james debate
james debate

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Developed by Paradox Development Studio
Published by Paradox Interactive
Genre Grand Strategy
Platform PC, Mac OS

crusader Kings 3 III 2 paradox europa universalis 2020 mac pc game

So I finally conquered Europe. It took more than a century of carefully planned marriages, more than a few strategic assassinations, and a faustian bargain with an old mystic, who in hindsight may just have been a crazy person. Either way, it's done. Now I just need to keep my greedy siblings from ganging up to overthrow me and find a way to defang that one powerful vassal of mine who's always an asshole just for the hell of it. Plus my beloved horse died after some dozen years and it's sending me into a mini-mental breakdown. 

This is the world of Crusader Kings III, the latest in a series of strategy games quite unlike anything else you will have played. The specific genre is grand strategy and what sets it apart from other strategy series like Total War or Civilization is its focus on people rather than factions or states. You don't play as, for example, England or France, but the king of those countries. If you fancy it, you can play as a lowly count or duke in charge of a more local province instead.

The significance of this focus is twofold. One: the political mechanics of this game are far more robust than what you would normally see in a strategy game. Rather than a single united entity, each country is a melange of different leaders, nobles and other assorted characters, each of whom has their own talents, interests, and ambitions. Two: by playing a specific character, your focus is less on painting the map and more on developing your character's skills, reputation and dynasty (characters marry, have children, and create huge branching dynasties - spreading your dynasty to seats of power across Europe can be as rewarding as actual conquest). In that respect, the Crusader Kings series is as much of an RPG as a strategy game and the newest iteration of the series leans heavily into that aspect.

Many of Crusader Kings III's features are a matter of evolution more than revolution from its predecessor. This ensures that the game feels immediately familiar to long time fans of the series. At the same time it is clear that a great deal of effort has gone into streamlining and simplifying at least the interface, if not the actual mechanics. In particular, the addition of an actual in-game tutorial helps introduce newcomers to the myriad of basic features that can otherwise seem daunting. It's not perfect; I can recall a few occasions where I (an experienced player of the series) struggled to find how to execute important functions because they were inexplicably and illogically placed in the interface, or mapped to unclear and easily missable random buttons. No doubt this will improve further as the game is patched. 

The result of these efforts is that this is easily the most accessible game developer Paradox Interactive have yet put out and should be both familiar for longterm fans and easy for newcomers to pick up. Once you've played a bit more, however, it becomes clear that Paradox have actually added quite a lot of additional depth that reveals itself over time. 

Many of these new features are ideas taken from the previous game's expansion packs that have now been rolled into the base game, notably alliances, religion customisation, ruler "focuses", and the more complex interpersonal relationships brought in by later expansions. CK3 adds to the formula with a number of bold additions of its own, particularly with respect to the RPG-like features of gameplay, which now includes full blooded skill trees to further develop and fine tune your leaders/dynasty. However the most significant (and brilliant) new feature has to be the stress system. 

In previous games, ruler personality traits were little more than a skill point modifier. Players still ultimately had total agency in the game, meaning that a leader with cruel or arrogant personality traits could still just go ahead and act in kind, humble ways if the player so chose. The stress system fixes this apparent incongruity, with leaders now generating stress any time they act in such a way that is contrary to their personality. Accumulate enough stress and your character can have a psychotic break, with bad things happening as a result.

There have also been substantial improvements in presentation. Previously characters in this game were depicted in static portraits that would only change at certain age points (birth, 16, 30, 50), leading to numerous memes of cute children suddenly metamorphosing into fat, hairy men in a single day. In CK3, portraits are animated and dynamic, constantly changing and reflecting not just age but weight, health and other traits. In-game events are also depicted through more than just text and an image, with the scene fully depicted using the animated portraits and various backdrops. These might seem like minor, superficial changes, but cumulatively they really do make a big difference to immersion, whether its actually seeing the scars and bruises of my warrior-knight, the silver radiance of my albino warlord, or simply seeing the characters actually in a bar or royal hall when the story calls for it.

My criticisms mainly relate, perhaps unfairly, to features from the game's heavily expanded predecessor that have not been implemented here. Most notable is the lack of the ruler designer that allowed players to create their own characters and dynasties rather than use one of the pre-existing ones in the game. This had become such an essential part of the Crusader Kings experience that I was honestly surprised to recall that it had not always been a base feature of the game, and I was additionally surprised not to see it rolled into the base game for this sequel. There is also currently a general lack of flavour for characters in settings other than the classic European Catholic leader, which becomes more apparent if you try playing as someone in Africa, the Middle East or Asia. These are all things that will undoubtedly be fleshed out further in future expansions, but for the time being it results in a game that is undeniably lighter in depth than its predecessor.

In fairness, it is always difficult making a sequel to a game like Crusader Kings II that has been so heavily expanded over the years. No matter how much work you put into the sequel, there is no way it will have as much content as its predecessor with ten years' worth of expansions and patches. This dilemma is what leads to the much derided "Sims" model of development, where each iteration strips back to the same barebones base game, and then sells players the same handful of expansions over and over again. Crusader Kings III definitely has this issue and it can be jarring right now to switch from the old game to the sequel and realise just how many of the predecessor's features come from expansion packs, but at the same time it is clear that Paradox have made a concerted effort to include many of the expansion features of CK2 into the base game here and they should be applauded for that. 

The Crusader Kings series has always been, at its core, a story generator. In this newest iteration, Paradox Interactive have created one of the greatest story generators in gaming. The story events are richer and more vividly presented, while the sense of place and character generated by the game's clever mechanics mark a substantial evolution from what has come before. While there are plenty of features still to be fleshed out, the base game here is arguably the most impressive they have yet put out in terms of features, and welcoming both to experienced players of the series and newcomers alike.

Friday, 9 October 2020

America is (quite literally) burning. The nation has never been more divided, weaker and less influential. Its officials self-deal and abuse the vital services of government for their own personal enrichment. For a hundred years it has not been so wracked by economic crisis and never in its history been brought to its knees by so rampant and ill-handled a health crisis. The people take to the streets for justice while unshackled armed vigilantes sow murder and carnage. Enough is enough, the chaos must end.

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I have been thinking a lot lately about the novel Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, a key theme of which is the extent to which people adapt to and normalise even the most horrific of circumstances. The constant threat of nuclear war in the 1960s, the threat of terrorism throughout the early 2000s, even something as fundamental as the inevitability of death, all things that from another perspective might seem horrifying and unacceptable, and yet we accept as simply an ordinary part of life. 

I was thinking about this the other day while watching A Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Instead of the usual grand auditorium, there was Colbert filming his show from an office with a cheap handicam, chatting with his wife off-camera and interviewing his guests via intermittent Zoom connection. What struck me as odd (aside from the obvious) was how no one was mentioning just how unusual this arrangement was, it has simply become a normal way of doing a late night talk show. Four years seems like a long time ago. It is easy to forget that things were not always this way. That the America of 2016 was a stable and functioning nation seems almost unthinkable. 

Economic crisis, hundreds of thousands dead from an uncontrolled pandemic, a never ending circus of scandal and corruption, and civil unrest tearing the country apart. This is the "normal" in Donald Trump's America. Let's be clear, Donald Trump absolutely deserves criticism for all of this. 

In 2017 Donald Trump entered took the reigns of a healthy country with a robust pandemic response infrastructure, one that had successfully kept the ebola outbreak of 2014 at bay. He gutted that infrastructure and the result is a nation in chaos with millions of known cases and hundreds of thousands dead. He inherited a booming economy and record low unemployment rate, now we have an economic crisis and unemployment that hit double digits (and yes, there were economic problems even before the pandemic: record inequality, high regional unemployment, market instability). 
In 2016, America was a stable, prosperous nation and a world leader.  Now it is a pariah state, isolated and quarantined from the civilised world, beset internally by flames and carnage. 

When it comes to the man himself, so much has already been written that really what more is there to add? I could talk about Trump's moral failings, his racism and sexism, his rampant dishonesty, his petulance and ill temperament for the job. I could talk about his scandals, the abuse of power for which he was impeached, the obstruction of justice described in the Mueller Report, the well-documented campaign finance violations with respect to Stormy Daniels, and the alleged tax improprieties for which he is currently under Federal investigation. 

I could write a whole piece on all of these points and still only be scratching the surface and frankly what would be the point? Everyone already knows all of these things, they've been discussed to death over the past four years. By this point everyone in America has already heard these things and either decided that this behaviour is abhorrent or totally fine and will vote accordingly. I won't waste any time rehashing these things. Instead I will simply focus on one key point: the most abhorrent legacy of Trump is his corruption of America's institutions. 

Over the last four years this country has transformed into one where every facet of Government exists solely to benefit the ruling party (and in particular its leader). An FBI Director forced to make a loyalty pledge, an Attorney General chosen to act as the President's personal fixer, IRS directors whose sole purpose is to protect the President from investigation, a President who insists that criminal charges should not be filed against members of his party, NASA directors who conjure up phony and impossible moon missions timed conveniently for immediately after the election, a postal service whose directive appears to be to disenfranchise voters. 

Every part of Government, even those which historically have been completely apolitical, has been corrupted for the sole purpose of serving the personal interests of the President. Gradually America is being transformed from a nation of law and democracy into a sham mafia state that more closely resembles the petty autocracies of nations like Belarus and Russia. Such things have no place in America.

Let's be blunt. There is no good reason to vote for Donald Trump. There are a million reasons to vote for anyone who runs against him regardless of who they are. But equally as important as why Donald Trump needs to be removed from office is why Joe Biden is the best man to guide us out of this mess.

What America needs right now is a calm head. Someone who will do what is right even if it doesn't directly benefit them. No election is going to magically make the pandemic or other crises vanish, but at the very least the country needs a leader who won't exacerbate our problems further with their ego and desire for attention.

That Biden is an experienced set of hands goes without saying. The man has spent years in the highest halls of power. He knows Government and he already knows the key players and world leaders personally. He is ready to hit the ground running on day one and pick up from where the country left off four years ago. But it's not just experience, it's good experience. As Vice President, Biden was part of an administration that shepherded the country out of our last national crisis into an era of record prosperity. He was part of an administration that established one of the most robust public health and pandemic response systems in history, which successfully held both swine flu and ebola at bay, and most likely would have significantly mitigated the tragedy of Covid-19. Joe Biden is a known quantity, and one whose track record shows that he perhaps more than anyone else is capable of handling the problems that currently wrack the country.

But most importantly, Joe Biden is a good person. An authentic everyman in a world of political cynicism, for decades he has been a tireless fighter for working families. His commitment to bipartisanship and unity may seem naive in today's America, but it is a view that he is right to advocate. He represents the lost ideals of America, the ideals that we want the world to see in our country once again. 

Four years does seem like a long time ago. That the America of 2016 was a stable and functioning nation truly seems unthinkable. But it was, and it can be again if we do the right thing. This isn't a difficult decision guys. This administration has been a failure of historic proportions. Vote this laughing stock out of office so that America can rebuild and get back on track.

Thursday, 17 September 2020

It's weird. Football is back, but it doesn't really feel like it. The confetti has only just been cleared out of Wembley, Mason Mount has only had time to grow the whispiest of stubbles, and Liverpool fans are still nursing the hangover of champions. We are so used to the usual summer break, replete with its longwinded transfer sagas and flashy new kit reveals, that it hardly feels as though a new season is upon us without it. What should be a giddy thrill instead just feels like the next match of the season. But this is a new year of Premier League football and we are here for it. So let's pretend like everything is normal and dive right in.

premier league 2020/21 preview
For anyone wondering why I still use the old school Premier League logo, know this: I'm an old school kind of guy.

Premier League 2020/21 Predictions in a nutshell:
Champions: Liverpool
Champions League qualifiers: Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea
Relegated: Crystal Palace, West Brom, Fulham
Golden Boot winner: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal)
Golden Glove winner: Alisson (Liverpool)
Player to watch: Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United)
New signing to watch: Timo Werner (Chelsea)
Young player to watch: Reece James (Chelsea)
First manager to get the sack: David Moyes (West Ham)
Shock of the season: Arsenal to mount a serious challenge for top four

Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Position last season: 8th
Manager: Mikel Arteta

It has been a rough few years for Arsenal. A series of managerial changes and midtable finishes has left the club looking adrift, without any clear direction. Last season's 8th place finish would have marked a new low for the club if not for a somewhat controversial cup win that was mired in scandal and questionable officiating.

Indeed Arsenal would be foolish to let this undeserved victory afford any delusions about where they currently are as a team. The squad is still sorely lacking in the depth that many of their rivals enjoy. The defence is still leaky. The dressing room is still beset with bad influences. Yet there are signs that Arsenal may be turning a corner under Mikel Arteta.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is a force of nature, while the likes of Granit Xhaka and Lacazette seem to have a new lease on life. The addition of Willian will prove to be an exceptionally shrewd transfer along with Gabriel Magalhaes. The duo being signed for a combined fee of only £25 million is a true bargain, a sharp contrast to recent seasons' expensive flops.

For the first time in a long time, Arsenal fans can feel rightly bullish about their chances. Will it be enough to get them back into the top four? The competition is tough, but I think they genuinely have a great chance. 

Key Signing: Willian
Key Man: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Verdict: Top five at a minimum.

Nickname: The Villans
Ground: Villa Park
Capacity: 42,095
Last season: 17th
Manager: Dean Smith

Last season saw Villa's long awaited return to the big league. They did well to survive the difficult transition amid a backdrop of ambition and uncertainty. Now can they take the next step and firmly establish themselves as a Premier League club once again?

A lot depends on whether Villa can keep ahold of their star players. The media typically fixates on Jack Grealish and his bag of tricks, but equally vital to last year's exploits was Douglas Luiz as the engine that kept the team's midfield in shape. Along with John McGinn and Tyrone Mings, this spine of players will be the key to building on last season's accomplishments.

If this team had one glaring fault last season it was up front. It is telling that last season's top scorer was midfielder Jack Grealish rather than one of the team's strikers. Indeed, no striker exceeded six goals last season (Grealish for his part netted eight). Step up Ollie Watkins, the big money signing up front who won the golden boot in last season's Championship. A lot of weight has just been placed on his shoulders, but so far the signs are promising.

Key Signing: Ollie Watkins
Key Man: Douglas Luiz
Verdict: Likely to be in the relegation battle for a while, but should have enough about them to survive.

Nickname: The Seagulls
Ground: Falmer Stadium
Capacity: 30,750
Last season: 15th
Manager: Graham Potter

Two years ago owner Tony Bloom pledged to turn Brighton into a top half side. He backed up those words with an ambitious transfer policy that saw no fewer than twelve players join last season, albeit on a shoestring budget, including some key investments in Leandro Trossard and Adam Webster that may well have saved his club from relegation. He's not resting on his laurels either, with a further thirteen players signed this summer. This is a club that intends to go places.

But this is more than just a campaign of brute force strategy. Mananger Graham Potter has his side playing good football, responsible at the back and ambitious going forward. Lewis Dunk was superb at the heart of last season's team and backed ably by Mat Ryan in goal. Neil Maupay shows promise up front, while the club is fortunate to have strong midfielders in Leandro Trossard and the newly signed Adam Lallana to play off of him.

It is also pleasing to see such a focus on young talent, with Potter promoting the likes of Alzate and Connolly from the academy, while youngster Ben White returns from a fantastic loan spell with Leeds. Then there is Tariq Lamptey, the bargain signing from Chelsea's academy who has been a revelation since joining the Seagulls. That the U23s finished strongly again last season suggests that there may be more talent incoming.

So can Brighton push on? I still expect the club to be as close to relegation as to a top half finish, but any improvement above 13th would mark a best ever finish for the club.

Key Signing: Adam Lallana
Key Man: Tariq Lamptey
Verdict: Should avoid the relegation struggle, but a push into the top half may be tricky.

Nickname: The Clarets
Ground: Turf Moor
Capacity: 21,944
Last season: 10th
Manager: Sean Dyche

Now firmly established in the Premier League, no one can deny the remarkable job that manager Sean Dyche has done at Burnley. Still, having seen the club finish in the top ten for the third time in two seasons, one has to ask if Dyche has reached the ceiling of what he can achieve with this club.

Rumours abound that Dyche could depart, particularly if stories of the manager's financial frustrations prove accurate. With the club unwilling or unable to invest, keeping him on board will prove crucial.

A lack of signings means that Dyche will have to make do with what's available to him. Fortunately that includes one of the league's best performing goalkeepers last season in Nick Pope, and a solid lineup of defenders in Ben Mee and James Tarkowski. Chelsea academy product Jack Cork remains an ever present rock in the midfield alongside Ashley Westwood, and while Ashley Barnes remains a potent force his advancing years mean the club increasingly relies on Dwight McNeil for its attacking threat.

Key Signing: None
Key Man: Nick Pope
Verdict: Can't be ruled out of relegation, but should have the consistency for a solid finish.

Nickname: Blues
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Capacity: 41,837
Last season: 4th
Manager: Frank Lampard

I find myself bemused, as I often am at this time of year, with the media view on Chelsea. Chelsea have spent big this summer, to the tune of £200 million, on flashy new attacking footballers. The media have jumped on the hype train accordingly, declaring Chelsea as new title contenders, as one would do with such an expenditure. The problem is that money alone doesn't win titles, you can't block a goal with literal stacks of cash. You need to buy players that help you win games.

Anyone who watched Chelsea last season will know that the attack was not their weakness. Academy products Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount had breakthrough seasons in blue, while Christian Pulisic was a revelation in his first season in English football. This Chelsea side was entertaining and knew how to score goals. The problem was in defence. You can spend however many hundreds of millions on new strikers and wingers, but that won't fix a dodgy defence or a subpar goalkeeper. At the time of writing Chelsea have done little to fix these fatal flaws and so still need to be considered a long way off from a title challenge.

Chelsea's young academy-produced defenders Fikayo Tomori, Reece James and Andreas Christensen show great promise, but are still very raw and need an experienced hand to organise and drill them. The ostensible solution to this problem, Thiago Silva, was a fine player at PSG, but at 35 his ability to adapt to the pace of the Premier League is in doubt. Meanwhile what was by far Chelsea's biggest problem, the goalkeeper, remains completely unaddressed.

That is not to say that Chelsea have not done good business this summer. Timo Werner is the real deal and could set this league alight. Ben Chilwell, while not the solution to their defensive woes, is a clear improvement at left back. Hakim Ziyech's creativity should more than make up for the departure of Willian. Bigger questions remain over Chelsea's record signing Kai Havertz, a player who's inflated fee and meagre accomplishments to date just screams of over-hype.

Frank Lampard did a remarkable job getting a youthful and threadbare Chelsea side into the top four last season. But expensive vanity signings notwithstanding, Chelsea have done little to address their problems at the back, and will struggle to improve upon those successes.

Key Signing: Timo Werner
Key Man: Mason Mount
Verdict: Will compete for top four again, but not as far improved as the hype would have you believe.

Nickname: Eagles, Glaziers
Ground: Selhurst Park
Capacity: 25,486
Last season: 14th
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 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. But even Zaha's talents are not enough to solve the team's problems up front.

This is a side that struggles with goals, and last season became only the first side to avoid relegation having never scored more than two goals in a single match. Last season's start signing Jordan Ayew has gone some way toward solving the problem, but more attacking threat is needed. Palace may find what they are looking for in Eberechi Eze, the new £16 million signing from QPR, but otherwise the summer's transfer activity looks like slim pickings for a side that often flatters to deceive.

If the trio of Zaha, Ayew and Eze can pick the Premier League lock, then Crystal Palace will be safe and stake a comfortable midtable position. If not, they could well see themselves sucked down into the relegation tussle.

Key Signing: Eberechi Eze
Key Man: Wilfried Zaha
Verdict: A genuine relegation risk if they are not careful.

Nickname: Toffees
Ground: Goodison Park
Capacity: 40,170
Last season: 12th
Manager: Carlo Ancelotti

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, even when the club languishes firmly in the middle of the pack. Last season ended with the club in 12th, but in bringing in managerial legend Carlo Ancelotti they may finally have the man to take them forward.

Consistency remains a problem for an Everton side that boasts the enviable talent of Richarlison, Lucas Digne, Jordan Pickford, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Dominic Calvert-Lewin. On their day, this is a side that can match up against the best of them. Yet any time their fans begin to dream of greater things, the wheels come off. Now with one of the game's best managers at the helm, there can be no excuses.

The club has made a few interesting acquisitions this summer as well. The headlines will no doubt be grabbed by former next big thing (and former Ancelotti acolyte) James Rodriguez, but the reinforcements of Allan and Abdoulaye Doucouré will add much needed impetus to the midfield, and may prove to be the more significant additions.

There should be no underestimating the challenge that confronts Ancelotti at Goodison Park, particularly when you consider the high level of competition in the top half of the table from the likes of Tottenham, Wolves and Leicester. Still, for the first time in a while it feels as though Everton may finally be on the verge of a genuine step forward.

Key Signing: Abdoulaye Doucouré
Key Man: Richarlison
Verdict: Targeting a top half finish, but face plenty of competition.

Nickname: The Cottagers
Ground: Craven Cottage
Capacity: 30,000
Last season: Promoted (Playoff)
Manager: Scott Parker

Welcome back to the Premier League for the cheeky younger brother of Chelsea. Fulham's trajectory over the past few seasons has been something of a seesaw, last promoted to the Premier League in 2018 amid hype and heavy (£100 million!) investment only to go down straight away. They have bounced back at the first attempt, but is there any reason to think this time will be any different?

The good news is that this is a more settled Fulham squad. One of many reasons why that 2018 team flopped was the sheer instability of bringing in so many new faces and not giving them the time to learn how to play with one another. Two years later and it's a different story. Key players such as Mitrovic and Cairney have been tied down, while loan players such as Knockaert have made their moves permanent.

But this is still a team with problems. Manager Scott Parker shows promise but is still green and at times proved tactically naive last season. The club still retains a lot of the dead weight of that infamous shopping spree of two years ago that will need to prove themselves here or move on. But the biggest problem is an over-reliance on Mitrovic for goals. Right now it's hard to see where else they may come from should he suffer injury or a dip in form.

While there are signs of progress and a more disciplined strategic approach, this is still a very thin Fulham squad. I could see them struggling.

Key Signing: Anthony Knockaert
Key Man: Aleksandar Mitrovic
Verdict: A tricky season and among favourites for relegation.

Nickname: The Whites
Ground: Elland Road
Capacity: 37,890
Last season: Promoted (Champions)
Manager: Marco Bielsa

Undoubtedly one of the big stories of the new season. It has been a long sixteen years for Leeds United but the Yorkshire side and certified Big Club™ are finally back in the Premier League where many will contend they have always belonged. The collapse of a former football heavyweight, relegated just a year after reaching a Champions League final and sinking as low as the third tier of English football, is one of the great footballing stories of recent decades, and so too is their recovery.

Marco Bielsa have succeeded where many have failed, and has done so by implementing his trademark high energy and relentlessly disciplined style of football. Their style made them a dominant side at Championship level, but the Premiere League is a different prospect altogether and it remains to be seen how it will fare against similarly determined opposition. The manager is not shy of controversy either, outspokenly critical of media coverage and embroiled in his own fair share of scandals. It will be fascinating to see how he reacts to the increased scrutiny of the Premier League.

While they have made some moves in the transfer market, most notably the big money signing of Rodrigo from Valencia, this squad will largely consist of the same group of players as before. Newly called up England player Kalvin Phillips sits as the anchor in this hard fighting midfield and will be crucial in holding the team's shape, while Chelsea academy product Patrick Bamford will be relishing the prospect of a season in the top flight after setting the Championship alight over a number of seasons.

The return of the Damned United to the top flight promises an array of tactically and narratively fascinating moments. Despite their long absence, this is an ambitious club that still sees itself as one of the big boys and will play accordingly. I fancy them to stay up.

Key Signing: Rodrigo
Key Man: Kalvin Phillips
Verdict: The Premier League comes with a steep learning curve, but Leeds look well placed to succeed.

Nickname: The Foxes
Ground: King Power Stadium
Capacity: 32,261
Last season: 5th
Manager: Brendan Rodgers

Leicester City were one of the stories of last season's Premier League, before lockdown at least. Their shock title victory a few years back is the stuff of legends of course, but while everyone was writing them off as a one hit wonder, Leicester have been quietly leveraging their financial muscle and newfound notoriety to build a team that is potentially capable of challenging, not as rank outsiders, but as equals. They started the 2019/20 season with a bang and by the time lockdown struck they were looking comfortable in third place and a sure thing for Champions League qualification. But the team that emerged after lockdown looked like a different side entirely, bereft of confidence and energy. Their end of season collapse, which saw the club drop down to 5th and out of qualification, has got to go down as one of the most dreadful ends of a season in recent memory.

So what went wrong and which Leicester will we see this season? I still contend that the fundamentals of this team are strong. Former Chelsea youth boss Brendan Rodgers is an underrated manager, and his Leicester boasts a strong side full of talent. Most notably the talismanic duo of Jamie Vardy and James Maddison, but also the likes of Ayoze Perez Çağlar Söyüncü, Ricardo Pereira and Youri Tielemans all make for a first XI that can compete with any.

One of the big problems last season was the lack of depth outside that XI, particularly in defence, a problem that has been exacerbated by the departure of Ben Chilwell to Chelsea. That Jamie Vardy is now will surely also be a concern. Vardy has been one of the league's best performers in recent years, but eventually his age will start to catch up with him and I don't feel the club have an adequate replacement.

Add to this the increased competition from clubs like Arsenal, Wolves and Everton and the toll of Europa League football, and it is not clear to me that enough has been done to take this team forward.

Key Signing: Timothy Castagne
Key Man: Jamie Vardy
Verdict: Will struggle to credibly compete for top four and will instead be looking at a best of the rest finish in 6-8th.

Nickname: Reds
Ground: Anfield
Capacity: 54,074
Last season: Champions
Manager: Jurgen Klopp

What more can be said about Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool side? The German manager has unequivocally succeeded where many of the most prominent names in football have failed and transformed an also-ran Liverpool side into arguably the best team in football at the moment. His tenure has seen both the Champions League and Premier League return to Anfield, the latter for the first time in thirty years.

Theirs is arguably the best first XI in world football. The rampaging fullbacks Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, the monstrous Virgil van Dijk in the middle, Jordan Henderson rock solid in midfield, and then the incomparable front three of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané and Mo Salah. They have not made any notable moves in the transfer market this year and really they don't have to. This has been the best team over the past three seasons and everyone else is playing catch up.

But eventually they have to slow down, no side can keep up this level indefinitely and now they no longer have the same obsessive hunger for that illusive title that had been driving them in recent years. On top of this Manchester City will come back hard. Pep Guardiola knows that the board will not tolerate another failure and they will be up for this title fight in a big way. Can Liverpool hold firm and retain their crown? Sure, but it will be tough.

Key Signing: None
Key Man: Mo Salah
Verdict: There or thereabouts.

Nickname: Blues
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Capacity: 55,017
Last season: 2nd
Manager: Pep Guardiola

Liverpool may be the team to beat right now, but make no mistake Manchester City are still right up there. After last season's disappointment they will be itching to return to the summit of the table, and Pep Guardiola knows that his job may depend on it. Eighteen points adrift does not cut it when you spend hundreds of millions on new players every year, especially when that is paired with failure in Europe, a competition where Pep has now failed to progress past the quarter-final stage four times.

Their first XI may not be quite as dazzling in every position as Liverpool, but this is still a lineup that includes Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero, and they have reinforced well in signing Chelsea academy product Nathan Aké and Ferran Torres. But it is in the squad depth where Manchester City truly are peerless. That they have the likes of Gabriel Jesus, John Stones and Riyad Mahrez as depth options just underscores the options they have available. While XI vs XI they are certainly no better than equals of Liverpool, thirty vs thirty they are arguably unmatched on the planet.

But as we saw last season, City are not invincible. Pep, as always, is tactically predictable, and when his system doesn't work he rarely has a plan B. The defence in particular can be shaky if Fernandinho is out of shape and the club's all time top scorer Sergio Aguero is starting to get on in the years. Add to that the departure of the irreplaceable David Silva and it's clear that this city still faces a number of difficult questions for the season ahead.

So can they win back the title? Personally I think the gap between them and Liverpool exaggerates the difference in their quality. The depth of City's squad in particular will prove invaluable given the lack of a proper summer break. We are looking at a very even competition between these two teams.

Key Signing: Nathan Aké
Key Man: Kevin de Bruyne
Verdict: Title contenders who will push Liverpool all the way.

Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Capacity: 74,879
Last season: 3rd
Manager: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

The other club in Manchester have struggled in recent years to move on from the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson. Solskjaer's boys will feel bullish after last season's resurgence, but they would do well not to get ahead of themselves. After all United have seen false starts in recent years, finishing second under Mourinho only to slump to sixth the following year.

Their fine end of season form notwithstanding, improvement will be needed in order to cement their top four status and push on. Their front four of Martial, Greenwood, Rashford and particularly Bruno Fernandes has been hugely impressive, but questions still remain over their defensive depth, particularly if goalkeeper Davide de Gea continues to struggle.

Despite this there has been only meagre activity in the transfer market, with creative midfielder Donny van de Beek the only signing at the time of writing. The club has been the subject of heavy fan criticism in recent years for failing to attract the kind of elite players that the club needs to move forward, and that does not look to have changed this season.

This is a United side playing with confidence and character, transformed completely with the arrival of Fernandes last January. There's the will and talent here to build something impressive, but is that matched by the ambition of the board? And is Solskjaer really the right man to make it happen?

Key Signing: Donny van de Beek
Key Man: Bruno Fernandes
Verdict: Top four contenders, but face a stern challenge from their improved competition.

Nickname: The Magpies, Toon
Ground: St James' Park
Capacity: 52,305
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. In spite of this, Steve Bruce does seem to have brought some semblance of stability to the club, but is it real or just paper over the cracks?

Mike Ashley is still here, but against type he has allowed for something of a spending spree this summer. The signing of experienced forward Callum Wilson is the most prominent, but Ryan Fraser and Jamal Lewis should also prove to be shrewd moves from Bruce. Otherwise it will be a familiar looking lineup, relying heavily on the likes of Jamaal Lascelles, Jonjo Shelvey and in particular the promising Allan Saint-Maximin.

The loss of star goalkeeper Martin Dubravka to injury will come as a big early-season blow for the team. This squad still needs more strength in the midfield and greater incisiveness up front. But once again the biggest issues at Newcastle right now remain the turmoil off the pitch, an unwelcome distraction at a time when they should be looking to build on their recent midtable finishes.

Key Signing: Callum Wilson
Key Man: Allan Saint-Maximin
Verdict: Good enough to survive, but could find themselves in a relegation battle if they're not careful.

Nickname: The Blades
Ground: Bramall Lane
Capacity: 32,125
Last season: 9th
Manager: Chris Wilder

I think it is fair to say that I, along with just about everyone else, was wrong about Sheffield United last season. No one could have predicted their explosive start to the season, claiming a number of big scalps on a path that took the relegation favourites into the top five by Christmas. It didn't last, but a 9th place finish was still a hugely credible result far beyond anything that had been anticipated. The question everybody is asking is can they do it again, or will it be a case of second season syndrome?

It's a very difficult question to answer, as this is a side that has defied expectation at every turn. Sheffield United were in League One just three seasons ago, yet last season they damn near made a push for Europe. Surely they can't continue their climb up the ladder of English football, but at the same time this team has retained most of the talent that made them such a tough prospect and look good to hold onto their midtable status.

They key to last season's success was organisation. Sheffield will be pleased then to have kept ahold of the key members of that unit, most notably defensive stalwarts Jack O'Connell and Chris Basham. The loss of Manchester United loanee goalkeeper Dean Henderson is a loss, but they have ably replaced him with Aaron Ramsdale. Promising youngster (and Chelsea academy product) Ethan Ampadu will bring additional depth to the defence and midfield in what seems to be a shrewd loan move.

Key Signing: Aaron Ramsdale
Key Man: Jack O'Connell
Verdict: Surely the upwards trajectory will cease, but to even match last season's accomplishments will be a remarkable feat.

Nickname: Saints
Ground: St. Mary's Stadium
Capacity: 32,690
Last season: 11th
Manager: Ralph Hasenhüttl

Southampton are riding a wave of optimism after a strong finish to last season under the impressively named Ralph Hasenhüttl. But while Ralph Hasenhüttl has done a fine job in steadying the ship after a few rough seasons, there is still much work for Ralpha Hasenhüttl to do if he is to cement his club's status in the middle of the table and push on into the top half.

There's 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. Danny Ings in particular is a potent force up front and his team will rely heavily on his presence. They've added shrewdly with Kyle Walker-Peters at the back, but this is still a vulnerable team at the back, and sorely lacking in depth should their key players suffer injury (as Ings is wont to do).

But for all the problems, stability can only be a good thing, and it will be reassuring for Saints fans that the steady stream of outgoing talent appears to have been stemmed for the time being. If Southampton can back their ambition with some investment, and if the academy production line continues to produce gold, then the club has a bright future ahead. For this season, however, they will do well just not to fall too far down the table.

Key Signing: Kyle Walker-Peters
Key Man: Danny Ings
Verdict: Should be safe from relegation, but too lacking in depth to progress from their midtable position.

Nickname: Spurs
Ground: Wembley
Capacity: 90,000
Last season: 6th
Manager: José Mourinho

Imagine running Tottenham Hotspur and thinking that Mauricio Pochettino was the problem, rather than the driving force behind most of the club's success. Well that actually happened, and the perennial top four candidate subsequently slipped to a distant sixth place finish that arguably flattered their anonymity in the 2019/20 season.

For how fashionable it has become to criticise him, Mourinho remains a talented manager and one who is capable of turning Tottenham into a top side. But the fact remains that the institutional issues at the club have not been addressed. Key positions that have needed improvement for several seasons remain unfulfilled and instead of a bold new frontier, the club paints a portrait of a team in stagnation, lacking in any form of direction.

Mourinho needs to turn this around, and fast, if he is to succeed here. To this end he has signed experienced Premier League talent that should be ready to hit the ground running with the likes of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Joe Hart and Matt Doherty joining the squad. But while Harry Kane remains a world class talent, elsewhere we see a squad that simply looks not ready for prime time. Ryan Sessegnon is promising, but not there yet. Eric Dier has not yet become the defensive leader his team needs.

Then there is the whole debacle with former golden boy Delle Alli. Two seasons ago Alli was the hottest talent in world football, now his exit looks inevitable following a falling out with Mourinho. And that right there is the big problem with Mourinho as manager, it's always about him.

Key Signing: Pierre-Emile Højbjerg
Key Man: Harry Kane
Verdict: Not good enough for top four and may not even get top six.

Nickname: The Baggies
Ground: The Hawthorns
Capacity: 26,688
Last season: Promoted (2nd)
Manager: Slaven Bilic

West Brom are in big trouble. They won automatic promotion, but it was not pretty and ended the season with more of a whimper than a triumphant show of force. Slaven Bilic is a wily and tested manager, but he faces a tough fight to keep his side in the top flight.

To be frank, their squad looks decidedly Championship. The defence is erratic and none of their strikers were especially prolific last season. Johnstone often looks rocky in goal. They look vulnerable under pressure and don't offer much to frighten opposition defences.

On the positive side they have done well to recruit Matheus Pereira on a permanent transfer after he excelled on loan last season. Pereira instantly becomes a key figure in this team with his high work rate and will be an interesting prospect to keep an eye on in his first top flight season.

The fact is this team still needs reinforcement and they are running out of time. The standard in the league is high these days and right now West Brom look among the clear favourites to make the drop.

Key Signing: Matheus Pereira
Key Man: Matheus Pereira
Verdict: Relegation favourites.

Nickname: The Hammers
Ground: London Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Last season: 16th
Manager: David Moyes

2019/20 proved to be a stuttering misfire of a season for a side that is perennially tipped for greater things. Having spent a few years pushing into the top half of the table, they ended up languishing just above the drop zone and there is little to suggest an improvement is on the horizon. The golden age romanticism of the ex-football brigade is always dying for a West Ham resurgence, but it never quite clicks for them.

But there is some real talent on this team. Sebastian Haller is a potent force up front, while Declan Rice and Mark Noble embody the very image of consistency in the middle of the park. Tomáš Souček and Jarrod Bowen should prove to be astute purchases for the money involved and in David Moyes they have a manager experienced in getting more out of his team than their raw quality would suggest.

These days it's trouble off the pitch that's most holding back the club, from financial difficulties relating to the terms on the Olympic Stadium to divisions in the dressing room over, among other things, transfer policy. West Ham are not a bad side, but they do not cut a unified figure. Without that, they're never going to be a top ten team. Then there is the risk of losing Declan Rice, whose departure would be a significant blow.

Key Signing: Tomáš Souček
Key Man: Sebastien Haller
Verdict: Unlikely to shift from the bottom half of the table.

Nickname: Wolves
Ground: Molineux Stadium
Capacity: 32,050
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 two consecutive hugely credible 7th place finishes. Increasingly they are proving to be an underrated force at the top of the table. Now the question is can they push on and become genuine top four contenders?

The core of this team is strong, with a spine of Rui Patricio, Joao Moutinho, Ruben Neves and Adama Traore. Raul Jiminez in particular has proven to be a genuine Premier League star, a remarkable 27 goals in all competitions setting a club record. This is a dangerous side blessed with real talent. But they need to hold on to those key players and add some more depth to the squad. They need to get more ruthless and close out games against weaker opposition (they notably took 11 points from a possible 30 against last year's bottom five) and another top level centreback is a must.

The club record signing of Fabio Silva makes for a big statement of intent, but once again this is a club that wants to be going places. They see themselves as a big club and want to compete at the highest level. 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: Fabio Silva
Key Man: Raul Jimenez
Verdict: A top six contender.

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

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Developed by Asobo Studio
Published by Xbox Game Studios
Genre Flight Simulator (duh)
Platform PC, Xbox One

microsoft flight simulator 2020 xbox pc game

I can honestly say I never expected to be reviewing a flight simulator game. But then this is no ordinary flight simulator. Microsoft's newest iteration of the classic franchise is a technological marvel and pushes the genre in a bold new direction.

Let's start with the basics. Microsoft Flight Simulator is exactly what it says on the tin. It's a flight simulator and the latest in a long line of such sims dating back to the series' debut in 1982. But despite the franchise's storied history, this is the first iteration in the series since 2006. The long hiatus is certainly understandable, after all there is only so much one can really do with so niche a genre. They said it would take something fresh and worthwhile to bring the series back, and that's exactly what they've done.

As a flight simulator, this is absolutely peerless. Real aircraft models are rendered in this game in incredible minute detail, from the flight mechanics and control surfaces to the interiors (dashboard, flight stick and even the leather upholstery of the seating all recreated immaculately). The flight physics are detailed to a high enough level to be used as professional training, with highly advanced weather effects taken into account.

But the big innovation here is its world map. Rather than implement limited local maps to navigate, as was done in previous versions, Flight Simulator makes use of Microsoft's Bing Maps technology to render the entire planet in-game. That is not an exaggeration. Every inch of the entire planet is in this game and you can fly over all of it. Bing Maps processes its satellite data to turn its flat images into 3D land and cityscapes (to impressive albeit mixed success) with additional handcrafted detail added for particularly noteworthy landmarks (think Eiffel Tower, the Vatican, etc). While most locations will be procedurally generated in this fashion, some cities (New York City being a prime example) will make use of state of the art photogrammetry data to render in full, photorealistic detail.

Add to this live weather data (if it is stormy outside, it will be stormy at that location in-game) and live flight data (if you see an airplane outside you can probably find it and take control of it in-game) and you have a remarkable simulation of the world around us. You can even find herds of wild animals roaming geographically appropriate locations.

I really can't overstate just how much of a technical marvel this is. The idea of a 1:1 Earth map in a videogame has long been an impossible dream and yet here it is in sublimely rich, photorealistic detail, integrating live data to create the most accomplished, most complete flight simulator experience ever created and a true next-gen technological milestone. It's rare to see a game provide a true glimpse of the medium's future, but quite often Flight Simulator does exactly that.

More importantly, it's a joy to play. There's something very relaxing about taking an aircraft out for a flight over beautiful scenery. If you are the type to play Eurotruck Driver or Farming Simulator, or if you are the type to play games like Forza Horizon just to go out for a peaceful drive, this game will scratch a similar itch. That you can travel to any nation on Earth seems particularly timely given the ongoing global situation and its impact on our ability to travel. I won't pretend that flying over Tuscany is the same as actually being there, but it certainly satisfies at least a bit of that wanderlust.

At the same time, it is also clear that Microsoft have gone to great lengths to make this a more accessible Flight Simulator, one that appeals as much to the gamer crowd as the niche flight simulator community. The game can now be played from a gamepad for a start, no expensive specialist hardware needed. Time can also be sped up in game to allow quick transit between locations (especially useful considering the massive size of the game-world).

It is surprising, then, that Microsoft have added so few "game" features. You have landing challenges and longer "bush" flights (essentially long-distance navigational challenges), but that's basically it. Older versions of Flight Simulator included at least basic missions, ranging from "Transport passengers from A to B" to "deliver humanitarian aid to location C". Considering how much effort has gone into making Flight Simulator more attractive and accessible to casual gamers (indeed a console version is still upcoming) it is very surprising to me that they haven't implemented more content of this nature. It would be extremely easy to do so as well. The end result is a game that, while initially engrossing, I suspect will not be successful at holding the interest of anyone but the hardcore Flight Simulator aficionados in the longterm. I can see most players buying this, flying to their house, flying to some famous landmarks, maybe a few favourite vacation spots, and then getting bored.

The technology, while very impressive, can also be inconsistent in places. While the Bing Maps 3D algorithm is able to come up with a somewhat plausible depiction of your average modern city, it struggles with more niche architecture. It looks amazing when you fly over Vancouver or Manchester, but less so over small villages in the English countryside, for example, where old medieval cottages can often be rendered as bizarre modern office blocks. You can also see a big difference between cities that have received specific hand-crafted attention and those that have not, and this bizarrely includes some fairly prominent locations. London, for example, is shockingly incomplete in the vanilla game; a 2D texture where St Paul's should be, a horiffic office block where Buckingham Palace should be. For London, at least, they have already released DLC that improves upon the unique landmarks but, guess what, you have to pay extra for it. There are other prominent cities that are not even so lucky as that.

Microsoft Flight Simulator is undoubtedly a technical milestone, but as a game it is surprisingly lacklustre. These features may yet be added in the future, but for now given the extent to which they are trying to expand their fanbase to the casual gamer, that comes as a disappointment. Nevertheless, there has never been a game that has accomplished what Microsoft Flight Simulator has done. This remarkable marriage of AI and data offers a glimpse of gaming's future, and may yet impact the industry in a profound way. As a flight simulator it is top of the range and a wonderfully relaxing experience for those chafing under the current lack of global travel. The term "open world" has been used a lot in gaming in recent years, but never has it felt so appropriate.

Saturday, 22 August 2020

Genre Rock
Label Island
Producers Shawn Everett

imploding the mirage the killers best new album 2020

With some bands, the release of the new album is seen as an event. The Killers are one such band. Fifteen years later Mr. Brightside is still a roof raiser and yet it is only the tip of the iceberg for a band whose discography glistens with number one singles and albums and who regularly fills arenas and festivals the world over. Few bands manage to fully embed themselves into the spirit of a generation, but this one definitely has done so.

New album Imploding the Mirage marks one of the faster turnaround times between albums for the band, coming less than three years after Wonderful Wonderful. That most recent album saw something of a departure for the band, a more sombre and nuanced record that was widely praised by some, but criticised by others for lacking the trade mark upbeat energy that one associates with The Killers. For those people, Imploding the Mirage will come as a welcome return to form.

Imploding the Mirage sees The Killers back at their barnstorming, high-energy best. A collection of anthems and roof-raisers that draws heavily on the musical influences of Brandon Flowers, particularly the Americana heartland rock of Bruce Springsteen. But make no mistake, this is no nostalgic pastiche, it is The Killers through and through and even where the songs wear their influences proudly they are embellished with the pillowy synths and danceable electronic beats that embody the qualities that make The Killers such an enduring act.

Fans of the big anthemic Killers sound (Sam's Town in particular) will find much to love here.  Produced by Shawn Everett, best known for his work with War on Drugs and Julian Casablancas, and his trademark sound can be heard throughout. Opening track My Own Soul's Warning sounds like The Killers doing War on Drugs doing Bruce Springsteen in all the right ways. Man, it is perfect: soaring guitars and the twinkling synths of clear sky and Brandon Flowers' vocals as powerful and driving as ever. It's a stunner and one of the finest opening tracks to an album in recent memories. Dying Breed is classic Killers, channelling the energy of Run for Cover and Dustland Fairytale and combining that with the dark introspection of Battle Born. Caution attempts much of the same, but in a breezier radio-friendly package that elicits the euphoria of an open road (a treat that seems far away right now).

If I have one minor criticism of this album it is that there isn't the same amount of variety as you might expect from a Killers album. The tempo does soften into more of a country rock mood for Blowback and Running Towards a Place, more successfully in the former, and there are some new age pop leanings in Fire in Bone and Imploding the Mirage. But ultimately most songs lean quite heavily into this Americana/Heartland rock style and they do start to blur together a little on first listen. One notable exception is My God, featuring the excellent Weyes Blood. This is a punchy, defiant foot stomper of a song that taps the familiar Brand Flowers themes of faith and love in a musical style that is more reminiscent of David Bowie at the height of his 1980s Let's Dance era pomp.

This is also quite a short album of just ten songs that feels even shorter from its relative lack of variety. The quality of what is there is consistently high, but if you are already familiar with the lead singles you might come away disappointed not to have found much more here. For this reason it was probably not a wise move to release the album so long after its singles. Nevertheless, a short, tight album like this lends itself well to repeated listens. Imploding the Mirage is definitely an album that grows on you with each play, to the point where you can appreciate each track for its qualities, even where they may tread similar musical or thematic ground.

Imploding the Mirage is easily the strongest album The Killers have put out in over a decade, one that harkens back to their glorious early days in more ways than one and will leave you feeling elated and in a dancing mood. This is a collection of songs that range from good to brilliant and will grow on you with each listen. At its peak, these are songs that rank up there with some of the finest the band have produced, but even its low point is well worth your time. It's just a shame that its relative brevity and lack of variety holds it back from achieving greatness.

Must Listen :
My Own Soul's Warning
Dying Breed
My God

Friday, 31 July 2020

Welcome to another end of year retrospective on an "interesting" season of Premier League football. Here at The Ephemeric I'd like to use this moment to take stock of the season gone by and bestow a few carefully considered accolades.

premier league 2020 liverpool champions klopp lampard chelsea ephemeric
To call this an unusual season would be an understatement. In truth, it bore many of the hallmarks of being a remarkable year of football even prior to the Coronavirus pandemic forcing an unprecedented three month delay that ultimately saw the season resolved in a six week mad-dash to the finish.

Liverpool were eventually crowned as Champions for the first time in thirty years; a conclusion that, while not made official until the resumption of football in June, had been pretty much a certainty for much of the year. The reds' victory marks the crowning achievement in a remarkable tenure under Jurgen Klopp that has also seen the club reach two Champions League finals, winning one. The transformation of this club from superclub has-beens to arguably the best side in the world today is no small accomplishment and one that surely cements Klopp's place as one of the great managers of the modern era.

As Liverpool have been impressive, so too have Manchester City been disappointing. For a club to so routinely spend hundreds of millions on transfers (net) and still fall so short is a serious underperformance. One that Pep won't want to make a habit if he is to retain his job.

Outside the big two we have seen far tighter competition for the final two Champions League places. The final sprint came down to a three-horse race of Chelsea, Manchester United and Leicester City, but for large swathes of the season that contest also featured the likes of Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield United. Ultimately those two places went to a Manchester United side resurgent in the second half of the season under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard's homegrown Chelsea.

At the other end of the table the goals of Teemu Pukki were not enough to save Norwich from early relegation, while it took the last game of the season to separate Aston Villa, Bournemouth and Watford. Of the three it was ultimately Villa, spearheaded by the managerial dream team of Dean Smith and John Terry, who managed to secure survival for another season.

Now without further ado it is time to move on to the Ephemeric end of season awards, followed by our carefully selected Premier League team of the year.

The Ephemeric Premier League Awards 2020:

Winners: Liverpool - Champions and comfortably so. As frightening as their quality should be the consistency with which they have shown that quality over the past three years. Arguably the world's top side at the moment.

Relegated: Bournemouth, Watford, Norwich - Heartbreak on the final day of the season for Bournemouth and Watford, two sides who have made a credible presence of themselves in the top flight over the past five years and will now be looking to bounce back.

Player of the Year: Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City) - While his club may have disappointed, Kevin de Bruyne has had probably his best year in football. An indispensable creative force and dangerous goal threat, adept from set-pieces blessed with a vision that few in the world possess. For all his renown, this is the season that truly established his place as one of the world's best.

U-21 Player of the Year: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool) - TAA is not only the best young player in the league, but one of the best old ones too. A top level fullback by anyone's measure, but TAA has remarkably also managed to become the most prolific creative force in a Liverpool side known for its attacking swagger. The good news for U-21 players is that this is the last year in which TAA will be eligible for this award.

Best Goalkeeper: Nick Pope (Burnley) - The form goalkeeper of the season has not been the expensive superstars at Liverpool or Manchester City, but the little fancied Nick Pope. For Pope to have been in contention for the Golden Glove despite being supported by such an unremarkable defence is no small achievement. Indeed no other goalkeeper has registered more saves this year.

Top Scorer: Jamie Vardy (Leicester City) (23) - At 33 years of age, Vardy still shows no signs of slowing down. A gifted goalscorer and consistently one of the most difficult strikers in the league.

Most Assists: Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City) (20) - A remarkable season in which Kevin equalled, but sadly failed to beat, the existing record number of assists.

Overachievers: Chelsea - An easy choice for this prize. An inexperienced manager's first season in top flight football, an inherited squad full of kids with no established striker and the league's weakest goalkeeper, and to top it all off a transfer ban to prevent any solution to these issues. This Chelsea side should not have been anywhere near top four, and their final position tied for third with Manchester United is nothing short of remarkable.

Underachievers: Arsenal - Also an easy choice. This Arsenal team was fancied by most pundits to take a top four position. Instead they finished in eighth, their lowest table position since 1994. This is a club with a lot of work to do if it is to compete with the top teams again.

Manager of the Year: Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool) & Frank Lampard (Chelsea) - This year I simply could not pick a winner for this prize, and so yes I am going to cheat a bit and share it between Klopp and Lampard. For Klopp the rationale is simple: the man won the title, a culmination of years of work with the club that has been nothing short of legendary. But for Klopp to win the title with such a great team is arguably less impressive than what Lampard has achieved. Fourth place (tied third) and a cup final is far beyond what should reasonably have been expected for Frank's youthful and transfer banned side, a remarkable debut achievement for what looks to be a managerial star in the making.

Best signing of the season: Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United) - An impressive debut season in English football for Fernandes and arguably the main reason for United's dramatic turnaround in form. The only reason Fernandes is not on the team of the season below is because I believe a player should participate in at least half the games of a season in order to be eligible. But the fact that Fernandes has had such dramatic impact in such a short spell of time in the league shows why he deserves this prize.

Worst signing of the season: Nicolas Pepe (Arsenal) - They say that the transfer fee should not dictate expectations for a player. "They" have clearly not been watching Nicolas Pepe.

The Ephemeric Premier League Team of the Season 2020:

english epl bpl premier league best team xi of the season 2019

So there we have it, another season of Premier League football gone by. We'll see you again next season!

Friday, 10 July 2020

Directed by Thomas Kail
Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, Jeffrey Seller
Starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr, Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff
Studio Walt Disney Pictures
Running time 160 minutes

alexander hamilton 2020 musical film broadway disney plus lin manuel miranda oscars

If 2020 has had one singular moment in pop culture it is this. The past several months of pandemic and global shutdown have left in its wake a world starving for new content, a gap in the market that Disney have gleefully closed by bringing forward by more than a year the release of the film recording of the musical that conquered the world, Hamilton.

Before we begin I think it is important to give great credit to Disney here. At a time where the world is grieving, isolated and in greater need of entertainment than ever, most studios have chosen to delay their upcoming content by months or years rather than release to streaming services, with a view to maximising profit when cinemas reopen. By contrast, for Disney to have actually brought forward the planned release of this film by a full year is an admirable move and a much needed moment of brightness for us all to enjoy (side note: it is also obviously a shrewd business move that will earn Disney millions in new subscriptions, which begs the question why more studios are not doing this).

This is, of course, the much anticipated streaming release of Hamilton, the musical. Not a complete film adaptation of the musical, but rather a recording of the show featuring the original Broadway cast and directed by the director of the original stage production. Those coming into this film blind need to bear that in mind, not that they expect a full Hollywood treatment.

I found myself approaching this film in the perhaps slightly unusual position of having never seen the stage show and being only familiar in passing with some of the music. I was aware of the hype, of course (and indeed came close to seeing the show on Broadway back in 2015 before opting against it), but like many of you the sales pitch of a rap musical about one of America's Founding Fathers held little appeal for me, much less my non-American other half.

Having now seen the show, it is my considered opinion that Hamilton is that rarest of things: something which not only manages to live up to its hype, but exceeds it.

In retrospect, I think the coverage of this show as a "rap musical" has done a great disservice to just how good Hamilton actually is. Indeed the music of the show is every bit as diverse as its cast, drawing on a great number of different styles and influences from Sondheim-esque pomposity to nineties pop and the British invasion bands of the 1960s. Despite what you may have heard, Hamilton has more Les Miserables in its DNA than Biggie Smalls.

It is a testament to the considerable compositional talent of Lin-Manuel Miranda that he is able to dabble in so many different genres and produce such consistently excellent music. But as much as the sound, it is the thought behind the music that impresses, from its thematic consistency to the matching of different musical and vocal styles to different characters, and its clever use of recurring motifs to express its progression of ideas.

I often say that the test of a new musical is the extent to which its songs remain stuck in your head in the following days. By that metric Hamilton succeeds greater than any musical I can recall for many years. Sometimes you come across a good musical which gets a few songs stuck in your head (see Hadestown). Looking over the track list now, I can truly say that almost all the songs in Hamilton have found their way into my head at some point since watching the show.

While the music sounds great, it is the quality of the lyrics that stands out more than anything. Lin-Manuel spent ten years writing Hamilton and it shows. Every line is so clever, so carefully considered. The rhymes will impress, while the lightning pace of some of the lyrics can be dazzling. Above all, the content of these songs is remarkable and the extent to which Lin-Manuel manages to squeeze so much complex thinking, historical context, and ambitious storytelling in these songs belies an astonishingly adept command of language.

The quality of writing extends to its cast of characters. While the accuracy with which these historical figures are depicted is open to debate, these exaggerated larger than life personalities animate the characters in a way that historical figures rarely have been. A significant part of this achievement lies in the cast's strong performances. Daveed Diggs delivers perhaps the greatest spectacle of the evening with two markedly different yet wildly entertaining depictions of Lafayette and Jefferson. Renée Elise Goldsberry provides the most powerfully raw performance with her repressed proto-feminist depiction of Angelica Schuyler. Christopher Jackson's depiction of George Washington is perhaps the only one I have ever seen that truly managed to capture the fire and inspirational qualities behind the man. Jonathan Groff simply steals every scene in which he appears as his psychotic stalker-ex interpretation of King George. Then of course is the incomparably layered portrayal of Aaron Burr by Leslie Odom Jr. It says everything that Lin-Manuel's own performance, which is by no means shoddy, is probably the weakest among the primary cast.

So far I have mainly been discussing Hamilton's qualities as a stage production. But this is a review of a film recording. So we must also consider its qualities, both as a piece of cinema in its own right, and as an recording of the theatrical performance.

Over the course of lockdown I have found myself watching a great many recordings of theatre, including the National Theatre's own fairly elaborate cinematic recordings. In pretty much all cases I have found the experience to be an enjoyable if somewhat lacking alternative to the theatre, even in the case of productions that I really quite like. Try as they might, none of those recordings ever seem to quite capture the feeling of being there on the night, and ends up feeling somehow distant and sedate. Miraculously, Hamilton does not appear to suffer from these same issues, at least not to as great an extent.

Hamilton was filmed over three separate performances, including one session in an empty auditorium used for capturing all the close up shots. It is clear that a great deal of effort has been put into the camera work and the editing of the final film. I think this is ultimately what makes the difference. When you are actually sitting in a theatre, your eyes can provide that natural close focus, something which tends to get lost through the additional abstraction of the camera. By providing those carefully choreographed close up shots, this film effectively negates this issue and does a much better job of bringing you into the action. In some ways, I found the experience to be even superior to actually attending a production in person. That close up camera work allows you to appreciate the actors' performances in a way that you may not necessarily be able to do in a large and distant auditorium.

If I had to get nitpicky I would say that having to follow the director's camera takes away some of the audience's agency in choosing where to focus, potentially missing some of the fine work of the larger ensemble, or the background performances of the non-speaking cast. I also found it odd that Disney released the video without some chapter browsing functionality, something which would seem a bit of a no-brainer for a musical to allow instant jumping to particular songs or moments.

Clearly though, these are minor quibbles. Hamilton is undoubtedly a superlative piece of cinema which does a remarkable job of capturing the magic of theatre. As a piece of music, Hamilton is excellent. As a feat of writing it is a truly seminal accomplishment. That comes across plainly in this adaptation and the result is a cultural moment that should prove a delight to both longtime fans and newcomers alike. For the first time, Hamilton is easily and affordably available to everyone. If you have not yet managed to see what all the fuss is about, don't throw away your shot.

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Created by Alex Kurtzman, Michael Chabon
Network CBS/Amazon Prime
Starring Patrick Stewart, Alison Pill, Isa Briones, Santiago Cabrera
Genre Science Fiction
Running Time 40-65 minutes

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I will preface this review by stating for the record that I am a Star Trek fan. Over the years I have seen every movie, watched all the live action TV series and played most of the videogames. The franchise occupies a significant portion of my childhood nostalgia and I find the prospect of any new addition to the canon a cause of great excitement. I warn you, there will be a few spoilers in this review.

My longtime fandom notwithstanding, readers of this blog will recall that I was not especially fond of the most recent series Discovery (in hindsight I think my review score may even have been a bit generous). On paper the newest series, Star Trek: Picard, sounds like it should right all the wrongs of Discovery.

Whereas the former was criticised for straying too far from the Star Trek formula, this new series brings back several beloved characters from Star Trek: The Next Generation, generally considered to be the high point of the franchise. Where Discovery was criticised for the poor quality of its acting and writing, Picard stars the incomparable Sir Patrick Stewart, and is (remarkably) written by the Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon. While Discovery was criticised for its mindless action and lack of storytelling depth, Picard presents a more introspective and thoughtful premise focused on the twilight years of a retired Admiral, exploring difficult topics like mortality and loss.

On paper it sounds like the dream Star Trek series. Bold and inventive without losing its affection for nostalgia, backed by the very highest quality in acting and writing talent. Yet despite this, Picard frustrates as often as it delights, and replicates many of the same flaws that held back Discovery.

Let's begin with the positives. Jean Luc Picard is an iconic character, and seeing Patrick Stewart reprise this role is worth the price of admission alone. This is an ageing Picard approaching the end of his life. He is vulnerable, with a creeping world-weariness that appears unrecognisable from the Picard we have seen previously. But this is still the same man and the way Stewart allows that core of idealism to gradually re-emerge over the character's journey requires a performance of great complexity and dexterity. The story is (mostly) good and takes both the character and the franchise to some fresh and interesting places. Chabon, in addition to being a world-renowned author, is apparently quite the Trekkie and has clearly put a great deal of thought into his vision for the world.

Picard frequently delights when it brings back familiar faces from the old series. Jonathan Frakes briefly returns as Picard's former First Officer Will Riker, while Marina Sirtis reprises her role as former ship counsellor (and Riker's wife) Deanna Troi. Jeri Ryan plays a larger role with the surprise return of Star Trek Voyager character Seven of Nine, now barely recognisable as compared to the stiff, emotionally repressed Borg we have seen previously. Picard also quite brilliantly brings back Jonathan Del Arco as Hugh, a minor character from TNG rescued from the Borg by Picard and Data whose unique circumstances places them right in the thick of the action. The scenes with these characters form a highlight of the first season, but Chabon is smart enough to use a deft touch, such that these cameos never feel arbitrary or distract too much from proceedings.

The new cast is also pretty solid with stronger performances and more interesting characters across the board than Discovery. Santiago Cabrera is a particular highlight as Cristobal Rios, a washed up former Starfleet officer with more than a hint of Han Solo about him and a holographic crew of wacky characters (all also played by Cabrera).

Unfortunately Picard is plagued by frustrating production decisions. CBS sadly appears to be dead set on Alex Kurtzman overseeing everything Star Trek, and that means Picard features many of the same design choices as Discovery. The distinctive bright, optimistic visual palette of Star Trek has been replaced by super generic greys and blacks. The tone of the series still just isn't right: far too dour, too brutal, too miserable, with none of the classic Star Trek levity or optimism. I said this in my Discovery review, but Kurtzman and his people seem desperate to make Star Trek look and feel like Game of Thrones or The Handmaid's Tale and the result just comes off as a generic and bland imitation.

While the series starts very strongly, it suffers from significant pacing problems as the season progresses. Chabon is a great novelist, but he clearly hasn't yet mastered the rhythm of television. Some of these episodes really drag, and it often feels as though it takes a long time for anything significant to happen with little of interest taking place in between these moments. It's not so much that the series is overly long, quite the opposite. The problem is that the series and its characters are barely given any time to breathe.

As with Discovery, Picard features a 100% serialised story arc, with none of the classic self-contained Star Trek stories. This is problematic for a few reasons. Star Trek is primarily a character-based series and this format does not allow sufficient time to explore each character and their subplots. The result is that all these new characters and a confusing mess of different story threads get rushed into the main story arc in a way that barely allows them to register. This is why the pace feels like such a slog. Picard could really have done with an additional five or so episodes, each of which broke away from the main story entirely and focused on one of the main cast. I think the interesting characters are there, the writers just need to free them up a bit and add some of classic Trek's narrative variety.

But the biggest problem with Picard is the tone, something which I have already touched upon. This version of Star Trek is almost relentlessly brutal, nasty, and unpleasant. It tries so hard to be shocking and dark, but in ways that come off as feeling juvenile. The series is peppered with gratuitous cursing that feels totally out of place in the Star Trek universe. Several classic characters are brought back only to be unceremoniously killed off. In one particularly ill-advised scene, Picard brings back one of the child characters from Star Trek Voyager only to brutally torture and kill them within seconds (featuring an unnecessarily graphic eye removal). It's so gratuitous and out of nothing that it comes off as childish and robs the moment of any emotional impact that it may have had. Bizarrely this appears to be something of a theme with this show. Of the eight old characters that return in this series, five get killed off.

It is at this point that I refer back to my statement that the story was "mostly" good. It is mostly good, but blighted towards the end by several inexplicably bad storytelling decisions, culminating in a finale that is unfortunately quite poor. Heavy spoilers from here on out.

The titular Picard gets killed off, only to be resurrected moments later as an android, a pointless plot twist that doesn't really add anything to the story and is bereft of any emotional impact when we already know that a second season is on the way. The beloved character Data returns, only to inexplicably request assisted suicide with the idiotic rationale that "life is defined by death" (amusingly, Data actually had a speech in the last movie where he specifically expresses astonishment that any being would ever willingly die). Why bring back a character just to kill him off for no reason (and with a completely out of character justification)? Why kill off a character only to bring him back in the next scene in a way that adds nothing to the plot? Chabon clearly wanted to end this season with some sort of grand comment on the human condition, but what he's ended up with just seems trite and manipulative.

The story strikes another awkward note with new character Raffi. Raffi is a hippie stoner trailer-park girl who looks, sounds and acts more like a 21st century woman who just came back from Burning Man than an inhabitant of Star Trek's 24th Century setting. Raffi is a strange character in that I have no idea what her actual purpose is. I can't think of anything of importance that the character does in this first season and she appears to exist solely to provide some "attitude". It's jarring how poorly her character fits into the Star Trek setting, but the bigger annoyance is the way they portray her as this great old friend of Picard with this rich history together. Aside from the fact that Raffi does not seem like the type of personality that Picard would plausibly spend time with, there is something very obnoxious about taking a beloved old character, introducing some new character we've never seen before and pretending that they have all this history that we never saw, with nicknames and in-jokes, etc. It's a particularly strange choice considering we already have twenty years' worth of Star Trek characters with whom Picard actually does have an on-screen history that they could have chosen to fill this role.

I have done a lot of complaining with this review, but Star Trek: Picard is not a bad series, merely a frustrating one. The concept is there, but its atonal execution belies a muddled clash between a showrunner with no TV experience and a CBS production team who clearly don't understand Star Trek. What could have been a brilliant series has instead been minimised to something that is merely decent. Picard makes for a satisfying addition to the pantheon, but one that is largely carried by its brilliant lead actor.

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