james debate
james debate

Saturday 4 November 2023

Directed by Rupert Goold
Written by James Graham
Starring Joseph Fiennes
Theatre National/Prince Edward

dear england gareth southgate harry kane football world cup joseph fiennes james graham rupert goold national prince edward theatre best 2023

Of all the figures that one could have chosen from Britain's extensive pantheon of folk heroes, England manager Gareth Southgate might seem like an odd choice to make the subject of a theatrical production. 

Southgate was a prominent footballer of the 1990s, most notable for missing the penalty that cost England a place in the final of Euro 96. After many years of middle management in the national set up, he has more recently become known for his impressive work, in turning England into a respectable football team, including guiding the side to a first major tournament semi-final since 1996, and a first major tournament final since 1966.

But throughout his career, Southgate has shied away from the limelight. He's not the flashiest, nor the most charismatic. Even now, at his greatest prominence, the clear preference is to not be the focus of attention, deferring credit, instead, to the accomplishments of his players.

So the choice to create a major stage production about Southgate, before his tenure at England has even come to an end, no less, is an intriguing one. But then, that's what Dear England is about: challenging our preconceptions of leadership, of traditional masculinity. 

Penned by the great James Graham, acclaimed for his work in theatre and TV, which includes the productions This House, Ink, Quiz, and Best of Enemies. Dear England portraits Southgate as a reformer, a man who took the youthful trauma of his own playing career and used it as the basis for a new school of sports management, one that concerns itself as much with psychological conditioning as physical, and respects its athletes, not just as physical tools, but as flawed humans. In doing so, he comes up against the established order of old boys and the traditional image of stoic manliness.

But in classic Graham fashion, Dear England casts its gaze wider than just telling a dramatic sports story and looks at football's role as the national pastime. This madness and obsession that sweeps the nation every four years, that inspires such intense jubilation, as well as the deepest bile that society can muster.

The greatest compliment that I can pay Dear England is that if you don't "get" football, or why it inspires such passion, you will by the end of this play. I know this because I went to see the play with my wife, who cares not one whit about football, and is not even from this country. But by the end, she was so caught up in the drama and excitement that she wanted to cheer as its sporting events unfolded. While Dear England has a lot of worthwhile things to say, it is perhaps this that is the most impressive, that it does such a superlative job of capturing what makes this game into such an obsession, and inspires the emotions that so deeply weigh on both fan and player.

We've already discussed the writing, which ranks amongst James Graham's best work. It's clever and deeply funny stuff that does an impressive job of capturing all the dynamics around English football and coming up with a sort of "unifying theory" to explain England's fortunes on the pitch, and the change of mindset that has come in with Southgate. This is, of course, a heavily dramatised interpretation of events that streamlines and bends fact in order to make for a more satisfying narrative, and it is undeniably weird to portray this story as a beginning, middle and end to a career that is still ongoing. But it is undeniably effective, so long as you don't try to view this as a literal, factual telling of events.

Much of Dear England's success can also be attributed to the direction. Rupert Goold is, of course, one of England's great theatre directors. Current artistic director of the Almeida and former head of the Headlong company, whose credits are numerous and brilliant. There's a flamboyance and boldness to the production, which incorporates music, singalongs, and big spectacle to drive home the scale of its themes, but Goold also knows when to go intimate. Those moments of vulnerability with the cast are some of the highlights of the show.

Massive credit needs to go to the cast. The lead, Joseph Fiennes, is brilliant. His transformation into Southgate borders on uncanny, right down to the mannerisms, the twitchiness, his manner of speaking. The likeness is really quite astonishing. Yet it never feels like imitation or parody. Fiennes captures the man's awkwardness, his insecurities, but also his sincerity and almost accidental charm. The rest of the cast is equally brilliant. Will Close as Harry Kane, Gunnar Cauthery as Gary Lineker, Josh Barrow as Jordan Pickford. They all do a truly remarkable job of capturing the likeness of their subject in a way that always feels sincere, with performances that blend comedy with drama effectively.

There are pacing issues here. The second act is noticeably less actionpacked than the first, not helped by the fact that real life simply hasn't lent itself to a particularly satisfying ending. It's clear that the focus has been on the early days of Southgate's tenure, with most of the supporting cast built around that first core of players, and fewer of the newer squad included. This does have the effect of limiting the scope for character drama in these later tournaments.

Dear England is a wonderful play. If you love football and theatre, then this is a dream combination of the two. But even if you don't care about the sport, this is superlative work that will keep you hooked. I really can't recommend it highly enough.

Sunday 22 October 2023

Developed by Bethesda
Published by Bethesda
Genre Role-playing game
Platform PC, Xbox

starfield bethesda skyrim elder scrolls fallout best game 2023 microsoft xbox playstation pc
In a year that is already historically stacked with notable videogame releases, the release of a new Bethesda RPG still stands out as an event of particular significance. Over the past three decades, Bethesda have developed some of the most celebrated games in the industry, including the Fallout and Elder Scrolls franchises, the most recent release of which, Skyrim, is commonly viewed as a landmark title in the open world RPG genre. Bethesda have drawn their fair share of flak over the years for controversial DLC policies and notoriously buggy releases, but there are few things in gaming that can match the experience of diving into one of their immersive worlds for the first time.

Their latest title, Starfield, marks a significant moment in the studio's history. This is the first game developed since the studio's buyout by Microsoft. It's the first completely original IP developed by the studio in twenty five years. It might also be their most ambitious title yet. The idea behind Starfield has apparently been percolating in the mind of director Todd Howard for decades, but until now the technology hasn't existed to make it reality. Having spent some time playing with the game now, I would argue that it still doesn't, but we will come back to that later.

Starfield is set in our world, a few hundred years in the future when mankind has developed the technology to travel the stars. A catastrophic event has rendered the Earth uninhabitable, and the remnants of humanity are spread over a sector of space comprising of some 100 stars, collectively known as the Settled Systems. The balance of power is split between three primary nations. There's the United Colonies, essentially your classic vision of utopian future Humans, heavily influenced in aesthetics by the real life United Nations and the Federation from Star Trek. There's the Freestar Collective, a rival confederation of libertarian-minded systems that runs the gamut from neo-noir cyberpunk corpo cities to wild west frontier towns. Finally there's the mysterious House Va'ruun, a reclusive faction of religious fanatics that has ceased contact with the other two factions (think of them as space-Slytherin). Then we have a variety of secondary factions, including corporations, mercenary groups and pirates, all vying for influence and power.

As always, players create their own character. This system has seen some significant improvement from previous Bethesda games. The physical sliders are more detailed and allow for some very impressive fine tuning of appearance. In all my years of playing these games, I think Starfield was the first time I felt I ended up with a character that actually looks something like me. 

Once designed, players choose a backstory and "traits". The backstory allows for some fairly interesting character design, as disparate as industrialist, chef, club bouncer, etc, and each come with their own skill perks. The traits allow for some pretty cool gameplay modifiers. These might include affiliation with a particular faction or religion. The more interesting ones include a trait to add your parents to the game, who will provide you with gifts and flavour in exchange for sending some of your credits to them each month. Another adds a "dream home" on a peaceful planet, in exchange for a steep mortgage you need to pay off. These are pretty neat and have had a surprising amount of thought put into their implementation. For example, I was surprised at just how frequently my parents popped up during the story in various places, and that was quite humorous and enjoyable. 

I am pleased to see that Starfield makes greater use of your character background and perks in gameplay, unlocking additional dialogue options in quests. This was a major complaint against Fallout 4 compared to Skyrim and New Vegas, and it's great to see them making better use of these RPG mechanics once again.

At the same time, there were moments where some fairly obvious implementation has not been done. For example, you can get married in this game, yet your parents don't show up to that. The game bizarrely also starts with your character working as a miner, a decision which seems oddly incongruent with the ability to choose a different character background. Why is my famous chef/diplomat/cyberneticist working as a miner? Skyrim and Fallout cleverly avoid this issue by leaving your character's starting background ambiguous, it is strange that they did not do the same here.

The general gameplay loop of Starfield will be very familiar to those who have played any of Bethesda's previous titles. Players design their character, assign a few starting skills and traits. You explore the Settled Systems, taking on a series of quests that vary in scope from substantial ongoing questlines, to one-off side quests and random tasks. Along the way, you encounter various populated "hub" cities, colourful characters some of whom can be recruited, and plenty of out-of-the-way locations that may not relate directly to a quest,  but provide the immersive environmental storytelling for which Bethesda is known. Players will acquire and upgrade their gear and weaponry, rank up their skills and perks, and craft all manner of items. The settlement mechanic has been brought over from Fallout 4, and now players can also design their own spaceships using a similar system.

The general gameplay mechanics work well enough. The running and shooting all feels nice and crisp, probably the best it has done in a Bethesda game to date. The addition of jump-packs to blast around in the middle of a combat situation is also a lot of fun. 

So far, it all sounds like a standard evolution of the tried and tested Bethesda formula. But as we will see, it differs in some pretty significant ways. The core evolution in the Bethesda formula this time is that rather than one big open game world, you have an entire sector of space to explore. 120 systems, 1000 planets, all fully explorable. This is achieved through a combination of hand-crafted locations and procedural generation. 

Space itself is not explorable as an open world, so practically what this means is players fast travel from planet to planet, exploring a narrow slither of space around the planet, and then landing on the surface. Players can land anywhere on the surface. Technically the entire planet is explorable, but not as a single contiguous space. Rather the game divides each planet into a grid of "instances". When you land on the surface you enter one such instance. That instance is populated with procedurally generated geometry, resources, biomes, flora and fauna and other points of interest. But you can't walk from one instance into the next, you need to go back to your ship and land in a different spot. 

Ostensibly, this breaks the illusion of a galaxy of fully explorable planets, but in truth the instances are each so big that you will never notice the limitation unless you go deliberately looking for it. In my entire playtime, I never had a situation where I reached the explorable boundary of an instance. 

Partly, this is because there just isn't much reason to explore so much of any specific instance. Starfield adds an exploration system, which allows players to scan minerals, flora/fauna, and other points of interest in order to survey a planet. You get experience points for this, and you can build outposts to harvest the resources (more on that later). You can scan everything in a particular biome without having to explore too much in any single instance, after which there just isn't really any reason to explore further, other than for the view. 

Fortunately, the view is often worth the trip. Starfield is generally quite a pretty game, and the world engine does a good job of creating memorable locations, from hazy jungles, to ragged mountain ranges and windswept beaches. Standing on an alien coastline on some moon, looking up a gas giant setting over the horizon... it's quite a sight, and it's impressive how often I felt the need to just stop and take in my surroundings. 

The procedural generation system also puts down various points of interest in these instances: factories, outposts and the like. It does a serviceable enough job of creating these, but since they are procedural they rarely have much that is worth going out of your way to explore. Some of these generated points of interest contain some quite nice environmental storytelling (in classic Bethesda fashion), or a few generic interactive NPCs with generic, procedurally generated quests, but you'll find they quickly repeat themselves and after the first few you'll probably just start ignoring them. It adds nice flavour and spices up the exploration gameplay, but it's not hugely substantive on its own.

Of course, there are also hand-crafted random encounters that are not procedurally generated, and some of these can be pretty fantastic. Memorable encounters I've had include running into a ship captain singing delightful sea-shanties, another included a colorful lady calling herself "grandma" who invited me aboard for a meal. Stuff like this makes the universe feel alive, but there could be more of it.

So while, yes, technically you can explore an entire planet, there is rarely any practical reason to explore more than the small area around your landing site. This has the benefit that the technical limitations of the game engine don't really end up mattering much, but at the same time it does make the selling point of all that exploration seem a little superfluous. More a tagline than something substantial.

Ultimately, most players are probably just going to be going from one of the hand-crafted quest locations to the next. Which is fine, but it takes much of the openness out of the game and arguably turns Starfield's biggest selling point into a weakness. In Skyrim or Fallout 4, by contrast, a player could simply pick a direction, explore, and know that they'll find something interesting, hand-crafted, and usually with some substantial story, character or quest attached to it. In Starfield, that isn't the case. You can aimlessly explore on a planet's surface, but you won't find much there aside from nature to scan, and the occasional point of interest. Most substantial content is essentially reached by fast travel. This isn't necessarily a good or bad thing, it's just a departure from other Bethesda titles. Personally, as a fan of sci-fi and space exploration, I did enjoy this system and exploring just for the sake of exploring, but I can understand some longtime fans feeling that Starfield exploration lacks a bit of something as a result.

With respect to the more story-focused, hand-crafted content, this is generally quite good. Aesthetically, the world of Starfield is rendered in a delightfully fresh "NASA-punk" style. It's futuristic enough to look convincing, but still grounded in the chunky, functional realworld tech that we use to get into space today. This helps the world feel real and like a genuine continuation of our world. It also just looks really cool.

But the aesthetic is weirdly inconsistent and incongruent within itself. There's no real explanation for why humanity would build some cities with a ultra-shiny Star Trek aesthetic, others like a wild-west cowboy town, and others still as a super gritty cyberpunk city. In the real world, different locations have wildly different aesthetics due to disparate cultures developing separately over thousands of years. There's no real reason why this would have happened in the world of Starfield. It provides nice variety to the game world, but doesn't really make much sense.

It's a small gripe, but I also feel the "destroyed Earth" trope is a bit tired. It's usually implemented in games for the wrong reasons, rather than because it actually makes sense or adds anything to the story. In this case, the reasons behind it are limitations in technology and imagination. It's pretty apparent that the only reason they contrived the destruction of Earth was so that they didn't have to choose between a fully explorable, populated Earth, and having to compromise on that "fully explorable" tagline. In this case it was probably the wrong choice. A barren, sand-covered Earth doesn't really make much sense. Even if the planet was destroyed, the ruins of those cities would still be there after just a few hundred years, and the story-reasons behind the destruction also come off as somewhat lazy and contrived. It would have been trivially easy to simply make Earth one planet that either couldn't be landed on, or with only certain specific locations to visit, and players would have understood the reasons for it.

The quests are pretty fun and contain a nice amount of variety, from more combat focused military ventures to corporate espionage and diplomatic missions. There's a pretty decent quantity of quests as well. One of my main complaints with Fallout 4 was how few quests there were in the game compared to Skyrim. While Starfield certainly doesn't match the volume of quest that there were in Skyrim, there is still more here than in Fallout 4. Particularly in the early stages of the game, it sometimes feels overwhelming, like you can't go for a walk without stumbling onto some new quest.

If there is one major problem with the various quest lines it's that they never seem to have any consequences. One of the hallmarks of Bethesda games is that players make decisions in resolving quests, and those decisions have long-lasting effects on the game world. In Fallout 3, your choices could result in entire cities being destroyed. In New Vegas your choices would turn certain factions against you and shut off their questlines. In Starfield this is often glaringly absent. You can complete the pirate questline, and in doing so stage a massive attack against the United Colonies, and then straight afterwards you can play the entire UC questline with ostensibly no blow-back from your earlier actions. It's quite disappointing. To be clear, this is not always the case. There are some quests where your choices manifest themselves quite nicely in the wider world, but far too often there's just nothing acknowledging or referencing what should be fairly major developments.

At this point it's worth also mentioning the modding community. One of the main attractions of a Bethesda game is how moddable it is, and how the fanmade modding community is so active. Fifteen years later, and Skyrim is still receiving worthwhile new content from fans. New characters, quests, worlds and adventures. Starfield, more than any other game to date, feels like a game that was designed with modding in mind, with its extraordinary amount of empty space just begging to be filled with content. I can't wait to see what fans will come up with in the years to come.

One thing that is still affected by your decisions is your relationship with the game's various characters and companions. This "affinity" system is something carried over from Fallout 4 and was quite a big advancement at the time for Bethesda. In older games (including the widely praised Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas) companions really didn't have much depth to them. Sometimes they came with a quest, or a particular perk, but that was it. Fallout 4 changed that, by introducing a system whereby your relationship would progress over time depending on your actions, dialogue, and the amount of time spent with the character. This affinity system is implemented again in Starfield. Unfortunately, the companion system as a whole is one area which seems to have inexplicably taken a big step back. 

Fallout 4 had some fourteen interactive companions with a fully implemented affinity system. They would react to your actions, provide new dialogue and story as time went on, as well as new quests and companion perks. Starfield, incredibly, only has four. To be clear there are some twenty companions in Starfield in total, but for whatever reason, only four of them have affinity systems implemented. The other sixteen are a throwback to the bad old days of older Bethesda titles, with little progression, no quests or perks, and only minimal story content. Companions, in general, are also just much less interactive than they were in Fallout 4. In that title, you could speak to them, give them commands or instructions, ask for feedback. There's much less of that in Starfield. You can trade with them, or discuss the same handful of conversation topics, but that's it. This is a huge disappointment, and it's hard to understand why they did it this way.

It's also worth mentioning the writing. The writing in Bethesda games is generally decent... no Bioware, but better than most. The storylines are mostly pretty good and the dialogue ranges from serviceable to quite excellent. One area they have always been pretty weak on is in writing romance dialogue, and that is especially the case here. It's awful, it's cringy, and often out of character for the person involved. 

The world of Starfield, in general, strikes a bit of an odd balance of whether it wants to take itself seriously or not. This isn't Fallout, and yet the writers often inject satire and comic book levels of exaggeration as if it were, while other times keeping things pretty straight. You can tell these writers had previously worked on that series, and it often feels like they aren't quite sure what identity they want to create for this new franchise. In my view, Starfield's writing is at its best when it leans more heavily into high-concept sci-fi setting, with quests featuring things like alternate universes, quantum physics and genetic engineering. This is where the game truly finds its own voice and stands out from Bethesda's other work.

Without spoiling too much, it's also worth mentioning the new game plus. New game plus is a common mechanic in videogames which allows you to start a new game, while carrying forward certain benefits from your first playthrough, such as XP/levels. Starfield does something very clever that I've not seen before in a game, and makes new game plus an actual continuation of the story. Without spoiling the story specifics, this takes the narrative into some remarkably effective metafictional directions about player choice and the morality of the game's central characters. They've even taken it a step further by including various narrative and quest variations in new game plus that allows you to use your knowledge from the first playthrough to achieve different outcomes. Some rare new game plus variants also result in some drastically different (and often hilarious) shake ups of the setting and characters. It's all very clever, the problem is that not everyone likes the idea of a new game plus, or replaying games more than once. By hiding ostensibly "new" content behind this mode, it almost makes it a necessary expansion of the experience rather than an optional choice for players who are so inclined. I can see this annoying some players.

The last significant gameplay mechanic to discuss is the crafting/building side of things. Weapon and spacesuit crafting is basically what you would expect from previous Bethesda titles, although many components are locked behind perks and research projects (unlockable at the new research station). 

The outpost building system is similar to Fallout 4's settlements. On the one hand, it's a less restrictive system in that outposts can be built anywhere, as compared to the preset settlement locations in Fallout 4. On the other hand, the outpost components themselves are much fewer and more restrictive than in Fallout. I suppose this has the benefit that outposts all fit within a consistent NASA-punk aesthetic, but it can be frustrating when things don't work as intended. Building on uneven terrain can be a pain, and sometimes habitats simply refuse to click together for no discernible reason. The furniture options are also something of a mixed bag. This is one of the areas that I look forward to seeing modders expand.

Where this system differs from Fallout 4's settlements is in its purpose. Fallout 4's post apocalyptic setting is one where survival is the main goal. Accordingly, the settlement system was built around providing access to food, clean water, and security. Random settlers from around the Commonwealth would seek safety in your settlements, and your goal would be to provide their needs and raise their happiness levels. Almost like a mini "Sims" style game. In Starfield, there are no randomly generated settlers. You can only assign your companions to outposts (and they will have skills that boost the output of the outpost). There is no happiness to raise, no resources to provide. Rather, the system's sole purpose (other than roleplaying and building something cool) appears to be for harvesting crafting materials. The problem is, there really is no need for this. Basically all crafting materials can be purchased easily and cheaply from the hub cities. It is pretty fun building up supply chains and linking outposts to build more advanced and complex materials, but there really is no purpose behind them. You can't make any real money selling the materials, and there's no need for high quantities of any single item. The outpost system sadly is a bit under-baked, a cool feature that hasn't figured out a reason to exist.

Then there are the spaceships, which can be built by sticking modules together similar to the outpost system. This is very cool, and allows players to build some very unique and creative looking ships. There is a very special pleasure enjoyed by walking around the inside of a spaceship you designed yourself, and it's a brilliant addition. As with the outpost system, this can be a bit janky and temperamental. Currently there is also no way to choose where to place connections between modules (hallways and ladders), which is quite an oversight and can result in some bizarre, labyrinthine spaceship layouts. 

Lastly, let's talk about the bugs. Bethesda games are known for being buggy, and Starfield is no exception. That said, Starfield is probably the most stable of the company's releases. I did encounter an occasional crash to desktop, but these were much rarer than in past titles. I also encountered far less stuttering, frame-rate issues and general lag compared to older Bethesda titles. The bugs that do exist in Starfield tend to be more annoying than game-breaking. Things like companions not properly equipping the items you give them, HUD bugs, the occasional quest logic error. I noted a number of bugs relating to the companions. Sometimes they would just vanish from the crew list, or become non-interactive. Most of the time, this was fixable, but in one case this seems to have affected one of my companions permanently, which still hasn't been patched. The worst bug I encountered takes place (with 100% frequency) after a certain story quest that takes place in a main hub city, and resets all of the player housing in that city - any furniture, items, etc you left in that place, just gone. Amazing that this still hasn't been patched.

So in the end Starfield is a bit of a flawed gem. Some design elements have seen considerable improvement from previous Bethesda titles, while others have inexplicably taken a step backwards. Some elements have clearly not been thought out and either serve little or no purpose. What's here is often excellent, but equally often superficial and lacking in depth.  For its flaws, Starfield does create an immersive and absorbing new universe, filled with interesting lore, characters and environments. It manages to deliver a grand adventure with a sufficient (if not consistent) sense of player agency. This is still an experience full of that classic Bethesda magic, just begging to be explored. 

I think, ultimately, how you feel about Starfield will depend on how much you connect with the core concept. If you have always wanted to design your own spaceship, blast off into the unknown and see what you find, you'll enjoy this. If you like a good, high concept space opera with cinematic storytelling and thought provoking ideas, you'll enjoy this. Starfield is a very good game that often buckles under the weight of its ambition, but lays the groundwork for something that, be it through DLC or mods, could yet be expanded into something truly great.

Monday 28 August 2023

Another football season is underway, with fascinating competitions and narratives in store all up and down the table. From the rise of Newcastle, the up and coming clubs of Brighton and Brentford, to the chaos and drama at Wolves and Chelsea. Increasingly, the Premier League is proving to be such a tight and competitive league. Arguably any of the top ten clubs could push for Europe, and equally there's no one side seemingly destined for relegation. One outcome that seems in little doubt is the prospect of Manchester City winning yet another title. But this is football and anything can happen. Watch this space.

premier league 2022/23 preview

Premier League 2023/24 Predictions in a nutshell:
Champions: Manchester City
Champions League qualifiers: Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool
Relegated: Sheffield United, Everton, Luton
Golden Boot winner: Erling Haaland (Manchester City)
Golden Glove winner: Ederson (Manchester City)
Player to watch: Erling Haaland (Manchester City)
New signing to watch: Sandro Tonali (Newcastle)
Young player to watch: Levi Colwill (Chelsea)
First manager to get the sack: Paul Heckingbottom (Sheffield United)
Shock of the season: Sean Dyche to flame out and get sacked early by Everton

Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Position last season: 2nd
Manager: Mikel Arteta
Last season saw a huge step up from this club. For the first time in a generation, Arsenal looked like genuine contenders, and only a late collapse saw them what miss out on what would have been a first title in twenty years.

The response to narrowly missing out on the title has been to, once again, spend big. Arsenal have spent some £200 million on players this summer, most notably on the former West Ham midfield dynamo Declan Rice, and the Chelsea midfielder who has inexplicably been pretending to be a striker for two years, Kai Havertz. These are very fine signings. I have no doubt that playing Kai in his correct position will elicit improved performances from the player. Along with Martin Odegaard, this may well be the best midfield trio in the league.

The problem that Arsenal face is that their potential rivals have improved to an even greater degree. One could argue that their formidable title charge last season owed as much to the relative weakness of the other contenders as to Arsenal's own brilliance. If the other big clubs manage to hit the ground running this year, Arsenal may not enjoy the same heights as last season.

Key Signing: Declan Rice
Key Man: Martin Odegaard
Verdict: Possible title contenders, but against improved opposition they may struggle to keep pace.

Nickname: The Villans
Ground: Villa Park
Capacity: 42,095
Last season: 7th
Manager: Unai Emery

Predicting big things of Aston Villa, only for the Birmingham club to disappoint, seems to have become a bit of a yearly tradition. The Villans have spent big in the past few seasons, with ambitious plans afoot to finally give England's second city a club worthy of that stature, but a series of false dawns and stuttering starts have so far seen them fail to deliver.

This year there is, once again, great optimism around Villa Park. This is mostly attributed to manager Unai Emery, and the drastic turnaround that took place after his arrival last season. In just six months, the Spaniard transformed the club from a relegation risk to European qualifiers. There is excitement to see what can be accomplished with a full pre-season to prepare.

The headline signing to date has been Moussa Diaby, Emery's primary target and a pacey attacker who can contribute both goals and assists. Equally shrewd has been the free transfer of Youri Tielemans from relegated Leicester City, a midfielder of known Premier League quality in his prime years.

Key Signing: Moussa Diaby
Key Man: Ollie Watkins
Verdict: Optimistic times at Villa Park, who will be targeting a top seven finish.

Nickname: The Cherries
Ground: Dean Court
Capacity: 11,364
Last season: 15th
Manager: Andoni Iraola

It was a difficult return to the top flight for Bournemouth, one that they just about survived. Now the club is ringing the changes, with the aim of consolidating their position.

This started with the appointment of Andoni Iraola, the club's first foreign manager, and continued with the spending of more than £100 million on reinforcements, including the likes of Justin Kluivert, Max Aarons and Hamed Traoré. But the stand out among the new business has to be late signing of Tyler Adams from relegated Leeds, a player who had been linked with high profile clubs such as Chelsea and Liverpool over the summer.

Despite the investment, this still looks among the weaker squads in the league. Defence was a problem last year, one which new manager Iraola seems to believe will be solved by a more attacking playstyle. I suspect he may be in for a rude awakening.

Key Signing: Philip Billing
Key Man: Tyler Adams
Verdict: A prime relegation candidate.


Nickname: The Bees
Ground: Brentford Community Stadium
Capacity: 17,250
Last season: 9th
Manager: Thomas Frank

It's been an impressive few seasons for London's newest representative in the top flight. Brentford increasingly look at home in this league and weren't far off from European qualification last season.

The Bees would do well to temper their ambitions however. The top half of the league is increasingly competitive, and with the club's talismanic striker Ivan Toney sidelined until January they could struggle in these early stages. A great deal will rest on Yoane Wissa, the man who, ostensibly, is set to step into Toney's place. 

The club could also struggle with the loss of goalkeeper David Raya to Arsenal on a season-long loan. Raya was one of the most impressive shot stoppers in the league last season and new signing Mark Flekken has some big shows to fill.

Key Signing: Mark Flekken
Key Man: Ivan Toney
Verdict: Should be safe in midtable, but a season of consolidation could be seen as a victory.

Nickname: The Seagulls
Ground: Falmer Stadium
Capacity: 31,800
Last season: 6th
Manager: Roberto De Zerbi

Brighton's success has been the story of the Premier League in recent seasons. A well run outfit, whose progress up the league system in recent years has made for a remarkable story. Flush with cash and one of the most successful scouting outfits in the country, Brighton find themselves in an enviable position to push on, but how far can they go?

The club is rightly riding a high after last season's record finish, which saw Brighton qualify for their first ever Europa League campaign. But that extra fixture congestion can be a curse as much as a blessing, and Brighton will pay for their success with the additional strain that is normally endured by wealthier clubs with deeper squads. 

It also can't be ignored that the club has lost two huge stars of last season, Alexis Mac Allister to Liverpool and Moises Caicedo to Chelsea. Brighton have spent big to bring in nine players this summer, including club record signing João Pedro from Wolves, but it remains to be seen whether these reinforcements will be able to bring the same kind of success.

That is not to say that Brighton are in store for a bad year, but with these additional challenges they would do well to match the high finish of last season.

Key Signing: João Pedro
Key Man: Pervis Estupiñán
Verdict: Matching last season's feats will be a tall order, but should achieve a solid top half finish.

Nickname: The Clarets
Ground: Turf Moor
Capacity: 21,944
Last season: Promoted (Champions)
Manager: Vincent Kompany

Second tier champions last season, with a whopping 101 points earned. Led by a manager considered one of the hottest in British football and a legend of the sport as a player. The momentum is very much with Burnley, but the Premier League is a different prospect entirely, and they face a steep challenge to stay up.

For those who don't watch much Championship football, be warned that this is not your father's Burnley. This is not Sean Dyche anti-football. Kompany has transformed Burnley into an adventurous, attacking side. If the club's summer signings are any indication, Kompany is looking to emphasise this focus, with additional firepower being brought in with Swansea's Michael Obafemi and Swiss youngster Zeki Amdouni. But anyone who watched Burnley last season will tell you that the key signing so far has been that of defender Jordan Beyer, on loan with the club last season, now signed to a permanent deal.

Otherwise, the club has done well to keep ahold of its key players, midfield Joshes Brownhill and Cullen chief among them. It's a squad with some promise, but whether they can step up to this level remains to be seen.

Key Signing: Jordan Beyer
Key Man: Josh Brownhill
Verdict: Great optimism surrounds the club, but they remain a relegation risk

Nickname: Blues
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Capacity: 41,837
Last season: 12th (not a typo)
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino

Round 2 in what has got to be the most disastrous tenure in the history of Premier League owners. Mike Ashley will be looking at this and thinking, "Yeah, I did ok actually."

I've been reading a lot of pundit analysis tipping this Chelsea side for a comeback, for great things, and I just can't believe what I'm reading. Most people seem to be looking at the vast quantities of cash being spent as some kind of indication that the club is building a strong side. But let me ask you this, if Chelsea went out and spent £1 billion on a wheelbarrow, would that make them title favourites? Of course not, the amount of money spent means nothing, it's what you spend it on that matters.

For all the eye-watering expenditure, this is a team whose first choice goalkeeper was Brighton's third choice last season. This is a team that is without a proven top flight striker in the squad. A team whose starting central defence partnership is an unproven 20 year old academy product and a 40 year old who's lost his pace. This is a team that began the season with only one central midfielder (at least until this week's last minute panic signings, another cool £200 million out the window). You might well ask yourself, what the hell have they been spending all that money on? And you'd be right.

So, no, I don't buy all the hype that Chelsea are back. This is a threadbare side with massive holes in the squad and razor thin depth. A side that has sold off its strongest assets and gambled their future on unproven talent (literally, if those 8 year contracts don't work out, this club could very well go bust). I haven't even mentioned the fact that the club sacked its medical team and replaced them with celebrity doctors from Hollywood (and we wonder why their injury rate is through the roof all of a sudden) or that the club literally has no shirt sponsor currently. Club management currently seems unable to perform even the basic functions of running a club, and until that changes I don't see anything above a midtable finish in the cards, no matter how many billions they spend.

Key Signing: Christopher Nkunku (if he ever comes back from injury)
Key Man: Reece James (if he ever comes back from injury)
Verdict: In a good season, they might break into the Europa League places. Most likely, smack in the middle of the table.

Nickname: Eagles, Glaziers
Ground: Selhurst Park
Capacity: 25,486
Last season: 11th
Manager: Roy Hodgson
For a club that is entering its second decade in the top flight, a surprising air of uncertainty remains over Crystal Palace. Every time the club looks set for an upturn in fortunes, setbacks occur. The exciting Vieira boom didn't last, and now the Eagles find themselves looking for a new identity, a new long term strategy.

The man tasked with helping the club to find its way forward is none other than Roy Hodgson, now 76 years young and embarking on his second stint as Palace manager, third stint if you include his playing career. The thinking is clear: Palace face an uncertain future, and the presence of a much loved steady hand brings reassurance to both players and fans alike. Whether this will lead to success is much harder to divine. 

The big development in terms of playing staff will be the departure of the talismanic Wilfried Zaha, an ever present figure at this club over the past fifteen years. While his best may be behind him, replacing his presence will nevertheless be a tall order. A will now rest on the hotly tipped youngster Michael Olise, a player who had been tipped with a move away this summer but now seems set to stay. A more direct replacement for Zaha might end up being the new signing Matheus França, a young Brazilian with a reputation for his exciting, attacking play. His addition to the squad might just be the boost Palace need.

Key Signing: Matheus França
Key Man: Michael Olise
Verdict: I don't expect Palace to be a relegation risk, but this is very much a transition year and expectations should be set accordingly.

Nickname: Toffees
Ground: Goodison Park
Capacity: 40,170
Last season: 17th
Manager: Sean Dyche

In the annals of underperforming Premier League teams, few earn their place more than Everton. For a club with such a significant history and dedicated fanbase, they just can't seem to do themselves justice. After years of stagnation, the arrival of Carlo Ancelotti a few years back seemed promising, but turned out to be a false dawn. Frank Lampard briefly got pulses racing, but failed to take the club forward. Now, the man the club has chosen to take the Toffees to the next level is... Sean Dyche?

Dyche has a reputation as a tactician, someone who can grind out the necessary results no matter how ugly. Crucially, he has a reputation of someone who can guarantee survival, but I'm not sure this is really earned. Everton's issues run deeper than just the manager, but it's hard to see even Dyche doing much with this threadbare squad. That the marquee signing of the summer looks set to be a 38 year old Ashley Young says it all.

Add to this the spectre of investigations and uncertain ownership, and it paints a gloomy picture for Everton's prospects in the short term.

Key Signing: Ashley Young
Key Man: Jordan Pickford
Verdict: The alarm bells are ringing. Everton are not a side you expect to see relegated, but it's a real risk this season.

Nickname: The Cottagers
Ground: Craven Cottage
Capacity: 22.384
Last season: 10th
Manager: Marco Silva

Tipped by many for relegation last term (not here though, because I am not a hack), it's fair to say that Marco Silva's side exceeded anyone's expectations by achieving a top half finish. Indeed, right up until the tail end of the season, they were within touching distance of European qualification.

Unfortunately, one of the main driving forces behind this success, Aleksandar Mitrovic, has departed the club this summer. Fans will undoubtedly be looking to new signing Raúl Jimenéz to take his place up front. At 32, the Mexican forward is hardly a long term solution, but for the meantime he represents proven Premier League quality

Elsewhere, the club has done well to keep hold of its key performers, midfielder Palhinha and youngster Harrison Reed, but it is that former Arsenal keeper Bernd Leno who may prove most essential in determining the club's prospects this season.

Key Signing: Raúl Jimenéz
Key Man: Leno
Verdict: Should be safe, even without Mitrovic, but repeating the feats of last season seems unlikely.

Nickname: Reds
Ground: Anfield
Capacity: 54,074
Last season: 5th
Manager: Jurgen Klopp
The great Klopp era of Liverpool dominance may already be over, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Ever since their title win, Liverpool have struggled to live up to expectations, and will be disappointed to participate in just the Europa League this season. 

The Liverpool squad is facing a bit of a shake up this season. The captain Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Firmino have all gone to Saudi Arabia. Milner, Keita, Oxlade-Chamberlain, also departing. Taking their places in the squad will be Brighton's World Cup winner Alexis Mac Allister, and the hotly tipped Hungarian midfielder Dominik Szoboszlai. This is still a strong squad, but it's difficult to say that they look stronger than last season. Liverpool will be hoping that last term's struggles were a blip rather than an indication of some deeper problem.

Klopp, surely, has achieved legendary status for his past success with the club, but he won't be able to live on that forever and fans will be expecting to see some progress back towards the top of the table this season.

Key Signing: Alexis Mac Allister
Key Man: Mo Salah
Verdict: Will expect a top four finish.

Nickname: The Hatters
Ground: Kenilworth Road
Capacity: 10,356
Last season: Promoted (3rd)
Manager: Rob Edwards
Most pundits' heavy favourite for the drop this season. I am not most pundits... but it's hard to disagree here. The Premier League is probably the most competitive league in the world. It's not enough to be a good side. Even the bottom ranked teams are good squads bristling with talent, and when you look at this Luton squad, it's difficult to see how they compete with those around them.

If recent history is any guide, the newly promoted teams that stay up need to have some spine, and some top flight experience. This Luton team earned their promotion chiefly through their solid defensive play and conservatism. But Premier League offences will ask much greater questions, and it just isn't clear that they will be up to that task. At the other end, Carlton Morris brings goals and had a great season in the second tier, he will no doubt be key to the Hatters' chances. 

As for top flight experience, this is something sorely lacking from this squad. Even their summer signings have tended to be a mix of promising EFL players, rather than those that have proven themselves at the highest level. They may yet step up and prove everyone wrong, but it's a tall order.

Key Signing: Thomas Kaminski
Key Man: Carlton Morris
Verdict: Favourites for relegation.

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

Champions, and favourites to win it again for a record breaking fourth consecutive season. Manchester City's squad is one of the world's strongest, has depth for miles, and probably the single best footballer on the planet in Erling Haaland.

If they weren't already formidable enough, they've strengthened well this summer. Joško Gvardiol is one of the best defensive prospects in world football today, Mateo Kovačić is a highly underrated player who will show his best at City, and Doku provides a different option going forward when plan A doesn't work. It's difficult to think of a real weakness in this side. Kevin de Bruyne's injury problems definitely pose a concern, especially with City's failure to sign Pep's top target in Jude Bellingham as a long-term replacement, but they're not exactly short of options in the short term.

City's greatest obstacle may simply be statistics. No one has ever managed to win four top flight titles in a row in this country, and there's a reason for that. Football is an unpredictable game. Injuries happen, teams under and over perform. Anyone can win on the right day. Still, there's no doubt that City start the season as the most likely team to win by far.

Key Signing: Joško Gvardiol
Key Man: Erling Haaland
Verdict: Title favourites.

Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Capacity: 74,879
Last season: 3rd
Manager: Erik ten Hag
A big season for Manchester United. It's been some time since the club could rightly consider itself among the very highest calibre of football clubs, arguably not since Alex Ferguson's retirement. But this year, there's the sense that Erik ten Hag may finally be turning things around. Last season's modest silverware, the EFL Cup, may not seem like such a grand prize, but it's a start. More significant will be the late season surge in form that saw United return to the Champions League.

This is a much more balanced United side than we have seen in many years. Shaw, Wan Bissaka and Varane have really come into their own as a defensive unit, while the captain Bruno Fernandes has led by example going forward. But it's last season's signing of Casemiro that might just have been the lynchpin to pull this whole thing together, and he has quickly become an integral cog in one of the league's tightest midfields. 

Their summer business has been strong, with the big money signings of Chelsea midfielder Mason Mount and the addition of further firepower up front with Rasmus Højlund. But the most significant addition will likely be André Onana, a goalkeeper who has long been tipped with a Premier League move, who now looks set to finally bring stability to a position that has been something of a question mark for United in recent seasons. This team means business, and it will be a sore underperformance if they don't finish top four with ease.

Key Signing: André Onana
Key Man: Casemiro
Verdict: Top four is the minimum expectation, but they have their target set on bigger things.

Nickname: The Magpies, Toon
Ground: St James' Park
Capacity: 52,305
Last season: 4th
Manager: Eddie Howe

What a difference a year can make. Newcastle, formerly the butt of so many jokes for so many years, have been transformed by their new owners from one of the worst run clubs in the country to one of the very best. The result was the Toon making an unlikely return to the Champions League for the first time in two decades.

The club's Saudi owners have defied every fan's worst fears and shown themselves to be measured and shrewd operators, spending well and hiring the right people. Eddie Howe has matured into one of the great managerial stars of the English game. This is a good team, to boot. Nick Pope is one of the finest shot stoppers in the country, Kieran Trippier that rare breed of defender who contributes as much going forward as most attacking players. Sven Botman, Miguel Almirón, both hugely impressive pieces of business. This squad is the envy of any in the league.

They're still building, too. Harvey Barnes and Tino Livramento are great additions, but it is the signing Milan's Sandro Tonali, considered to be one of the most exciting young midfielders in the world, that really makes a statement. These owners are ambitious, and they fully intend to take the club all the way. They might get there eventually, but it probably won't be this season.

Key Signing: Sandro Tonali
Key Man: Kieran Trippier
Verdict: The additional strain of Europe will pose challenges, but I think this squad is good enough to push for top four once again.


Nickname: The Reds
Ground: City Ground
Capacity: 30,445
Last season: 16th
Manager: Steve Cooper
Nottingham Forest survived their long-awaited return to top flight football, just about. But repeating the feat and, in doing so, avoiding the dreaded second season syndrome, will be a tall order. 

As has been the case with so many of these previews, it's not that Forest have a poor side, it's that they are up against some very good sides indeed, even just to survive. 

In order to compete at this level you need goals, and in this side those are going to come from Taiwo Awoniyi, last season's top scorer for Forest and the key focal point in this side's attacking play. Steve Cooper has got his side playing an attractive progressive game, but the flip side to that is vulnerability at the back, and it is conspicuous that Forest conceded the third most goals of any side last term. The signing of fullback and Chelsea academy product Ola Aina to help shore up that defence may prove a shrewd signing in a problem area. 

Forest have done the smart thing in bringing in some proven Premier League talent, but most of those players are on the wrong side of 30, and it's not clear how many of the younglings they're supposed to help mentor will ever reach that level.

Forest would gladly take a boring season of consolidation if it meant another season in the top flight, but when you look at this squad, there's a genuine question of whether they have what it takes.

Key Signing: Ola Aina
Key Man: Taiwo Awoniyi
Verdict: Not a foregone conclusion, but definitely one of the risks for relegation.

Nickname: The Blades
Ground: Bramall Lane
Capacity: 31,884
Last season: Promoted (Runner up)
Manager: Paul Heckingbottom
Even the younger Premier League fans may remember Sheffield United's last adventure into the top flight (it was just four years ago, after all). That brief stay was almost the stuff of legends, achieving a near miraculous top half finish in their first season up, only to go right back down, rock bottom, the following season. The Blades will be hoping for a little more sustained success this time around, but the first order of business is survival, and they face a big challenge to accomplish that.

The summer after promotion is usually a glut of development. The Premier League is a massive step up for any club, and most look to spend their considerable TV windfall to ensure that that they have a squad capable of competing. It is concerning, then, that Sheffield United arguably begin their season with a weaker squad than they ended last season. They've lost their top scorer from last season, as well as a few bright loan signings, and their replacements have little in the way of proven quality.

A lot will depend on newly signed forward Bénie Traoré, ostensibly their main threat up front now, as well as Tom Davies, newly signed from Everton, and one of the few arrivals with Premier League experience. Of the players that remain from last season, there is some genuine quality. Anel Ahmedhodžić has shown himself to be a very influential player, both at the back and also as a goal threat on the other end. He is partnered at the back by the hugely experienced Chris Basham and talented youngster Jayden Bogle. That defence will be key to United's survival chances, because they look threadbare elsewhere.

Key Signing: Bénie Traoré
Key Man: Anel Ahmedhodžić
Verdict: Will be in and around the relegation battle.

Nickname: Spurs
Ground: Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Capacity: 62,850
Last season: 8th
Manager: Ange Postecoglou
Whisper it quietly, but Tottenham could be in for a good year? One might expect the club to be a place of doom and pessimism now that the talismanic Harry Kane has departed for greener pastures. But new manager Ange Postecoglou has managed to instil an impressively optimistic atmosphere around the club, and there is a genuine sense that they could build something here.

Postecoglou is an interesting manager. He's achieved some impressive feats in his surprisingly long managerial career, but equally he has shown a tendency to flame out in a spectacular fashion, and remains unproven at the highest level. Still, he has a reputation for being able to squeeze a surprising amount out of very little, which will serve him well at a club like Tottenham. I say this not to be glib, but because that really, truly is an important requirement when managing a club run by Daniel Levy. The club's recent managerial recruitments have tended to focus on the star man, Mourinho, Espirito Santo, Conte, and they haven't worked. Perhaps they needed to think outside the box all along.

Let's not beat around the bush, Harry Kane's departure is a big blow. But the man is 30, it had to happen at some point. The big question mark, then, is where are these goals going to come from. While the club has been busy in the transfer market this summer, they have notably not brought in a star striker by way of replacement. One has to assume that much of the club's fortunes will rest on Son Heung-Min, now surely the central figure in this squad. 

While they may not have brought in a striker, they've spent that Harry Kane money wisely, bringing in the goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario, wing back Pedro Porro, and the talismanic star of relegated Leicester City, James Maddison. Even without Kane, this is a strong squad that could make a good go of pushing for top four this season.

Key Signing: James Maddison
Key Man: Son Heung-Min
Verdict: A strong top four contender..

Nickname: The Hammers
Ground: London Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Last season: 14th
Manager: David Moyes

I think people have been sleeping on West Ham a bit this summer. That's saying something coming from me, a commenter who typically mocks the media's fascination with The Hammers and that bold new era of success that never comes. 

True, West Ham were far from impressive last season, stumbling their way to a finish in the lower mid table. They've also lost their star man Declan Rice this summer. But his sizeable transfer kitty has been put to good use, with well over £100 million spent on the trio of James Ward-Prowse, Edson Álvarez, and Mohammed Kudus. Ward-Prowse, in particular, I have always considered to be an underrated player, whose set pieces alone should win the club points this season.

While it's hard to get too excited about a side managed by David Moyes, West Ham's is a squad surprisingly stocked with top level quality. Last season's record signing Lucas Paquetá has proven to be an influential figure in the squad, while Antonio remains a handful up front. The defence is sturdy and has depth. But the underrated lynchpin of this team is Jarrod Bowen, shrewdly signed from Hull some three seasons ago for relatively little, by today's standards. As a winger, Bowen creates problems for any defence and is frequently the channel through which West Ham launch their most effective attacks.

So what can this side achieve? I think pushing into the top half of that table is a very realistic target, perhaps with a push on the Europa League places.

Key Signing: James Ward-Prowse
Key Man: Jarrod Bowen
Verdict: Will push for Europa League qualification, finish in the top half.

Nickname: Wolves
Ground: Molineux Stadium
Capacity: 32,050
Last season: 13th
Manager: Gary O'Neil

Last, but not least, Wolves. For a number of years, Wolves were seen as one of the next big things in English football. With deep pockets, some shrewd business, and hugely ambitious owners, Wolves were shaping up to be a very fine squad with the potential of pushing on into Europe. That era seems to have passed now, with the club slumping in the last few seasons to lower mid table. A chaotic summer, with seemingly little in the way of a long term plan, leaves the club adrift, with the risk that things could go horribly south if not steadied soon.

This all came to a head with the sensational departure of manager Julen Lopetegui, just days before the start of the season. His choice of replacement, Gary O'Neil, has raised more than a few eyebrows. The fact is, the club finds itself in a dire financial mess, which has resulted in an exodus of key players, most notably Rúben Neves, Raúl Jiménez, Adama Traoré and Nathan Collins. Despite this, they've gone for the big money signing of Matheus Cunha, their hand forced by the terms of last season's loan agreement. This outlay has forced the club to be somewhat stingier in the rest of its business, with a number of mostly free transfers coming in, including the re-signing of Matt Doherty from Atletico.

Nothing about this situation instills confidence for the upcoming season. No one wants to say it, but Wolves really need to consider the possibility of being drawn into the relegation battle. We've seen it time and time again, but chaos off the pitch can often be as fatal as lack of quality on it.

Key Signing: Matheus Cunha
Key Man: Neto
Verdict: Without further reinforcements will struggle, and perhaps risk relegation.

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

Friday 7 July 2023

Developed by Nintendo
Published by Nintendo
Genre Action-Advenutre
Platform Switch

legend zelda tears of the kingdom breath wild nintendo switch 2023 sequel game

"How do you follow up one of the best videogames ever made" is not a question that most developers will ever need to answer, but for Nintendo this is familiar ground. 

When The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time released in 1998 it built the foundations of 3D gaming that developers still follow to this day. Widely considered among the greatest games of all time, following it up seemed an impossible task at the time. Yet somehow Nintendo not only managed to build and release a sequel in two years, but that sequel, Majora's Mask, was considered by many to be even better.

How did they do it? Nintendo realised they would never be able to top the scale of its landmark predecessor on the available hardware, so instead they looked to other ways they could innovate the formula. The result remains one of the most unique and brilliantly designed games ever made.

So in crafting a follow up to 2017's Breath of the Wild, a groundbreaking masterpiece of open-world game design considered by many to be the very greatest of all games, can Nintendo do it again?

There will be some gameplay spoilers here, and very mild story spoilers (nothing beyond the opening section).

One thing that struck me in the build up to The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is just how little we have seen of the game pre-release. Ordinarily for such a big release the publisher would blitz the media with advertising and previews, yet in this case we saw little more than a few cryptic teaser trailers until just the last few days prior to release, and practically nothing in the way of story or gameplay details.

What we did know was that Tears of the Kingdom began life as a DLC expansion for Breath of the Wild, before growing in scope to the point where it was ultimately broken out as its own standalone project. This fact, combined with the lack of pre-release information, had given way to some concern among the fanbase. Fears abound that this would amount to little more than a glorified expansion pack, reusing assets and setting with only meager additions. I am pleased to say that this is very much not the case.

It is true that Tears of the Kingdom "reuses" the same world map as Breath of the Wild (more on that later) and reuses many of the same graphics and other assets. This might lead you to wonder what they have spent the better part of the last six years doing. As with Majora's Mask, it seems that much of Nintendo's focus in this case has gone towards gameplay innovation. 

One of the things that made Breath of the Wild great was its complex physics system which managed to seamlessly combine many granular mechanics in ways that were conducive to very clever puzzle design, but equally could be exploited by creative players in ways that the game developers could never have imagined. Attaching leaves to logs to create a makeshift boat. Using inflatable monster parts to create a hot air balloon, or even just something as daft as a catapult to launch players across the map. Even now, six years after release, players are still coming up with new ways to use these physics systems to achieve weird and wonderful things. With Tears of the Kingdom, Nintendo clearly looked at what players were having fun doing and said "yeah, let's have more of that." 

Fuse is a new power that allows Link to attach items to weapons, shields and arrows. This includes just about any item in the game world. You can attach rocks and monster parts, gemstones, even food items. This serves a few purposes. Fusing items increases their durability, which is essential in Tears of the Kingdom as the game opens with an event that "decays" all weapons in the world to the point where they will break after just a few uses. Different items will also confer certain attributes or bonuses. This may be something as simple as increased damage, or defense. Fusing certain items may give you increased temperature resistance, or allow you to set fire to or freeze things. Attach a "puffshroom" to a shield to create a cloud of smoke. Attach a fan or spring to a shield to send enemies flying. Attaching spikes, horns and certain stones to a shield allows you to effectively dual wield weapons. Attach a Keese eye to an arrow and it will home in on enemies. Those are the obvious examples, then there's the less obvious. Attach a minecart to a shield and you have a skateboard. Attach a spear to another spear and you have a stupidly long weapon that can attack enemies from great distance. There are hundreds of items in this game, each with their own properties and benefits. The possibilities are staggering. 

Then there's ultra-hand. Ultra-hand takes essentially the same concept as Fuse but expands it to the entire world. So instead of attaching items to your equipment, you can now attach different objects to each other. This might be useful to create a platform, or ramp, or a makeshift boat. Or you can attach them to one of the myriad of new "Zonai devices". There are dozens of different types of these devices, ranging from fans, to wheels, to balloons, gliders, cannons, springs and much more. By combining these devices with the objects around you, the game opens up truly endless possibilities. You can build just about anything you can imagine. For the purposes of gameplay, the idea is you can build yourself cars, boats, even aircraft. But already there are some truly creative people out there putting together all manner of contraptions, combining wheels and springs to create a functioning suspension system for all-terrain vehicles, fashioning giant walking mech-robots or automated flying laser drones. I saw one Reddit user create an automated egg farm that worked by attracting and then trapping chickens. Another figured out that frozen meat is simultaneously quite durable and has zero friction, making it an excellent contact point for a hovercraft. And this is just the beginning. The game has only been out a matter of weeks and I can only imagine what people will be building a year from now. 

Even before we get onto the rest of the game, what Nintendo have built here is incredible. To have crafted such a rich, complex system of physics and mechanics, complete with a very direct element of player agency, in all its unpredictability, is hugely impressive. There's little else like it. The fact that they did this and that it is so seamless, so polished, so bug free, is really nothing short of a miracle. Nintendo allegedly delayed this game by a year just to add polish, and it shows. Other developers would do well to take note.

But of course this is not Garry's Mod, or some kind of physics sandbox. This is still a Zelda game, and just because Nintendo have devoted a massive effort to these kinds of features does not mean that the rest of the game has been neglected. 

Tears of the Kingdom is very much a full-blooded Zelda adventure, complete with an epic story, colorful cast of characters, and a sweeping array of different locations to explore. In fact, while I expect most of the attention will be on the new powers, it is here where I feel Nintendo have most improved on Breath of the Wild. As brilliant as that game was, it did have a fairly simplistic story, with a cast of characters who barely featured, and disappointingly slight dungeons to explore. It was quite a lonely experience that was very much focused on its sandbox qualities and puzzles.

Tears of the Kingdom has a much more ambitious story, more thrillingly presented. It has characters that are actually present throughout the story and play a major role in your adventuring. In fact, in a first for the franchise, Tears of the Kingdom actually features "companions" to a limited degree, who will accompany you through dungeons and fight alongside you. The dungeons are also bigger, more numerous, and feature actual unique bosses rather than just the same one reskinned with a different coat of paint. The world itself is much livelier. There are more people out and about doing things, more side quests, more characters.

Then there is the world itself. This was, for me, the true star of Breath of the Wild. This incredible open world rich with hand-crafted detail, every inch of which could be explored. It was a treat simply to load up the game, pick a direction at random, and go explore. Very few games before or since have managed to achieve what that game did. As I have previously mentioned, Tears of the Kingdom reuses the overworld from Breath of the Wild, and pre-release this had me worried that the game might feel stale, or a rehash of what came before. If so much of the joy of the first game was exploring this world, then how could this game possibly recreate that feeling using a world that I've already explored?

It turns out I needn't have worried. Yes, this is the same Hyrule that we have previously explored, and yet, somehow, it feels fresh. It's clearly been remixed to a fair degree, ensuring that just about everything is new or changed from what you will remember.  Nintendo have also been clever in guiding players (through quests and world design) to spend more time in areas that you won't have explored as much in Breath of the Wild (eg Hyrule field), and less time in areas that were used extensively (eg the Great Plateau). Perhaps it is a testament to just how impressive the original design was, but I was quite surprised by the extent to which this felt like exploring a new world.

Pre-release much has been made of the addition of a new "layer" of sky islands, effectively a new overworld above the old one. These I actually found a little disappointing. The sky islands are fun enough to explore, but they're mostly quite small and lacking in depth, and since they are only dotted sporadically around the world they don't come even close to matching the scale of the surface level world.

But Nintendo had one final trick up its sleeve. The underground layer, a whole new layer of world to explore that was never even mentioned in the pre-release trailers. That's right, Tears of the Kingdom effectively features three over-worlds: the sky level, the surface level, and the underground. This underground layer covers the entirety of this giant world of Hyrule and it is absolutely massive. It is just unfortunate that more isn't made of this underground layer. The amount of space here is huge, but for the most part it is used mainly for farming crafting materials, boss fights, and the occasional side quest.

Perhaps my biggest issue with this game is how the "companions" have been implemented. To be clear, I like the idea of companions in Zelda, it's a good idea, but it has been used poorly here. Companions function essentially as surrogate equipment. Whereas in a previous game you might have had an item that allowed you to get a speed boost, or electrically charge your weapons, in this game you "activate" your companions in order to do so. This in itself is not a terrible concept, the problem is that these abilities aren't tied to a particular button or menu, rather you need to actively chase down your companion and activate the power physically while standing right next to them. This is incredibly tedious, especially as companions are coded to always stand behind the player so as to not block the camera, meaning that while you're chasing them down, they're often running away. Imagine having to do this in the middle of combat. It's surprising, considering how polished and well thought out the rest of the game is, that this one mechanic is so janky and poorly conceived. A rare example of poor game design.

But, this aside, my other criticisms with this game are very minor.

As mentioned above, while the surface layer of the world has been impressively reused, more could have been done to make the other layers as compelling to explore. 

Some of the menus and interfaces remain a bit too fiddly, especially when trying to fuse an item to an arrow, for example, which requires you to scroll through a list of potentially hundreds of items and gets tedious quickly.

While most of the puzzles and shrines are great fun, occasionally you will find one that is either poorly or unfairly designed, or poorly explained, in a way that causes frustration rather than enjoyment. In particular, the puzzles that rely on "platforming" style gameplay tend to feel a bit weak. Zelda has never been a platformer, and the controls simply aren't responsive or precise enough to make that kind of gameplay feel anything other than an irritation.

Minor annoyances aside, you'd have to say that Nintendo have somehow done it again. They've followed up a landmark game with yet another landmark game, one that expands and objectively improves upon just about every element of its predecessor. Tears of the Kingdom is simply brilliant, and there's really no other way to describe it.

Sunday 4 June 2023

Genre Synth-pop
Label Virgin
Producers Anthony Gonzalez

m83 fantasy best new album 2023

Every band has that one album that's so good that it serves as a milestone against which all future albums must be compared. For M83 that album is 2011's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming.

Considered one of the seminal albums of the 21st Century so far, it's proven an unsurprisingly high bar for the French synth-poppers to meet. The immediate follow up, Junk, marked a major change in direction and was met with decidedly mixed reception, while the fully instrumental DSVII represents the only other output we've seen in the years since. 

Now, some 12 years later, we finally have a genuine successor to Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, Fantasy. An album which very nearly achieves the impossible.

Musically, Fantasy takes a page from its illustrious predecessor. The heavily 1980s influenced dreamscapes return, with imagery and texture inspired by the films of your childhood. But there's an added edge here, something drawn on the indie and shoegaze roots of M83's earlier work that keeps the music from sounding like empty nostalgia.

It works very well, these songs are excellent.

Lead single Oceans Niagara is just pure 1980s adventure film. It's the Goonies, it's The Neverending Story, it's The Last Starfighter. A mainly instrumental track that is at once wistful and romantic, yet explosive in the "chorus". It's a perfect summary of what M83 are all about in musical terms.

Much of the album follows this formula, drawing you in with the welcoming synths of a Hollywood score, before achieving lift off through an ecstatic wall of sound. A prime example being Amnesia, another radio-friendly number that drives forward with a chorus that's practically tripping over itself to break free.

As with M83's previous work, these euphoric highs are broken up by moments of introspection; the day-dreaming Radar, Far, Gone, the reckoning of closing track The Dismemberment Bureau. But the album's high points are undoubtedly when M83 goes bold. The mid-album epic Earth To Sea, might just be one of the band's finest tracks yet, certainly one of the biggest, most soaring.

In its best moments, the music of Fantasy is as good as anything M83 has ever recorded, possibly with even higher highs than Hurry Up, We're Dreaming. Yet there's something that holds this album back from true greatness.

Hurry Up, We're Dreaming was not just a collection of great songs, it was a great experience as a whole. When you listen to that album from start to finish, it feels like going on an adventure, with emotional beats that follow the narrative course of an epic movie or novel. And much like a great movie or novel, when you reach the end you feel saddened, like something has ended. 

Fantasy doesn't quite evoke the same feeling. These songs are great, but there's no single thread running through them, one song doesn't logically flow into the next in the same way. This doesn't feel like a single journey all the way through, rather a collection of unrelated ephemeral moments. Thirteen really excellent things rather than one really excellent thing. 

As a result, Fantasy never really feels more than the sum of its parts in the way that its predecessor did. It is an excellent album without doubt, perhaps one of the best of the year, but it never quite reaches that zenith to place it alongside the truly great albums of our times.

Must Listen :
Earth to Sea
Oceans Niagara
Dismemberment Bureau

Monday 29 May 2023

Another Premier League campaign in the history books and it was a season of heartbreak for many. Arsenal led the way for most of the year before faltering in the final weeks. Tottenham similarly looked set for Champions League qualification before a late fall saw them drop out of contention for any European competition. At the foot of the table, recent Premier League champions Leicester city shockingly dropped down to the Championship. Chelsea also existed.

premier league 2023 manchester city champions klopp pep guardiola tuchel lampard chelsea ephemeric european super league
And now I am going to take the unprecedented step of jumping straight to the end of season awards, because this season is not worth talking about in any greater detail.

The Ephemeric Premier League Awards 2023:

Winners: Manchester City 

Relegated: Leicester, Leeds, Southampton

Player of the Year: Erling Haaland (Manchester City)

U-21 Player of the Year: Bukayo Saka (Arsenal)

Best Goalkeeper: Nick Pope (Newcastle)

Top Scorer: Erling Haaland (Manchester City) (36)

Most Assists: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) (16) 

Manager of the Year: Unai Emery (Aston Villa)

Best signing of the season: Erling Haaland (Manchester City)

Worst signing of the season: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Chelsea)

The Ephemeric Premier League Team of the Season 2023:

english epl bpl premier league best team xi of the season 2023
So there we have it, another season of Premier League football gone by. We'll see you again next season!

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