Monday, 30 January 2017
Sunday, 22 January 2017
Welcome back. We're taking a quick break today from our roll out of the 2017 Hot List in order to mark a crucial event, the transfer of power between Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Much has already been said of our newly appointed 45th President, but today we'd like to take a moment to look back and celebrate the legacy of his predecessor. Barack Obama leaves office today, but he leaves a legacy of historic accomplishment that will ensure his iconic status in the history of this nation.
It's a sad reminder of the political disinterest of the American people, and perhaps a reflection of the huge expectations that had been held of Barack Obama, that it became almost fashionable to ask mockingly "so what has he actually accomplished?" during eight years in office. But of course it's a ridiculous notion, when the things he has accomplished are so numerous and prominent, and so readily apparent for all to see.
How does one even rate an outgoing President? Well first there's the obvious metrics: Barack Obama leaves office with an approval rating of over 60%, one of the highest of any outgoing President at any point in our history. Going further, his approval rating has remained above or around 50% for much of his presidency, and rarely dipped below the high-mid 40s. The level and consistency of approval that Barack Obama has enjoyed throughout his presidency is unusual by historic standards, and there is little doubt that he leaves office having been one of the most popular leaders this country has seen in decades.
This is a view that has been shared not just by the general public, but by the experts. Presidential historians have so far been very favourable in their view of Obama's tenure, unusually so for a sitting President. The 2011 USPC ranking indicated that Obama would rank as the 8th greatest President of all time, while other rankings have consistently held him in the top 15 or so, holding him alongside the likes of Reagan, Clinton, JFK, LBJ, and John Adams.
So Obama is very popular, both among the general public as well as the professionals who have built a career on making such evaluations. But what has he actually done? Well lets jump straight in with the obvious accomplishments.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, commonly referred to as "The Stimulus" is something that doesn't get anywhere near enough attention when people discuss Obama's legacy, even though it is arguably the most significant single thing that he did as President.
Let's not sugar-coat it. The American economy was in free fall before Obama took office. The month before his inauguration, the economy shed 800,000 jobs, totalling around 8,000,000 jobs lost in one year under President Bush. In March 2009 there was a very sudden turnaround, and almost immediately the job losses were stemmed, and in less than a year we were back to positive job growth, which has now continued uninterrupted for an unprecedented six years. The unemployment rate has gone from 10% to under 5%. The above graph makes it pretty indisputable though, the turning point was March 2009. So what happened at that exact moment? The passage of the Stimulus package.
The numbers are pretty hard to deny, the Stimulus turned the economy around. Most economists are unanimous that without its passage, the country would have plunged into a second great depression. Take a moment to appreciate what that really means: massive economic devastation, the associated loss of both livelihood and life. This single act of saving the US economy would ordinarily have been more than enough to ensure Obama's place in the history books, but really it's only the tip of the iceberg. The Stimulus was really far more significant than just that.
Not many people seem to appreciate this, but the Stimulus was the biggest middle class tax cut in history, the biggest investment in infrastructure in history, the biggest investment in green energy in history, and the biggest investment in education in history. This was not just a patch to stop the boat from sinking, it patched the boat and on top of it built the foundation for a 21st Century America. It is Obama's magnum opus, and set the template for a new progressive vision for America, one that no amount of regression from his successors will be able to undo in its entirety.
But of course, this is the signature piece of Obama's domestic agenda, the one that comes to mind for most people when thinking about Obama's legacy. There's good reason for this: the American healthcare system was in crisis before Obama. An uneasy balance between a for-profit industry and a public service. America had appallingly poor healthcare coverage for its citizens, high costs that far exceeded any other developed nation, and a financial burden on the country that played a significant role in the nation's spiralling deficits.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act accomplished many things. It expanded healthcare coverage to 30,000,000 Americans, ensuring near universal coverage. It created insurance exchanges, online marketplaces designed to promote healthy competition among insurers and provide greater options to consumers. It overhauled healthcare regulations to allow children to stay on their parents' insurance plans until age 26, and banned insurers from refusing coverage to individuals as a result of poorly defined "pre-existing conditions". It additionally provided a massive investment for medical research, technology, and new data infrastructure. In short, it made people healthier, controlled costs, and brought American healthcare, at last, into the 21st Century.
The results are clear: a lot more Americans have access to healthcare. More than that, the exploding national cost of healthcare has in fact been controlled. A lot of disingenuous hysteria has been made of the fact that insurance premiums increased by 25% between 2010 and 2015, completely ignoring the fact that they increased by 70% between 2000 and 2005, and then only increased by 3% in 2015-2016. These are incredible results, and show that the law has quite clearly succeeded in stabilising the nation's healthcare crisis.
It is a great shame on America that such an obviously beneficial and common sense law could provoke such controversy as a result of cynical political scheming. The joke of it is that every single one of this law's provisions are extremely popular among the American people, and yet as soon as you call it "Obamacare" it becomes less popular. This is the power of marketing, and a damning indictment of how gullible and susceptible to propaganda the American people are.
Combatting Climate Change
Arguably the most important contribution of Obama's presidency is that made to the fight against climate change, probably the most significant threat to mankind's future. In this regard, Obama will certainly go down as one of America's greenest Presidents.
As mentioned earlier, the Stimulus bill included the largest ever investment in green energy. $50 billion for research and implementation of renewable forms of energy, making federal buildings more energy efficient, improving the electricity grid, and subsidies for electric vehicles. In addition, Obama will be remembered for the massive reform in fuel efficiency standards implemented under his administration.
But probably the most significant accomplishment in combatting climate change these past eight years has been the finalisation of the Paris Climate Agreement, the largest and most ambitious agreement for the control of carbon emissions in history. The signing of this accord has been described as an "historic turning point" in the fight against climate change, and would be a worthy signature achievement of any presidency.
An under-appreciated aspect of Obama's domestic policy have been the massive strides that have been taken in ensuring marriage equality during his presidency regardless of sexual orientation.
From his administration's legal challenge against the discriminatory DOMA (now repealed), to his repeal of the antiquated Don't Ask Don't Tell law, to becoming the first sitting President to come out in full blooded support for for marriage equality, Obama has been a champion for LGBT rights. It is no surprise that following his clarion call the states finally began to pass their own legislation to, at long last, confirm by law the right of all people to enjoy the same rights to marriage.
For a nation that prides itself on holding the freedom and equality of all people above all else, it was a national shame that this did not include the LGBT community until this moment. The acceptance of the LGBT community in the world's most prominent democracy is a huge step closer towards realising this idealistic vision.
Other Domestic Policy
Any of these accomplishments would be a proud landmark for other Presidents, but there's so much more that could additionally be included.
There's the implementation of Net Neutrality, something that effects all of us and ensures the equal and uncensored availability of information. There's the executive orders taken in order to reform and stabilise the immigration system. There's the budget deficit which has been decreased by about a trillion dollars per year during Obama's time in office. There's the Wall Street reform of the Dodd-Frank bill, which has largely kept the financial industry under control and introduced the Bureau of Consumer Protection. There's the bailout of General Motors, a move which is generally credited with saving the American automobile industry, and which was repaid in full, with interest. All of these are huge and crucial achievements.
And of course one has to mention Obama's reshaping of the judiciary, with two Supreme Court Justices appointed by his administration. Both are extremely qualified academics, and quite notably both are ethnic minority women. This may seem a trivial point, but for a court that is supposed to represent the interests of a diverse nation, it was pretty shameful that it was almost entirely old white men. Obama has left us with a Supreme Court that better represents the nation over which it presides.
For sure, there are areas where Obama has not been able to match his ambitions; the failed effort to pass cap-and-trade environmental policies, the inability to pass the DREAM Act which would have given young illegals born in this country a pathway to citizenship, and the lack of more comprehensive reforms in immigration and education. But without a doubt, the things that he has accomplished are still more than enough to make him one of the most effective and productive Presidents in modern history.
Aside from his domestic policy, Obama is a President whose foreign policy has left an indelible mark on shaping the world around us during a particular turbulent point in history.
Again, there's the obvious accomplishments. The ending of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars he inherited. The largest ever nuclear arms reduction treaty, the START treaty. Finally catching Osama Bin Laden.
But the most impressive part of Obama's foreign policy has been his bridge-building and his commitment to peaceful diplomacy. The landmark Iran nuclear deal that not only stopped Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but is now ensuring peaceful co-existence from a situation where his Republican rivals wanted a whole new war. The ending of the Cuba embargo and re-opening of diplomatic relations with that country. Under Obama, America has gone from being almost a pariah state to a valued and committed international partner, and the nation is more popular around the world than it has been in decades.
It's easy not to realise just how big a deal that is, for America to have friends and partners, not to mention international respect. It means America no longer has to perform illegal unilateral actions, or bear the brunt of the world's derision for that matter. It makes America stronger, and the whole world stronger. It means we can actually get things done.
That's not to say his foreign policy has been perfect by any means. Iraq is a mess, albeit one caused by his predecessor, and his inability to close Guantanamo Bay, while not within his power, is still a disappointment. But for any mistake or disappointment that one can raise about Obama's record in this area, one can only appreciate the openness and rationality behind every single decision. This is not a capricious President, or one who has taken actions behind a curtain of deceit and ulterior motive like his predecessor. Everything he has done has been a common sense move in the pursuit of his vision of a peaceful, more collaborative America.
So as we enter a troubling and turbulent new era, it's worth appreciating Obama's successful eight years in office. An eight years which reminds us that the country can govern rationally according to common sense and reason, rather than making everything a political game or special interest case, fact and science rather than religion and dogma. A President with a calm head who deftly handles any international crisis, and manages to stay scandal free at home. Obama entered office with high ambitions, and has largely managed to live up to his rhetoric.
America has some deep soul-searching to do, but whatever happens now, Obama's place as a towering figure in progressive history is assured.
Wednesday, 18 January 2017
Hello and welcome back to the Hot List. So far we have covered the biggest news in television and videogames. This week we will be looking at the most exciting new movies set to hit the big screen in 2017 from February onwards, after the cutoff point for this year's Oscars.
2016 in cinema was really a story of one film, La La Land, which long time readers will have heard about first right here on last year's Hot List. LLL has become a worldwide phenomenon, sweeping the Globes this month, and looking set to repeat this feat at the Oscars come February. This places a great deal of pressure on me to pick the winner again, but what the hey, we're on a roll so let's do this.
2017 looks like it's going to have a bit of everything, some hard sci-fi, some family friendly adventures, and plenty of artistic passion projects from Hollywood's greatest creators. First time directors, long-awaited sequels. I say this every year, but this was a very difficult selection to make, whittling a longlist of more than fifty worthy entries down to just fifteen.
So behold, the key films to keep an eye on in the coming year (trailers linked in the title where available), starting with number 15:
Let's start off on the lighter side: new comedy Downsizing. This film has got a lot of buzz surrounding it, and an awards season friendly Christmas release date. So what's all the fuss?
Well first it features an embarrassingly well-stocked cast that includes Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Alec Baldwin, Neil Patrick Harris, and Jason Sudeikis. It also comes courtesy of Annapurna Pictures, a production company famous for its high quality and for producing films which go on to earn awards and critical acclaim.
Despite this, the plot itself sounds faintly ridiculous: a husband and wife decide to shrink themselves down (literally) to escape the stress of life, and the wife backs out at the last minute, hijinks presumably ensue. Sounds like just another silly movie, until you realise that it's being written by two time Academy Award winner Alexander Payne, who is also directing. Payne has considerable credit to his name as the writer/director of weighty, sophisticated fare including Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska, so on the surface this seems like a strange project for him. Still, given his track record we can probably give him the benefit of the doubt for now. Somehow, he'll probably find a way to make this work.
Release Date: 22 December, 2017
Next we have Wonderstruck, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Brian Selznick, who you might know as the writer of the novel that would eventually go on to become the film Hugo. Selznick has also written the screenplay. Hugo has given him a reputation for the whimsical and wonderful, and from the sounds of the plot, split between two time periods, Wonderstruck will deliver much of the same.
The impressive cast includes Academy Award winner Julianne Moore, and multi-Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams, while directorial duties have been handed to another Academy favourite in Todd Haynes, director of Carol, I'm Not There, and Far From Heaven.
Strong talent and well regarded source material suggests for a potential awards contender, or at the very least a film worth watching. No release date has been announced as of yet, but we can conjecture a release towards the end of 2017.
Release Date: TBA 2017
Ladies and gentlemen, the winner of the 2018 Oscar for Best Animated Feature, Coco. A new Pixar film comes with such expectation that anything other than another critical and commercial success would come as a major shock to the industry.
The studio's latest is still largely shrouded in mystery. A 12 year old boy, an ancient curse, there seems to be some kind of a Mexican, day of the dead motif going on. It'll probably be good.
Probably most interesting is that this is being helmed by a first time director in Lee Unkrich, and first time screenwriter in Adrian Molina. Both have experience on other Pixar projects, but this is the first with their names at the top billing. Given Pixar's track record at bringing through successful talent behind the scenes, it will be interesting to see how they get on.
Release date is set for Thanksgiving 2017.
Release Date: 22 November, 2017
12. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Alright, this one might be bad, and usually when I say that, it ends up being bad. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on a beloved French science fiction graphic novel. As you can see from the trailer, it's going to be a bit of over-the-top sci-fi ridiculousness, the style of which brings to mind two films in particular: The Fifth Element, and Jupiter Ascending.
These two films illustrate just how difficult it is to get the balance right with these kinds of film, to make something that's ridiculous in a fun way, rather than just stupid. The Fifth Element is a cult classic, Jupiter Ascending was a train wreck.
The comparison is important, because this is being written and directed by Luc Besson, director of The Fifth Element, so the key talent is a man with a track record of making these kinds of films and making them work. Still, some might argue The Fifth Element worked because it had the everyman grounding of Bruce Willis, whereas Valerian stars the questionable talent of Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne.
Film hits in the summer, will it be another Fifth Element style classic, or a Jupiter Ascending flop?
Release Date: 21 July, 2017
Suburbicon potentially marks a new phase in George Clooney's career, as the first film that he has directed without also starring in. No matter, he has brought along a stellar cast to do the dirty work in Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Josh Brolin, and Oscar Isaac. Meanwhile the Coen Brothers have written the screenplay. Formidable talent indeed.
The film itself is apparently a mystery comedy, but little else of the plot is known. Clooney's directorial efforts have so far been a mixed bag, but with the weight his name carries and the level of talent he'll be working with, it's hard to see this one passing quietly. It's going to be one of 2017's big releases.
No release date has been announced as of yet, but it's rumoured to be dropping in the fall of 2017, with an apparent eye towards the awards season.
Release Date: TBA 2017
A big comeback in 2017, Darren Aronofsky with his first film since 2014's Noah, and hopefully his first good film since 2010's Black Swan. The project is Mother, a film currently shrouded in mystery aside from the brief synopsis of a couple's relationship being tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home. Sounds very The In-Laws so far, but somehow I doubt the man who directed Pi and Requiem For a Dream is putting together a light comedy about family awkwardness.
Then there is the cast, wonderful cast including Hollywood favourites Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, and Ed Harris, all highly regarded, award winning talent.
Aronofsky is one of the most brilliant directors in the business when he's on form, and even his duds are highly interesting pieces worthy of artistic merit. Then again maybe he's just re-making the in-laws with Bardem in the Peter Falk role, now who wouldn't want to see that?
Release Date: TBA 2017
9. Blade Runner 2049
Well it finally happened, a sequel to the Ridley Scott sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049. It's been discussed on and off for years, and now it is finally coming.
Scott himself is not directly involved, but Harrison Ford reprises his role as Deckard, and he is joined by the abundant talent of Ryan Gosling, fresh from his stunning success in La La Land, while Robin Wright of House of Cards fame also joins the cast along with Jared Leto. Directorial duties meanwhile have been bestowed to another 2016 success story, Denis Villeneuve who is currently riding high from the critical acclaim for his last film, Arrival.
Exciting stuff, but always a huge risk to try and follow up such an iconic movie, especially so many years later. This will be an event for sure, so get ready for October 2017.
Release Date: 6 October, 2017
8. The Greatest Showman
This one is generating quite a bit of hype, the musical biographical film of legendary showman P. T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman.
The title role is taken by genuine star and surprisingly excellent singer Hugh Jackman, a man with plenty of musical pedigree from his time on Broadway and more recently the film adaptation of Les Miserables. Joining him in the cast is Michelle Williams and Zac Efron.
Hollywood loves a biographical film, and the musical genre sounds a perfect fit for the extravagance and over-the-top nature of a showman like Barnum. That this is the debut film of director Michael Gracey is certainly enough to give pause, but a Christmas day release suggests the studios are confident that they have a success on their hands. Definitely one to keep an eye on.
Release Date: 25 December, 2017
Now for something which should excite fans of high quality, intelligent science fiction, Mute.
This is the latest film from director and screenwriter Duncan Jones. Sure, that's David Bowie's son, but more importantly he's the director of the critically acclaimed Moon and Source Code, both of which were utterly brilliant.
Mute is a spiritual sequel to Moon, one that has been in production for years, held up only by Jones' brief foray into making dumbass summer blockbusters. Adding to the film's intrigue is the fact that Netflix of all studios have ultimately picked up distribution rights, which presumably means an online premiere, and probably being ignored by the Hollywood establishment. Whatever the case, this is a big first for Netflix to release such a major film, it will be indicative to see just how that plays out.
Getting to the detail, the cast includes Alexander Skarsgard, Justin Theroux, and intriguingly Paul Rudd. Little additional detail has been revealed, and no release date has been finalised, but if Mute is half the film that Moon and Source Code were, it will be one of the highlights of the year.
Release Date: TBA 2017
6. Molly's Game
Don't let the tacky book cover fool you, this is a big deal. Molly's Game is the film adaptation of the book Molly's Game: From Hollywood's Elite to Wall Street's Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker, and if the loquacious title doesn't give it away, it's a wild tale. All they need is an equally loquacious writer - enter stage left Aaron Sorkin.
But as much as I love Sorkin, this project has more going for it than just his script. This is Sorkin's debut as a film director (which is quite funny for anyone who remembers his cameo on Entourage), and he has assembled quite the cast, featuring Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, and Michael Cera. I for one can't wait to hear Elba speak Sorkin's dialogue.
It will be very interesting to see how Sorkin's talent translates to the role of director, which makes this certainly one to watch for 2017.
Release Date: TBA 2017
Between Blade Runner 2049, Mute and Annihilation, 2017 is looking like an incredibly exciting year for intelligent, complex science fiction. Annihilation could be the best of the bunch.
This is the latest film of legendary writer/director Alex Garland, and the follow up to his brilliant directorial debut Ex Machina. Beyond this last film, many of you will know Garland for his work with famed director Danny Boyle on 28 Days Later and Sunshine, as well as his novels The Beach and The Tesseract.
He is joined by the Academy Award winning Natalie Portman, Academy Award nominated Jennifer Jason Leigh, and following up their collaboration on Ex Machina, the up and coming Oscar Isaac.
Production is underway, and release is expected towards the end of 2017. .
Release Date: TBA 2017
4. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
I'll say with very little hesitation that Martin McDonagh is one of the very best writers alive today. Fans of his movies In Bruges, and Seven Psychopaths, or his theatrical productions Pillowman and Hangmen will know exactly what to expect; McDonagh's trademark is deliciously dark comedy that is as terrifying as it is side-splittingly hilarious. Unfailingly violent, hilarious in a messed up way. You will laugh even though you know you shouldn't.
His latest, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri probably will be no different. The plotline of a Missouri woman going to war against the police after her child is murdered sounds like your classic set up for a revenge tale, and it doesn't take a genius to see it culminating in a suitably absurd denouement, nor should that be a problem in any way if the writing is as razor sharp as his other work.
McDonagh favourites Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson return to the cast, along with Coen Brothers muse Frances McDormand. Filming began at the start of 2016, with release expected later on in the year. Not for the faint of heart, but for everyone else this is going to be good.
Release Date: TBA 2017
3. Darkest Hour
Surely this is far too obvious Oscar bait to actually be any good?
Darkest Hour, not to be confused with the 2012 Russian film of the same title, is a Winston Churchill movie, with the great Gary Oldman in the starring role. The film will be directed Joe Wright, director of Atonement and Anna Karenina. The release date is set for November in the States, Christmas in the UK.
What more can one say? It's a World War 2 period drama about one of history's most famous characters, with a release date and talent that suggests a very deliberate play for next year's awards season. This doesn't mean it won't be good, but plenty of films have gone gung ho in the past only to fall short. Either way, this is going to be one of the bigger 2017 releases.
Release Date: 24 November, 2017
2. The Mercy
There is a lot of buzz about this one. The Mercy is based on the true story of the disastrous attempt by the amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst to complete the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race in 1968 and his subsequent attempts to cover up his failure.
Interesting subject matter, bolstered by the considerable acting heft of Academy Award winner Colin Firth, David Thewlish and Rachel Weisz. Even more excitingly is the attachment of director James Marsh, an Academy Award winner for his documentary Man on Wire, and directing his first film since 2014's excellent Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything.
Plenty of reason for the hype then. I have a hunch this is going to be a big player in 2017. Expect a release by year end.
Release Date: TBA 2017
And lastly, because 2017 seems to have a thing for World War 2 movies, Dunkirk. Anyone who knows their history will know what the film is about: the Allied forces' painful retreat from Dunkirk after the fall of France.
This is a good old fashioned war adventure epic, direction by Chris Nolan, music by Hans Zimmer, and a cast which features Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and intriguingly in a starring role the relative newcomer Aneurin Barnard. Another intriguing addition is cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who has previously worked on films including Interstellar, Her, and The Fighter.
It's a particularly interesting move for Nolan, a man who started his career in small scale indie projects, before becoming the go-to guy for high concept sci-fi blockbusters. A switch to a more grounded, more traditional war epic marks new territory for the director.
So all the ingredients are in place then for this to be one of the biggest releases of the year, with a muscular July release date set. It's an exciting list, but this one takes the top spot.
Release Date: 21 July, 2017
So there you have it folks: 2017 in movies. Tune in next week for the essential theatrical productions hitting the stage in 2017!
Saturday, 14 January 2017
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 2017.
2016 was a notably strong year for gaming, and unusually so in just about every area of gaming, from the single-man indie miracle of Stardew Valley, to Planet Coaster's small dev team taking on the established giant of Roller Coaster Tycoon and winning. And there were equally exceptional results from the big money AAA producers as well, including the excellent XCOM2, the much hyped Dishonored 2, and very surprisingly Battlefield 1 with it's wonderful story telling. But of course no summary of 2016 could be complete without mentioning the culmination of the decade-long productions of Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian, at least one of which turned out to be worth the wait.
If gamers were truly spoilt for choice in 2016, 2017 looks to be a rather quieter year for the industry, with some notable exceptions. Most significantly, 2017 is the year of Nintendo's newest gaming system, the Switch. You might be thinking, "didn't they just release a new console, the Wii U?" and you would be correct. Suffice it to say the Wii U has not been doing very well, and while on the surface the Switch does not fix the most glaring issues of the Wii U (it is still a significantly weaker piece of hardware than its competitors, which means it will again lack the major third party titles), there is no denying that it's a pretty smart looking bit of gear. If it really works as smoothly and as seamlessly as advertised, it will be a hugely impressive achievement.
So here it is, the 10 key videogames to keep an eye on in the coming year (trailers linked in the title where available), starting with number 10:
10. Prey (Xbox One, PS4, PC)
Prey is a reboot of sorts. The original title was something of a cult classic, and after many years of troubled development, the long-awaited sequel was eventually canned. Step up Arkane Studios of Dishonored fame, and the sequel was turned into a complete reboot, a "reimagining" of the original game.
The result has been quite controversial, a game which carries the "Prey" name, but bears little resemblance to the original. Fans have been up in arms. Despite this, the actual game looks rather decent if you can look past the name. A classic mix of first person action/shooter and horror elements in a smartly realised sci-fi setting. The gameplay looks as solid as one would expect from the Dishonored developers, and the immersive presentation bears many familiar hallmarks.
We won't have to wait too long to get our hands on this one, the release is currently pencilled in for a Q1/Q2 2017, which usually means you'll have it by Spring barring any further delays.
Release Date: Spring 2017
9. Sea of Thieves (Xbox One, PC)
Now for something a bit different, an entirely multiplayer game, Sea of Thieves. This game is notable for two reasons, one it's the newest game from what was once the legendary game development company Rare, two it just looks like a lot of good silly fun.
This is a multiplayer pirate game, you and a few friends design your pirate, get a pirate ship, and take to the seas finding treasure and getting into naval battles and the like. Sailing one of these ships is no simple point and click job though, it takes teamwork, with one man steering, one man on the sails, another operating the cannons, and if you take damage, someone needs to place wooden boards over the holes to prevent your ship taking on water and sinking. You can also do all manner of silly piratey things like drinking grog and, just for the hell of it, playing musical instruments. There's something delightfully over the top about charging into battle with one guy on the wheel, another firing cannons, and another in the crow's nest blasting out Flight of the Valkyries on an accordion just for atmosphere.
This seems like the type of game that I have zero time to get into these days, but 10 years ago would have been a blast to waste some time with a few friends. Rumours suggest a Spring release date, but at the moment there's no confirmation.
Release Date: TBA 2017
8. Friday the 13th (Xbox One, PS4, PC)
Another multiplayer game, which is weird because I don't usually play multiplayer only games, but this is just a great concept. This is Friday the 13th, the game based off the famous horror movie franchise. It's an asymmetrical multiplayer game, with elements familiar to fans of Evolve or Left4Dead.
One player takes control of the supernatural killer Jason, while the others control the campers trying to make their escape. As in the Left4Dead series, there are a series of items that need to be acquired and objectives that need to be completed in order to escape, which presents an array of strategic elements to be considered, and requires the co-ordination of an entire team. As fans of those other series will know, these kinds of teamwork-based games always end in some good chaotic fun, particularly when horror and jumpscares are added to the mix.
This has actually been in development for a while, originally on Kickstarter as a generic horror game before surprisingly acquiring the licence for the Friday the 13th series. There is in fact a trailer for this game, but a bunch of clips showing Jason brutally killing someone doesn't really tell you much about the game, which is why I've linked some actual gameplay. Should land sometime in the Spring.
Release Date: Spring 2017
7. Kingdom Come: Deliverance (Xbox One, PS4, PC, Mac)
It's back again! This has been on the Hot List for a good long while. One of the more notable Kickstarter success stories, Kingdom Come: Deliverance started with a simple observation. Publishers typically refuse to release games with historic settings unless it features magic, dragons and silly things like this, so why not break the mould by making a game in an actually realistic historic 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 combat 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 as well. After many delays, the developers have at last finalised all the publishing contracts and this game should hopefully see release at some point in 2017.
Release Date: TBA 2017
6. Super Mario Odyssey (Switch)
Originally teased during the Switch announcement video, Nintendo have finally given us an official name and some more details. The next Mario game will be Super Mario Odyssey, and it looks like some classic Nintendo magic.
Details are thin, but from the trailer we can see some typical Mario platforming action, albeit with some new tricks such as the ability to use Mario's hat as a tool, while there appears to be some kind of flying vehicle that Mario uses to get between different levels, implying more of an open-world design. We also catch sight of a realistic city setting, which on first glance looks really weird in a Mario game, especially as all the people have normal proportions compared to Mario's cartoonish size, though as a short guy I can relate.
Mario Odyssey will supposedly be released for the holiday season this year. Not a release title for Switch then, which seems a strange risk to take.
Release Date: Xmas 2017
5. Star Citizen (PC)
Another long recurring member of the Hot List. Star Citizen is the mother of all crowdfunding success stories, having so far raised over $100 million, and that amount is still growing. 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 after years of development. 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, it's time to get excited.
Release Date: TBA 2017
4. Sonic Mania (Xbox One, PS4, PC, Switch)
A little bit of a nostalgia trip for our next entry. The fall of Sonic the Hedgehog games from gaming icon of the 1990s to the industry's biggest ongoing joke is the stuff of legend. To recover its form, the series is going back to its retro roots with Sonic Mania.
Not much to explain here, it's classic 2D Sonic fun, with new stages, a few modern twists and new gameplay elements. Sega have tried going back to the series' 2D roots in the past, but generally without success. No one of the original team remains on staff, and few of the current organisation appear to really have a handle on what makes these games worth playing. So this time, they are wisely tapped the fangame community to helm the project, with the creator of the very warmly received "Before the Sequel" series placed in charge.
It all looks like exactly the kind of sugary fun you'd expect from the series. Trailer says Spring 2017, let's go with that.
Release Date: Spring 2017
3. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Wii U, Switch)
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: Breath of the Wild. To be released simultaneously on the Wii U and Switch, this will be the first original Zelda to be designed in HD.
Nintendo are taking very clear inspiration from The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, and BotW will contain a truly massive, fully explorable open-world, chock full of quests, crafting skills, and secrets. The new Zelda is being designed with the idea to allow players real freedom in how they explore and complete quests, suggesting a much more open-ended structure to the game.
Notably, this will be the first game to feature full voice acting for its characters, a very bold move for a game series for which the silence and careful punctuation of voice samples has become very much an expected feature. The suggestion is that BotW will place a much greater emphasis on its characters and their relation to the narrative. Recent games in the series had shown a trend in this direction, but this promises a whole new level of storytelling.
Release date has been confirmed as 3rd of March, 2017, launch day of the Switch.
Release Date: 3 March, 2017
2. Mass Effect: Andromeda (Xbox One, PS4, PC)
I love the Mass Effect series. The quality of writing and storytelling has consistently set the pace in the industry, and its world is one of the best realised in any medium of fiction. 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 the last game made a point of telling 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 potentially have chosen at the end of the original trilogy? But lets not quibble over poor writing.
A new galaxy means a focus on exploration. Andromeda gives players a much more open-ended world to explore, more akin to the open nature of the original Mass Effect than its sequels, and will allow players to scout out new systems, colonise new worlds and presumably stumble across some form of ancient evil. It can be also be assumed that your ship is staffed by a menagerie of well-written characters with daddy issues. All sounds good, though let's hope this isn't the last we've seen of the Milky Way we know and love.
Release Date: 21 March, 2017
1. Read Ded Redemption 2 (Xbox One, PS4)
But as excited as those last two entries were, none of them can take the top spot away from the surprise reveal of Red Red Redemption 2, a sequel to 2010's Red Dead Redemption, which was itself a spiritual sequel to a previous game.
RDR was probably one of the greatest games ever made. It had the quality of storytelling and production that one would expect from Rockstar, developer Grand Theft Auto series, but married that with an open world that to this day can't be matched for character and detail, and at the time was simply unprecedented in the variety and depth of its procedural content. Through its random events, ambient challenges and mini-games embedded throughout, this was a game world you could truly play endlessly, even once the main story and side quests had been completed.
For the sequel, I'd expect more of the same, and the leaked map suggests a world that is even bigger and more varied than its predecessor's. Due by the end of the year, I can't wait to get lost in this one.
Release Date: Winter 2017
So there you have it folks: 2017 in videogames. Tune in next week for the essential movies set for release this year!
Tuesday, 10 January 2017
Hello and happy new year one and all! Welcome back to The Ephemeric, and let me be the first to introduce you to 2017, a year that will surely be an improvement on the last one. Yes, it is indeed a new year and that can only mean one thing, it's time to break out The Hot List.
So welcome The Ephemeric's 2017 Hot List, your ultimate guide to the year ahead. In this first entry we will be looking at the hottest things happening in the world of television over the next 12 months, with a particular eye cast over the brand new shows hitting the airwaves in 2017.
2016 continued many of the trends we had been seeing in recent years. The big three of HBO, FX, and Netflix dominated the critical plaudits and awards, while the other streaming networks Amazon and Hulu continued to catch up to the other major players in terms of the quality and ambition of their original programming.
Going forward, all signs had been pointing towards an increased prominence in the industry for these companies, and worrying times for the more traditional networks. However, recent political upheaval in the US and UK has thrown into doubt the viability for new media companies like Netflix, with information equality laws now potentially on the chopping block. I don't like to talk politics on the Hot List, but it will be interesting to see how things pan out as the old establishment continues to up its online streaming game.
In terms of the content, we've had a couple of years in a row now where the big show of the moment has been an entirely new series. Seemingly gone are the days of the ongoing epic like Breaking Bad or Curb Your Enthusiasm coming along and scooping up all the plaudits year after year. Now it's True Detective one year, Mr Robot the next, then maybe Stranger Things or The Crown. Increasingly the fashion seems to be moving towards the limited series, or the new idea in town. Whether this is some "shiny new toy" effect or speaks to an increasing taste for short, complete story telling is up for discussion. It could simply be that the quality of the shows on television really is improving year after year. The coming year sees the exciting return of some major favourites, which could put that theory to the test.
So without further ado here are the top 10 essential television shows, both new and returning, that will hit the airwaves in 2017:
10. Sherlock - BBC
After a long three year hiatus, Sherlock is back. It returns to the airwaves with its star Benedict Cumberbatch amongst the hottest actors in the world, with co-star Martin Freeman's star very much also on the rise after a strong turn in Fargo.
Still, major doubts remain about whether the show's writers can regain the magic of the first two seasons. The plots seem to be veering increasingly far away from the mysteries and capers that one expects from Sherlock, and more towards an over-the-top action romp that more befits James Bond.
The first episode of the new season was a new low, resembling absolutely nothing of its source material. Forced melodrama, overly self-referential dialogue, and a plot focused entirely on the muddled backstory of an original character (rather than the titular Holmes) was a stunningly poor way to return to the series, and give the impression of an adaptation that is altogether just a little bit too far up itself. Fingers crossed the remaining episodes mark a return to form.
Start Date: 1st January 2017
9. Mystery Science Theatre 3000 - Netflix
Finally making a comeback after all these years is a firm favourite of the 90s kids: Mystery Science Theatre 3000.
The award winning cult classic MST3K was one of those shows that you either never heard of, or you've heard of it and pity those who haven't. The premise is simple: they put on a really bad sci-fi or horror movie, and make jokes about it as it plays out. The result was something that was far funnier than it had any right to be, especially if you're the type who enjoys watching these cheesy movies and laughing at them.
So imagine the joy of fans everywhere when series creator Joel Hodgson launched a Kickstarter to bring the show back as an online webseries, eventually securing a Netflix distribution deal. Initially asking for $2 million, they raised $5.8 million, becoming the most crowdfunded television series of all time. Now we wait. The new episodes started filming last year, and were announced at last year's Comic Con to be available for viewing sometime in early 2017, although the smart money says it won't be until the summer.
Release Date: Summer 2017
8. Westworld - HBO
It had been a long time in production, but from the stellar cast featuring Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, to the writing of the award winning Jonathan Nolan, the first season of Westworld was well worth the wait.
Now season two is on the way, and promises to depict what had been the climax of the original Michael Crichton cult classic; the robots are out for revenge.
HBO have a new smash hit on their hands that will certainly feature prominently in next year's awards circuits. But most significantly, Westworld scratches a specific itch in mysterious, addictive sci-fi that hasn't been seen arguably since Lost aired all those years ago. Many shows have tried to hit that sweet spot, but Westworld is the first that has succeeded.
Release Date: TBA 2017
7. His Dark Materials - BBC (New TV Show)
For those not familiar with the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman, try to picture something with the magic and adventure of Harry Potter, but fewer pantomime villains, more philosophical deconstructions of Man's need for spirituality and a scathing critique of the abusive nature of religious dogma. Intellectual fare for a children's book then, but what made the books so special was the way they were able to convey such complex meaning without sacrificing any of the fun, excitement and engaging characters that make kids want to read. For that, it remains widely considered among the absolute pinnacles of children's literature.
It's not surprising, then, that the series has thus far proved notoriously difficult to adapt. The attempted film version was appalling, while the National Theatre's excellent stage production only succeeded by dividing it into two separate plays of 3 hours each.
For the past several years it has been considered to be unfilmable, but the BBC are betting that it could work as a miniseries instead. This would offer the necessary running time to fully flesh out the detail of the original text, but can the BBC really provide the budget to bring such an ambitious project to life? We have our doubts that this one will even see 2017, but fingers crossed.
Release Date: TBA 2017
6. The Crown - Netflix
Another of 2016's debutants returning for season 2. Netflix's The Crown has broken all kinds of records for being among the most ambitious and expensive productions in television, and that high aspiration has paid off, with the series collecting a number of plaudits.
Word has it that each successive season will jump to another decade as the story follows the royal family through the years of Elizabeth's reign, with the core cast changing periodically as required. If true, this would place season 2 in the 1960s.
Whatever direction Peter Morgan chooses to take this show, we are excited to keep watching if he can maintain the current level of quality. The Crown returns in November of this year.
Release Date: November 2017
5. American Gods - Starz (New TV Show)
This one is promising. American Gods is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman (author of Stardust, Coraline, among others), and produced by Bryan Fuller, a man with an enviable track record of smart, wonderful television.
The plot is classic Gaiman weirdness: gods are real and live among humans, and a conflict is shaping up between the old gods of mythology and the new gods of money and technology. The cast has a wonderful depth to it, most notably Ian McShane, but also Emily Browning and Pablo Schreiber, with Crispin Glover, Gillian Anderson, and Peter Stormare in smaller roles, but then the choice of relative unknown Ricky Whittle for the main role is a strange one considering the quality of talent elsewhere. Still, with this production team and source material, we are very hopeful.
America Gods is now expected to debut in April of 2017.
Release Date: April 2017
4. Curb Your Enthusiasm - HBO
Legendary comedian Larry David has dominated television comedy for decades, first with Seinfeld, the iconic "show about nothing" much of which had been loosely based on David's own experiences, then Curb Your Enthusiasm, which took the format to the next level with a semi-fictionalised version of the comedian himself in the central role.
At its best, Curb was just about the funniest thing on television; as clever as Seinfeld, but with more modern production sensibilities, and the creative freedom offered by a premium network like HBO.
At long last, Curb is coming back to television in 2017. It's been six years now since the show was last on air, and many had begun to doubt whether the show would ever return. David had remained on the fence when asked in recent years, citing a need of genuine inspiration, a reluctance to write new episodes just for the sake of it. Fortunately for the rest of us, that inspiration appears to have finally struck. We can't wait to see what he has cooked up in that crazy mind of his.
Release Date: TBA 2017
3. Star Trek: Discovery - CBS (New TV Show)
Science fiction fans all over the world rejoice! Star Trek is finally making a return to its spiritual home of television with a new series Star Trek: Discovery. The movies have been fine, but Star Trek's distinct brand of cerebral sci-fi has always worked better in an episodic format, with less pressure to go broad and dial up the sex and action.
Discovery is an entirely new series, with a new setting and cast. Little has been revealed so far in terms of story, but the rumour is that the show works as a prequel series, set around the same time of the original crew (and rebooted movies). Earlier rumours had suggested that the show might follow an anthology format, with a new setting every season, but that is as yet unconfirmed.
Little of the cast has been confirmed, but we do know that the main protagonist will be played by Sonequa Martin-Green, best known from The Walking Dead, and The Good Wife, while other core cast members will include Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp, and Michelle Yeoh.
Probably the most exciting news had been the attachment of legendary show-runner Bryan Fuller at the helm of the series, but recent developments seem to suggest he is taking a step back into a more detached role. Trouble behind the scenes? We'll have to wait and see.
Release Date: May 2017
2. Fargo - FX
Far too often you get a hit new TV show with a great debut season, which then goes on to suffer from second-season syndrome and lose the magic. Fargo is not an example of this. Fargo's second season was every bit as much a triumph as the first.
Unsurprisingly, the televised adaptation of the classic Coen Brothers film has been confirmed for a third season. It's confirmed to be set in the present day, and looks to be bringing in a strong cast with Ewan McGregor, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Jim Gaffigan. The return to the present day setting also leaves open the possibility of returning characters from earlier seasons.
If the first two seasons are anything to go by, whatever they come up with will be brilliant. A start date is pencilled in for Spring 2017. We look forward to it.
Release Date: Spring 2017
1. Stranger Things - Netflix
One of 2016's runaway success stories, Stranger Things is coming back for a second season. The Netflix adventure/horror series won over a huge fanbase with its pitch perfect blend of nostalgia and childlike fun. This time, however, it comes with the additional weight of expectation that success brings.
Aside from the episode titles, little is known of what season 2 will herald. It is confirmed to be set about a year after the events of season 1, and will focus on the first season's main characters as they attempt to return to a life of normalcy, whilst exploring more of the mythology behind the world the writers have built. Getting too deep into the dirt is always a risk with these types of shows, but if the first season's superb writing is anything to go by, we should give them the benefit of the doubt.
Season 2 of Stranger Things is due for release in fall 2017, and it is The Ephemeric's most hotly anticipated TV series for the year. Time to get excited!
Release Date: Fall 2017
So there you have it folks: 2017 in television. Tune in next week for the essential new videogames of the year!