Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Movie) Review

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Movie) Review

It’s probably best to start out this review with a confession: I’ve never been particularly fond of the Tom Clancy blockbusters surrounding Jack Ryan. Don’t get me wrong, The Hunt For Red October is a perfectly acceptable thriller and the Harrison Ford flicks certainly have their moments, but in the end, there’s never been anything that intriguing about the character that’s made me desperate for more Jack Ryan adventures once one of the character’s films concluded. He’s not a super-slick fantasy spy like James Bond or a conflicted mystery spy like Jason Bourne or even an affable void of personality like Ethan Hunt. He’s just a rah-rah Americana boy scout without even the special powers or built in iconography of Captain America or Superman. However, Ryan is a character who makes money, and so it was inevitable that the franchise wouldn’t end with a crappy Ben Affleck movie (just like Batman in a few years’ time). The guy was inevitably going to be brought back, and now it’s finally happened with the suitably bland Chris Pine in the lead role and a Jack Ryan Begins plotline. It’s all pleasantly predictable Hollywood fluff from top to bottom, and not even the weirdo wildcard of hiring Shakespearean specialist Kenneth Branagh to direct did much to elevate the film above the norm.

jackryaninsert2 Jack Ryan was, of course, a character made to fight the cold war in fiction for the benefit of America. Times have changed, but the evil Russians stay the same in Shadow Recruit. The film feels like it easily could have been made in 1990, except for a couple contemporary political references that feel more tacked on than anything else. In this shiny new millennial Jack Ryan adventure, Chris Pine’s incarnation is inspired to join the military after 9/11, only to end up paralyzed from a terrorist-busting helicopter crash. However, he was also lucky enough to be rehabbed by a beautiful burgeoning doctor (Keira Knightley) and got offered a covert CIA job by his spy father figure Kevin Costner (who probably would have been a perfect Jack Ryan back in the day). Flash forward a few years and Ryan is working undercover in a financial institution looking for financial threats to America. He notices something off with a partnership in Russia and flies over to see what’s what. It’s his first mission, and it’s supposed to be a quiet one until the evil Russian suit who flew him over (Kenneth Branagh who curiously both over and underact) hires a bodyguard to assassinate him on the day he arrives. You see, Ryan has unwittingly uncovered a secret Russian plot to cripple the US economy through stock fraud and a Wall Street terrorist attack (how contemporary!). Thank God good ol’ Jack is there to set things right and become an American hero. And then, since Keira Knightly is playing his wife, obviously she flies over to Russia to get caught up in the action with Pine, Costner and Branagh.

jackryaninsert3 By trying to modernize Jack Ryan, there’s a bit of a square peg/round hole situation in play. Tom Clancy might have been toying with terrorism in his books before the War On Terror, but his villains were still the Russians and so the team behind this reboot awkwardly crams the recent economic collapse and September 11

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into what is essentially and old timey Cold War thriller. That combination of elements never quite works. The modern day themes and ideas never gel with the old school politicking, and despite everyone’s best efforts, this patriotic action film feels woefully out-of-date. None of it is horrible, it just suffers from over-familiarity.

jackryaninsert1Chris Pine is, of course, a charming pretty boy and amusing Captain Kirk, but he’s not that deep of an actor. He can pull all the action poses and looks good on a poster, but he lacks the gravitas and swagger that Harrison Ford brought to the role. Even though Pine’s playing a younger version of the character who is supposed to lack those qualities, he ultimately feels like plastic hero in search of a personality. Costner fairs a little better since he’s got all the iconography behind him and he seems to be settling into a new chapter in his career specializing in warm dad figures rather nicely. Knightley’s a great actress, but has nothing much to do here beyond the usual damsel in distress/worried wife stuff and her American accent is always jarring, if accurate. Then there’s Kenneth Branagh, who despite directing all of the other actors is the only one who seems to understand he’s playing pulp. He works his Russian accent like a weapon and is a gloriously over-the-top evil villain even though he’s also a quiet one. It’s just a shame he didn’t encourage the other actors to have as much fun with their roles as he allowed himself. As a director, Branagh seems to be uncomfortable with the material from the start. Obviously, he’s a perfectly competent filmmaker, so it’s not like he’s delivered an Ed Wood mess of a movie. He’s just not really an action director despite Thor and the tense dialogue scenes are always better than the action sequences since they play to his strengths. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that approach, except for the fact that this is supposed to be a franchise-launching action tent-pole. When the action scenes in your action movie are the least interesting part, something is deeply wrong. This problem is at its worst during a climatic chase scene in which the telephone dialogue between Branagh and Pine is far more engaging than the car chase happening simultaneously. That’s misguided direction, and sadly, Branagh must be blamed for that even though he probably just let the second unit directors deal with the action while he mugged it up with movie stars.

jackryaninsert4 Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit isn’t a terrible movie, it’s just dull. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done better before, even in other films about this character. Admittedly it’s a step up from The Sum Of All Fears, but not by much. Tom Clancy’s peak came in the 90s, when geopolitics where stable enough that his political spy fantasies were little more than grounded escapism. These days all of that real world terrorism and American imperialism makes it hard for simplistic Jack Ryan fluff to exist. When Paul Greengrass and co. were making their Jason Bourne blockbusters, they always discussed the gritty, Bush-bashing action flicks as anti-James Bond movies. However, they probably should have been called anti-Jack Ryan movies. The pulpy Bond was easily reinvented for his post-Bourne spy adventures while Jack Ryan just feels like a relic no matter how many contemporary references are crammed into the script. With a little luck and poor box office, the franchise reboot will stop here. Clearly, the fact that the movie is coming out in the winter dumping ground rather than getting a splashy summer release suggests that the studio is wary already. Let’s just hope that audiences feel the same way because it looks like it will be impossible to teach this old dog any new tricks.

Tom Clancy Dead At Age 66

Tom Clancy Dead At Age 66

Tom Clancy, the first name in political and military thrillers, died today at the age of 66. Most gamers will recognise him as the name that graced preceded numerous Ubisoft titles over the years, including Splinter Cell, Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon.

Tom Clancy was actually heavily involved in gaming before he ever came to be associated with Ubisoft. He started his own game studio in 1996, known as Red Storm Entertainment, and while it was in operation, it released games like the original Rainbow 6, and Ghost Recon before being bought by Ubisoft  in 2000. That didn’t stop the Tom Clancy train though, as Ubisoft continued a partnership with the author, getting his endorsement for new titles like the Splinter Cell series.  In 2008, Ubisoft even went so far as to buy his name for future use in subsequent games, like the upcoming The Division.

Of course, outside of gaming is where Clancy really made his name, as a novelist, with his first big hit, The Hunt for Red October. The book, a cold war era story about a defecting Soviet Sub commander, has been turned into a film as well as numerous submarine combat games.  He is described as having died shortly after illness at the Johns Hopkins Hospital near his home in Baltimore.

 

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Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist (Xbox 360) Review

Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist (Xbox 360) Review

Break Out Your NVGs

It’s been quite a while since players got a “traditional” Splinter Cell game involving stealth suits, shooting lights and proper big budget military operations that are strictly hush-hush. Ubisoft tried something a little different with 2010’s Splinter Cell: Conviction, taking away Sam Fisher’s usual weapons and logistic support in favour of a “Rogue Agent” game. Blacklist returns to the old formula, but it’s still learned a few things from Conviction in the process.

You’re The Man

Blacklist starts things off with Sam Fisher officially back in the loving arms of the American government and put in charge of Fourth Echelon, the new special ops, off-the-books organization that replaced Third Echelon after it went corrupt in the last game. This time Sam’s mission is to stop the eponymous Blacklist; a terror campaign run by the Engineers, a highly trained group demanding America remove troops from all the countries (over 100) in which it has a presence. America, of course, does not negotiate with terrorists, and so the jet-setting and light bulb shooting begins. Over the course of the game, there are twists, turns, an egregious use of acronyms and a vaguely unsettling notion that perhaps America is not always in the right. It might simply be because the game is made in Toronto, and not beholden to automatic patriotism of the USA, but while Sam is fighting for America’s interests, the portrayal of the government doesn’t always feel like this is a government worth fighting for. Bad decision-making, witch hunting paranoia, and even Sam Fisher himself constantly bucking orders to do what he feels is the right thing makes this fictional American government feel much like the real thing, which might actually be the point. Still, for those that play these games for a sense of moral security in doing the right thing for the right people, there may be a nagging sense of discomfort from the thinly veiled criticism that Ubisoft Toronto is making about the political system as we know it today.

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As with past games in the series, Blacklist is still using the good ol’ Unreal engine. Veterans of the scene know what this means since the quirks of this engine are well documented at this point. Ubisoft, having a LOT of experience with it by this point manage to do a good job of keeping its more irksome characteristics under control. There’s still a bit of blurry texture pop up here and there, but it’s so rare that it really stands out on those occasions when you catch it. Screen tearing also rears its head from time to time but mostly in cut scenes. For 360 owners, there’s also an option to do both a full install of the game (it requires two discs on the 360) as well a choice to install an HD texture pack. If you’ve got approximately seven GB of free space sitting on your hard drive, it is HIGHLY recommended that you go this route as it brings the game more in line with the PC version that Ubisoft has wisely used to demo the game whenever possible at preview events. As always with Ubisoft, the art team impresses, with some detailed environments that sport a lot of variety; you’re never going to confuse a rundown tenement in the Middle East with a top of the line, hardened American defense bunker for VIPs. As to be expected from a Splinter Cell game, a lot of this hard work—particularly color—will probably go unnoticed as gameplay occurs largely in the dark, with the green tint of passive night vision goggles.

With the audio, Ubisoft has mostly played it safe. Signature sounds like the night sight warming up are a comfort to fans, but the big change here is the loss of Michael Ironside as the voice of Sam Fisher. Eric Johnson, of Smallville fame, takes up the gruff voice and motion capture duties for Sam this time around, and he manages to do a decent enough sound-alike with a legitimately decent performance that most players will probably adjust. The Ironside faithful may never be able to accept the change, but it’s not a bad one. The music, like many games these days, embraces some dubstep influences with heavy, synth beats and sounds, and it is always, ALWAYS serious. There’s nothing light hearted or dance-y about the soundtrack here. Another nice touch is the multi-directional sound for those with the set up to take advantage of it. Players with a more covert style of play will appreciate how accurate directional sound is here with everything from conversations of enemies to the electric whirr of drones coming in crisply from dedicated speakers. Lack of Ironside notwithstanding, the performance of the music, actors and sound effects in Blacklist is topnotch.

Terrorizing Light Bulbs Once More

In many ways, Blacklist is a return to the old school Splinter Cell that series fans are more familiar with, only keeping a few of the mechanics from the last game. Sam is back in a stealth ops suit, with NVGs on his head, and Anna Grímsdóttir is once again doing handling duties. Many of the series conventions make a comeback, like infiltrating bases, shooting out lights, hiding in shadows, and taking out unsuspecting guards by clambering onto pipes on the ceiling and ambushing them as they walk underneath. But there are still a few traces of Conviction present in the game, such as the “mark and execute” feature which allows Sam to tag three enemies and—if they’re all in range—hit one button to stylishly shoot them all down.

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However, the game largely feels like a way to lure back the series traditionalists who may have been put off by Conviction’s radical departures from the series norm. In many ways, Blacklist is a compromise between the more mainstream players that want easy, power fantasy action regardless of the genre, and the tried and true, stealth-oriented Splinter Cell fans that want to see if they can get through a level unseen without a single casualty in to show for it.

The biggest evidence of this is the three new playstyles the game has categorized, Ghost, Panther and Assault. At the end of each level, players are graded and paid out reward money based on their performance in these playstyles. Ghost is for the hardest of the hardcore, playing without casualties or detection. Panther is a mixed style, in which stealth is key, but so is killing enemies. Assault is a traditional, third person combat style, with aggressive shooting, and no concern for being detected. It’s the style that pays out the least in terms of reward money, but is also the most viable for Conviction-esque techniques like the new “Killing in Motion” mechanic. The game doesn’t lock players into one playstyle, so a primarily Ghost player can still make a mistake here and there, meaning that when the level is complete and the game grades performance. There will be a big chunk of Ghost points at mission summary, plus a few Panther or Assault points for the odd occasion when Sam is discovered and had to quickly take someone out.

It’s here that Ubisoft’s dilemma is clear; on one hand, the game still rewards players for stealth, skewing the gadgets and payout heavily in favour of those that go undetected. On the other hand, in order to make stealth—and even balls to the wall action—more accessible to those that don’t normally play Splinter Cell games, the dreaded word “accessibility” has reared its ugly head. On normal difficulty level, Blacklist is more generous with checkpoints, the detection window for guards to spot Sam when he’s out of cover, and even the allocation of ammo boxes for restocking. In other words, the game has made it easier to play in the Ghost or Panther style by making it easier to not be seen by guards, encouraging liberal use of gadgets because it’s unlikely players will actually run out, and widening the margin for error with more checkpoints to reload back to and try again. Once again, series traditionalists may take issue with all the apparent training wheels that have been grafted onto a franchise once considered demanding and precise. However, it does do the job of inviting the less familiar to experiment with these less straightforward playstyles. As far as running and gunning goes, it’s viable for the most part, but ignores many of the fun gadgets Ubisoft has laid out, and there are a few levels here and there where the game makes stealth—and even no kills—mandatory, forcing even die hard shooters to learn the nuances of sneaking and misdirection.

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RPG-lite systems are also in place, with the reward money from missions being used as XP to purchase upgrades. Sam himself doesn’t level up, but his equipment does. Stealth suit upgrades, new weapons, new equipment and upgrades to that equipment can do everything from buff up Sam’s ability to absorb damage or allow him to control a mini-rotor drone for recon and even stunning enemies remotely. This RPG-esque sense of upgrading also carries over to the Paladin, Fisher’s aerial HQ. In a nod to Mass Effect, Sam can talk to his crewmembers between missions, even call home to his daughter Sarah, and use some of the reward money to upgrade aspects of the Paladin. Upgrading the cockpit, for example, gives Sam radar, while upgrading the sick bay increases his health regeneration speed while in missions. It all gets expensive pretty quickly, but additional money can be made through optional side missions given out by Sam’s crew, some of which yield new gear upon completion of a “series,” almost like the loyalty missions from Mass Effect.

Finally, there is the multiplayer, which comes in two flavors. There is cooperative, which can be used on optional missions in the main game, even locally in split screen. Then there is competitive, with which brings back “Spies versus Mercs,” and a more traditional death match mode. Spies versus Mercs—essentially a two-versus-two mode—is still just as fun as it was in back in the Chaos Theory days and will enjoy a lengthy life in the hands of friends that are also fans of Splinter Cell. The competitive modes are surprisingly playable, thanks to the now standard COD-style leveling up and the mix of the Spies versus Mercs mechanics into the different modes, though it’s hard to see any substantial audience for these modes remaining once this year’s inevitable Call of Duty game weighs into the scene.

At the end of it all, Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a game that will be welcomed by established fans of the series, but it’s not an uncontested victory. Concessions have been made to ease a new audience into the stealth genre, which might be viewed as “dumbing down” by old hands. The story, while workable, is not memorable, and the multiplayer while fun, will not be stealing anyone from Call of Duty. But the fundamental DNA of a Splinter Cell game is in here, and even if it’s easier than before, it’s no less satisfying to hold onto a pipe and ambush a goon from above as he checks out why that light bulb suddenly popped.

Hawx 2 (XBOX 360) Review

Hawx 2 (XBOX 360) Review

Soaring through the air at 500 km/h while a pack of Russian insurgents tries their best to send you hurtling towards the ground with their heat seeking missiles sounds like a tense but fun concept. Tom Clancey’s HAWX 2 tries to deliver the excitement of aerial combat, but can’t really seem to get off the ground.Taking control of multi-million dollar aircraft on a series of fictional missions, players are given the opportunity to try some of the world’s highest caliber death machines. Complete with landing and take-off sequences the experience attempts to be as realistic as possible but pulls back from being a straight-forward simulator. Players aren’t required to balance a million different controls while flying but at the same time the game lacks the ease and smoothness of a more arcade-like experience.

Straddling the line between sim and arcade compromises a lot of what would normally make the game soar. Banking and turning feel jerky and overly-precise, lacking the smoothness that would be present in a more casual experience. On the other side of the coin, dodging missiles and gunfire is a breeze requiring only the most basic loops. The game is frustrating where it shouldn’t be and too easy where it needs to be tense. The game does support a few select flight stick controls for those who really want to get invested in the simulation experience, but for a majority of players they’ll be stuck with the disappointing configuration of the base controller. For some reason the acceleration is mapped to the triggers while rudder control is left to the bumpers. This means that players who want to speed up while finely tuning trajectory must contort their hand in to a hook-like claw to succeed. With no option to re-map the controls the game can get incredibly uncomfortable and all over a feature that seems so simple to include.

Some of the levels, particularly the escort missions, fall apart because of poor AI scripting. It makes sense to rely on the player to complete the mission, but even with a sincere effort the suicidal tendencies of ally ships and fighters make it nearly impossible to win. The one place where things feel just right is the landing and take-off sections. Simple enough to execute it won’t require multiple retries, but at the same time challenging enough to make it a worthwhile experience. However, in a fully-featured campaign this is a sidebar at best and doesn’t excuse the mediocre middle section while players are away from the hangar.

What’s really surprising is that despite so few models being rendered, HAWX 2 is not the most attractive game to look at. Most of the jets look passable but up-close the terrain, particularly when there are structures and buildings, still looks bland. Scale is also an issue as players will be fighting large gunboats that are roughly the same size as your one-man vehicle. This evaporates any sense of immersion and shows a general lack of effort in design.

Narratively the game is no gem either. There’s a feeble story about the Middle East and an attack on a military base, but the game snaps between 3 equally lifeless protagonists so frequently that the story becomes hard to follow. Combine that with some poorly rendered CG cutscenes and unremarkable voiceovers and you’ve got a good recipe for players just not caring.

Despite the failings in the single player campaign, multiplayer is a passable experience. As expected the team deathmatch mode is appropriately balanced and fun to play. Having only 8 players in the sky does make it feel a little barren at times, but with the HUD constantly pointing enemies out combat can stay fairly tight. Also included are some unique co-op missions and an aerial take on the traditional horde gametype to add some variety, but these experiences are still mired in the same flaws of the campaign mode.

In terms of depth both the single player and multiplayer components offer players the opportunity to play a wide variety of different aircraft. While not all of them feel completely unique there’s more disparity than expected and players will be able to find a favourite jet for when they take to the skies. Add in options for different weapon load-outs and players can begin taking some, if only a little, ownership over their experience.

Most of the games issues are not new to the series and players who were able to overlook them in the first HAWX game will probably overlook them in the second. This does signal a disturbing trend if there is a future planned for the franchise though. With so little effort put in to fixing old problems and so few new additions it’s hard to justify this sequel, let alone another.

Overall HAWX 2 is a letdown for those who were looking for a title that could bridge the gap between simulation and arcade experience. What we end up with is an unfortunate half and half that doesn’t live up to the highlights of either subgenre. The multiplayer might be worth it to some people, but for a majority of players HAWX 2 will feel more frustrating than fun.