

So what has been added to the game? Not a whole lot. The Sims 4 looks pretty much the same as The Sims 3 from a graphics standpoint, which is still quite pretty. Some additional customization of Sim mannerisms has been added which gives a nice bit of character to your Sims. Quite notably the motives and aspirations systems have all been removed and replaced with a new "emotion system" which does pretty much the same thing, but in a much less nuanced entirely "on/off" way... not sure why anyone thought that would be an improvement.

By far the biggest (and possibly only) improvement is the addition of multi-tasking. Sims can now do multiple things at once, and in fairness that is pretty brilliant, it's just like real life. For example as we speak The Ephemeric is multi-tasking, simultaneously writing this review and contemplating over rock hard scotch why he keeps giving EA his money when they churn out such utter tosh. It's like battered-wife syndrome for gamers.

The create-a-sim mode has also been improved, allowing players to drag facial features and craft some pretty nicely detailed Sims, but of course the lack of create-a-style means that clothing your nicely detailed Sims is very restrictive, especially with the tiny selection of default clothing available.

We could go on forever about everything that's been cut out of the game, and the cynical among us would suggest that they'll all be added at a later date, and probably you'll have to pay extra for it, and at the end of the day that's exactly what The Sims 4 feels like. The Sims 4 has far, far less content than it's predecessor games, and adds very little indeed. Honestly it's incredible that this is a final, finished product rather than a very basic proof-of-concept beta version.

At best, The Sims 4 has been stripped down into a very barebones, casual Facebook-style version of The Sims without any of the depth of its predecessors, at worst it's a cash grab designed to sell you an empty shell and then charge for all the content. It's The Sims, but with half the content removed, and likely to be sold to you in addition to the hefty price you already pay for the base game. The question for existing Sims players is why would you pay this much money for a game you already own, but with all the content taken out and costing additional coin? We can't think of an answer, so save your money and get your Sims fix from The Sims 3.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Genre Folktronica
Label Parlophone
Producers Damon Albarn, Brian Eno

damon albarn debut solo album everyday robots 2014

There are precious few musicians in the game today who can really claim to be among rock-royalty. With a career spanning a good 25 years, and some of the most celebrated songs produced during that time credited to his name, Damon Albarn has surely earned that right.

Albarn is widely known as the frontman of iconic Britpop band Blur, and more recently as the founder and principal creative force behind the chart conquering Gorillaz project. It would take all day to list just some of the world famous tunes he has written as part of those two acts, but what impresses most is simply the breadth of his work, delving into an incredible range of different genres, and inventing whole new ones. This chameleonic nature and distinctive vocal qualities have often earned Albarn comparisons to another British great, David Bowie, and as time passes it's a comparison that seems ever more apt.

It's somewhat of a landmark event in British music then for Albarn to be releasing his first album as a solo artist, Everyday Robots, and true to form it's almost nothing like anything Albarn has done before.

While a wide gulf can be drawn between the spangly Britpop of Blur and Gorillaz's more club-focused dance music, Albarn has always put distance between the musician and the person. Both bands are known for radio-friendly pop, with subjects ranging from the environment to general life in London. With his first solo work, Albarn has delved much deeper into his own mind to bring us his most intimate music yet.

Everyday Robots strikes a more downbeat and introspective tone. Albarn lays bare his demons and explores his own troubled past with drug addictions, relationships and insecurity. The result is something more revelatory than revolutionary.

Without doubt the highlight of the album comes in the stunning double-sided track You and Me. The opening "you" segment begins in chasteningly paranoid fashion, brutal and demoralizing, before breaking down with a flurry of steel drums into the gorgeously cathartic "me" section. Absolutely incredible.

Elsewhere the quality remains high with the beautifully nostalgic Hostiles, delicately acoustic and hauntingly sparse, while The Selfish Giant is a dazzingly lovely opine on narcissism and loneliness in the digital age.

The trouble with Everyday Robots is that it is too relentless. It's all very dark, and melancholic, and introspective. While some of the songs are absolutely brilliant, others are much less memorable, and the relentless drudgery of it all makes sitting through the entire album hard work. From Albarn we have come to expect variety, but with his debut solo album the listener is forced very single-mindedly through his worst nightmares. The music may be brilliant, but like Schindler's List it's the sort of classic you may want to listen to once and then only sparingly after. Have a listen, pick out the key songs and cherish them, but you won't stick around for the rest.

Must Listen :
You and Me
The Selfish Giant

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

That magical time of the year is almost upon us. Sure, we had a pretty entertaining World Cup to kick off the 2014 summer, but the barren, football-less month since it ended has been as empty as a Germany fan's soul. The Premier League season is about to commence, and as per usual the Ephemeric is here to run the rule over every team in the Premier League and render a few inevitably accurate predictions. Read on for the ultimate preview of what awaits us these next nine months.

premier league 2012/13 preview

Premier League 2014/15 Predictions in a nutshell:
Champions: Manchester City
Champions League qualifiers: Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal
Relegated: West Brom, QPR, Burnley
Golden Boot winner: Sergio Agüero (Manchester City)
Golden Glove winner: Joe Hart (Manchester City)
Player to watch: Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
New signing to watch: Alexis Sánchez (Arsenal)
Young player to watch: Romelu Lukaku (Everton)
First manager to get the sack: Paul Lambert (Aston Villa)
Shock of the season: Southampton's outgoing players won't justify the £100 million spent on them


Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Position last season: 4th
Manager: Arsene Wenger

With the standard of competition among the league's second tier of top clubs, Arsenal's 4th place finish last season appeared even more uncertain than usual. With just a few weeks of the season remaining, Roberto Martinez's resurgent Everton side seemed firmly in the driver's seat, and Arsenal fans were no doubt left eternally grateful for the Toffees' unexpected collapse that allowed Arsenal to once again scrape into the Champions League qualification round.

To top that, Arsenal also managed to end their decade long wait for a trophy by staging a late comeback to claim the FA Cup against a weakened Hull team. The significance of this victory should not be understated. Numerous jokes abound about how drastically the world has changed in the decade since their previous trophy (seriously, what's Facebook anyway?), but suffice it to say there is literally a generation of Arsenal fans for whom this is the first trophy they've ever seen the team win, and that's a morale boost that sees Arsenal start the season on a confidence high the likes of which have not been seen for a long time. Still Wenger's brow remains eternally furrowed.

That said, the strategy by which Arsenal are becoming relevant again is important to highlight, marking a complete reversal in club policy. Gone are the days when Arsenal fans would lambast their rivals' large cash investments and rely on bringing up youth. Last summer Arsenal broke all club records to sign Mesut Özil for £50 million. This summer they have continued this strategy by spending a whopping £75 million, outspending both Chelsea and Manchester City.

At the same time it is worth noting the struggles of the club at youth level, with the Arsenal U21s relegated to the bottom division of youth football last season, while Chelsea and Manchester City battle it out for the top flight title. Suddenly it is Arsenal that increasingly rely on the transfer market, while Chelsea and Man City dominate the youth development in England. Arsenal fans will need to find something new to taunt rivals with, though if all goes according to plan, for once they might actually have something on the pitch to talk about.

Among these new signings is the criminally underrated former Barcelona attacker Alexis Sánchez, a player who should instantly become a star in this Arsenal side, and indeed the league as a whole. With him and Özil leading the line this is looking like the strongest Arsenal side in many years. Say it with hushed tones, but Arsenal might just be title contenders once again. 

Key Signing: Alexis Sánchez
Key Man: Mesut Özil

Verdict: Arsenal are well positioned to stage their first title challenge in over a decade, but will face a tough challenge from their strengthened rivals.


Nickname: The Villans
Ground: Villa Park
Capacity: 42,593
Last season: 15th
Manager: Paul Lambert

Aston Villa are starting to have the air of a club in stagnation. Paul Lambert, once the toast of young English managers, has not been able to have the impact at Villa Park that many had hoped. At the end of the day this is still the club that forced Martin O'Neill out with the owner's "unorthodox" policies. To add to the instability is the fact that the aforementioned owner is so keen to sell the club, something they have as yet been unable to do.

In such an environment it would be a challenge for any manager to thrive, but Lambert starts the season on borrowed time, and a poor start could see him crowned this year's winner of the managerial sack race. It's the harsh reality of football, but Lambert has not gotten results, and far from  his preferred vision of bringing in young and hungry players his financial restrictions have forced his hand in signing the aging likes of Joe Cole, Kieran Richardson and Philippe Senderos (who will no doubt be relishing the opportunity to play against Drogba again). Elsewhere Roy Keane has joined the fun as assistant manager, because let's face it who better to bring stability in a crisis situation.

While another relegation struggle seems likely all is not lost. After all Ron Vlaar and Christian Benteke have been very impressive of late, and the likes of Jores Okore and Charles N'Zogbia are back following prolonged injuries last season. Meanwhile left back Aly Cissokho from Valencia seems a more promising signing. Certainly this Villa side looks more complete and fit than last season, which will afford Lambert even less of an excuse should he fail to deliver.

A great deal depends on whether Benteke can come back from injury and stay fit for long enough to make an impact on the season. If he does then Aston Villa should be able to avoid the drop, but without him they could be in real trouble.

Key Signing: Aly Cissokho
Key Man: Christian Benteke

Verdict: A tough season awaits. Villa will survive, but will Lambert?


Nickname: The Clarets
Ground: Turf Moor
Capacity: 22,546
Last season: Promoted (2nd)
Manager: Sean Dyche

Burnley were a surprise package in last year's Championship. No one expected them to be within a shout of promotion, let alone automatically qualify. This perception of how they measured up in the lower league should give you some expectation as to just how unfavoured they are in this year's Premier League.

Burnley are not a club that is blessed with financial assets or squad depth, but what they have is a very efficient manager in Sean Dyche, the man who masterminded their surprising success last season. Still such is the worryingly small squad size that Burnley have had to recruit to the tune of six players so far, all for practically nothing. The reliance on bargain buys says everything about where this squad is at. This will be a much tougher test for Dyche and his boys.

On the bright side Burnley can rightly claim to be one of the best supported clubs in the country, with the highest ratio of match attendance to town population in England. The fans will be in full voice no matter what happens to the club, so that's one way in which they beat Manchester United.

These fans will be desperately hoping that the club can hold on to top scorer Danny Ings who has been linked with a move to similarly depleted Southampton. Meanwhile the signing of Matthew Taylor from West Ham seems a very smart buy for a team that will be looking to play tough and competitive this season in a league that frankly looks like to spit them right back out unless they can pull off something remarkable. Burnley defied the odds in stunning fashion last season, can they do it again?

Key Signing: Matthew Taylor
Key Man: Danny Ings

Verdict: A tough fight against relegation, one that they are not expected to win.


Nickname: Blues
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Capacity: 41,837
Last season: 3rd
Manager: José Mourinho

Last season's Chelsea were a markedly improved side compared to recent seasons. The return of Mourinho has clearly galvanized the club, and impressively contended for the Premier League title despite having a surprisingly young and inexperienced squad.

Ultimately what put the nail in Chelsea's coffin last season was the lack of a reliable striker, in retrospect a shocking oversight from the previous transfer window, especially with Lukaku going off on loan to Everton. Chelsea had the best defensive record of any club last season, and remarkably took more points against the top clubs than any other team in the league. However with just weeks remaining and sat top of the table, Chelsea dropped out of the race by failing to find the net against defensively-minded bottom half of the table minnows. Points dropped against the likes of Aston Villa, Sunderland, Crystal Palace and West Brom. Two wins from any of those games and Chelsea would have been champions. The team lacked that ability to break down a tight and committed defence, didn't have a striker who could consistently make the difference in tight games.

This summer the club has sought to remedy this by signing Diego Costa from Atletico Madrid. Costa scored a remarkable 40 goals last season, and if his excellent pre-season form is anything to go by he looks set to hit the ground running. Still doubts remain over a striker who has only managed twice in his career to score 10 goals in a season. It's especially a worry with Lukaku now permanently moved on to Everton, and only the aging Drogba and misfiring Torres (or as Liverpool call him, Agent Fernando) as back up should Costa run into any problems. Chelsea made a catastrophic error three years ago when they switched Sturridge for Torres, could history be repeating itself with Lukaku?

Joining Costa is Atletico team mate Filipe Luis as a replacement for the outgoing Chelsea legend Ashley Cole. Luis' quality is without question, but approaching 30 himself and with little international experience one wonders how long-term a replacement he could possibly be. César Azpilicueta excelled in that position last year, but as a natural right back was playing out of position. The only other alternative at left back looks to be youth product Nathan Aké, a versatile player who can play in midfield or defense, and has been extensively used in pre-season.

Meanwhile former Barcelona and Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas is joining the club to take Lampard's position in deep central midfield, ostensibly with the aim of unlocking stubborn defences with his playmaking ability. Again there is little doubt of his ability, instead one has to question his attitude. Fabregas has consistently been a nasty player on the pitch, and his antics in recent years have seen him ostracized from his boyhood club and kicked out of the international World Cup camp. Fabregas will need to settle down and concentrate on his game if he wants to reach the potential that so many have seen in him. And if not then he can always warm himself with fire of a thousand Arsenal shirts being burned by former fans in his honour.

While many players in this squad are on the young and inexperienced side, particularly in the attacking positions, there is now a lot more proven pedigree at Mourinho's disposal. In particular one needs to watch Eden Hazard, one of the league's best players last season, arguably the best with Suarez now gone, and seemingly on the cusp of reaching the very top of world football. Really Mourinho can have no excuses if his team fails to secure silverware this season.

Key Signing: Diego Costa
Key Man: Eden Hazard

Verdict: One of the clear favourites for the title along with Man City.


Nickname: Eagles, Glaziers
Ground: Selhurst Park
Capacity: 26,309
Last season: 11th
Manager: Tony Pulis

After a poor start to the season that saw the Eagles seemingly destined for the drop, Palace made the game-changing decision to switch managers, with the highly pedigreed Tony Pulis brought in to replace the highly humorous Ian Holloway.

Pulis pulled off some remarkable feats during his tenure at Stoke and so far looks to be doing an even better job at Palace, who arguably ended the season as one of the league's form sides, and became something of a bogey team for the title challengers, winning Pulis the FA Manager of the Year award in the process. The question for this season is simply, can it continue?

Crystal Palace have taken real strides in recent years, and the mood is buoyant right now, but fans would be wise not to get ahead of themselves. The truth is that Crystal Palace still have a very thin squad by Premier League standards, especially when it comes to experience. It seems the season is very much hinging on the transfers that Pulis brings it. It's all been quite quiet so far, but the focus right now must be on proven top flight quality.

In particular Palace are weak in numbers in defence, though the recruitment of veteran Fulham centre half Brede Hangeland (a very Pulis-esque player) goes some way towards rectifying that, and are in need of a winger and central midfielder. Elsewhere the signing of Frazier Campbell is seen as a good bit of business and will bolster the side's talent up front, but the key man in the side will remain no-nonsense captain Mile Jedinak. Jedinak was the heart and soul of this Palace team, and fans will be praying that he hangs on for another year.

If Palace handles these issues adequately, a comfortable finish in the middle of the table looks very realistic for the club, but otherwise there runs the risk of being dragged down into the scrap at the lower end of the table.

EDIT: Since writing this Tony Pulis has quit his job over some transfer policy issues, the day before the start of the season. Thank you so much Tony for making our job easier. Whatever, I'm not writing a new one. Palace will probably be relegated without Pulis... or not, what do I know, I'm a blog, not the Oracle.

Key Signing: Brede Hangeland
Key Man: Mile Jedinak

Verdict: Pulis can keep them up, no he can't.


Nickname: Toffees
Ground: Goodison Park
Capacity: 40,170
Last season: 5th
Manager: Roberto Martínez

Roberto Martinez's first season at Goodison Park was what some might call a stunner. His Everton side played with a verve and swagger not seen since the club's glory days of the 1980s, and were desperately unlucky not to pip Arsenal in their struggle for 4th place. In the end Everton ended up with their highest points total in the Premier League era, a tally that would have earned them Champions League football in any other season. In just one season, Martinez has become one of the hottest managers in Europe.

But far from resting on his dream debut season, Martinez is setting his sights higher. Champions League qualification is very much the aim for Everton this year, and for once the club has put its money where it's mouth is, declaring their ambition with the marquee signing of Chelsea youngster Romelu Lukaku for a club record £30 million. Lukaku may only be 21 years old, but has already had two goal-filled seasons in the Premier League, and has sky high potential. Lukaku could well turn out to be one of the signings of the season and lift Everton to a new level.

Elsewhere Phil Jagielka, Leighton Baines and Sylvain Distin are all well proven Premier League stars at the back, while Tim Howard is on a massive high after his World Cup heroics. Kevin Mirallas had a top notch first season in England, as did breakthrough youth product Ross Barkley. If there is a weakness in this squad, it's that many key players are starting to get old, particularly in defence, and while Everton has promising prospects coming through, one wonders if they've done enough over the summer to bolster their squad to the standard one might expect of a top four contender.

The key to success with this squad will be Ross Barkley in the midfield, looking to build on his spectacular past season and make the heart of that Everton team his own. Barkley has the look about him of a young Steven Gerrard, except that people can actually understand him when he speaks, and if given the chance could be a huge player for both club and country.

Everton will be exciting to watch this season, with the ambition to challenge the big boys and the players to make it a real possibility. With a few more signings, they could be a real force this season. Exciting times to be an Everton fan.

Key Signing: Romelu Lukaku
Key Man: Ross Barkley

Verdict: A top four challenge is realistic, but the top of the table is looking more competitive than ever.


Nickname: The Tigers
Ground: KC Stadium
Capacity: 25,586
Last season: 16th
Manager: Steve Bruce

The end of last season saw two big wins for Hull City. First and foremost, the club survived in the Premier League, and will play top flight football for another year. The second is the Premier League's rejection of club owner Assem Allam's proposal to change the team name to "the Hull Tigers" because "City" is too common a name. With that embarrassment aside, fans breathe a sigh of relief and look ahead to the new season.

Hull was also hugely impressive in reaching the FA Cup final for the first time, being desperately unlucky to lose it to Arsenal having gone a few goals up early on. A repeat of that is unlikely this season, but their presence in the final does mean that they will contend in the Europa League this year. This is the club's first appearance in European competition, a remarkable feat. But at the same time this presents a risk, history shows us that clubs having to juggle domestic and European football simultaneously invariably have a tougher time of it.

As excited as Hull will be to play in Europe, the first priority must be to stay in the Premier League again. Fortunately in this regard, Steve Bruce is a master. Few managers have as much experience as him at fighting against relegation. In order to prepare for this year's struggle he has recruited well over the summer. Jake Livermore, who paired up so well with Tom Huddlestone last year, has been signed on permanent basis, as has Snodgrass from Norwich. But potentially the most interesting signing will be promising former Blackpool winger Tom Ince, signed on a free transfer following the expiration of his contract.

Add to that Tom Huddlestone and Curtis Davies, rocks down the spine of the team with good experience, and Hull look like a side who should be able to stay up.

Key Signing: Tom Ince
Key Man: Tom Huddlestone

Verdict: Should avoid the drop, provided Europe doesn't prove too taxing on the squad.


Nickname: The Foxes
Ground: King Power Stadium
Capacity: 32,262
Last season: Promoted (Champions)
Manager: Nigel Pearson

The first thing that needs to be said about Leicester: they were very, very impressive in the Championship last season, winning the league at a cantor and becoming only the fifth team to exceed 100 points in that division. The second thing? This will mean very little when they make the step up to the big time.

The return of Nigel Pearson as replacement for outgoing Sven-Goran Eriksson turned out to be an inspired decision. It's easy to forget that Pearson enjoyed a highly successful first spell with the club, until he was forced out by a takeover consortium, who in their infinite wisdom decided that Sven-Goran Eriksson was a better man to lead the club, based on his success some thirty years ago. Lesson learned; suits in charge of football clubs often don't know what they're doing. Back comes Pearson, and Leicester are back in the top flight.

The team has thrived around a solid core consisting of Kasper Schmeichel in goal, yes that Kasper Schmeichel son of one of the greatest keepers of all time, and considered the next big thing at Man City until Sven (him again?) ruined his career. But now Kasper is becoming a well renowned keeper in his own right and will surely be relishing the opportunity to prove himself in the top flight again. He is supported by the impressive Wes Morgan and experienced Paul Konchesky in defence, while in the midfield Danny Drinkwater and Anthony Knockaert have been hugely impressive. David Nugent leads the front line and has scored more times for England than you.

Leicester's transfer activity is certainly interesting, including veteran centre back Matthew Upson, formerly hotly tipped Marc Albrighton, and a big money move for Argentinian striker Leonardo Ulloa, whose name sounds suspiciously like the Martian battle cry from War of the Worlds. That's got to count for something right?

Of all the newly promoted sides Leicester look to have the best shot at staying up this year. They have a strong defence and pace in the attack. It will be a huge undertaking, and questions must be asked about their squad depth in what has been a surprisingly quiet transfer window, but confidence is high.

Key Signing: Ahmed Elmohamady
Key Man: Robbie Brady

Verdict: Should have enough to stay up and pick a nice safe spot in the lower mid table.


Nickname: Reds
Ground: Anfield
Capacity: 45,362
Last season: 2nd
Manager: Brendan Rodgers

Plenty has been said on Brendan Rodgers, suddenly one of European football's top managers, who steered Liverpool to within a whisker of a first league title in 25 years. Ultimately it was Rodgers' former mentor Mourinho who derailed what looked like an inevitable title triumph, although some say Steven Gerrard may have had something to do with it.

Whatever the story, there's no doubting now that Liverpool are back among the big dogs. But can they repeat this season of success, or even go one step further and finally reclaim the top spot of English football?

Liverpool have a strong team. Daniel Sturridge was superb for Liverpool, reminding Chelsea repeatedly what they're missing out on, while Coutinho and Raheem Sterling continued to take their game to new heights. Steven Gerrard was like a man reborn after many years of looking like a man in retirement. Mignolet turned out to be an inspried signing in goal, while even Jordan Henderson, once the butt of so many jokes, turned in a top notch season. This was a Liverpool side bristling with quality (shaky defence aside).

But the key to this Liverpool team was always the front three of Sterling, Sturridge and Suarez. Luiz Suarez is in the Ephemeric's opinion, one of the best, if not the best, footballers in the world right now. True, Sturridge bagged a lot of goals last season, but would he be as successful without his partnership with Suarez? We have serious doubts.

His loss is irreplacable for Liverpool. Frankly despite how good his teammates are, if Suarez had not been in this team last year Liverpool would not have been in the title race. So common sense would dictate that they have little chance of repeating their success this season. Liverpool's hopes will depend very much on how they replace Suarez.

In that respect they have spent a good £90 million, the most of any team in the Premier League, in order to build a team that can win the title. In comes Rickie Lambert for £4million, his Southampton colleagues Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren join him for £50 million between them, Former hotly tipped Emre Can and Belgian World Cup starlet Divock Origi are in for £10 million a pop. It's a big outlay, but are these transfers worth it? Origi and Can are both very much unproven players, while Lovren and Lallana are never worth anywhere near as much as Liverpool spent on them. Lambert is certainly being brought in as a back up. Instead the key signing for Liverpool is someone that few had heard of before this summer, the Serbian Lazar Marković signed for £20 million.

Liverpool are a good side, certainly in the mix for the title. But is filling your squad with players who finished mid table last season really going to elevate you from 2nd to 1st? Can anyone really replace Luis Suarez? This is shaping up to be the most competitive Premier League season of all time, and even to get into the top four Liverpool will likely have to fend off the resurgent Manchester United, a newly confident Arsenal, and the ambitious upstarts from Everton and Tottenham. The Liverpool revolution may have ended before it ever really begun.

Key Signing: Lazar Marković
Key Man: Daniel Sturridge

Verdict: An outside title contender, unlikely to go as close as last season. Top 4 is a more realistic goal, but even that is far from certain.


Nickname: Blues
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Capacity: 48,000
Last season: Champions
Manager: Manuel Pellegrini

In the entire history of the Premier League, only Chelsea and Manchester United have managed to win back to back titles. It's a big ask for any team. Arsenal's invincibles failed, Ancelotti's double winners failed, and Liverpool... couldn't even win the one title. Can Manchester City make history and join these ranks?

Manchester City have one of the strongest squads in all of Europe, and in Pellegrini they have a gifted manager. They begin the season in a confident mood, as arguably the best team in the country right now. But certain concerns stand between them and another title.

For starters, City have so far disappointed continually in the Champions League, leading to speculation that this might be their priority in the coming year, distracting them from domestic football. This is a real possibility, after all Chelsea only managed to be crowned champions of Europe in a season in which the league seemed almost an after thought for them.

At the same time by running afoul of Financial Fair Play rules, City have severely limited their operations in the transfer market, having been slapped with a fine (that they'll care very little about) and a net spend limit of £49 million. Although when you think about it, it's very hard to spend £49 million more than you bring in from sales unless you really go hog wild.

With that in mind, City have sold a good £30 million worth of players, and spent a relatively meager (by their standards) £50 million. Right back Bacary Sagna has been brought in for free from Arsenal, while Willy Caballero will provide competition for Joe Hart in goal, but certainly the headline signing is that of France international centre half Eliaquim Mangala. In Mangala, City have found who they hope will be the ultimate long term partner for captain Vincent Kompany, and certainly he comes hugely hyped from his time at Porto. Still it's worth noting that several big clubs have been looking at him for a long time, and opted not to make a move, and doubts persist over his mentality.

Otherwise there is little transfer activity expected, this is after all an absurdly strong squad already. Samir Nasri will be looking to follow up his impressive season, while Vincent Kompany continues to go from strength to strength. Key to Citys' fortunes will be whether Sergio Aguero can stay fit up front, and how talisman Yaya Touré responds following his well publicized antagonism with the club over the summer. We'd make a birthday cake joke, but it's just too easy.

Regardless of any difficulties though, City go into the season as one of the clear favourites for the title.

Key Signing: Eliaquim Mangala
Key Man: Sergio Agüero

Verdict: Without doubt a title favourite, whose squad depth probably just edges out Chelsea.


Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Capacity: 76,000
Last season: 7th
Manager: Louis Van Gaal

Last season's "Chosen One" David Moyes turned out to be one of the biggest flops in Premier League history. Manchester United went from champions to failing to even qualify for Europe in one season, and so it is no shock that Moyes was promptly shown the door.

Enter stage left Louis Van Gaal, legendary dutch manager with a glittering career of success and a very impressive World Cup behind him. Van Gaal has thoroughly shaped European football, known as a mentor to some of the world's finest coaches from Mourinho to De Boer and Pep Guardiola, and much of that comes from his ruthless mentality that has earned him the nickname "the Iron Tulip". This guy makes the bold decisions and doesn't care what people think. During this past World Cup, for example, he switched his goalkeepers before penalty a shoot  out, and promptly ran out winners. Dude has cojones.

On the way in is the big money £30 million pound signing of Ander Herrera, a very fine player who will fit well into the United side. Next is the equally big money £30 million pound signing of youngster Luke Shaw, a promising defender who has only had one season of Premier League football. This one seems slightly harder to understand, especially when one considers the allegedly absurd wages the 19 year old is on. United throwing this much cash on such an unproven player just shows how desperate the club really is.

Otherwise United has seen a surprising lack of business over the summer, especially strange considering how many players have left the club, from Ferdinand to Vidic, Evra and United legend Bebe. For now though, this is very much the same United squad as last year.

The question becomes, were Man United a mediocre team playing above themselves under Ferguson, or a good team playing below themselves under Moyes? The answer is probably somewhere in between, but it would be highly presumptuous to assume that Van Gaal is just going to waltz into Old Trafford and sort everything out, there is much work to be done.

So far the key to reinvigorating United seems to be, somewhat anti-climatically, employing common sense football tactics. David Moyes insisted on some very strange ideas during his doomed tenure, whether it was the decision not to play Rooney and Van Persie at the same time, or his record signing of Chelsea star Juan Mata, only to continually push him out of position on the wing. United fans will be relieved then that Van Gaal's first act has been to switch to a more sensible 3-5-2 system, with Van Persie and Rooney collaborating up front, and Mata playing right behind them. It seems obvious really... play your best players and put them in their best position. Obvious to everyone except Moyes apparently.

So with a competent manager, and players looking happy and confident again, what can we expect? United will be a lot more competitive this season, that much seems certain. Between Mata, Rooney and Van Persie they have three of the league's very best players, true gamechangers. This is a United team that can beat anyone on their day, and a manager who knows how to win. But the team's defence looks highly suspect, with the old guard now retired and moved on, and there is shockingly little depth on the bench. The hype is high, but surely they don't look like a title contending squad?

Key Signing: Luke Shaw
Key Man: Juan Mata

Verdict: Will be competing for a top four place, with only a wistful glance at the top of the table.


Nickname: Magpies
Ground: St. James' Park
Capacity: 52,387
Last season: 10th
Manager: Alan Pardew

Alan Pardew's boys now seem well established as a midtable side. A club with this much history is always going to have the ambition to do more, but they are certainly nowhere near that stage yet, and questions abound as to whether Pardew is even the man who can take the club there (might be worth an cheeky bet on the sack race!).

A decent squad on paper, with Tiote, Coloccini, Tim Krul, and a seemingly never ending stream of promising French talent. Newcastle made a promising start last season, only to be undone by inconsistency and the typical Toon drama.

This has been a particularly active summer for the squad though, with a new striker in Emmanuel Riviere, Remy Cabella tipped as the new Yohann Cabaye, and Siem de Jong seemingly pegged for the missing number 10 role. Newcastle have signed no fewer than eight players. The club's success will depend largely on how well these new boys settle. In recent years the club has shown itself to be quite astute at signing relatively unknown players, and fans will be hoping for more of the same.

A bigger problem is Pardew, not the most popular manager in any quarter. Pardew's spats with the playing staff are well documented, and have resulted in the freezing out of stars like Hatem Ben Arfa, while his pitch side shenanigans repeatedly land him in hot water with the football authorities.

Still, Newcastle can rest comfortable going into a season knowing that their relegation threat seems subdued for now, and that in the next few years they can hopefully cast their eyes upwards once again.

Key Signing: Siem de Jong
Key Man: Tim Krul
Verdict: A mid table season of consolidation and transition.


Nickname: The Hoops
Ground: Loftus Road
Capacity: 18,489
Last season: Promoted (playoff)
Manager: Harry Redknapp

Everyone's favourite team returns! I mean who doesn't love a cocky London club bankrolled by a wealthy benefactor? Especially when that club has the ever lovable Ferdinand brothers on board, and Harry Redknapp, although for some reason all his payslips are made out to a "Rosie"?

The truth is that QPR, for all their financial backing, have been a fairly shambolic club in recent years, and despite a massive outlay on transfers, ended their last season in the top flight relegated with only 25 points. Still, this is a club with considerable resources, and for all his flaws, Harry Redknapp is an astute and experienced manager who knows how to keep a weak team treading water. Much more will be expected this time around, and QPR fans are quietly optimistic that this is the start of a new era for the club.

The key this time around will be stability. So it's a good thing then that they have a goalkeeper known for this, and a new defender known for this, and then Joey Barton... well... let's not even google that one.

On the bright side though, they have signed Steven Caulker, a very promising young defender, and Jordan Mutch, who comes hotly tipped from Cardiff. Meanwhile in Charlie Austin and Loic Remy they have two very fine strikers, and with Bobby Zamora some good dependable experience.

Despite this though there is just so much risk of history repeating, with the disruptive influences mentioned above, and just so many imponderables. Can Harry keep them afloat? It's very possible, but it just seems too darn inevitable that the whole thing will implode once again, and send QPR right back down where they came from.

Key Signing: Steven Caulker
Key Man: Loic Remy
Verdict: A real relegation contender, but a glimmer of hope is there.


Nickname: Saints
Ground: St. Mary's Stadium
Capacity: 32,690
Last season: 8th
Manager: Ronald Koeman

Southampton were one of the great success stories of last year, floating right around the top of the table for much of the season, and settling in a very respectable 8th place. Not bad for a young and inexperienced team that had only been promoted a few years prior.

But that success comes with a cost. Mauricio Pochettino was rightly lauded for his team's success, and subsequently poached by Tottenham, while no fewer than five of their stars from last season have moved on to bigger clubs. Suddenly one of the country's most exciting up and coming teams has been torn back down, with only a shell of a squad and an unproven manager remaining.

So to recap, the sky is falling for Southampton fans. Or at least that's the impression one would get from the general buzz in the build up to this season.

The reality is that Ronald Koeman is an experienced and capable manager, with a good three Eredivisie titles and one Copa del Rey to his name, not to mention all his experience as a world class player.

The reality is that they have retained several key players in Jose Fonte, Nathaniel Clyne, and Jack Cork, and now they have a whopping £100 million transfer kitty to spend after all the overpriced outgoing players. So far they have spent this money well, bringing in the very promising duo of Dušan Tadić and Graziano Pelle in the attack, not to mention the proven Fraser Fortster in goal who will relish the opportunity to test his skills in the Premier League.

They've also brought in proven Premier League striker Shane Long, loaned in Chelsea fullback and Champions League winner Ryan Bertrand, and they've still got over £50 million left in the till for more signings. Last but not least, they have a secret weapon in youngster James Ward-Prowse, hotly tipped as this season's Ross Barkley. Ward-Prowse could be set for a breakthrough season.

Suddenly things don't look so bleak for Southampton.

Key Signing: Dušan Tadić
Key Man: James Ward-Prowse

Verdict: Will do better than people expect, nice midtable finish.


Nickname: Potters
Ground: Britannia Stadium
Capacity: 28,384
Last season: 9th
Manager: Mark Hughes

The loss of manager Tony Pulis was seen by some as a deathknell for this club, especially with the appointment of Mark Hughes who had become something of a laughing stock in recent years following failed stints at Manchester City, QPR, and a hugely embarrassing attempted switch from Fulham to Aston Villa that ultimately left him unemployed and unwanted by either club.

It surprised many, then, to see that Mark Hughes has actually had a decent first season in charge of the club. It shouldn't, after all Mark Hughes was a major success at Blackburn, and people forget that he was actually doing a good job at Fulham before he put his foot in his mouth, and then there's Manchester City and QPR, two clubs where Hughes' failings are probably more attributable to well publicised behind the scenes shenanigans than his own talents.

So say it quietly, but this could be a pretty good year for Stoke. The club still has a solid cast of Begovic in goal, Palacios, Odemwingie, N'Zonzi, Shawcross, Huth and several other experienced Premier League players.

New bou Marko Arnautovic is an exciting signing, as is Phil Bardsley, but without doubt the main addition to the squad is former Barcelona superstar Bojan Krkic. Bojan is arguably the most interesting signing in the entire league; once tipped as a future world superstar, Bojan went on to win La Liga titles, Champions Leagues and others before the Delorean hit 88 mph and he was stranded in 1885 (we've since been informed that he may actually have been playing for Roma and Ajax). Few would ever have predicted he'd end up at Stoke, still in the prime of his career at age 23, but here he is, and with everything to prove.

So we have a settled manager, a solid squad, and ambitious new signings. It's a far cry from the former "hoof it and hope" approach of which Stoke have been accused. This is a team that Hughes is looking to get playing decent football, and winning games through quality rather than brute strength.

Stoke have clearly improved this year, but at the same time so have most of their rivals. The mood is one of cautious positivity at this point, which is a new sensation at the Britannia. Nonetheless, at the time of writing there is one potential road bump on the club's prospects, and that is the future of N’Zonzi. To the casual fan he is probably best known for on-pitch strops, fighting with Lucas Leiva, and performing a hit and run on an innocent cyclist. But in purely football terms, the player is a Baskerville Shark swimming amongst fish.

Key Signing: Bojan Krkic
Key Man: Steven N'Zonzi

Verdict: A decent pre-season run and a good start to the season should see them looking at a top half of the table finish.


Nickname: Black Cats
Ground: Stadium of Light
Capacity: 48,300
Last season: 14th
Manager: Gus Poyet

Imagine the shock when Paolo Di Canio was sacked last season. No seriously imagine it... because we sure can't! The famously volatile Di Canio's only previous managerial position ended in spectacular fashion and involved accusations of theft and breaking and entering. Honestly it's hard to imagine what the board were thinking when they picked him.

Nevertheless they've brought in former Chelsea man Gus Poyet, generally considered a rising star in the management game, and he promptly steadied the ship and put Sunderland into a safe midtable position. Gus is a clear step up on the bench, but does the squad have enough about them to stay safe this season?

Decent strikers in Steven Fletcher and Connor Wickham, the latter of which in particular looked finally to be hitting his often hyped potential towards the end of last season. Adam Johnson is a very talented winger, while Lee Cattermole and Sebastian Larsson are very solid midfielders.

The club has not been bashful in the transfer market either. The signing of Jack Rodwell is an exciting one, while versatile defender Billy Jones from West Brom will provide extra depth at the back. Quite interesting is the signing of former Chelsea youth product Patrick van Aanholt, a very hotly tipped young left back with already an international cap to his name.

It's a good squad, and they've reinforced well. What the club needs now is some stability. Poyet has all the tools to bring calm to the dressing room and start putting out the results, and if he does that then the club will be in good shape.

Key Signing: Patrick van Aanholt
Key Man: Connor Wickham

Verdict: Unpredictable, but should finish safely in the midtable.


Nickname: The Swans
Ground: Liberty Stadium
Capacity: 20,532
Last season: 12th
Manager: Garry Monk

Another year another manager. Michael Laudrup started so well, but ultimately turned out just to be feeding on the scraps of the impressive Brendan Rodgers era. Laudrup is gone now, and in his place we have Garry Monk.

Following Laudrup’s departure Garry Monk was installed first as temporary gaffer during the club’s recruitment process, with chairman Huw Jenkins stating that the club legend had been getting involved with backroom affairs and learning ready for this possibility.

Despite interest from Dutch great Ronald Koeman, following positive results and guaranteed Premier League football for the next term, Monk was given the backing of the board to lead the club with a permanent contract. The question will be, can Monk bring his own style to a club that is still so largely shaped in the image of Brendan Rodgers, and establish them as a dependable midtable side?

On paper Swansea are still a very impressive team. Wilfried Bony was one of last season's break out stars up front, while Nathan Dyer is always dangerous. Former Liverpool man Jonjo Shelvey is hotly tipped to have a big year this season, and most interestingly, the club have brought back former key-man Gylfi Sigurðsson. This is all good stuff, but it's only scratching the surface of the summer's activity.

This summer has seen the club bring in no fewer than eight players, including former Arsenal keeper Fabianski as replacement for the outgoing Vorm, exciting Ecuadorian Jefferson Montero, and Bafetimbi Gomis as extra firepower support for Bony.

The key to starting the season well will be to ensure that Bony does not leave before the transfer window shuts. He was the key man last season and surely will be again, although with Gomis they at least look prepared should the unthinkable happen.

With this team intact, and a little luck on the injury front, this Swansea side will push for the top half of the table.

Key Signing: Bafetimbi Gomis
Key Man: Wilfried Bony

Verdict: Swansea have strong foundations but with the generally improving standard of the league will probably finish about the same in midtable again.


Nickname: Spurs
Ground: White Hart Lane
Capacity: 36,236
Last season: 6th
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino

Last season was pretty humiliating for Spurs. The perennially sacked, big talking, little accomplishing André Villas-Boas went out and spent an incredible £100 million last summer, breaking the club's transfer record not once but twice. Despite this, the club ended up very far from the level of title contenders, and most of the roughly £30 million a pop signings have generally been considered flops.

Compared to the mayhem of last year, this summer has been relatively calm for Tottenham. Mauricio Pochettino, who rocketed to fame after his successful year as manager of Southampton, has been appointed as the new Spurs boss, and a very different policy of consolidation has been adopted. Only four players have been brought in, for a total of around £10 million, in stark contrast to the previous incoherent splurge.

So can we expect much improvement from a seemingly troubled squad that has invested so little in the new season? Stability can only be a positive force for this club, and let's not underestimate the effect that a competent manager can have. Perhaps Pochettino's most impressive feat from his time at Southampton was how he managed to progress the players in his squad from one season to the next, from relegation strugglers to a side pushing into the top 10. The transformation under his watch was remarkable. If he can get some of those flop Tottenham signings from last year to start hitting the kind of form that inspired their purchase, that will be as important as any new signing.

To that end, the creative key to the team is the one signing from last year who did himself proud, Christian Eriksen. Long admired by the top clubs, Eriksen was a revelation, especially considering the modest transfer fee he commanded. Elsewhere much will depend on whether other big money signings Erik Lamela and Robert Soldado can justify their fees after very poor debuts.

Of the new boys this summer, Eric Dier looks to be the most crucial. He is a promising defender who will slot right into the team. Otherwise this is still very much the same playing staff from last year. Tottenham spent a lot of money on these players, the only question has to be whether they can finally show that they were worth it.

Tottenham have a strong squad, but it is undoubtedly weak compared to their top rivals, and has a lop-sided look to it. The fact that Gareth Bale has not been adequately replaced is a glaring failure on the part of director of football Franco Baldini, and certainly accusations have been raised that last summer's wrecklessness smack more of desperation than ambition.

So where will the club find themselves in 9 months time? They'd certainly like to think they can push for a top four place finally, but it's hard to see that happening this season. The top six or so clubs have all strengthened hugely in the past year, while pressure from the next tier of clubs is increasing all the time. Spurs are still capable of mixing it with the best of them, but unless they find greater consistency it's hard to see them realistically looking at anything more than Europa League qualificaiton.

Key Signing: Eric Dier
Key Man: Christian Eriksen

Verdict: Top seven probably, top six, possibly.


Nickname: Baggies
Ground: The Hawthorns
Capacity: 26,500
Last season: 17th
Manager: Alan Irvine

West Brom are living dangerously. Last season left them very close to the drop, and despite this being their 5th season in the top flight and despite the very positive financial developments off the pitch, this is a club that lacks stability.

West Brom ran through two managers last season, Steve Clarke, who had previously been the golden boy of the Premier League new managers (how quickly these things can turn) and Pepe Mel, who I'm still not sure who he is. Frankly if you took 20 football fans in a room and asked them who the West Brom manager was, maybe one would know the answer. Alan Irvine (that's who it is by the way) has his work cut out for him if his club is going to stay afloat.

A good eight players have been brought in this summer, while a good number of the club's surplus squad members have moved on. Joleon Lescott, formerly of Manchester City, looks a good signing for the club, as does former Sunderland midfielder Craig Gardner. Equally intriguing is new Belgian left back Sébastien Pocognoli who has impressed in the Bundesliga.

But the key signing has been Brown Ideye, with Anelka's ignominious departure last season, and Peter Odemwingie's much more amusing self destruction, West Brom desperately need someone who can score goals. At £10 million, West Brom are certainly betting that Ideye is going to be the man who can bring that.

The truth is that if you look beyond some interesting signings the squad right now is paper thing, and we mean that in the most literal sense. It is a tiny squad despite all the signings, and frankly you'd be hard pressed to pick out any of the old boys as players with real top flight quality. It's a long season ahead for West Brom.

Key Signing: Brown Ideye
Key Man: Brown Ideye

Verdict: Relegation candidates


Nickname: The Hammers
Ground: The Boleyn Ground
Capacity: 35,016
Last season: 13th
Manager: Sam Allardyce

From promotion to midtable stability in just a few years, one would be tempted to say that Big Sam has done it again. It's hardly the most glamorous football, but beggars can't be choosers, and the fact is that Sam Allardyce keeps you competitive, and more importantly, keeps you safely in the top flight.

And yet somehow we begin the season with Allardyce being talked about as one of the contenders to get sacked first. Why?

You see, West Ham are a unique breed of football club, one that isn't particularly good, and yet still clings on to this ideal of itself as one of England's grand old clubs, a club that prides itself on it's commitment to good, English football.

The reality is that this club was in a heap of trouble until Big Sam came along, and the future of the club will be best served by stability over the next few years. Still, this is the Premier League, every season you see the weaker clubs sacking managers in some inexplicable gesture of grandeur. This year it could be West Ham.

Matters are not helped by Andy Carroll being out for months, and Ravel Morrison being dragged through the courts currently. Pre-season has been a mess and the club are right to be concerned. On the bright side, Teddy Sheringham is in as an attacking coach to calm things down, while Mauro Zarate and Enner Valencia are exciting new signings for fans to salivate over. Carl Jenkinson less so.

The existing squad, built around Kevin Nolan, Mark Noble and the likes should be nice and familiar to Premier League fans, while Carlton Cole, as far as emergency back ups go, isn't terrible and comes with plenty of top flight experience.

As long as the club doesn't do something stupid, like sack Allardyce, they should be safe, and with a bit of luck and some inspiration could push into midtable. But at the same time a few bad results, an ill-advised sacking, and this club will be pulled right down into the thick of the relegation battle.

Key Signing: Mauro Zarate
Key Man: Kevin Nolan

Verdict: Should be safe, assuming the club stays the course

Predicted table:
1. Manchester City
2. Chelsea
3. Manchester United
4. Arsenal
5. Liverpool
6. Everton
7. Tottenham
8. Stoke
9. Newcastle
10. Sunderland
11. Crystal Palace Southampton
12. Swansea
13. Hull
14. West Ham
15. Leicester
16. Aston Villa
17. Crystal Palace
18. West Brom
19. QPR
20. Burnley

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Welcome back to the Ephemeric! We are taking a break from the painstaking preparation of our annual guide to the new Premier League season in order to bring you an urgent message.

robin williams dead suicide 2014 obituary best films roles funniest

Late last night we said goodbye to Robin Williams, a legendary figure in pop culture, and without doubt one of the funniest men to ever have lived. But to refer to Williams simply as a funny man fails to recognize the incredible dramatic talents he possessed, producing serious performances that are just as, if not even more memorable than the comic roles for which he is well known.

An Oscar winner, and an inspiration to many in Hollywood. But rather than simply mourn such a tragedy, we at the Ephemeric want to take this moment to celebrate the remarkable life and career of one of the 20th Century's greatest artists. Here for your consideration, appreciation and enjoyment are the five best Robin Williams movies.

5. Good Will Hunting

good will hunting robin williams oscarOf course no list of Robin Williams films can be complete without mentioning the one for which he finally claimed his Oscar.

His turn as therapist Sean Maguire is Williams' most sensitive and nuanced role, demonstrating better than any of his other work that he can keep his eccentricities in check and deliver a subtle performance of the very highest quality.

Largely a supporting role, that Williams manages to steal the show from the sidelines is remarkable in itself. Touching monologues are brilliantly delivered Other actors have done the "kindly mentor" schtick well, but Williams' performance is one of uniquely human quality.

4. Dead Poets Society

robin williams dead poets societySome have suggested that Williams' Oscar win for Good Will Hunting represents something of a consolation win following other, more deserving nominations. One such nomination is for the Dead Poets Society.

Williams is in full earnest mode as inspirational English teacher John Keating in this powerful look at art, both as a form of expression, and as an essential value of human purpose.

"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."

3. Aladdin

robin williams genie disney aladdinSo highly did Disney value Williams as a performer that they designed their character of the Genie entirely around his brand of humour and style of comedic delivery.

When at first Williams was not interested in doing a cartoon, Disney animators simply threw together a quick animation sequence of the Genie doing one of Williams' stand up routines. Williams reportedly "laughed his ass off", and signed up.

His performance in this movie goes down as one of the all time great voiceovers, and great cartoon characters. Once he was on board, Williams put his full genius into the role, ad-libbing and improvising to bring the full character of his comedy to the role. Allegedly so much of the Genie's dialogue was improvised that Aladdin was denied eligibility for a screenplay Oscar nomination.

2. Mrs. Doubtfire

robin williams mrs doubtfireArguably the film for which Robin Williams is best known with today's generation, and also one of his very funniest performances.

Mrs. Doubtfire is the type of film that if it were made today, or perhaps just with any other lead actor, it would be terrible. The core concept of man dressing up as old British lady to win back his estranged kids sounds like the fare of a bad Martin Lawrence in a fatsuit movie. But in these deftly comic hands, and with Robin Williams on song, it was magic.

As enjoyable for adults as it is for children, Doubtfire largely succeeds on its star's talent for physical comedy and rapid-fire delivery, but also touches on issues of divorce and family in a way that relates to audiences as with few other films. Such is the charm oozing from this movie that it has permanently ingrained itself upon the pop culture landscape.

1. Good Morning Vietnam

robin williams good morning vietnamBut the top prize goes to what is often seen as Williams' breakout role. For Good Morning Vietnam Robin Williams earned his very first Oscar nomination, at a time when he was still see mostly as a comedian. Disney/Touchstone took a chance on his ability as a dramatic actor, and it truly paid off.

What makes Good Morning Vietnam the greatest of all Robin Williams films is its ability to showcase both sides of Williams' talents. Williams brings to the screen the real life story of Adrian Cronauer, a popular military radio broadcaster for the Americans during the Vitenam war. Williams' irreverent portrayal, fast paced ad-libbing and pitch perfect impressions bring the laughs, but is constantly set against the backdrop of suffering and horror. It's a juxtaposition that adds great poignancy to the humour and set a template for storytelling that is still used frequently as an inspiration in movies and television alike.

There are few actors at any point in history who could have so convincingly straddled such humour and tragedy in one setting, but such was the remarkable depth of talent of Robin Williams that even roles of great complexity come off with the greatest of ease.

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