Sunday, 28 February 2016
Today we take a quick break from our Hot List of 2016 series to bring you a last minute preview regarding the Academy Awards ceremony this weekend.
This Sunday, Hollywood's famous Dolby Theatre will once again play host to the biggest day on the cinema calendar, the Oscars. People all over the world will tune in for that most tragically popular of pastimes, celebrity watching, followed by four hours of the film industry's traditionally self-congratulatory exercise in PR.
The host for this year will be the somewhat unexpected Chris Rock. Rock's acerbic humour will no doubt liven things up for what is ordinarily a pretty humdrum and forced attempt at entertainment, though one expects he'll have to tone things down about 90% in order to appease the show producers, which is too bad.
Long-time readers will remember the Ephemeric's impressive track record at calling these awards, so it is no small statement when we say that this year looks to be one of the most unpredictable in memory. For the first time in years there are several races that are too difficult to call. For the first time in over a decade, the three most predictive pre-Oscar awards have each gone to different movies, suggesting a close contest ahead.
Nevertheless here we have for you, our loyal readers, our predictions for the big night. You may not have seen the big films this year, or be familiar with the latest hype tearing through tinseltown; if so consider the following a crib sheet for what lies ahead this weekend, and perhaps even a sneak peek at who might just be walking away with the big prize.
- The Big Short
- Bridge of Spies
- Mad Max: Fury Road
- The Martian
- The Revenant
And the winner: The Revenant (but too close to call really)
This is one of the most difficult races we've ever called in the Academy Awards. The big three predictors for victory in this prize are the Producers' Guild Award (won by The Big Short), Directors' Guild Award (The Revenant), and Screen Actors' Guild Award for best ensemble (Spotlight), with preference given to the first two. So really it could (and will) be any of those three films. The PGA is probably the single biggest predictor, the DGA more closely predicts Best Director, but it just so happens that Best Director and Best Picture often go to the same film. Our head tells us that the winner of the PGA usually wins this, but taking into account the hype that has built for The Revenant in recent weeks, and the facts that it has more nominations than any other film, and Best Director often wins Best Picture, our gut is leaning towards The Revenant.
Who should really win: The Big Short
The Revenant has a lot of hype going for it, and indeed it was one of our top picks for the most essential movies of 2015 on last year's Hot List, but honestly it left us a little disappointed. Undeniably beautiful to look at, yet nowhere near as deep or complex as it seems to think it is, and with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 82% it would rank among the lowest films ever to win Best Picture. Instead it was The Big Short that blew us away, and surprised us the most. A contender for last year's Hot List, we found it hard to believe that the director of Anchorman and similar tacky comedies would produce something of real artistic merit, but we were wrong. There have been several great films about the financial crisis of 2008, but this is the best, and crucially the most accessible, breaking down complex and fairly boring technical concepts in ways that are easy to understand, and shockingly entertaining.
- Adam McKay – The Big Short
- George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road
- Alejandro G. Iñárritu – The Revenant
- Lenny Abrahamson – Room
- Tom McCarthy – Spotlight
And the winner: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu - The Revenant
However we are much more confident about predicting this one. Winning the Director's Guild award makes Inarritu a virtual lock for the best director's gong. This would make Inarritu the first director ever to win back to back Oscars for Best Director.
Who should really win: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu - The Revenant
Yeah we'll go with this one. Boy's got talent what can we say.
- Bryan Cranston – Trumbo
- Matt Damon – The Martian
- Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
- Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
- Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl
And the winner: Leonardo DiCaprio - The Revenant
Leonardo DiCaprio has won just about every award this year. There is no doubt whatsoever that he will win this Oscar, whether he deserves to is another matter. Grunting, screaming and crying for 2 hours does not make a performance deep or complex. Somewhere along the way this mindset developed that the best acting is the most physically demanding acting; who can lose the most weight, who can torture their body the most for the sake of the film. Overwrought melodrama has become more prized than nuanced, intellectual acting. DiCaprio's performance isn't bad, but there rarely seems to be more to it than "hey look how really really hard it was to make this movie", and at no point do you get the feeling that you are looking at anything other than Leonardo DiCaprio at his most award-desperate. Instead one gets the impression that this is being given to Leo simply because it's "his turn" as recognition for all the other roles for which he has been nominated and not won, which is a great reminder of how utterly vain and pointless these awards really are.
Who should really win: Michael Fassbender - Steve Jobs
Cranston's Trumbo would be a good shout, and a considerably more impressive and subtle performance than DiCaprio's, but in our view the clear best performance of the year has been Fassbender's Steve Jobs. A lot of eyebrows were raised at Fassbender's casting following the protracted and well publicized difficulties in finding a lead actor, especially since Fassbender doesn't really look like Jobs at all. Somehow Fassbender managed to defy all the critics and give so full an embodiment of the late Apple CEO that by the end of the film Fassbender looks more like Jobs than Jobs himself. A beguiling performance and one that truly would be worthy of the Oscar.
- Cate Blanchett – Carol
- Brie Larson – Room
- Jennifer Lawrence – Joy
- Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years
- Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn
And the winner: Brie Larson - Room
Another one which is easy to predict, Larson has all the buzz, and all the awards. Saorise Ronan is the only other person who has won anything major, but nowhere near enough to suggest an upset. Larson will win this one.
Who should really win: Brie Larson - Room
Yeah ok, we'll go along with this one.
Best Supporting Actor
- Christian Bale – The Big Short
- Tom Hardy – The Revenant
- Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight
- Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies
- Sylvester Stallone – Creed
And the winner: Sylvester Stallone - Creed
I don't think anyone would have predicted Stallone to win an Oscar a year ago, but here we are. The hype and awards given thus far have been clear, the industry is set to recognise Stallone's long career in Hollywood with a little bit of old fashioned cronyism.
Who should really win: Mark Rylance - Bridge of Spies
Rylance was the early favourite for the prize; an accomplished stage and film actor giving one of the most memorable performances in any category, and he deserves it as well. However when Hollywood decides on something the signs are clear, and so far Rylance's only major award has been the BAFTA, which typically favours British actors, so his chances are slim in spite of whether he deserves it.
Best Supporting Actress
- Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight
- Rooney Mara – Carol
- Rachel McAdams – Spotlight
- Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl
- Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs
And the winner: Alicia Vikander - The Danish Girl
A bit of a strange one this, given that this isn't even Vikander's best performance of the year (that honour belongs to Ex Machina), but this contest narrowly looks to be heading her way. The closest runner up is going to be Kate Winslet, close enough that she could realistically win this, though a great deal of that comes from her recent victory at the BAFTAs. Like we said, BAFTA tends to bias towards the Brits, so we still narrowly consider Vikander the favourite.
Who should really win: Kate Winslet - Steve Jobs
Vikander's performance is perfectly fine, but fairly unremarkable. We're going with the BAFTAs on this one, Winslet's portrayal of Apple stalwart Joanna Hoffman was one of the brightest parts of the Steve Jobs film, and one of the strongest performances of the year.
Best Original Screenplay
- Bridge of Spies – Coen Brothers
- Ex Machina – Alex Garland
- Inside Out – Pete Docter
- Spotlight – Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer
- Straight Outta Compton – Jonathan Herman
And the winner: Spotlight - Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer
The obvious choice, especially given its win at the Screen Writers' Guild Awards, and a fine choice by our reckoning. Spotlight was an excellent film worthy of all its plaudits, and the script does a remarkable job of turning relatively dry and bookish material into something quite riveting.
Who should really win: Ex Machina - Alex Garland
Spotlight is a fine film and top quality screenplay, but Ex Machina is one of the best we've seen in years, sublime in its simplicity, fierce in its intellect, and at times even weirdly humorous. A great concept, executed to near perfection.
Best Adapted Screenplay
- The Big Short – Adam McKay
- Brooklyn – Nick Hornby
- Carol – Phyllis Nagy
- The Martian – Drew Goddard
- Room – Emma Donoghue
And the winner: The Big Short - Adam McKay
Another SWGA winner this year, and dead cert to win the Oscar, especially given the huge buzz the film has received across other major categories. For someone to present what is really quite a technical, opaque subject in such a humorous and engaging fashion takes some real skill. As above, a fairly safe bet in our view.
Who should really win: The Big Short - Adam McKay
Fully deserved in our view, we agree.
So there you have it, The Ephemeric's picks for the year. Enjoy the Oscars this weekend, and when the results go exactly as we have predicted, remember that you heard it here first!
Friday, 19 February 2016
Hello and welcome back to the Hot List. This week we will turn our attention to videogames, previewing for you our loyal readers the most exciting videogames set for release in 2016.
In 2015 PC was king. Between Steam Machines, a burgeoning indie scene, and crowdfunded games including Kerbal Space Program and the still in development Star Citizen (which has now raised over $100 million in donations), this was the year where PC fought back against the presumption that consoles are the inevitable home of gaming. At the same time, 2015 saw some huge releases including the long awaited Fallout 4, Xenoblade Chronicles X, Just Cause 3 among several others.
For the year ahead the theme is "you ain't seen nothing yet". Let's preface the 2016 preview by acknowledging that many of this year's entries were on our list this time last year. Chalk this up to one of optimistic forecasting, the increasingly long development time in gaming, or the hype of such exciting sounding games, but these are all now set for release in 2016. If 2015 managed to be a good year for gaming despite many of its key titles slipping to 2016, then this year might just be even better.
So behold, the top 15 key videogames to keep an eye on in the coming year (trailers linked in the title where available), starting with number 15:
15. Doom (Xbox One, PS4, PC, Mac)
We begin with a remnant from last year's list, Bethesda's reboot of the venerated Doom series.
Doom is of course one of the most famous videogames series of all time, known as the grandfather of the entire first person shooter genre, and in many ways, 3D perspective gaming as a whole.
Revealed in full at last year's E3 conference, Bethesda have slowly been showing off more and more footage, and sure enough Doom will run on the new idTech6 engine, and feature many of the somewhat old fashioned gameplay features that were characteristic of the original games.
Our concern is whether the attributes that made Doom so successful back in the early 1990s are still relevant in today's much changed gaming culture. Back then, gamers were mostly kids and teenagers, the perfect demographic for Doom's gratuitous violence and tastelessness, but if Duke Nukem Forever showed us anything it's that these kinds of thrills haven't aged well.
Release Date: May 13, 2016
14. Hearts of Iron IV (PC, Mac)
Paradox are on a roll right now. For years they have labored away on their absurdly complex historical strategy games like Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis, and for years they've been largely ignored. With Crusader Kings 2 Paradox finally struck the commercial big time with a golden blend of rewarding depth and accessible gameplay, and Europa Universalis IV followed suit. Their next release aims to conjure up the same magic for another one of their franchises, with Hearts of Iron IV.
For newcomers, Paradox specialise in sandbox style grand strategy games. What makes a Paradox title stand out from say Civilisation or Total War is the dedication to meaningful complexity. These simulations are about more than just armies fighting one another, and fully model diplomacy, personal politics, culture, economy, and countless other variables which ensure that each game world is utterly unique to the player, and completely engrossing, while allowing a staggering array of gameplay options to pursue. The Hearts of Iron series specifically applies this ethos to a 20th Century, World War I and II setting.
If Paradox can make Hearts of Iron as accessible as they have their other series, then this will be another golden strategy title for players to sink their teeth and time into. Release date has not been confirmed but is believed to be late in the second quarter of this year.
Release Date: TBA 2016
13. Kingdom Come: Deliverance (Xbox One, PS4, PC, Mac)
One of the more notable Kickstarter success stories. Kingdom Come: Deliverance started with a simple premise. Publishers refuse to release games set in medieval times unless it features magic, dragons and silly things like this, why not make a game in a realistic medieval setting?
That's the idea behind Kingdom Come: Deliverance. A roleplaying game set in 15th Century Bohemia, with period-accurate clothing, technology, culture, and even going so far as to bring in medieval experts and historians to program realistic tactics and fighting styles. But this is not just a period combat simulator, it is a truly sandbox world in which players can pursue their goals as a warrior, a trader, or take a more diplomatic approach.
Depending on how these different gameplay elements come together this could be a very unique experience. There aren't enough games that display an interest in real history and show the kind of attention to truly bring alive such a setting. All the signs so far are that Warhorse Studios are very committed to this vision, and judging by the millions of dollars raised there are a lot of gamers who are too. The title is set for release by this autumn.
Release Date: Fall 2016
12. RollerCoaster Tycoon World (PC)
The return of another much celebrated franchise. RollerCoaster Tycoon World is the latest entry of one of the biggest cult hit series in the entire industry.
As with the other games in the series, players design and manage a theme park, with the ability to place shops, rides, scenery and most notably design roller coasters down to the very small details. The game will be from a 3D perspective much like RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, as opposed to the 2D isometric view of the first two games, while new features include the ability to ride your rides from a first person perspective.
Atari have somewhat dug a hole for themselves on this one, with the now infamous mobile-only version of the game, titled as RollerCoaster Tycoon 4 being announced before the full PC version. This much maligned turd of a game was rammed full of absurd microtransactions, becoming pretty much a parody of the worst examples of the cliche of manipulative mobile games that are such a blight on the platform. Such was the outcry and critical panning of this title that Atari had to announce the full PC version ahead of schedule and rebrand it as RollerCoaster Tycoon World in order to avoid association with the previous debacle.
Things only went from bad to worse, as the reveal of early footage was met with decidedly mixed reception, prompting a series of behind the scenes changes that sees this game now on its fourth developer. From what we've seen more recently though, the new blood does seem to be turning things around. We shall have to wait and see.
Release Date: Early 2016
11. Starbound (PC, Mac)
A veteran of Hot Lists gone by, Chucklefish Games' hugely ambitious crowdfunded indie title Starbound has been kicking around since 2014 with no sign of a release, but recent updates seem to confirm that a 2016 release is (hopefully) on the cards, with recent official blog posts hinting at an imminent version 1.0.
Starbound is essentially a block-building game in the mold of Minecraft or Terraria, featuring a procedurally generated universe with a near infinite number of planets, each of which is the size of Terraria's entire world. Each planet has its own environment and it's own procedurally generated plant and animal life, making each one completely unique. Players explore these planets, mine for materials, and can build whatever they can imagine. Starbound additionally adds structure and narrative that we typically haven't seen from other games in the genre. There's a quest system, a colonization system, and a fully crafted backstory. Every planet is full of secrets to discover and NPC characters to meet.
The scale of universe that this design creates is unparalleled in gaming, and allows players to play in pretty much any manner they choose. A player can assemble a team (either singleplayer with NPCs or multiplayer) and explore the universe hopping from planet to planet, or build huge houses, military bases, farms, shops, cities, theme parks, anything they can imagine (and the creativity seen in the work the community has produced so far during the alpha testing is remarkable), the possibilities are limited only by the player's imagination. This is something no game has ever fully achieved, and if Starbound manages to pull it of, the result will be something very memorable indeed.
Starbound is available in it's alpha state on PC and Mac, but the full version is expected by the end of this year.
Release Date: Late 2016
10. Star Fox Zero (Wii U)
Now here's a big event in gaming. The highly anticipated and mystifyingly delayed return of the Star Fox franchise. Even though Nintendo consider Star Fox to be one of their most prominent homegrown IPs, it has been bizarrely under-utilised. Indeed aside from a few handheld games, there hasn't been a proper Star Fox game since 2005, and even then it wasn't a fully fledged, in-house version. Incredibly, Nintendo themselves haven't made a real flagship Star Fox game since the days of the Nintendo 64.
According to franchise (and indeed most other Nintendo franchise) creator Shigeru Miyamoto, the reason has been difficulty to nail down the best way to take advantage of the unique Wii hardware in the context of a Star Fox game. But now, with the Wii U's unique gamepad, inspiration has finally struck, and a new Star Fox game is on the way sometime this year.
As with the classic entries in the series the game will be focused on aerial combat, using the new gamepad's gyroscopic controls and second-screen functionality to shake up the way players target enemies. Additional gameplay will include other vehicles including the Landmaster tank, and a two-legged walker robot.
The key addition here appears to be the use of the gamepad as a second screen, but it comes at a cost, with the game's graphics severely limited by the necessity to render fully on two displays at once. Indeed early footage has been met with a glut of criticism over its very basic appearance, low resolution textures, and sharp corners. We will have to see if the design choice was worth it.
Release Date: April 22, 2016
9. Dishonored 2 (Xbox One, PS4, PC)
It's a good time to be a Bethesda shareholder, with Fallout 4 last year, and Doom already on the books for this year. But the more exciting of their expected titles this year is Dishonored 2, the sequel to 2012's surprise smash hit.
On its surface Dishonored may have looked like your standard stealth/action game, but between its spectacularly intricate open level design, and the admirably immersive world-building, the end product was something much more special.
The sequel looks to be more of the same, with new locations, and a new character to bolster the strong core gameplay. If they can build on the foundations of what they have created then this could be one of the top releases of 2016.
Release Date: TBA 2016
8. Star Citizen (PC)
The mother of all crowdfunding success stories, Star Citizen has so far rasied over $100 million, and that amount is growing steadily every day. What makes this all the more remarkable is that people are throwing their money at Cloud Imperium Games despite the fact that only a few conceptual game-modes have been made available so far. So why all the excitement and hype?
Star Citizen is the brainchild of Chris Roberts, a game design legend from the early days of PC gaming most famous for his space-based combat simulations such as Wing Commander and Freelancer. Star Citizen is Roberts' big comeback to gaming following years in Hollywood with a number of producer credits to his name.
Unapologetically PC exclusive, Star Citizen's mission statement is simple: to be the ultimate space epic, the game that Roberts has always wanted to make. It takes Roberts' trademark quality combat simulation gaming, adds detailed economy and trading elements, and throws it all into one massively multiplayer online persistent universe. A massive online universe populated with thousands of players, in which players can essentially do what they want: they can trade or start a business, they can be a combat pilot, they can become a diplomat, or they can engage in a bit of in-game sports (racing for example).
The sheer variety of gameplay being thrown into this game is matched by the vast efforts that are going into creating a believable, fully fleshed out universe. The official website now is chock-full of literature and back-story for the world they are creating, and even if reading into all that depth is not your kind of thing, that kind of love and detail makes a game world truly engaging, even for the most casual of players. It's this kind of effort that turns a good game into a great game.
Can an independent developer really deliver on such high ambition? So far the signs are good. The modules that have been rolled out so far show promise, and with the single player campaign set to begin this year, with the online persistent universe soon to follow, we are excited.
Release Date: TBA 2016
7. Fire Emblem Fates (3DS)
Amid all the talk of Nintendo consoles and the big money franchises of Mario and Zelda, it may come as a surprise to hear that arguably the greatest game on the Nintendo 3DS system comes from the little known Fire Emblem franchise.
Indeed the franchise, while always moderately successful in Japan, had fared so badly with western audiences that Nintendo were on the verge of telling the development team to give up and put the franchise on the scrap heap. With one chance remaining, Fire Emblem Awakening blew away every expectation that Nintendo had, earning critical and commercial success in every territory, with sales outstripping those of any earlier iteration by many orders of magnitude. Awakening not only saved the franchise, but propelled it to the status of one of Nintendo's biggest properties.
Now comes the difficult follow up, Fire Emblem Fates. For the first time the series carries a weight of expectation. Was Awakening just lightning in a bottle, or will those new fans stick around? The game is due for release on the 3DS this fall, so we shall soon find out.
Release Date: February 2016
6. Hitman (Xbox One, PS4, PC)
This may shock some people, but The Ephemeric has never owned a Hitman game. The premise is intriguing enough, but the technology has never been quite good enough to create a truly compelling, unpredictable setting for such a game. That seems to be about to change.
The idea behind the Hitman series is simple. You are a hitman, you get contracts to kill various unsavoury characters, and how you go about doing it is largely left up to you. You can use disguises, various weapons, and can manipulate others to assist you in various ways.
This newest iteration takes the concept to a whole new peak. These levels are so expansive, so full of activity and potential strategies that they really need to be seen to be believed.
Add to this a new, open-ended approach to game structure, with procedurally generated missions set among the same open settings, and this could have some serious longevity. We await with interest.
Release Date: March 11, 2016
5. The Legend of Zelda (Wii U)
Nintendo have got a lot in the pipeline this year, but by far the most hyped of their mega-franchises has got to be The Legend of Zelda, and a new one, the first original entry to the series on the Wii U, is set for release in 2016.
Little is known about the game so far, except that it will be the first original Zelda to be designed in HD, and that it will take heavy inspiration from The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, specifically with regards to adopting a grand, open, freely explorable sandbox overworld.
The new Zelda is being designed with the idea to allow players real freedom in how they explore and complete quests. Just how that translates into the Zelda format is anyone's guess at the moment, but Nintendo's demo footage makes a point of showing us a vast, rolling mountainscape and telling us that any point we can see, we can visit. Zelda is truly one of the grandest of classic games franchises, and if they can combine the magic of older games with the technical marvels of open-world games like Skyrim, then the result could be something special.
No release date set in stone, except that it will be in 2016.
Release Date: TBA 2016
4. XCOM 2 (PC, Mac, Linux)
The Firaxis reboot of the XCOM franchise back in 2012 was something of a triumph; a modernising of the classic formula that kept things streamlined, but still deep enough to make for one of the most addictive strategy games of the past several years. Now the inevitable sequel, the imaginatively named XCOM 2 is here, and it looks pretty good.
Set 20 years after the last game, XCOM 2 takes the somewhat original approach of assuming you lost the last time out. So whatever ending you got by winning the game never happened, and aliens now rule the world.
It actually makes for a pretty interesting setting, with the XCOM project now playing the role of resistance movement in a world under enemy control. This completely turns the dynamic of XCOM on its head, with you now the scary monster creeping through the dark to sneak up on them for a change.
Other additions include procedurally generated maps, and more dynamic events throughout the campaign, which could make this even better than its predecessor.
Release Date: February 5, 2016 (Out Now)
3. Final Fantasy XV (Xbox One, PS4)
It's been a while since the Final Fantasy franchise gave us a reason to be excited. Final Fantasy X was pretty good, but that was fifteen years ago. Since then we've had two MMORPGs, and two fairly mediocre main-series games, one of which was so bad that Square-Enix went and made 3 sequels (in a series with practically no direct sequels) just to prove everyone wrong.
Final Fantasy XV looks like it might single handedly turn the franchise around. Originally starting life as Final Fantasy XIII Versus, this has been in development for many years now, quite extraordinary as far as game development goes. But from what we've seen so far, it looks like it was time well spent.
Visually the game looks as stunning as one would expect from Final Fantasy, but it's everything else, from the new, more realistic aesthetic to the vast open-ended world full of spectacle and life. The characters have a decidedly more relatable, human tone behind them, and the writing looks to be as compelling as it's been in years. This looks like it is going to get everything right that the last few entries in the series have been getting hopelessly wrong, and craft a setting and story that people will actually care about.
Release Date: TBA 2016
2. Mass Effect: Andromeda (Xbox One, PS4, PC)
We love the Mass Effect series. Mass Effect: Andromeda is the latest entry in the series, and as the name suggests, it's a complete break from the preceding trilogy.
This of course means that Shepard is gone, as are all the characters you know and love. More than that though, it seems the galaxy and locations you know and love are gone too, and Andromeda sees you travel to a whole new galaxy. Quite why that was necessary when game lore tells us that the Milky Way is 98% unexplored in Mass Effect is besides the point, surely not as a convenient way to avoid having to deal with the array of different endings one could have chosen for the original trilogy? But lets not quibble over poor writing.
A new galaxy means a focus on exploration, hence the whole "western" frontier style in the trailer above. Beyond this not a whole lot is known. It's speculated that you've arrived through a wormhole, an expedition intended to chart and colonise unknown space. It can be presumed that your ship is staffed by a menagerie of well-written characters with daddy issues. All sounds good, though we hope this isn't the last we've seen of the Milky Way we know and love.
Release Date: Winter 2016
1. Stellaris (PC, Mac, Linux)
But amid all these AAA releases with big name franchises and $100 million budgets, our most highly anticipated game of 2016 is the somewhat less prominent Stellaris.
Stellaris is another Paradox title (see Hearts of Iron IV above). Stellaris is their first foray into the science fiction genre, ostensibly a mix between the 4x genre of games like Master of Orion and Galactic Civilizations, and the grand strategy genre of which Paradox are the undisputed masters.
It is undoubtedly exciting news that such strong designers are stepping into a genre that arguably has never bettered 1996's Master of Orion 2, but no one could have expected just how spot on they would get it.
Procedurally generated species, dynamic events, and extensive customization and modding point to the technical excellence on offer here, but it's the extra detail that shows the real love and attention that's being poured into this game. Star systems rendered right down to the moon and dwarf planet level, societies consisting of complex ideological factions that evolve over time, a spectrum of species from primitive to spacefaring, and even ancient fallen empires. Exploration, federations, individual science, political and military leaders whose skills and personalities will determine the path your empire follows.
In an genre of astoundingly ambitious intergalactic scale, Paradox really seem to have thought of every possible detail, in every aspect of both immersive world-building and compelling gameplay. This could well be the best Paradox game yet, and the absolutely definitive space game.
Release Date: TBA 2015
So there you have it folks: 2016 in videogames. Tune in next week for the essential theatrical productions set for release this year!
Friday, 12 February 2016
Welcome back to The Ephemeric's 2016 Hot List. We hope you enjoyed last week's entry covering the essential television in 2016. This week we will be having a look at the most exciting new music due for release in the coming year.
A very fine year for music fans of the indie persuasion in 2015, with big breakthroughs for the likes of Chvrches, Grimes, and a solid debut for Jamie xx of The xx fame. Plenty of the big guns came out too, with the newest solo album of The Killers' Brandon Flowers, Adele, and a largely forgettable effort from Coldplay. Elsewhere the Jay-Z/Daft Punk backed music service Tidal came and already went with barely a whimper, while Apple introduced their own Spotify rival streaming service, notable mostly for not being as good a service as Spotify.
At the start of 2016, the music industry is abuzz about one thing and one thing only, the tragic passing of David Bowie and the shockwaves it has sent through the music landscape for the year so far. But once the dust settles, there are some exciting new projects on the horizon, including some major big-name comebacks. So here's our list of the top albums to keep an eye on in 2016, starting with number 15:
15. Patawawa (New band)
Derbyshire-based neo-disco outfit Patawawa are the latest in 1970s/80s revival to be making waves in the indie scene. Their style is very much in the mould of a Years and Years or Broken Bells, so fans would do well to check them out. The band has been getting some seriously hot tips for 2016.
Red and White is the track that has most been doing the rounds on the internet so far, and indeed it is a supremely catchy piece of pop music, but we would also direct your attention to the breezy Strange, a top track indeed.
The buzz has been building for this one, and having now featured on many pundits' hot for 2016 lists the speculation is that a full length untitled debut album is due in the next 12 months, supposedly in time for the fall.
Release Date: TBA 2016
14. The Killers
Everyone knows The Killers. Their hits include such classics as Mr. Brightside, All These Things I've Done, and Human, among many others. But despite their prominence in modern pop music, there are some who would say that their star has been on the wane in recent years, and have not released an album now since 2012.
At the same time, frontman Brandon Flowers is fresh from his successful sophomore solo album in 2015, prompting speculation as to whether the group would even return at all, or if he would spend more time pursuing his own career.
The band will hope to set this right in 2016 with their fifth studio album now confirmed to be in production, and a release date tentatively set for late 2016. Despite the mediocrity of their last album, Battleborn, this is news that should excite fans everywhere. Flowers remains one of the most creative songwriters in the business, and despite his efforts is always at his best when contrasted by the more grounded notes of his band.
We're looking forward to this one. So why so low down the list? Considering there hasn't even been a hint of new material in a single or at any live concert, we are skeptical that this will really see the light of day in 2016. Fingers crossed.
Release Date: Winter 2016
13. "Moth" by Chairlift
Next we have the return of Chairlift, that purveyor of glowing synthpop from Brooklyn, NY, known for singles like Bruises and I Belong in Your Arms.
This year they return with new album Moth. As one would expect it's full of shiny, immensely enjoyable pop with whip-smart lyrics, but taken in a more discordant direction, certainly an interesting new sound. Crying in Public has been the stand out from the early previews, if the rest of the album is as good as this track then we could be in for a treat.
We won't have to wait long to see whether it's any good, as the album launches at the start of 2016. Reviews might already be in by the time this post goes live.
Release Date: January 2016
12. "Painting With" by Animal Collective
Another year, another entry in the Hot List from either Panda Bear or in this case, his band Animal Collective. Masterful purveyors of the weird and wonderful in music, there can be no denying that they rank among the most original song writers in music today. You're not always sure what to expect with them. sometimes it doesn't work, but when it does, it's often genius.
In the past they have been known for singles Fireworks, My Girls, and Winter's Love, while Panda Bear on his own has such songs as Boys Latin and Comfy in Nautica to his name. FloriDada, the lead single from new album Painting With, is... well it's not a classic. We'll wait to hear more from the album before making conclusions, have the band run out of ideas? We shall see.
In the mean time the album drops in February this year.
Release Date: February 2016
11. "Milk Bath" by Petite Meller (New band)
Here's a girl who's tipped for big things indeed. Petite Meller is being hailed as the next Lady Gaga, and as it turns out the comparison is not entirely without merit.
In reality, Meller fashions herself as a mix between the extravagant theatricality and solid-gold pop hooks of Lady Gaga, with the more sultry art-rock of a Lana del Rey. Key single Baby Love is just a ready made radio hit right out of the box, while Backpack demonstrates some of her more subversive qualities.
After a series of singles and EPs, debut album Milk Bath is due for release in 2016, supposedly around the summer time. Superstardom most likely awaits.
Release Date: Summer 2016
10. Cash+David (New band)
Another hotly tipped newcomer for us to pore over. Cash+David is not strictly speaking a new band, having been through the hype machine for the better part of two years with a series of single and EP releases. Now in 2016, their as yet untitled debut album is finally set to be released.
Cash+David specialise in soulful electropop, and with Funn and Bones in particular they already have a couple of fairly excellent songs to their name. It was speculated that 2015 would see the release of their first studio album, but that never materialised, giving us instead just another EP in Triptych.
Many pundits are expecting big things for this duo, and with a full album supposedly imminent, 2016 could be the year that they get their breakthrough. Expect to hear a lot about this one when it drops.
Release Date: TBA 2016
9. "Hymns" by Bloc Party
"Highly anticipated Bloc Party album" is a phrase that seems a bit quaint these days. Once upon a time the London-based indie rockers could count themselves among the most promising acts in music, with two very strong albums and a series of great singles to their credit.
Things started to change as the band's creative output slowed and frontman Kele Okereke in particular veered off into radically different genres, not to mention his own solo career. The three albums since then have been very short on memorable songs. Still there is hope with every new album may mark a comeback. This year they release their latest, Hymns.
Lead single The Love Within is a great example of where Bloc Party have gone wrong in recent years. A good idea, with a truly great hook in the chorus, ruined by overproduction and ridiculously tasteless electronic sound effects over the verses. It's a sad waste, one hopes that the rest of the album shows better judgement.
The album launches in January, and may even be out by the time this post is complete.
Release Date: January 2016
8. Frances (New band)
One of the names most commonly being thrown around in the predictions for success in 2016, Frances has featured on many pundits' previews for the year.
A mononym for Sophie Frances Cooke, Frances is a classically trained singer/songwriter from Berkshire, specialising in delicate, multi-instrumental pop. The key song to check out is Borrowed Time, which if a sign of things to come bodes very well indeed.
Frances has recently been signed up by Sam Smith's management company, indicating great expectation among the industry cognoscenti. A full as yet untitled debut album is tipped for release sometime this year, Amazon reckons the summer, we reckon they made that up. Nevertheless this is one to keep an eye on.
Release Date: Summer 2016
7. The xx
London's Mercury Prize winning three-piece outfit The xx are back in the studio, with an as yet untitled third studio album due for release in the latter half of 2016.
This comes fresh off the back of frontman Jamie xx's award winning solo debut last year, with hits such as Loud Places and Stranger in a Room. The xx themselves have a solid track record of excellent music including Islands and VCR.
Very little else is known about this new album except that it has been in production for a little over a year now. The band has a fairly well established sound that we don't expect them to stray far from, though if Jamie xx's solo album is anything to go by, they clearly have the capacity to mix things up creatively. Whatever happens, no doubt this will be one of the big releases of 2016.
Release Date: Autumn 2016
6. "Leave me Alone" by Hinds (New band)
Another of the super-hyped bands of 2016, Madrid quartet Hinds combine the fuzzy garage-pop of the Strokes and the Black Lips with a growling Janis Joplin intensity.
Garden makes for a breezy sunny-days-in-California infused lead single, while the gleeful San Diego and Bamboo are also well worth listening to. The tracks we've heard so far are extremely promising.
The debut album Leave me Alone is due early in 2016, so we won't have to wait long to see if Hinds can live up to the billing, but many are tipping them to be one of the breakthrough acts of the year.
Release Date: January 2016
5. "Chaleur Humaine" by Christine and the Queens (New band)
But after all that, here is our top pick from the new bands to make their debut in 2016. Ok you caught us. Christine and the Queens are not strictly a new band, and debut album Chaleur Humaine technically released back in 2014. However it was only released in a select few European countries, and released in the band's native French.
In 2016 the rest of the world will finally hear Christine and the Queens as their striking debut album sees a full release, translated into English, released simultaneously in the UK and US, along with the rest of the world.
This is very good news indeed. The reviews from over on the continent for this album have been strong, and the first few singles we've heard are pretty special, from the glowing, ethereal No Harm is Done, to the dark and soulful Jonathan. The new translated versions of the songs sound gorgeous, and there's a great deal of excitement about what they can accomplish.
The English version of Chaleur Humaine will be released in late February, and it could be a big one.
Release Date: February 2016
4. "Everything You've Come to Expect" by The Last Shadow Puppets
Now for some very special news for those who, like The Ephemeric, were huge fans of The Last Shadow Puppets and their debut album The Age of Understatement, released some eight years ago in 2008. A follow up is long overdue.
For those who don't know, TLSP is the supergroup side project of Alex Turner, better known as the frontman of The Arctic Monkeys and Miles Kane of The Rascals, and produced by James Ford of Simian Mobile Disco.
That first album was something of a cult classic, with great tunes including Standing Next to Me and My Mistakes Were Made for You. The hook was to take Turner's distinctive voice and mix it with some golden late 1960s/70s retro musical style. The album itself is full of classic influences from The Beatles to Bowie (and a cover of Bowie's song In the Heat of the Morning even features on the album as a single). That Turner's primary band The Arctic Monkeys has seemingly shifted more to adopt this retro style in recent years just goes to show how strong was the acclaim.
The long awaited follow up Everything You've Come to Expect releases this Spring. The first single released, Bad Habits, is well, disappointing in all honesty. It seems to ditch the classic style that made the debut such a success and adopt something more closely resembling the punky early Arctic Monkeys material, and not one of their better songs either. One can only hope that the rest of the album is an improvement.
Release Date: April 2016
Damon Albarn is undoubtedly music royalty for his work he has done solo and with Blur, but it's arguably his side project Gorillaz which has garnered the most widespread success.
This time last year Gorillaz announced their return, and their plans for a new album, now expected to be released in 2016. "Phase 4" of the Gorillaz project as it were. Beyond this, details are thin at the moment (read: non-existent), but if it's half as good as the group's previous album Plastic Beach then we're in for a treat.
Gorillaz of course are known for their eclectic mix of styles, from hip hop to dance, and plenty more besides. Best known for tracks like 19-2000, Feel Good Inc, and On Melancholy Hill. But this is only the tip of the iceberg, and we await with real interest to see what crazy machinations Albarn and co come up with this time.
Release Date: TBA 2016
2. "Blackstar" by David Bowie
A new album from legendary artist and worldwide superstar David Bowie was always going to be one of the musical headlines of the year, but his untimely death has given it a whole new, tragic lease of life.
Blackstar is number 1 all over the world, including Bowie's first ever number 1 album in the United States. And looks likely to be among the most listened to records of 2016.
So is it any good? Blackstar will undoubtedly go down as one of the weirdest pieces of work in a career that is already famous for pushing the envelope artistically. Part art-rock, part experimental jazz, Blackstar follows classic Bowie style by being like absolutely nothing the man has ever done before.
Ten minute odyssey and title track Blackstar is more like an art installation than a song, but elsewhere there is more radio-friendly fare. Most notably in Lazarus a song which has gained much greater prominence in the wake of his death, appearing now to clearly be a quite literal goodbye note from Bowie. Wherever music takes us in 2016, there is no doubt that the spirit of Bowie will hang over everything.
Release Date: January 2016
But The Ephemeric's most hotly anticipated album for 2016 is the as yet untitled seventh studio album from M83, recently confirmed to be complete and due for release in 2016.
The french art-rock band's last album Hurry up We're Dreaming stands as one of the best albums of the decade, a surreal, mesmerising journey with music to match.
Long time fans will remember hits like Kim & Jessie, Midnight City, and Wait. Since we last heard from them, Gonzalez/M83 have taken a much acclaimed turn into film scores, including the soundtrack for Oblivion and You and the Night. They have produced songs for big names including The Killers (The Killers' best song in years) and Haim. Everything they touch turns to gold, but still a new album has been a long time coming, with their own output limited to the odd song here and there like I Need You.
There is no doubt that frontman Anthony Gonzalez is one of the very finest artists and producers in music today. The thought that a new album is due this year is very exciting for music lovers everywhere.
Release Date: TBA 2016
So there you have it folks: 2016 in music. Tune in next week for the essential new videogames of the year!