james debate
james debate

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Genre Folk Rock
Label Polydor
Producers Danger Mouse

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In the space of a few years Michael Kiwanuka has gone from a relatively obscure musician dabbling in an array of genres somewhat unsuccessfully, to one of the hottest names in British music. The debut album was folksy and charming, and the follow-up layered and brooding. His third album Kiwanuka continues the evolution of the singer-songwriter with an album of much wider ambition, and a flawless quality of production to match.

As with his previous work, Kiwanuka here sounds timeless without feeling dated. The music is more polyphonic than ever, with complex orchestras of instrumentalists bringing his vision to vinyl. The lyrics, too, elicit a contemporary sense of angst that evokes as many memories of mid-century revolution as it does modern-day tensions. Kiwanuka has often been topical (without being overtly political) and here he delves deeper still into racial anxieties, self-doubt and spirituality. Crucially, the songwriting is as brilliant as ever, and with producer-to-the-stars Danger Mouse at the helm, it sounds as a tight and fully realised vision, with barely a detail amiss.

If I had one criticism of the previous album, Love & Hate, it was that it was relentlessly dour. Kiwanuka manages to add a bit more variety to the tracklist, and nowhere is this clearer than in the opening track and lead single You Ain't the Problem, a remarkably catchy, upbeat number which simultaneously manages to blend the spirit of retro soul with a fresh digital veneer.

The delicately orchestrated Piano Joint (This Kind of Love) and its mesmerising intro track provide one of the album's most atmospheric moments. Understated and raw, it is classic Kiwanuka. The album then offers yet another completely different flavour with Hero, a funky slice of classic rock that pays homage to the civil rights movement and brings to mind sounds of Jimi Hendrix in his heyday.

These different moods and styles keep the album fresh without feeling disparate or disjointed. It is a testament to Kiwanuka's talents that he can bring together all these different influences and make them all sound distinctly like a Kiwanuka song. Kiwanuka looks a likely album of the year contender, and marks another fine addition to the discography of one of the world's most talented musicians.


Must Listen :
You Ain't the Problem
Piano Joint
Hero










Monday, 25 November 2019



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Let me begin by asking you a hypothetical. Would you pay £70 per person to attend a film screening where you dress up as a character in the movie and spend an hour or two hanging out in an interactive environment themed after the movie? If the answer is yes then Secret Cinema is probably something you would enjoy.

But let me ask a follow up. Would you pay the same price for the above product but without the film screening? The answer, of course, depends on how well they've executed the rest of the experience.

I am a fan of Secret Cinema, and this is the fifth of their productions that I have attended. I love the concept of immersive entertainment and enjoy the addition of interactive elements to these worlds. It's safe to say I am an even bigger fan of Stranger Things, a show upon which I have lavished great praise on this blog, and is very much in the running for 2019's best TV show. Despite these favourable predispositions, I unfortunately have to report that this is the first Secret Cinema production that I have attended and felt that it was simply not worth the money.

Secret Cinema presents: Stranger things represents the company's first foray into television. The usual Secret Cinema formula is this:

  1. Create an atmospheric location themed after a movie
  2. Dress up and spend an hour or two hanging out at said location, eating, drinking, dancing, and partaking in various themed activities/missions
  3. Watch the film in a comfortable and atmospheric setting full of inebriated, like-minded people who are really into the whole experience.

It is reasonable to wonder how they would adapt this formula to a TV show. After all, a whole season of Stranger Things might last some ten hours or so. Do they just show the finale? The first episode? Some mash up or remix of the season? The answer, it turns out, was none of the above.

To their credit, Secret Cinema have done a fine job in creating their atmospheric location. This production's converted warehouse is broadly divided into two sections: Starcourt mall and the July 4th town's fair. Both areas have been lovingly and lavishly recreated from the show, and filled with various shops, bars and other curiosities containing references to the show. You can get an ice cream from Scoops Ahoy, or a burger from Benny's Burgers. You can try your luck at the videogame arcade, or get a coke float at a bar playing 80s music videos. And then for some reason there's a Coach shop selling modern handbags. The food was actually pretty tasty.

There are various activities throughout the venue including fairground games and dancing. Every now and again the cast members will hold a dance-off or science quiz to break things up a bit. In addition, each attendee will receive a mission to seek out one of the cast members and do a little sleuthing to solve a mystery. This is a good idea in theory, but the missions are themselves very simple and superficial. My contact just told me to look someone up on a computer and... that was it. The results of that search didn't have any more clues, there was no more puzzle to solve, they just referred back to it at the end of the evening, "You remember that guy you read about? I found him!". It was a five minute task made longer by the fact that you have to queue for 20 minutes to speak to the contact, and then another 20 minutes to use one of the only two available computers.

This highlights the first problem with this production, which is increasingly an issue with Secret Cinema. They clearly aren't making any money on these lavish, but brief productions and the best idea they seem to be able to come up with to solve this problem is to cram an ever greater number of people into a room with little regard for comfort or experience. That and a Coach sponsorship, apparently.

You will find actors floating about the venue performing as characters from the show, and the casting here is actually pretty remarkable. The likenesses are very impressive. The guy playing Alexei I'm still not entirely convinced wasn't the actual actor from the show. They have a script and storyline that they follow throughout the show, and from what I saw they do a good job of it. The storylines themselves are pretty forgettable and derivative, more references and callbacks to the show rather than actual stories. It's also very difficult to get involved or follow what's happening due to the fact that every cast member will invariably have about 100 people gathered around them at all times, and they don't wear microphones. If you're short like me, then you might as well just not bother.

Then the finale. For the first time in Secret Cinema history, there is no screening. Instead there's a 20-30 minute theatrical montage, loosely following the events of the three seasons of Stranger Things. There isn't really much to follow here, it's mostly the actors miming while various out-of-context sound clips of the TV series are played in the background. Notably there isn't even any seating for this performance, the audience is entirely standing (I can only imagine that this is so that they can cram more paying customers into the venue). As before, this makes it very difficult to actually see much of what is happening, especially if you're short. And... then it's over. That's it, there's no payoff at the end, not even really a goodbye. Just get the heck out and maybe spend some more money at our bars before you go. I couldn't help but feel like I had just spent £70 as a cover charge for an 80s themed bar.

The theatrical performance, as it is, is not terrible, it's just... nothing substantial. There are moments of fun, like briefly breaking out into Never Ending Story, but those moments are far too brief (in fact they only play the opening one or two lines of the song - licensing reasons maybe?). There's nothing there that justifies that finale over, say, watching an episode of the series instead.

At this point it is worth remembering the history of Secret Cinema. Initially, the concept was just: watch a movie in a themed room, with some limited interaction for flavour. The company did not start off as this immersive theatre company, that only came recently. I love immersive theatre. There are some companies that do it very well indeed (see: Punchdrunk). Secret Cinema currently is nowhere near that level. They've done a decent job at recreating a few scenes from Stranger Things, but when you look closer there's surprisingly little detail and not all that much exploring to be done.

Whereas other immersive productions might have you explore fully-realised, lived-in settings full of interactive items and flavour providing clues as to the larger story, Secret Cinema's settings still far too often just feel like the bare essential props on a fold-out table. The theatrical efforts feel more like rehashed references than anything worth paying attention to, and the interactive activities remain largely pointless and superficial busywork.

In the past this wasn't so much of a problem, since these immersive elements were merely garnish for the screening. But in a show like this where the interactive elements are the actual meat of the experience... it's just not sufficient. It's not deep enough or interesting enough to form the central focus of a production, it doesn't feel like anything more than a superficial knowing wink to the fans. It still feels like garnish, only now there is nothing at the centre of the experience to be garnished.

And then there is the price. The £70 (or more) entry fee is comparable to previous productions, only now the core of the experience (the screening) has been removed, and seemingly replaced by nothing. This might not have been a problem had they substantially improved the interaction and other immersive elements of the experience, but they haven't it's largely the same as what we have seen from them before.

So I am a bit torn on how I feel about this production. On the one hand, I did have fun. Of course it is fun to dress up as an 80s stereotype and hang out in a themed bar doing various themed activities based on an IP that you love. But it all feels so insubstantial. On the balance I would say I enjoyed the experience more than not, but the pricing makes it difficult to recommend. If the £70 per person ticket fee for a film screening with interactive elements was already unpalatable to some, charging the same price for those same interactive elements but no screening is crazy.

Ultimately I think this is the big takeaway here. Immersive entertainment can, of course, be done without a film screening. If Secret Cinema want to produce shows that focus solely on the other elements of the production, they need to significantly improve the quality of those elements, or significantly reduce the price.










Sunday, 3 November 2019

Developed by ZA/UM
Published by ZA/UM
Genre Role-playing game
Platform PC

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The videogame industry in 2019 is worth $120 billion. It is the largest entertainment industry in the world, more lucrative than film, music, or television. As with other forms of entertainment, this rapid growth has seen an incentive towards products that are safe, marketable, and mainstream. It's an increasingly rare pleasure to come across an original title that is willing to try something a bit more experimental, and Disco Elysium is definitely a true original.

Set in the fictional city of Revachol, Disco Elysium sees you play a somewhat eccentric cop waking up from what appears to have been an excessive bender that has induced retrograde amnesia. You don't know who you are, or even at first that you are a cop, but there is a dead person hanging outside from a tree, and you are here to investigate his murder.

Disco Elysium is based on a home-brew pen and paper RPG developed by lead writer Robert Kurvitz, and it is clear that a great deal of thought has been put into the world-building. Revachol is not from our world, but it is rich and believable enough to happily immerse one's self. Players will recognise many themes the world around us, racism and class inequality, political dogma, sexism and corruption. This is one of the keys to Disco Elysium. While the setting is fictional and contains occasionally fantastical elements, it always aims to create a somewhat grounded experience and is the more powerful for it. The characters are fleshed out and feel like real people with believable motivations. The game world that has been created is not the largest you will see in this genre, but it is so dripping with history and personality that you could spend hours just poring over every detail and believe it was a real place.

The game plays out in an isometric RPG format that sees the player explore the (mostly) open environment searching for clues, talking to suspects, and learning more about the world around them. It features standard RPG tropes such as inventory management, branching dialogue trees and skill checks, but this is pretty much where the similarities end.

Notably, there is no combat system in Disco Elysium. That is not to say that there won't be occasion where the player needs to get into a scrap or use deadly force, but it is realistically rare and always executed through the dialogue system. Whereas other RPGs will typically see the player rack up kill counts in the hundreds or even thousands, in this game it's more likely to be just a handful, if that. It is a design choice that plays into the game's grounded tone, and makes those moments of action all the more effective for their rarity. This is indicative of the game as a whole. Pretty much all the gameplay is carried out through the dialogue and skill checks system, which makes the skills system itself absolutely key to playing this game.

Most RPGs feature a skills system, where players earn experience points and level up skills to varying effect. In most games, these systems are fairly basic: add a point to strength to increase your attack power, add a point to charisma to increase your ability to persuade people, etc. Disco Elysium does things a bit differently. This game has some 24 different skills, each one essentially a different component of the player's personality. Add points to the "authority" skill to increase the player's forcefulness, or "interfacing" to improve their dexterity. Others are more intangible in nature, for example the "espirit-de-corps" skill which represents the extent to which the player embodies the spirit of the police force, or the "Inland Empire" skill which represents the player character's mastery of their own instincts. The Disco Elysium skill system somewhat uniquely also combines elements of a traditional "party" system, with each skill essentially being its own character. Dialogue will frequently feature a back-and-forth between the different skills and personalities, bouncing ideas and feedback around, representing the inner-monologue of the player character.

The other significant addition to gameplay comes in the "thought cabinet", essentially Disco Elysium's equivalent of a perk system. Various actions, events, and chance occurrences will introduce you to certain "thoughts", of which there are 53 in the game, only 12 of which can be used in any single playthrough. These vary quite radically in content and effect, from various political beliefs and artistic musings, to the belief that your character may secretly be an ageing rock star. These thoughts start off as vague concepts, the effect of which will not be immediately clear until you spend in-game time to "internalise" them.  These can ultimately have both positive and negative consequences, which vary from skill and stat modifiers to opening up completely new dialogue and gameplay options.

These two systems are extraordinarily robust. Rather that merely conferring a particular stat boost, they fundamentally affect the identity and personality of the player character in a way that allows for some very unique and deeply customisable playthroughs. From the numbers above, you can probably infer that there are a staggering array of different combinations, ensuring that no two characters are likely to be identical.

So Disco Elysium presents an RPG experience that is quite different to what most players will be accustomed. It is a very "talky" game, slow-paced with only brief spurts of action. At the same time, it is not the sort of game you can really "lose", and failing skill checks simply takes you down a different story path. The focus is very much on the story and the choices that you make. The reason this all works is the exceptional quality of writing. Disco Elysium features some of the finest writing I have seen in a videogame, tackling big, complex ideas with depth and sensitivity and an impossibly sharp wit. This game is often laugh-out-loud funny and I was surprised by how often I had to pause and take a moment to get the laughs out of my system. The amount of care that has been put into the dialogue is really remarkable, reacting to big and small decisions, the items equipped, and even just dumb luck (like wearing a particular item at a certain time of day).

Yet there are some aspects of this game that leave a sour taste in my mouth. Primarily: the game is just way too short, particularly compared to what has been widely advertised and discussed in pre-release previews. I completed my first playthrough in just under 25 hours, with all side quests completed and, quite frankly, taking my time to enjoy the setting and explore. When you consider that other RPGs (eg Pillars of Eternity, Skyrim) can run a hundred hours or more, it really puts the slight scope of this game into perspective. Pre-release hype had described Disco Elysium as a massive open world adventure, full of memorable characters, and a play time of 90+ hours, but it is clear that this grossly stretches reality. This game really just has you solve the one case, in one fairly modest-sized map (divided into three areas). Most characters you really only meet the one time for one quest and then never see again. It is clear that the 90+ hour estimate is supposed to include multiple playthroughs, making it a highly misleading claim at best. Even with that, it's hard to see how you could get four or more playthroughs (for 90+ hours) of unique content.

Now don't get me wrong: what is here is quite excellent. I just wish there was more of it. It is far more limited in scope that you will probably be expecting, and certainly nowhere near as grand an adventure as has been advertised. Ultimately it is what it is, but it's important that you know what to expect before you buy, especially when it is being priced the same as a AAA blockbuster game, rather than the more modest indie game that it is.

It's less of a concern, but Disco Elysium also commits some grievous RPG sins, including time-limited quests (without warning), and whole areas being closed off after certain quests (again without warning), rendering some quests inoperable. I've also encountered a small number of bugs (some of which required a restart). Not a massive issue, but can be very frustrating for completionist players who don't make regular backup saves.

Disco Elysium is undoubtedly one of the more memorable gaming experiences I have had in years. The slower, more thoughtful gameplay makes for a welcome change of pace from the more obsessed games in the genre, and some of the better written scenes will live very long in the memory. I found myself frustrated with the game at times for the reasons above, but ultimately just disappointed that the whole experience was as short as it was, rather than the grand, world-spanning adventure that had been billed. I sincerely hope that future expansions/sequels are in the offing, and look forward to seeing what this talented team come up with next.











Thursday, 3 October 2019

Once again we find ourselves living through historic moments. Following the revelation that Donald Trump has been using his position as President to solicit (and potentially coerce) election interference from foreign leaders, the outrage in America has reached a fever pitch. At this point there can be little doubt that we are witnessing the end of the Donald Trump presidency. This latest scandal appears almost certain to result in Trump becoming only the third President ever to be impeached, leaving Senate Republicans with a clear choice to make between country and party.

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We are now in the midst of an official impeachment inquiry, triggered by a whistleblower accusation that President Trump had repeatedly pressured the President of Ukraine to open an investigation into his likely election opponent, Joe Biden, over baseless and widely debunked claims. The President admitted to the conduct, and then provided a White House call summary which appeared to confirm the accusations. Making matters worse were the apparent efforts by the White House and Department of Justice to cover up the existence of this complaint, blocking the document from reaching Congress, as would ordinarily happen under whistleblower statutes.

A few quick notes on this particular episode:

1) asking a foreign leader to interfere in a US election is clearly wrong and clearly illegal, even without any further detail. It is, at a minimum, a campaign finance violation. The Mueller investigation cleared members of the Trump 2016 campaign for this very offence on the basis that they couldn't prove specific intent, ie that they knew what they were doing was a crime. Following the Mueller Report, this defence can clearly no longer be relied on.

2) while a "quid pro quo" is not required in order for this incident to be a crime (much less, impeachable), the existence of such an arrangement could be evidence of bribery/extortion, a completely separate crime (and explicitly impeachable in the constitution). The White House's own "transcript" quite clearly contains a quid pro quo, depicting an exchange where Trump discusses providing military aid to Ukraine, followed by "I need a favour, though".

3) it probably goes without saying, given how brazenly corrupt and political this whole scheme appears prima facie, but there is no evidence whatsoever that Joe Biden has done anything wrong in this incident. The Ukrainian prosecutor on the case has described Trump's allegations as baseless and without any evidence, and there has never been any fact that has come to light which indicates that Joe Biden has done anything which would warrant investigation. Indeed many of the "facts" that Trump and his militants cite are easily disproved and have long been debunked.

4) it is often said that it is the cover up, not the crime, which matters. In this case it's both. The conduct itself is clearly illegal, and clearly impeachable. The cover up is obvious and shockingly corrupt, including ostensible collusion with Bill Barr and the Department of Justice.

So from the off this story appears devastating for the President, and that's just based on the contents of Trump's own (edited) summary of events. The actual whistleblower complaint (unsurprisingly) turned out to be even more damning, directly accusing the President of attempting to solicit election interference from foreign governments, and accusing both the President and his administration as a whole of engaging in a massive cover up of the conduct.

The story just seems to get worse every day, with more recent allegations that Trump engaged in similar conduct with other world leaders, and the revelation that potentially dozens of similar whistleblowers were out there, and had been stymied by the administration. Trump, predictably, is making matters worse, openly describing efforts to unmask and punish whistleblowers (highly illegal and anti-democratic), ostensibly endorsing execution of said whistleblower, and seeming to imply that his impeachment should trigger a civil war.

This is an unbelievable mess. It is clear that the White House has lost control of the narrative and is spinning out of control. It has reached a point where we are even seeing Republicans speak out against the President and in favour of impeachment. There is a sense of inevitability that, at this moment, we are witnessing the end of the Trump presidency.

But the truth is that this should have happened a long time ago. The corruption and amorality of this President has been a matter of public record since before he took office, and has only become more apparent with each successive crisis.

The Mueller Report should have been the final nail in the coffin, revealing a dizzying web of misconduct and a brazen disregard for both the rule of law and the integrity of American democracy. Mueller outlined some ten instances of potential criminal obstruction, even going so far as to specifically suggest that Congress take action. The release of this report was followed by the now famous letter signed by more than 1,000 Federal prosecutors asserting that, if not for the DOJ rules against indicting a sitting President, Trump would have faced criminal charges.

The report, along with numerous other instances of apparent wrongdoing, has led to months of investigation and scandal, and yet none of it appeared to reach the required critical mass to actually cause an existential crisis for this administration... until now.

And let's be clear: this is an existential crisis for the President. Ever more damning revelations seem to appear by the day. For the first time of his presidency, a majority of the country supports impeachment. That number has increased by 10% in less than a week, and is increasing by the day. The critical mass has been reached, and the point of no return has been crossed. Donald Trump will not recover from this crisis.

Even Republicans are starting to realise this fact. The comfortable Republican majority in the Senate should mean that any effort to remove Trump from office is dead on arrival, but amid a growing public outrage we are finally witnessing the first cracks in the unified front. It appears likely that there will be Republican defectors in both the House and Senate, the question is whether it will be enough to reach the two third majority required to convict and remove from office. It seems impossible, but make no mistake: if the polls continue to turn against Trump, Republicans will eventually drop their support. Their political futures may depend on it.

And so Congressional Republicans face a defining moment. Will they put country first and uphold the rule of law, or continue to debase themselves with the increasingly wild and nonsensical fantasies and conspiracy theories espoused by the President and his supporters?

Numerous prominent Republicans have stated that were the vote to be held in secret, Republicans would certainly convict Trump. So let's make no mistake, their reticence to do so is based entirely on electoral concerns, rather than the merits of Trump's defence of the indefensible. But this obsession over short term gain may well hurt them and the party as a whole in the long run.

The irony is that this mess could probably have been avoided had Republicans not given Trump a free pass on his previous transgressions. Throughout every scandal and instance of misconduct, Republicans have marched in lockstep and denied reality. The result is that Trump was emboldened to think he could get away with this brazenly corrupt act. In hindsight, I suspect Congressional Republicans wish they had taken more of a stand, and at least censured the President as a means of deterrence. They would do well to learn from this mistake before Trump drags the whole party down along with him.

This could well be the Republican Party's last chance. The party's future might depend on them doing the right thing in this moment. Otherwise, they risk being forever saddled to the legacy of a disgraced administration, consigned to the ash-heap of history's judgement.








Saturday, 31 August 2019

Developed by Intelligent Systems
Published by Nintendo
Genre Tactical role-playing
Platform Switch

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The Fire Emblem series of games has enjoyed something of a checkered history. Some thirteen games have been made since the early 1990s, only half of which have seen release outside of Japan. Other than a few cameo appearances in the hugely popular Smash Bros franchise, Fire Emblem had barely made an impact in the worldwide markets, and as recently as the early 2010s it was rumoured that developer Intelligent Systems was on the verge of shutting down.

That all changed in 2012 with the release of Fire Emblem Awakening for the Nintendo 3DS. The success of that title pretty much single-handedly revitalised the series. Now with Fire Emblem: Three Houses the franchise is making its return to home consoles, and continues the upwards trajectory of recent years with what is by far the biggest release that Fire Emblem has seen, and probably the best game.

Concept and Setting
As with most entries in the series, Three Houses establishes an entirely new setting with new characters, locations and lore. This entry takes place in the world of Fódlan, a continent divided into three nations united by a common religion. Players take the role of a professor at a prestigious academy on neutral ground, where they must choose from one of three Houses (each of which is affiliated with a particular nation) to lead. Later on the game war breaks out, pitting the three Houses against one another, and you against whichever former students were not in your House.

What ensues feels a bit like a JRPG version of Harry Potter. Everything, from House colours, to the school uniforms, and various inter-House games and competitions, effectively captures that winning blend of English public school tradition and magical fantasy.

The quality of the storytelling jumps out right from the start. Fire Emblem has always been a story-focused series, but the quality of the writing is considerably higher in Three Houses than it has been in the past. The dialogue in particular shows far greater maturity than in any previous game, with fewer trope characters and much more realistic personal interaction. These characters are actually shockingly well written. Even the ones who initially seem one dimensional turn out to be fully fleshed out and worthwhile. I struggle to think of a recent game where I have liked a cast of characters this much.

The core story itself is also more compelling than the standard Fire Emblem fare. The usual tropes are here, cruel empires, noble lords, secret bad-guys, but it's all layered on a surprisingly competent commentary on the insanity of war, pitting neighbour against neighbour. The fact that the game's second act sees you forced to take to the battlefield against your former friends and students highlights this fact to often devastating effect.

But it is the world-building and attention to the small details here that impressed me the most. Usually in Fire Emblem (and most games really) you have your kingdoms, you have your characters, and then you have some story, with basically no further context. In Three Houses there has been such a great effort put into fleshing out the world itself, with continents and nations all of whom have fully thought out histories and cultures. Each month is bookended with a documentary-style cutscene (accompanied by wonderful medieval-style artwork) that provides background on the cultural context of the month, including how the changing climate affects flora, fauna and the people of Fódlan, as well as the traditions that emerge from this context. These kinds of small details on the minutia of life in Fódlan might seem superfluous in what is essentially a turn-based battle simulator, but it's the kind of detail that adds richness to a setting. It all adds up to make Fódlan feel like a fully realised world, and one that is all the more immersive for their efforts. If anything, I came away from this game wishing I could have seen even more of this world.

Gameplay
At its core, the Fire Emblem franchise is a series of tactical roleplaying games. Turn-based battles from a top-down view, with RPG style items and special abilities. This remains the meat of the gameplay here, but with Three Houses the developers have added so much more to the formula.

The core gameplay loop is essentially as follows. The game proceeds through a month of the calendar. At the start of each week you set a lesson programme for your students, and on the last day of each week you get a choice between engaging in battle, delivering a seminar to students (to help them level up a skill), or exploring the academy. Sidequests generally take one of two forms: battles or fetch quests that you complete in exploration mode.

The battles are your standard Fire Emblem fare. But for the most part, and particularly during the early game, you will be choosing the explore option. This is the first time that a Fire Emblem game has featured a fully explorable open map, and they have managed to pack an impressive amount of content in there. Exploring the academy allows you to participate in various House games and academy activities such as gardening and fishing. It also enables you to bond with your students, or engage in some extra training. The caveat is that you only have a certain number of activity points that you can use each week, meaning that you will need to prioritise how you spend your time.

One of the unique features of the Fire Emblem series is the social aspect, where players develop the bonds between characters. This can unlock additional story scenes and side quests, but here it is also a mechanic for recruiting students from other Houses. While each House begins with a handful of students, it is technically possible to develop your relationship with the other Houses' students to the point where you can recruit them to your House, and this can be done with any student other than the House heads and deputies. It is technically possible to recruit everyone in a single playthrough (as I did), but it can require a lot of grinding.

While the natural instinct is to try and recruit as many as possible, it is also arguable whether this is even a good idea. After all, you can only deploy 8-12 units per battle, and splitting your training efforts between more units inevitably means that none will reach as high a level as they would otherwise if you had focused on just a small core team. Additionally, I can imagine that recruiting everyone also takes something away from the emotional impact of the main story. One of the crucial themes of this game is the pointlessness of war, pitting neighbour against neighbour, and the idea of having to fight and kill your own students to whom you have become emotionally attached forms a key part of that emotional gut-punch. Personally I found the characters all so loveable that I felt compelled to recruit as many as possible to get the maximum amount of story, but in hindsight I can see that this may have detracted from the experience, turning the story from something weighty and impactful, to something resembling more of a traditional good vs evil videogame story.

This all works well at first, but the core gameplay loop somewhat falls apart later on. For all the content and storytelling in this game, there are surprisingly few sidequests. Given that your core reason for exploration (recruiting students) dries up about half way through the game, there comes a point where really there is not all that much to do between missions. More than 80% of my playing time was spent on the first half of the game, where I would often spend hours between missions developing the bonds between characters, leveling up skills, completing sidequests and searching for the various hidden items around the Academy. About three quarters of the way through the game I hit a point where there was no more recruiting, no more sidequests, and my characters were already so overpowered that I didn't even really need to worry about leveling up. I ended up pretty much just skipping through the last few months of the game because there really wasn't all that much to do.

This speaks to the game's second act weakness in general. That first act, teaching the students in the academy, is magical, memorable, and bursting with interesting things to do. The second act (the war), by comparison, just feels dry and monotonous by comparison (which I guess is kind of the point). One has to question whether it really made sense to continue the same gameplay loop in this second act, which really doesn't have the content for it and never quite feels right.

I also have to say, I am generally not a fan of these types of games which make you pick a path for the entire game, cutting off significant amounts of content and forcing you to do multiple play-throughs to see everything. I don't like the feeling of having to retread stuff that I've already done, and particularly for a game of this length, one good play-through is probably all I'm going to have time for. It is a shame that there is so much interesting content here that you can't see without playing the same story multiple times. Of course, this is only a half criticism, as the reason this is even a problem to begin with is because all the content is so compelling and well done.

Despite these minor criticisms, the game is a joy to play. The new features mark a bold new direction for the series, one that substantively adds to the experience.

Conclusion
Despite some second act weakness, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a delight, and one of the Switch's best games. The world of Fódlan is one of the best examples of world-building I've seen in a videogame for a long time, and the characters comprise one of the most compelling casts of characters in recent years. Three Houses represents a significant step up for the series in just about every regard, one which for the first time establishes Fire Emblem as a bona fide blockbuster home videogame franchise right up there with Mario and Zelda.











Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Welcome back football fans.  I hope everyone had a great summer, but now that we've had our approximately ten days per year of sun it is time to get back to business. A new season of Premier League football is approaching, and once again it looks like a corker, promising fake drama, real tears, and hopefully some good football. 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 2019/20 preview


Premier League 2018/19 Predictions in a nutshell:
Champions: Liverpool
Champions League qualifiers: Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham
Relegated: Watford, Brighton, Sheffield United
Golden Boot winner: Mo Salah (Liverpool)
Golden Glove winner: Alisson (Liverpool)
Player to watch: Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)
New signing to watch: Pepe (Arsenal)
Young player to watch: Mason Mount (Chelsea)
First manager to get the sack: Roy Hodgson (Crystal Palace)
Shock of the season: No Chelsea striker's goal tally will hit double digits



ARSENAL
Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Position last season: 5th
Manager: Unai Emery

It is fair to say that Unai Emery's first season did not quite mark the statement of intent that Arsenal fans may have hoped; trophiless and the season ending on a sour note with a decisive 4-1 drubbing at the hands of Chelsea. Nevertheless, they begin the season on a note of optimism. It seem that every season begins with some pundit or other making the declaration that "this could be the year" for Arsenal to re-enter the top tier of Premier League clubs (somewhere they clearly have not been for a number of years), but while few would entertain the notion of them being a serious title contender, they begin the season with every chance of returning to the top four.

It is easy to forget that Arsenal ended last season just one point away from Champions League qualification. Emery has built a capable squad with some genuine talent, most notably Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang whose electric season ended with a formidable 22 goal tally in the league last year.

They have also signed well this summer. The main headlines will rightly focus on the £79million man Nicolas Pepe, whose excellent track record in Ligue 1 has earned comparisons to Kylian Mbappé. The fee is astonishing, and marks the latest in a series of big-money signings for Arsenal in recent years. It will be hoped that this one fares better than some of the others. Equally, the club has done good business with the defensive reinforcements Willian Saliba and Kieran Tierney, the latter of whom in particular I am tipping to be something of a revelation this season. I expect the signing of experienced defender David Luiz will also prove to be somewhat of a boon in a squad sorely in need of big personalties.

You have to conclude that Arsenal have gotten stronger, but ultimately the question will not be whether they have gained on Manchester City and Liverpool, but whether they have gained on Chelsea and Tottenham (and maintained their advantage on Manchester United). With two Champions League places for grabs among those four teams, you would have to fancy Arsenal's chances this season.

Key Signing: Nicolas Pepe
Key Man: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Verdict: Still a ways off from the top of the league, but with favourable top four prospects.


ASTON VILLA
Nickname: The Villans
Ground: Villa Park
Capacity: 42,785
Last season: Promoted (Playoff)
Manager: Dean Smith

A return to the top flight for one of England's historic clubs, and a season ahead that is just full of delicious subplots. Jack Grealish back in the Premier League, assistant manager John Terry with his first coaching role in the top flight. Villa finished the season in good form, with just two defeats since February, ultimately clinching promotion against Frank Lampard's Derby County via the playoffs.

From post-season interviews, it is clear that the higher ups and Villa still see themselves as a big club, a Premier League club, and they have wasted no time in making a statement that they do not intend to just make up the numbers, with a large number of new faces brought into the team.

Signing Tyrone Mings on a permanent deal is a no-brainer after his impressive loan spell last year, while the club will be helping that club record signing Wesley can make up for the goals of last season's top scorer Tammy Abraham, who has since returned to his parent club. Still, Villa have spent a whopping £100million of that new Premier League money on some 12 players, and yet only two of those players have top flight experience. Genuine questions will need to be asked about whether they have spent wisely. For all the new faces, however, the heart of this team remains Jack Grealish, a man perennially linked with a move to a bigger club. If he performs, the club will do well.

Is this Villa side Premier League quality? Only time will tell, but I am tipping them for survival.

Key Signing: Tyrone Mings
Key Man: Jack Grealish
Verdict: Likely to be in the relegation battle for a while, but should have enough about them to survive.


BOURNEMOUTH
Nickname: The Cherries
Ground: Dean Court
Capacity: 11,700
Last season: 14th
Manager: Eddie Howe

One has to respect the work that Eddie Howe has done with Bournemouth, the club now heading into their fifth season in the top flight. We've discussed here in previous years the astonishing transformation that the club has seen of late, and the reality is that Bournemouth are now a solid top flight club. Last season ended up being a somewhat comfortable lower mid-table finish, and the question will be whether they can now build on that.

The key for any club to build is to retain the core that has previously brought success, and Bournemouth will be pleased that they have managed to ward off suitors for a number of players. Former Chelsea academy product Nathan Aké remains a bedrock of the team's defence, despite allegedly stratospheric £70million offers from an array of top clubs. Lewis Cook (assuming he recovers well from his injury) is a stalwart midfield general. Up front, Callum Wilson and Joshua King are as tricky a pair as any team can boast in the league. They have recruited modestly, but smartly, with Lloyd Kelly and Arnaut Danjuma set to offer a new threat down the left flank.

The main problem the club faces right now is injuries, with a number of key names currently out of commission. Expect a slow start for the Cherries, but one that hopefully doesn't cause so much discouragement that they can't bounce back later on.

Key Signing: Lloyd Kelly
Key Man: Callum Wilson
Verdict: A similar lower mid-table finish is likely.



BRIGHTON
Nickname: The Seagulls
Ground: Falmer Stadium
Capacity: 30,750
Last season: 17th
Manager: Graham Potter

Brighton's second season in the top flight was rough, but they managed to hold on and now embark on another season in the Premier League. A change in management has seen Chris Hughton replaced by the hotly tipped English prospect Graham Potter, but he has a lot of work on his plate if he is to steady this ship and keep them afloat.

Brighton will be pleased to have retained the services of captain Lewis Dunk, and he will be bolstered by a new partnership with the £20million signing Adam Webster. Other than Webster, the only major signing of note will be Belgian left winger Leandro Trossard, whom the club will be hoping can add some much needed goalscoring threat to their lineup. The main issue with this squad currently is age, and the club looks set to hand more opportunities to its youngsters in an attempt to remedy this, most notably with Taylor Richards and Aaron Connolly who look set to have a prominent role this season.

So it's a new manager crafting what many will hope to be a new look Brighton team. This league will give them precious little time to adapt, however, and they head into this season knowing that they are among the favourites for the drop.

Key Signing: Leandro Trossard
Key Man: Lewis Dunk
Verdict: No pushovers by any means, but among the favourites for relegation.


BURNLEY
Nickname: The Clarets
Ground: Turf Moor
Capacity: 21,800
Last season: 15th
Manager: Sean Dyche

To what extent did Burnley's Europa League commitments affect their domestic performance? The steady improvement of the Dyche era has given way to a roller coaster of fortunes that has seen the club go from cannon fodder to top 7 and European football, and back last season to the depths of the table.

That European campaign was a welcome change of scenery for fans who had not experienced such a level of football before, but ultimately proved to be something of a strain on the players. So was it a blip brought about by overextension, or is the club really in trouble?

We shall see, but Dyche clearly appears to have confidence in the same group of players. The team has changed little over the summer, with Jay Rodriguez coming in up front, and Danny Drinkwater being brought in on loan. This means Burnley will still be depending on the usual crew, Ashley Barnes, Jack Cork, and Nick Pope. One to keep an eye on is the youngster Dwight McNeil, whose promising debut season has seen him being linked with moves to several larger clubs.

Key Signing: Jay Rodriguez
Key Man: Ashley Barnes
Verdict: Should improve on last season, but unlikely to repeat the highs of two years ago.


CHELSEA
Nickname: Blues
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Capacity: 41,837
Last season: 3rd
Manager: Frank Lampard

Whatever happens, this is going to be a fascinating season for Chelsea. Rocked by a transfer ban, and helmed by a new, inexperienced manager, the fact that talismanic forward Eden Hazard finally made his move to Real Madrid would seem to be the cherry on top of what seems destined to be a disaster of a season.

That's the pessimist's view. The silver lining is that that inexperienced manager is none other than club legend Frank Lampard, whose debut season in management at Derby County was widely hailed as a success. He replaces a manager who, let's be honest, no one was sad to see go. Meanwhile that transfer ban looks set to finally force the club to make use of its Academy's considerable pool of homegrown talent. Chelsea's youth team are undoubtedly among the best in the world, having dominated domestically and across Europe for years, and a large number of Academy products have gone on to be stars across the continent. If Chelsea can finally find a way to integrate that great resource into their first team, then ultimately it may not end up having been such a bad thing.

But the key point to remember is that this is still largely the same squad that finished third and won the Europa League last season. Rudiger is a top defender. N'Golo Kanté is arguably the best in the world in his position, and perhaps the only nailed-on starter in this Chelsea team. He will be absolutely key.

The permanent signing of Kovacic is a good, albeit largely superfluous seeming move, while there will be much ado about Christian Pulisic, the American hotshot who has ostensibly been signed as Eden Hazard's replacement. Last season saw the serious first team participation of youth products Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi, and they look likely to be joined this year by Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, and Reece James amongst others in what could be the most youthful looking Chelsea side for a generation. Frankly, with the squad at their disposal, Chelsea will have no choice but to use most of those young players on a regular basis.

If Chelsea have a major weakness, it's up front. Their transfer ban means they have been unable to sign a first-rate striker. Giroud is a very useful workhorse of a player, but doesn't score many goals. Michy Batshuayi is quite the personality, but has not shown himself to have the quality or consistency for this type of club. Tammy Abraham has bags of potential on the back of a few goal-laden seasons in the lower leagues, but has not yet proven himself at this level. It is simply hard to see where the goals are going to come from. Chelsea are going to need the midfield to step up, otherwise it will be a long season.

So a Chelsea legend takes the club on a grand, Academy-focused experiment for a season. What could go wrong? Let's be frank, if this team ends up anywhere near Champions League qualification it will be a good showing.

Key Signing: Christian Pulisic
Key Man: N'Golo Kanté
Verdict: An exciting season awaits, but unlikely to remain in the top four.


CRYSTAL PALACE
Nickname: Eagles, Glaziers
Ground: Selhurst Park
Capacity: 25,486
Last season: 12th
Manager: Roy Hodgson

Stability has been tricky to come by for Crystal Palace in recent times, through a slew of managerial changes and squad upheaval. This season could be Hodgson's toughest yet at the club, as he struggles to manage an ageing squad that is increasingly dependent on one player.

Whether Wilfried Zaha stays or goes in January could well be the difference between survival and relegation, such is the influence of the lad. Zaha is consistently rated as one of the best non-top six players in the league, and a move to a bigger club seems inevitable every time the transfer window opens. Matters are not helped by the departure of last season's star performer Aaron Wan-Bissaka, off to Manchester United for a frankly absurd amount of money. This is a small squad, and serious doubts persist over whether the club has done enough over the summer to strengthen.

So who has come in? Jordan Ayew from Swansea looks a good bit of business, while Gary Cahill may not help the age problem, but brings a wealth of experience and quality. Otherwise its slim pickings. The lack of squad depth may not necessarily be entirely Roy Hodgson's fault, but in this sport we all know the manager is usually the first to go when things don't pan out as planned. I'm tipping Roy to go and to go early this season.

Key Signing: Jordan Ayew
Key Man: Wilfried Zaha
Verdict: A tricky season lies ahead.


EVERTON
Nickname: Toffees
Ground: Goodison Park
Capacity: 40,170
Last season: 8th
Manager: Marco Silva

So established are Everton as the perennial "best of the rest" in the Premier League that it has become one of football's most pervasive memes. Last season saw the club finish yet again just outside the top 6, and Marco Silva has strong foundations on which to build as he heads into his sophomore season.

Everton can boast a very fine starting XI. Keane, Digne and Mina contribute to one of the league's meanest defences, while Jordan Pickford is a goalkeeper of the highest calibre. Gylfi Sigurðsson is as formidable as ever all over the pitch, while Richarlison on his day is a potent threat. Silva has added good depth to his squad over the summer with the likes of André Gomes and Alex Iwobi, but the standout signing for me is former Juventus prospect Moise Kean, widely tipped as a star of the future. It will be exciting to see how he settles and develops in the Premier League.

It's good news off the pitch as well, with the club finally moving ahead with plans for a new stadium, while the league's financial dominance ensures the club maintains the sort of healthy bank balance that had been missing in years gone by, with resources to spend. Indeed Everton have splashed more than £100 million this summer, a sum that would have been unthinkable for the club a few short years ago.

For all the positives, the question has to be to what extent can this Everton side pose a credible threat to the top tier of clubs above them. This team may well remain the best of the rest, but I'm skeptical that they have the kind of star power needed to push them into those upper echelons.

Key Signing: Moise Kean
Key Man: Gylfi Sigurðsson
Verdict: Probably looking at a similar finish to last year, top half of the table.


LEICESTER CITY
Nickname: The Foxes
Ground: King Power Stadium
Capacity: 32,315
Last season: 9th
Manager: Brendan Rodgers

It's been a rough old ride for Leicester since their still hard to believe title triumph a few years back. A few managerial changes and some pretty mixed performances. While few of the old guard remain, there were enough signs towards the tail end of last season, and particularly following the appointment of Brendan Rodgers last February, to suggest that they may finally be finding their level in this league.

I've always been a big fan of Rodgers. I saw first hand the exceptional work he did with the Chelsea youth team back in the day, and it's easy to forget that it was he who took Liverpool from a top 7 club to within one small slip of the Premier League title, laying the groundwork for the Klopp era.

Whisper it quietly, but this could even be a better Leicester side than the one that won their shock league title. The versatility of Ayoze Perez (signed on a permanent deal now) has freed up Jamie Vardy in a way not seen since the days of Riyad Mahrez, while in Youri Tielemans (also signed on a permanent deal) they have a bona fide prospect at the heart of their midfield. James Maddison, meanwhile, lived up to our pre-season billing as a potential star in this team, his breakout season establishing his name as one of the league's leading youngsters.

So what are their prospects, really? They're not top four challengers, but if they can achieve greater consistency than they did last year they could really be a force among the next best teams. A place in Europa League qualification is a very reasonable target.

Key Signing: Ayoze Perez
Key Man: Jamie Vardy
Verdict: A potential top 6 contender.


LIVERPOOL
Nickname: Reds
Ground: Anfield
Capacity: 54,074
Last season: 2nd
Manager: Jurgen Klopp

Plenty has been said of Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool side in a season which saw the club smash all kinds of records, be crowned European Champions, and yet still not win that long sought after league title. The fact is that regardless of which side finished one point above the other, there is no doubt that this Liverpool side count themselves among the world's top football teams at the moment, and at least an equal of Pep's very impressive Manchester City.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" appears to have been the thinking this summer, and Liverpool have done very little in the way of reinforcing what is already a strong squad. Of this summer's signings, only Adrian has featured in the early games, and even there only because of injury to first choice keeper Alisson. It's hard to argue with that logic. In Firmino, Mané and Salah, Liverpool have arguably the finest attacking three in the world right now. In Alisson they have one of the best goalkeepers, and Virgil van Dijk is almost certainly the world's top defender at the moment, if not one of the top players in any position.

There is certainly no doubt as to the target. Liverpool are not nearly-men any more. They are title contenders, if not favourites, and they will come into this season even hungrier after last season's exploits and near miss. In what otherwise looks to be a tight contest, that could make the crucial difference.

Key Signing: Adrian
Key Man: Mo Salah
Verdict: Title or bust.


MANCHESTER CITY
Nickname: Blues
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Capacity: 55,097
Last season: Champions
Manager: Pep Guardiola

Which leads us nicely to the back-to-back champions. Manchester City have thrown the wealth of an entire nation into building a great football team, and have succeeded in doing so. They are one of the great teams in football at the moment whatever you think of their methods or their manager and his mixed track record. Yet for all their on-the-pitch success, the top prize in Europe eludes them, a fact that perhaps stings all the more when last season's close runners up Liverpool have managed two consecutive Champions League finals.

Suffice it to say, this is a squad with an embarrassment of quality all over the pitch, whether it's Laporte and Walker at the back, Silva, Mahrez and de Bruyne in midfield, Aguero up front. But it is the attacking talent of Raheem Sterling, seemingly improving year-on-year which wields the greatest influence in this side now, and he will be absolutely indispensible. Despite their great squad depth, City have seen fit to spend almost £200 million this summer, including two £60million+ players in Rodri and Cancelo. Of these new faces, Rodri in particular looks a fine addition, one of the few players who could walk right into this City side and make an instant impact.

Few would bet against them being in the running for the title this season. The question will be to what extent they can maintain their fine domestic record while balancing the demands of a European campaign, one which they are desperate to win. Very few teams have managed to win three in a row, and as good as they are, for City to join that elite club will be a difficult task, one that will cement their place along the league's greatest sides.

Key Signing: Rodri
Key Man: Raheem Sterling
Verdict: A title favourite, anything less would be a failure.


MANCHESTER UNITED
Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Capacity: 75, 643
Last season: 6th
Manager: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

For a while it seemed that Manchester United might finally have been on the road back to greatness under José Mourinho. It's easy to forget that his side finished a credible league runner up just two seasons ago. Then everything fell apart, in a routine that has become predictable in the post-Fergy era. Ex-player Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has taken José's place, and returned some of the good-time feeling to the club. Turning them from a top 7 side into a club of genuine Champions League quality will be another matter.

The jury is still out on whether Solskjaer can really become a top manager, or just a fan-friendly face to keep things ticking along. The bigger worry will be a squad that includes some excellent talent, and some massive holes. The club has tried to patch a threadbare defence with two big-money signings. Most of the attention will be on the astonishing £80million man Harry Maguire, but it is his new teammate Aaron Wan-Bissaka with the greatest potential to improve this side.

Paul Pogba has grown into his world record valuation and resides at the heart of this United side, while the departure of Romelu Lukaku sees the attacking responsibilities fall on Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. Both of those players have undeniable quality, but have seemed to struggle for consistency in recent seasons. Will they be sufficient for United to mount a top 4 campaign? We will have to see, but I have my doubts.

Key Signing: Aaron Wan-Bissaka
Key Man: David de Gea
Verdict: Likely to fall just short of top 4.


NEWCASTLE
Nickname: The Magpies, Toon
Ground: St James' Park
Capacity: 52,354
Last season: 13th
Manager: Steve Bruce

The Newcastle rollercoaster ride is as ubiquitous to English football as the twin towers of Wembley and Des Lynam's moustache. Rafa Benitez had appeared to finally be bringing some semblance of stability and accomplishment to a side well passed its heyday... then in classic Newcastle fashion he abruptly left the club, to be replaced by the rather more pedestrian Steve "I'll just about avoid relegation but don't expect much else" Bruce.

Bruce inherits a squad that Rafa had managed to put to good use, and in their defence the club has not been shy about backing their new man in the transfer market. A big money move for Joelinton has raised a few eyebrows, but his extra firepower up front will be invaluable as the season progresses. Elsewhere, new-boy Allan Saint-Maximin adds a different kind of threat down the wing.

Bruce has a job to do here. This squad has its fair share of bloat, and lacks the kind of star personalities that many of their lower half of the table competitors do. Jamaal Lascelles has been impressive at the back, and is rightly turning the heads of a few bigger clubs. Miguel Almirón and Matt Ritchie add to what is a decent top flight spine, but there's not much depth beyond that.

This has the makings of a tough season for Newcastle, with many pundits tipping them for a relegation battle. I think they have enough to stay up.

Key Signing: Joelinton
Key Man: Jamaal Lascelles
Verdict: Good enough to survive, but could find themselves in a relegation battle if they're not careful.



NORWICH
Nickname: The Canaries
Ground: Carrow Road
Capacity: 27,244
Last season: Promoted (Champions)
Manager: Daniel Farke

The Championship's entertainers of last season, this Norwich side cut a very impressive attacking outfit, and it will be interesting to see if they can show some of that panache in a league of a higher standard.

Farke has got this side moving the ball forward quickly, and in Teemu Pukki a hugely prolific striker who has emerged seemingly out of nowhere in the latter stages of their career. Todd Cantwell and Jamal Lewis complete a spine that proved dominant in the lower division, and presents a good starting point to build for their return to the top flight. It is interesting then that the club have deigned not to make extensive use of that delicious Premier League cash, and their summer transfer activity provided only minimal reinforcement and bargain signings. It will nevertheless be interesting to see what Patrick Roberts, formerly the next big thing in English football and now signed on loan for the season, can do when given the opportunity for more first team football in the top flight.

Norwich make an exciting side to watch, but for their attacking talents the quality of their defence has been an issue, with a goals conceded rate that would have placed Norwich squarely in the mid-table of the Championship last season. They'll face a far greater attacking threat in this league and if they don't manage to adapt quickly, it could be a long season for them.

Key Signing: Patrick Roberts
Key Man: Teemu Pukki
Verdict: Lots of goals at both ends to be expected, but if they don't solidify at the back they could be at risk of relegation.


SHEFFIELD UNITED
Nickname: The Blades
Ground: Bramall Lane
Capacity: 32,125
Last season: Promoted (2nd)
Manager: Chris Wilder

The rise of Sheffield United from League One to the top flight in just three seasons has been nothing short of remarkable. The Premier League is another beast entirely, and there is the impression that this may be as far as the fairytale goes.

They're certainly determined to make a go of it while they are here, and a summer of fairly confident spending has seen them splash more than £40million on forwards Oliver McBurnie and Lys Mousset. Elsewhere, former Everton centre back Phil Jagielka will bring some much needed experience, along with Ravel Morrison, the former Manchester United man who Alex Ferguson had once described as the most talented youngster since Paul Scholes, but whose career has since failed to meet its potential.

Elsewhere, Sheffield United's squad has just too many question marks about them. Can David McGoldrick bring his hugely impressive form last season against this much more difficult top flight opposition? John Egan and Jack O'Connell were at the heart of the Championship's tightest defence last season, but do they have the quality to face off against some of the world's best attacking talent?

It's a bit of a cliché, but there are no bad teams in the Premier League. Unfortunately, compared to some of their competition at the lower end of the table, this Sheffield United side just don't seem to have much about them.

Key Signing: Oliver McBurnie
Key Man: David McGoldrick
Verdict: A tough season that could see Sheffield United among favourites for the drop.


SOUTHAMPTON
Nickname: Saints
Ground: St. Mary's Stadium
Capacity: 32,690
Last season: 16th
Manager: Ralph Hasenhüttl

It's been a rough couple of years for Southampton. A meteoric rise to the upper echelons of the Premier League was duly met with a scavenging of the club's most prized assets (mostly by Liverpool). They've generated a lot of revenue from those sales, and yet somehow it appears to have been squandered. Add to that a number of managerial changes and a general air of instability, and Southampton ultimately found themselves just barely clinging to top flight football. If Ralph Hasenhüttl is not able to steady the ship they could be in for another difficult season.

While the golden boys may have moved on, there's still plenty to like in this team: the width offered from the back by Ryan Bertrand on the left, the mercurial talents of Redmond and James Ward-Prowse. The loss of Charlie Austen marks a change up front, but he will be well replaced by Danny Ings, who completed a permanent signing to the club this summer after spending last season on loan.

But this is a very vulnerable team, especially against opponents playing through the middle of the pitch. Depth is also a problem, especially given the last few seasons of disappointing signings. This is a squad in need of major rebuilding, and they just did not achieve that this summer. It could be a long season for the Saints.

Key Signing: Danny Ings
Key Man: Ryan Bertrand
Verdict: A real risk for relegation this year.


TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR
Nickname: Spurs
Ground: Wembley
Capacity: 90,000
Last season: 4th
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino

Last season serves as a perfect embodiment of the frustrations of the Mauricio Pochettino era at Tottenham. So close to greatness, but just lacking that something extra needed to bring home the silverware. Last season started off in a rocky fashion, with Pochettino quite vocally bemoaning the lack of financial support and control that he had been afforded by the board. By mid-season they were flying once again, only to slump in the latter stages, only just clinging to a top four place. The somewhat inert league performance was somewhat mitigated by a stunning run in Europe, which saw them unexpectedly reach a first ever Champions League final, only to fall short again.

If there is one silver lining, it is that last season's doomed heroics appear to have finally convinced owner Daniel Levy of the importance of investing in the squad, a cool £100million being spent on Tanguy Ndombele and Ryan Sessegnon amongst others, while the tantalising prospect Giovani Lo Celso joins on loan.

The squad undoubtedly ranks among the strongest in the league, with the likes of Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, Lucas Moura, and Moussa Sissoko all performers of the highest calibre. But the star man, as if there was any doubt, is Harry Kane, arguably one of the world's best strikers at the moment and a talismanic figure in this Tottenham team. Have no doubt, this side will be up there with the big boys again. The question is whether their new additions will give them that little bit extra depth to maintain the form of which we know they are capable over an entire season.

Key Signing: Tanguy Ndombele
Key Man: Harry Kane
Verdict: Will be right up there, top four but unlikely title contenders.


WATFORD
Nickname: Hornets
Ground: Vicarage Road
Capacity: 21,577
Last season: 11th
Manager: Javi Gracia

Watford have proven something of a livewire in the Premier League over the past few seasons, bursting out the gates each season with some recklessly attacking football that has endeared themselves to neutrals, only to run out of gas in the latter half of the season. It is a knack that has earned them a series of mid-table finishes, and most impressively their first ever FA Cup final appearance. Most pundits appear to be expecting more of the same this season, but in my view I see plenty more reason for fans to worry.

It is only natural for people to see a pattern and expect it to continue, but surprisingly few have really asked why Watford's late-season form has tended to tail off in such a dramatic fashion. This is a team that has sorely lacked for depth in quality, and has masked their deficiency with the verve provided by a few exceptional individual talents. Most of those talents have now moved on to other clubs, while a number of their key players have been plagued with fitness and injury problems.

Despite this, precious little seems to have been done during the summer to prepare them for a stronger campaign. The club's defenders have bafflingly declared "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" applies, never mind the fact that all of Watford's competitors will have strengthened considerably. They enter this season in a precarious position, with a real risk of being dragged into the relegation battle.

Key Signing: Danny Welbeck
Key Man: Troy Deeney
Verdict: A difficult season, with a risk of relegation.


WEST HAM UNITED
Nickname: The Hammers
Ground: London Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Last season: 10th
Manager: Manuel Pellegrini

Always a pundits' favourite. The golden age romanticism of the ex-football brigade is always dying for a West Ham resurgence, but it never quite clicks for them. One season they'll look on the verge of a big leap, only to slump to a safe mid-table finish the next. At their worst, they find themselves dragged in and around the foot of the table. So it is again, and with the Pellegrini hype in full swing, there's real talk of a top ten finish and maybe even a push for the Europa League. But such things seldom happen over night, and Hammers fans would do well to strike a tone of caution.

This applies particularly for the upcoming season, with significant transition around the team. Mark Arnautovic has departed, with new big money signing Sebastien Haller ostensibly taking on the responsibility of main forward. Noble and Hernandez aren't getting any younger, while key players such as Yarmolenko, Wilshire and Lanzini have struggled for fitness of late.

Still, this is a team that, on paper, should do well when firing on all cylinders. Haller will bring a potent goal threat to the Premier League. Fabianksi was one of the league's best performing goalkeepers last season. Lanzini pulls the strings quite capably in attack when fit, while Declan Rice is the beating heart of a very tough midfield.

Expect a slow bedding period for a side with this many changes, but if they can gel, and if they can bring a fresh attacking impetus to their game, then they can do well this season. There's not a whole lot between the teams in the middle of the table, and you could see West Ham finishing anywhere from 8th to 15th or so.

Key Signing: Sebastien Haller
Key Man: Manuel Lanzini
Verdict: A solid mid-table finish.


WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS
Nickname: Wolves
Ground: Molineux Stadium
Capacity: 31,700
Last season: 7th
Manager: Nuno Espirito Santo

One of the more interesting clubs to watch in recent years. Formerly a Big Club™ as recently as the mid 20th Century, buoyed in recent years by a wave of foreign investment. Their rise has been meteoric and they marked their return to the top flight with a hugely credible 7th place finish. The expectation this season has to be for another strong year.

Wolves have made a habit of investing in good young talent, the likes of Ruben Neves, Diogo Jota, and Adama Traore, but with a bedrock of experience in Joao Moutinho and Rui Patricio, among others. They have invested well again this summer with big money moves for the likes of Raul Jimenez and Patrick Cutrone. Of these new faces, Jimenez represents probably the most immediate upgrade to their existing lineup, but the high potential of Cutrone could bring the greatest benefit in the long run.

Once again, Wolves are buying talent like a big club, and crucially they have managed to hold onto their existing assets. They may be a lesser known name for modern football fans, but this is a strong team, and not to be taken lightly.

Key Signing: Raul Jimenez
Key Man: Ruben Neves
Verdict: Another credible finish in the top half of the table.


Predicted table:
1. Liverpool
2. Manchester City
3. Arsenal
4. Tottenham
5. Manchester United
6. Leicester City
7. Chelsea
8. Wolverhampton Wanderers
9. Everton
10. West Ham
11. Burnley
12. Bournemouth
13. Aston Villa
14. Norwich
15. Crystal Palace
16. Newcastle United
17. Southampton
18. Watford
19. Brighton
20. Sheffield United







Saturday, 20 July 2019

This month saw the first round of debates in the Democratic primary, a sign that the 2020 Presidential election is well and truly underway. A perfect opportunity, then, to present a way-too-early preview of how the race is shaping up and what to expect. With the election more than a year away, such discussion might seem premature, but this is no ordinary primary. The general perception is that whoever wins this contest has a very good shot at being the next President, making the next few months almost as crucial as the final vote in November 2020.

trump election 2020 democratic primary biden buttigieg pete beto bernie sanders kamala elizabeth warren tulsi gabbard

What is the state of play?
Let's get something out of the way up front. Donald Trump should win this election. The incumbent almost always wins a Presidential election, particularly when the economy is doing well, as is currently the case. In an ordinary year, I would expect the incumbent President to be about a 70/30 favourite, maybe higher with this economy. And yet, Trump goes into this election arguably only just about evens to win, and possibly even less.

There are a few reasons why this is the case. Foremost among them: Trump's approval rating is historically low, hovering around the high 30s and low 40s for most of his Presidency to date. No American President in the modern era has had such consistently low approval ratings, and none with an approval rating so low in the run up to election has ever won.

Of equal significance is the fact that Americans, by and large, do not credit Trump with the state of this healthy economy. The economy improved significantly under Barack Obama, and while it has generally remained strong for the first two years of Trump's Presidency, it has not noticeably improved for many, and by some measures appears more tenuous than at any point since 2008. This effectively disarms Trump's greatest talking point heading into election, and places him in a far more precarious position.

The final notable cause of worry for Republicans is the result of the off-year elections from 2017-2019, largely seen as a historic blue-wave for Democrats (to put it mildly). Certainly, it is not unusual for the President's party to suffer big losses in the midterm elections (just ask Bill Clinton and Obama, who lost big in midterms and both went on to secure second terms). Rather it is the state-by-state performance that will worry Trump, including historic swings in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, well above the national margin. These are all states that Trump won in 2016 and will be counting on again in 2020.

So as you can see, Trump heads into the 2020 election in a far more vulnerable position than just about any incumbent of the modern era. There really is a much greater than usual chance that the opposition candidate will win next year, making this a primary election of unusual significance.

So who is running against Trump?
One consequence of the perceived vulnerability of this incumbent is that there is an astonishing number of people running against him in 2020.

Trump has already drawn one major primary challenge in the form of former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, and there are rumours that more could follow, including Jeff Flake, Mark Sanford or John Kasich. An incumbent President drawing a primary challenge is ordinarily a sign of fatal weakness, but I won't spend too much time discussing the Republican primary for two reasons: 1) The Republican Party has made clear that it will not support or encourage any such challenges, and it is allegedly considering cancelling all votes so that they can just rubber stamp a Trump nomination, and 2) Trump, for all his vulnerabilities, is still very popular among Republicans, and it is difficult to see anyone who could successfully challenge him for the nomination.

But it is not just the Republican primary. The Democratic primary has also drawn a remarkable number of candidates - some 25 who could be considered major candidates at the time of writing, with the bizarre possibility that still more could jump in at any moment.

There are more people running for President in 2020 than in any prior primary cycle, and the reason is clear: they all smell blood in the water and fancy their chances in a 2020 match up against Trump. But ultimately, only one major candidate will face off against the incumbent in the general election, which means we somehow have to whittle down this massive field to just the main contenders.

The field is large, but the polling to date shows a clear "big six". This top six has basically remained constant since the start of the year, and every member of the big six has been in the top three at some point polling as high as the high teens or low 20s.

The exact numbers vary from poll to poll, but across the total aggregate we can get a pretty good idea of where things stand. Joe Biden leads, with polls currently in the low to mid 20s. Behind him, essentially a three-way tie between Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren each polling in the high teens. Finally Pete Buttigieg and Beto O'Rourke are essentially tied in the mid-single digits (having both previously polled in the high teens). No one else in the race is or has previously polled consistently >1%.

For this preview we will look at each of the big six in turn, and finish with a summary of "the best of the rest".

The Big Six

1. Joe Biden
The former Vice President and "next in line" candidate. Joe Biden entered this race with near universal name recognition and the admiration of most Democrats, who identify Biden with the success of the Obama era.

His appeal is clear: he is a trusted, established figure, a moderate Democrat with appeal to the nation's centre. Crucially, he is a working class rust-belt Democrat who can potentially help win back the blue-collar voters who gave Trump Pennsylvania and Michigan.

He has begun the race with a commanding lead, but as was the case in 2016 with Hillary a large part of this appears to be a result of his superior name recognition, and the lead has tightened as the race has progressed. Biden's age is also a problem, and at 78 in January 2021 would be the oldest person ever to enter office. Given the advantage that incumbents hold, Democrats are hesitant to put forward a nominee who may not run for a second term (and so miss out on this advantage). But Biden's biggest problem is simply that politics has changed a lot in recent years. Biden has been around for so long that he is on record as having taken positions that were acceptable at the time, but wouldn't fly today, particularly when it comes to gender issues and race.

By historical measures, Biden's current polling and relative strength of the field suggests that while he is the most likely person to win the nomination, he is still more likely to not win. The favourite, but not overwhelmingly so.

2. Bernie Sanders
The runner up of the 2016 Democratic primaries, and a firebrand champion of the left with a devoted fan-base. Bernie took the world of politics by surprise in 2016, but this time he enters this race with universal name-recognition. Many had expected he would be among the frontrunners, and that is exactly what we have seen.

For most of the race to date, Bernie has polled behind Biden, but clearly ahead of the rest of the pack. Unfortunately, as is the case with Biden, it is becoming apparent that much of this lead is down to his initially superior name recognition. Consequently, as the other candidates have become better known, his polling has suffered. Indeed most recent polls have shown him trailing one or both of Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. For Bernie to be trailing his less well known colleagues at this stage is a very worrying sign for his supporters.

So why isn't Bernie doing better? As with Biden, age is a problem, and Bernie will be even older at 79 in January 2021. Bernie is also seen as a more polarizing figure than the other frontrunners. A lot of Democrats have a sour taste in their mouth from the damage his campaign dealt to Hillary Clinton in 2016, as well as the ostensible support he has received from Russian election interference. That is not to suggest that Bernie has any complicity in this, but the fact that the Russian trolls do seem to want him to be the nominee is, in the eyes of many, a good reason not to nominate him. But the most significant reason may simply be that this time he has more competition, including several credible candidates who occupy his niche on the left. 2016 Bernie benefited from being essentially the only option for Democrats who did not like Hillary, but in 2020 those Democrats have other options.

3. Kamala Harris
As a prominent Democratic Senator, Kamala Harris has been discussed as one of the more likely Presidential candidates basically since the start of the Trump Presidency, and yet her campaign has so far flown strangely under the radar. She has consistently polled among the frontrunners, but has generated fairly mediocre fundraising numbers, and received considerably less media coverage than other candidates. As a relatively fresh face, her low name recognition obviously posed difficulties, as well as the fact that many of the younger, higher information voters initially flocked to media-darling candidates such as Beto or Buttigieg.

That was until the first set of debates. For many, this was the first opportunity to see Kamala Harris on the big stage, and she made the most of it. Following the debate, Harris has shot up the polls and is now polling essentially in a three-way tie with Bernie and Warren, and just a few points shy of Biden.

Kamala Harris has a lot of things going for her. She is keen intellect and former prosecutor at a time when Democrats are looking for a candidate who is going to be able to grill Trump effectively on the debate stage. As an ethnic minority woman and lawyer, she is essentially the antithesis to a President who has been criticized for sexism, racism, and a casual disregard for the law. Her defeating Trump would be seen as the ultimate repudiation of those unseemly elements that he has embraced. But more importantly, she is cultivating an image as a strong and capable leader, one who embodies the progressive America that Democrats long to see.

4. Elizabeth Warren
Seen by many as heir apparent to Bernie as champion of the left, Warren has shown herself to be more than just an ideologue. Her's is a very compelling case: a firebrand liberal who espouses the same progressive policies as Bernie, but presented in a more establishment and moderate friendly package.

Warren had a bit of a slow start considering she was already reasonably well known, but she seems to be the type of candidate that people like the more they get to know her and her proposals. Over the course of the past year she has been quietly and gradually closing the gap on those ahead of her (mainly from Bernie supporters who perhaps see in her a similar candidate but with a greater chance of victory) to the point where she now consistently polls among the frontrunners.

Warren has become famed for her numerous highly detailed policy proposals, spawning the first genuine meme of the 2020 election in "Warren has a plan for that!". She is capably positioning herself as the wonkish, policy-driven candidate of the race, and that's very attractive for a certain type of voter. Unfortunately, the truth is that the vast majority of voters have no idea about policy proposals and won't care, hence why Presidents tend to be charismatic and slick rather than bookish and professorial. One has to wonder, therefore, if there is going to be a ceiling on her support.

Those arguments make sense on paper, but to her credit Warren has shown herself to be a likable candidate even among more casual voters, and her polling has been surprisingly robust, even in states where you would ordinarily not expect her to thrive. There may be questions over whether she is tough enough or charismatic enough to beat Trump in a televised one-on-one, but in terms of the primary contest she is undoubtedly among the top contenders.

5. Pete Buttigieg
Mayor Pete has been, without a doubt, the sensational story of the primary so far. A small-town mayor with absolute zero name recognition running for President, no one gave him a hope in hell. And yet, somehow he has managed to catch fire, propelling him right into the top tier of candidates. It is easy to see why he has caught the imagination. Pete is exceptionally articulate, and seemingly unflappable even when faced with tough questions. His policy proposals mainly place him in the moderate wing of the party, but his youth and energy endear him to the more liberal young voters. He frequently touts his military service, speaks eight languages fluently, and is a Rhodes Scholar.

On the other hand, there are so many reasons why Pete should not succeed as a candidate. He would be the youngest person ever elected President. His homosexuality is still, sadly, a liability in many parts of the country. His only political experience is as Mayor of a small town, arguably the lowest rung of political service in the United States.

And yet, such is the deftness with which he handles these apparent vulnerabilities that he manages to create strengths out of them. He stresses the executive experience of a Mayor in contrast to the lack of such experience among Congressmen and Senators. Pete and his husband Chasten have presented their marriage as such a posterchild of wholesome family values that it's hard to see them as anything other than the ideal first couple, especially when contrasted with the marital chaos of the current incumbent. And far from just reciting practiced lines, what has impressed about Pete is his repeated ability to think on his feet, to show humour and wit.

There have been signs that Pete's polling has been slipping in recent weeks, but there are still plenty of reasons for his supporters to be bullish. His fundraising numbers are phenomenal, the highest of any candidate for the most recent quarter, in spite of having considerably lower name recognition. In addition, while his national polling may have dropped, he still polls very strongly in the key early states. Pete is and has always been an extreme underdog of this race, but the signs so far make clear that he is not to be taken lightly. If he picks up a strong result in Iowa and New Hampshire then that could give him the momentum he needs. Regardless of what happens in this primary cycle, it is clear that Pete is a future star of the party, and will no doubt rank among many candidates' top picks for Vice President should he not win the nomination.

6. Beto O'Rourke
Rounding out the big six, and currently in a statistical tie nationally with Mayor Pete, is Beto O'Rourke. Beto was the star of the 2018 midterms, in which he narrowly lost to highly prominent Republican Ted Cruz in Texas, one of the reddest states in the country. A combination of soaring rhetoric and good old fashioned photogenicity saw Beto briefly labeled the next great political rockstar, and smashed the fundraising record books. But in truth it was his authenticity and idealism which won voters in droves. Facing off against one of the slimiest, nastiest politicians in the country, Beto refused to get dirty and resisted the urge to fight back. Beto's style is very much to focus on the issues, and the things that actually affect voters. That is an approach that stands him in good stead, even when the punchy, media friendly soundbytes may be lacking.

Beto's Presidential campaign got off to a similar start, smashing the week one fundraising records and shooting straight to the top tier of the polls. But somewhere in the weeks since, his campaign has hit a slump. While he has consistently maintained his polling position among the big six, he now finds himself at the tail end of that top tier, and his polling among the early states is even worse than his national polling, in spite of very extensive local campaigning.

There are many reasons why Beto has slipped. Mayor Pete has stolen his thunder as the youthful, exciting candidate, and Joe Biden has taken his place as the moderate of choice. But the biggest issue has been his media strategy. Beto made headlines in 2018 for visiting every county in Texas, and he has tried to replicate this state-level success by campaigning in the same way, as if this was a local election. That means a heavy emphasis on in-person and local events, and practically zero national coverage for the first several weeks. His staff have clearly woefully misunderstood the dynamics of a national election, and his campaign has struggled since.

Beto is certainly not finished at this point, but it is difficult to see a path back for him, especially as debating is not the medium of choice for a candidate who thrives most in pure oratory. His best bet at this point is to keep his favourables high, poll well enough to keep getting into the debates, and then as other candidates begin to drop out emerge as a consensus candidate. Still, one wonders if this may have been one election too soon for Beto.


The Best of the Rest
These six candidates are by far and away the leaders of the race so far, and the most likely to win the nomination. But this is a race with some 20+ candidates, many of whom are themselves fairly prominent and impressive figures. These candidates are "the best of the rest". It's a longshot for sure, but there is certainly a possibility that candidates from within this group could break out following a good debate, or later on as other candidates begin to drop out.

So who stands out among the other candidates? The obvious first choice is Cory Booker, another prominent Democratic Senator who has long been tipped for a Presidential run. During his time as Mayor of Newark, Booker was considered by many to be a future star of the party. Supremely charismatic and well-liked, Booker used to make headlines for doing things like rescuing people from burning buildings. In recent years he has been dogged by a perceived close relationship to Wall Street, but make no mistake he is a formidable and well-spoken presence in the party. At the moment he may not be many people's first choice, but I could easily see him being a lot of people's second or third choice, meaning there is the potential there to emerge as a consensus candidate once people start dropping out.

In a very similar mould is Julian Castro, former Mayor of San Antonio and Housing Secretary under the Obama administration. Castro first gained national prominence as a keynote speaker during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and was allegedly high on the shortlist of Hillary Clinton's potential Vice President picks. Much like Booker, Castro is a very charismatic and well-liked politician who arguably would be a contender in a less crowded field (specifically if a certain fellow Texan hadn't gotten into the race).

For voters more in the mood for an outsider, there's Andrew Yang, a successful tech billionaire and a man with absolutely no political experience. His hook is essentially that he is the candidate Donald Trump was pretending to be: a successful businessman free from the shackles and corruption of Washington. Unlike Trump, that's actually true. Also unlike Trump, Yang is actually an extremely sharp candidate with some genuinely clever ideas. After Warren, Yang is probably the most policy-driven candidate, with a fascinating mix of centrist libertarian policy and radical left wing (universal basic income). I suspect Yang will struggle against more seasoned debaters, and with primary voters who do not appear to be in as nihilistic a mood as Republicans were in 2016. But if the mood changes and Democrats decide they need to think outside of the box, they could do far worse than Yang.

And honestly, everyone else running might as well not be. I've seen some people make an electoral argument for Amy Klobuchar or John Hickenlooper, but I have seen little real-world evidence to lend those predictions much credence.

I would like to make a special shout out to Tulsi Gabbard, who ostensibly appears to be the Kremlin's attempt at doing a Donald Trump, but for Democrats. Between her shockingly Putinistic talking points, often matching word-for-word the lines being put out of the Kremlin, and her being probably the only person in America other than Donald Trump to still deny that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 election, it's a wonder that anyone on the left still gives her the time of day. Fortunately, she seems to be garnering little support outside of the Russian bots on Twitter (which to their credit have been spamming Tulsi propaganda for months).

Summary
The huge Democratic field has become something of a punchline, and deservedly so. Many of the candidates really have no business running. But cut through the chaff and you find a core of some very capable leaders, any of whom would be a credible nominee. This Democratic field may be historically large, but it is also compellingly deep with quality candidates for all corners of the political spectrum. I for one can't wait to see how the race develops.








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