Seven Things We Learned From Microsoft’s E3 2017 Press Conference

Microsoft came, saw and pretty much conquered E3 on Sunday with the 2017 iteration of their annual press conference in Los Angeles.

The multinational corporation laid down a marker for fierce rivals Sony with a superb showing that offered plenty of news on their newest console, a whole slew of interesting and beautiful games and a couple of nice little surprises.

What did we, the gamers, learn from Microsoft’s press briefing though? Here’s a rundown of the most important parts of what the showcase:


The Xbox One X is Going to be Magnificient

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Source: The Verge

Project Scorpio is no more. Microsoft officially – and finally – unveiled their latest console offering to the public, and revealed that it will now be known as the ‘Xbox One X’.

Sleeker than its predecessor the Xbox One S – though not smaller, if this specifications sheet shown on Kotaku is 100% true – the Xbox One X is packing some serious muscle under its hood.

With memory consisting of 12 GB GDDRS @ 326 GB/s, a true 4K UHD Blu-Ray drive and a liquid cooling system, among other immense specs, the Xbox One X is certainly the most powerful console made to date.

With an official release date of 7th November 2017 announced too, we don’t have to wait long to get our mitts all over this gorgeous looking piece of kit. Well, that is…


…If You Can Afford it

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Source: Windows Central

At £449 ($499 for our American cousins), the Xbox One X will not be cheap.

Microsoft has to get bang for its buck from somewhere, considering the amount of research, technology manufacturing and shipping that will have cost them a Scrooge McDuck-esque swimming pool of cash, but the Washington-based company could have priced themselves out of some fans purchasing their new device straight away.

It took a while for some Xbox 360 gamers to part with their money and buy a One when it was released back in late 2013 and, with a hefty price slapped onto the X, it might be a good six months, bundle pack or price drop to persuade gamers to let go of their One console and upgrade to this monster.


You Won’t Have to Stump Up Cash for Peripherals Though

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Source: Amazon

As some form of sweetener to those looking to buy an Xbox One X the moment it’s released, however, Microsoft did reveal that all current Xbox One peripherals – controllers, headsets and the like – would work with the X.

That goes some way to buttering up the Xbox fanbase, but is it enough to really make gamers hand over their hard-earned cash? Only time will tell.


If That Doesn’t, the Raft of Games Will

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Source: Business Insider

Microsoft proudly boasted that it showed off 42 new games during its almost two-hour long briefing on Sunday – 22 of which it claimed were Xbox exclusives – and some of the do look exceptionally impressive.

We already knew that the likes of Crackdown 3, Forza Motorsport 7, Middle Earth: Shadow of War, Sea of Thieves and State of Decay 2 would be coming to the Xbox One X, but a host of other titles – both AAA and indie – will have piqued the interest of Xbox supporters.

Odd Tales’ The Last Night looks a truly stunning Blade Runner-esque pixel art winner, a sequel to Moon Studios’ Ori & the Blind Forest – called Ori and the Will of Wisps – is drop-dead gorgeous, Bluehole’s critically-acclaimed PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds will worm its way onto the Xbox One X and Bioware’s latest venture Anthem is set to be yet another triumph for the Canadian video game developer.

As Xbox head honcho Phil Spencer, there was truly a game on show for everyone, with family friendly titles all the way to mature content for 18+  gamers on offer. And speaking of Spencer…


Microsoft’s Xbox Chief is Showing His Worth

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Source: BBC

Since his appointment as chief executive of Xbox’s division in late 2014, Phil Spencer has turned Xbox’s reputation on its head and made the corporation’s video game department a force to be reckoned with once more.

As a staunch video game fan himself, Spencer knows just how important it has been to make gaming the centre of everything good about the Xbox brand – it’s quite amazing to type that out about a games console – and the 28-year Microsoft veteran has turned this potentially sinking ship around.

Each E3 conference that Spencer has headlined has not been short of games, has dispensed with the other entertainment aspects of the Xbox One and all-but-sealed the fate of Microsoft’s ponderous motion control Kinect device.

That Spencer’s name was chanted by those in attendance at Sunday’s briefing shows you all you need to know about how he has given Xbox its pride back.


And Now for Some More Nostalgia

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Source: Cnet

Microsoft dropped the mic on Sony during their 2015 E3 press conference as they announced their Xbox 360 backwards compatiblity programme.

Since then the number of titles available to gamers, that fans can play on their Xbox One, has slowly been increased and, despite the feature not being used much according to Ars Technica, it still has some form of following.

Now, Microsoft has revealed that it plans to bring the originaly Xbox’s back catalogue to its One lineup too, and the unveiling went down a storm among attendees.

Whether the company will see a huge spike before a massive drop off again remains to be seen but, for gamers who still cling on to their original Xbox games from all the way back to 2001, being able to play them on an upgrade console 16 years later will be huge.


Sony Need Something Humungous to ‘Win’ E3 2017

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Source: Digital Trends

With the unveiling of Xbox One X, a tonne of ridiculously good-looking upcoming games and more backwards compatibility to come, Microsoft have laid down the gauntlet to Sony ahead of the Playstation briefing.

The Japanese corporation bounced back with their 2015 ‘E3 of Dreams’ lineup following Microsoft’s return to form that year, and something similar will be needed to prevent the American giant from securing bragging rights this time around.

This was a big press conference for Microsoft and they pretty much pulled it off. It’s up to Sony now to stop casual gamers from switching allegiances.

Microsoft’s 2017 E3 Briefing: Everything You Need to Know

The 2017 Edition of world-famous video game expo E3 is just a week away, and anticipation is building towards what consumers can expect from the three-day event in Los Angeles.

As ever, the industry’s big hitters such as Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, EA and Bethesda will all be conducting press briefings to varying degrees, while a whole host of companies, experts and fans will be present to present, critique and get hands-on experience with all the demos and games they can get their hands on.

Microsoft arguably stole the show at E3 2016 with the announcement of the Xbox One S, a slew of cool looking titles, HoloLens and their upcoming Project Scorpio console, and much will be expected of the multinational corporation by everyone at the event and across the globe.

What can we expect to see, hear and touch when Microsoft rock up to E3 then? Here’s the lowdown on all you need to know:


What Time, When & Where?

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Microsoft are doing things a tad differently this year. The Washington-based technology giant normally holds its press briefing at 5pm BST (9am PT) on the first day of the event – usually the Monday – a few brief hours before Sony take to the stage.

However, MS are holding their 2017 conference a day earlier at a later time. This year’s Microsoft briefing will take place on Sunday 11th June at 10pm BST (2pm PT) at the LA Convention Centre.

It’s certainly a bold move from MS who will be giving their presentation first – EA aside – ahead of their two major rivals Sony and Nintendo (although the latter will be sticking to their tried-and-tested Treehouse presentation, rather than a live press event), but it gives them the chance to show off all of their newest gubs 24 hours before the Playstation and Switch producers.


What Can We Expect to See?

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There’s only one thing on the minds of Xbox fans heading into E3 2017: Project Scorpio.

Microsoft announced that they were hard at work on their most powerful console to date during last year’s event, and this year MS should come out all guns blazing and reveal just exactly what Project Scorpio.

Xbox chief Phil Spencer has already given hints at to just how monstrous the next Xbox will be, but gamers will be keen to know just what they’ll be getting for the money when the console reportedly launches at the end of this year.

What do we know about Project Scorpio so far? Well, it’ll contain 6 teraflops-worth of “graphical processing power”, an in-built vapour chamber – liquid cooling that will keep the console from overheating – 1TB of storage and the ability to stream games at a 4K UHD resolution.

There’s much more information where that came from too in this handy all-encompassing guide from the boffins over at TechRadar, but we’ll learn much, much more – including potential A-list titles, price range and other crucial factors – when the Scorpio is officially revealed on 11th June.

Will Microsoft open or close with the Scorpio? It’s hard to say. Leaving it until the end of the briefing will give Xbox fans an almighty boost and be a big way to drop the mic on Sony, but could backfire if the pricing of the console is too steep.

Opening with Scorpio would certainly be a way for Microsoft to come out all guns blazing, but giving up their biggest prize from the off could lead to the rest of the conference paling in comparison.

Either way, next month can’t come soon enough.


What About the Games?

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With Microsoft pushing the Scorpio as the major selling point of their 2017 briefing, games and software will most likely take a slight stepback from proceedings.

That’s not to say that fans and gamers won’t be given a vast array of titles to run the rule over, as video game trailers, teases, demos and information are the lifeblood of E3.

Expect to hear updates on the likes of Undead Labs’ sequel State of Decay 2 and Reagent Games’ Crackdown 3, further trailers and demos for upcoming titles such as Rare’s Sea of Thieves, and other first-party developers along the lines of Forza Motorsport 7 from Microsoft Studios.

Third-party games like EA’s critically-acllaimed FIFA series and Activision’s Call of Duty: World War 2 will also no doubt appear, and more ID@Xbox titles (fingers crossed for a Cuphead release date!) will be given their own alloted time frame.

Rumours had circulated that a Halo 3 anniversary remaster or even a vague hint towards Halo 6 may be shown off but, thanks to 343 Industries’ development director Frank O’Connor’s comments late last year -reiterated by community manager Brian Jarrard on Reddit – don’t expect to see either at show.


What Else?

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A potential announcement about more upcoming backwards compatibility titles wouldn’t go amiss. E3 2015 saw MS turn the tables on Sony, after the latter had won E3 the year before, by stating their intent to bring as many Xbox 360 games to the Xbox One in the coming years, and Phil Spencer even went as far to say he’d like to see “all” 360 titles eventually playable on the One.

In hardware terms, can we expect to see a new controller? MS has always pushed the boundaries where this is concerned, with the 360 controller deemed one of the all-time greats of gaming.

E3 2016 saw Microsoft unveil its new Elite controller for pro-gamers, as well as a vast array of colour schemes on their website to make your own personalised One controller, so it’s plausible that something of that ilk could also be revealed come 11th June.


Who Will Be Taking to the Stage?

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MS head honcho Phil Spencer for one. The American business executive will open and close Microsoft’s press briefing as he always does, and will welcome a number of first and third-party dev team leaders onto the stage to conduct demos, talk games and show off footage from their own enterprises.

That long list of names may include Sea of Thieves creative director Gregg Mayles, 343 chief Bonnie Ross – no Halo tease but apparently “a little something” from the company – and ID@Xbox director Chris Charla among others.

There may be a slight surprise or two as well given E3’s propensity to shock audiences with an unannounced game, but we’ll have to wait and see on that front.


How Will the Briefing Go Down?

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Considering it hasn’t happened yet, it’s difficult to determine. Finally unleashing Project Scorpio on the world would be a massive plus for Microsoft, and showing off some of its most anticipated games for the coming season would provide a massive fillip ahead of Sony’s own conference 48 hours later.

It will be intriguing to see if MS decide to lead or end their briefing with Scorpio as doing either have their own positives and negatives, and it could well be that the reception their 2017 briefing receives will be entirely dependent on how Scorpio is received.

This could be Microsoft’s best chance to close the gap on Sony’s dominance of the console market since 2014. Win gamers over, and they may just ease the pressure on themselves. Fail to deliver, however and they could be playing catch up for even longer.

Mental Health Awareness Week: 6 Things to Help Free Your Mind

The barriers and stigma surrounding mental health issues are facing their toughest test yet.

More and more people – famous or not – are finally speaking out about the problems, that society still faces, when it comes to discussing a topic that is still shockingly under-funded and under-discussed.

Talking about mental health, its funding and how and where to receive help, however, is still not taken as seriously as our physical health, which is why ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ -taking place between 8th and 14th May 2017 – is vitally important to those who suffer from mental health illnesses, those who work within the industry and for people who want to see those barricades torn down.

What can we do, individually and collectively, to help remove the stigma encompassing illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia though? Here’s six things that anyone can do to help themselves – or others – over the course of the week:

Get It Off Your Chest

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Only a fraction of the UK’s population (around 13%) stated that they were happy with the levels of their mental wellbeing during a recently conducted survey by the Mental Health Foundation.

Suicide rates in the UK, meanwhile, rose from 6,122 to 6,188 for the year ending 2015 – 75% of whom were male, 25% female – and over 18,000 people took their own lives between 2003 and 2013, according to the Office of National Statistics.

Those numbers provide an alarming indication of just how much more needs doing to combat the stigma surrounding mental health, and it remains vital that those suffering from – or have suffered from – a mental illness talk openly about their problems, and not be judged for doing so.

Ask your family, friends work colleagues and, hell, even strangers how they’re doing today. And genuinely mean it. It could be the biggest difference you make to them today.

Read a Self Help Book

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Seeing a psychiatrist or therapist is often a solution out of reach to people, particularly due to financial difficulties, and often the next best step, other than talking about problems with another person, is reading a self help book and working through any of the exercises within the pages of one.

Books such as Guy Winch’s ‘Emotional First Aid’, Mark Williams et. al’s ‘The Mindful Way Throught Depression’ and others can all act as aids in discovering when you’re most vulnerable to a trying period, and give tips, tasks and ways of helping you combat the dark moods known as ‘The Black Dog’.

Go Green and Enjoy the Outdoors

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Such is modern life, it is easy to get bogged down in our occupations, become dulled by the environment of motor vehicles and buildings around us and be distracted by our phones and TVs.

A change of scenery is often a positive thing, then, and what better way to gain some perspective by heading off to your local park or into the countryside? Being out in the open and fresh air can provide clarity and offer a reminder of just how beautiful this world is.

Bring yourself back to your centre by taking a stroll on a warm, sunny day and appreciate everything you see and hear.

Exercise Physically to Benefit Mentally

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It’s no surprise that people’s moods are notably buoyed after a bout of exercise. There’s a reason they call it “runner’s high”, you know!

With endorphins coursing through your body, those who regularly partake in physical activity can help to pump themselves full of chemical feel-good factors to help keep those inner demons at bay.

Forking out for a gym membership doesn’t have to be someone’s go-to solution either. A pleasant bike ride nearby, a jog around the park or even a brisk walk have been proven to elevate moods.

Meditate to Medicate

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Meditation’s popularity among all age groups has never been higher – no doubt in part to apps such as Head Space – and sometimes a brief 10-minute spell of focusing on nothing but your breathing can work wonders on your mind.

It’s often easy to get caught up in the rush of everyday life, so a few moments to reflect, find your centre and focus on the positive things in your life will provide a reprieve from the hustle and bustle that comes with feeling the stresses and burdens of the world.

Education, Education, Education

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Small steps are being taken everyday to eradicate the mental health stigma from society, but much, much more needs to be done.

As always, the best way of spreading the message is through education. Looking up statistics, finding new and innovative ways to combat these illnesses, and offering up insights are just a few methods that will help to inform other people about mental health, what it represents and how we can go about fighting the shame that is brought on those who suffer in silence.

The more people who are aware, and who are willing to make a change, of mental health will aid our push to end this stigma, and help to make our society a more open, accepting and empathic civilisation in the long run.

 

Why Episode 2 of Telltale’s Game of Thrones Is Their Most Heartbreaking Content Yet

Ask any video gamer which company they associate with story-driven, choice-based content and, more than often, they will tell you “Telltale Games”.

The San Rafael-based video game developer and publisher has become synonymous for its deeply emotional and well structured adventure games ever since the release of its maiden title based upon The Walking Dead graphic novels.

That 2012 leap into the unknown – a critically-acllaimed venture that tugged on the heartstrings of even the hardest of individuals – catapulted Telltale into the limelight, and has led to an exponential growth unlike any other comparable video game developer in the modern era.

telltalewdSince then, Telltale has put all of its attentions on the story-focused, episodic format – save for Poker Night 2 – with a number of highly praised spin-offs of other video game franchises such as Tales From the Borderlands and Minecraft.

It is another of their back catalogue – the licensed Game of Thrones Telltale Series in late 2014 and early 2015 – that led to the company’s first mixed reviews since their breakthrough triumph, and halted the inexonerable march towards the continous praise they had received.

It is also that Game of Thrones series, however, that has arguably a more heartbreaking moment than that played out in the final episode of The Walking Dead’s Season One (beware, spoilers ahead).

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That finale, which sees main character Lee shot in the head, to stop him from turning into a zombie, by the much loved Clementine left fans of Telltale’s Walking Dead series sitting in puddles of tears as the end credits rolled, and led to raft of extremely positive views from many within the games industry.

And, whilst Telltale’s Game of Thrones series may not have the same kind of impact as that scene – particularly given gamers getting used to Telltale’s manner of storytelling – it’s hard to argue that the final sequence in season one’s second episode was just as heartwrenching as Clementine putting a bullet through Lee’s brain.

One extremely poignant scene in Game of Thrones, however, runs that moment close – and, arguably, even outperforms it.

telltalegot1The moment arrives after Rodrik Forrester, fresh from being seemingly killed off in episode one, returns home to find his house in disarray after the deaths of his father Gregor and brother Ethan, and with Roose Bolton having claimed the North after the infamous Red Wedding.

The funeral for the latter two, which takes place in the final throes of the episode, play out against a beautifully crafted song – sung by Rodrik’s younger sister and Ethan’s twin Talia – and brutally nails home how much this family has already lost just one third into the overall season:

Of course, the impact of Lee’s death in the Walking Dead will cause fans of that series to defend that scene to the hilt, and argue that it is that devastating ending which is Telltale’s biggest gut-punching scenario, given that the player has embarked on a five-episode long, 10 hour journey with the characters already in the Walking Dead‘s first season.

For Telltale to evoke such strong emotions just two episodes into its Game of Thrones series, however, showcases how much of an effect these two deaths have already had on those who played it, and leads gamers to feel dejection on the Forresters’ behalf even at this early stage of proceedings.

It will be controversial for diehard fans of Telltale’s Walking Dead series to hear, but being able to draw such powerful feelings out of players, towards the Forresters, so soon into Games of Thrones, is a success in story-telling terms, and lends significant weight to the argument that Game of Thrones‘ second episode of season one is its most heartbreaking content yet.

Review: William McCarthy at Liverpool Arts Club

October 31st 2016 will have seemed like an ordinary Halloween celebration for the vast majority of people in Liverpool. For those crammed into the city’s O2 Academy, however, it was the end of an era.

That night, on the day that Augustines played their final-ever show, the swashbuckling trio of William McCarthy, Eric Sanderson and Rob Allen brought down the curtain on their six-year career to leave the band’s loyal supporters heartbroken at their decision to split.

On Tuesday 2nd May, six months after McCarthy’s last visit to Merseyside, the only things broken on a night of pure joy were the guitar strings thanks to the New Yorker’s passionate strumming.

IMAG0763.jpgWith a set that lasted around two hours 15 minutes, McCarthy’s triumphant return to Liverpool was, to put it simply, sensational and, while he may not have sold out the city’s Arts Club, the 150-strong crowd that assembled at the Seel Street-based venue wouldn’t have dreamed of being anywhere else.

And McCarthy knew it. Boy, did he know it.

Oozing a perfect blend of wit, charm and a humbleness often lacking in the frontmen of current and/or past bands doing the circuit, McCarthy brought the ruckus – in more ways than one – as he belted out songs from a back catalogue stretching all the way to his beginnings as a musician.

IMAG0772.jpgOld classics from his Pela and Augustines days – coupled with some extraordrinarily hilarious covers that saw McCarthy marry the likes of Neil Young’s dulcet tones with George Michael hit single ‘Faith’ – went down a storm, and gave witness to the sheer prowess of McCarthy’s artistic flair.

In true scouser fashion, the mass of Liverpudlians gave as good as they got as the quips and jokes were batted back and forth between McCarthy and his devoted fans, while McCarthy’s own tales of self-reflection and humorous behind-the-scenes revelations drew laughs and applause in equal measure.

It was McCarthy’s tunes, however, that many had come to see, and the Irish-American songwriter did not disappoint. His impressive set of lungs still able to project a stunning voice into all corners of the building, coupled with his unrelenting showmanship and expert guitar playing, left all present marvelling at the man affectionally known as ‘Billeh’.

It may be a source of frustration for his fanbase that McCarthy doesn’t get the recognition he deserves within the wider music community, but McCarthy’s raw passion, devotion to music and modesty sets him apart from the crowd. It’s what endears him to those who have followed his work for years and years, and offers an insight into why people watch him up and down the country, and across the globe.

There may be more successful artists out there. There may be more widely known bands out there. There may be other gifted frontmen out there. McCarthy, though, knows what he has – a dedicated following of supporters, his trusted set of guitars and harmonicas, and a desire to make the world a better place through his music.

Sometimes that’s all that’s required to help mend those broken hearts from six months ago, and beyond.

Power Rating: 10/10

Guardians of the Galaxy 2 Review

The unprecedented triumph of Marvel Studios’ 2014 summer hit Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 is perhaps the comic-book giant’s biggest cinematic success story to date.

Sitting a not-too-shabby fifth place in the all-time highest grossing Marvel flicks list, much was expected of director James Gunn’s follow-up to the merry band of misfits that saw plenty of cinema goers fawning over a humanoid tree and laughing at the numerous laughs from one of the best assembled film casts in recent times.

The 2017 sequel to Guardians  Vol. 1, then, had much to live up to. Those who fear it wouldn’t need not worry – it does so, and more.

gotg3Building upon its predecessor, the second installment in the Guardians’ franchise picks up shortly after the events of volume 1’s story arc, and finds our intrepid heroes battling an interdimensional abilisk as the backdrop to an opening credits sequence that sees baby Groot take centre stage.

It’s a humorous – and aww-inspiring – reminder of how Gunn’s vision and flair towards the franchise, and shows him to be one of the finer comedy-oriented film makers of the current era.

From there, the plot jumps and careens its way through a plethora of visually-stunning set pieces, complete with plenty of CGI planets, space-hopping and action sequences that will leave viewers in awe of the sheer scale of what they’re witnessing.

gotg2The core cast – Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) – bounce off each other with an ease and hilarity that lends just as much credit to Gunn’s script as it does to their comedic timing, and helps to build the evident rapport – and quarrelsome nature – of the team of outsiders.

With the foundations set in the first film, the story allows the quintet’s characters to be fleshed out and developed further, which adds further emotional depth to each of their disjointed personas and allows the audience to really feel for these individuals.

Backing the Milano crew up are returning favourites Michael Rooker and Karen Gillan as Yondu and Nebula respectively, while newcomers in the form of Pom Klementieff’s Mantis, Elizabeth Debicki’s Ayesha and Kurt Russell’s Ego naturally add to the weird and wonderful world that Gunn has created.

gotg4Speaking of things Gunn has created, the director and composer Tyler Bates have yet again crafted a superb and distinctive soundtrack to accompany Guardians Vol. 2 and, much like its predecessor, the musical numbers hit all the right notes.

From Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’ to George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ and everything inbetween, each carefully selected track lends a certain gravitas to the scene it’s playing out with, and helps give additional impact and resonance to each point in the film’s arc.

The original score helps to evoke certain emotions within the audience too, but it’s the licensed soundtrack that gives Guardians a distinctive flavour over other Marvel properties, and seeing how well each melody and the lyrics tie into certain scenes – especially those on the heartwrenching side of things – marry well with the performances of the cast.

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Some critics will, rightly or wrongly, point towards issues surrounding a lack of originality behind the over-arcing story, or cry foul over supposedly seen-and-heard-before jokes which, given the slowly growing negativity over some people becoming tired over the amount of comic-book films being mass produced right now, is perhaps a worthy criticism to have.

In contrast to point, however, if the formula isn’t broken, why try and fix it? Marvel – and Gunn, in particular – know their audience, and to make unnecessary changes to create something authentically akin to Vol. 1 may have left some audiences wondering why they’ve just sat through a replica of Vol. 2‘s earlier cousin.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an almost perfect blend of action-packed set-pieces, amusing scenes and heartstring-tugging moments that ensure the two hour run-time feels like no time at all.

gotg6The manner with which each scene, act and Easter Egg – including those five mid- and post-credit scenes – have been intricately developed has helped ensure that Marvel will certainly have another surefire winner on their hands.

With Gunn at the helm of the third installment in this delightful franchise – following the events of the next two star studded Avengers flicks – the future is bright for both Marvel Studios and the Guardians themselves.

Only one team will be able to save the galaxy on three seperate occasions, and it sure as hell isn’t the Avengers. It’s a family of misfits who go by the name ‘The Guardians of the Galaxy’.

The Ones Who Dream: Why La La Land Resonates So Deeply With the Human Condition

“Here’s to the ones who dream, crazy as they may seem. Here’s to the hearts that break, here’s to the mess we make.”

As Emma Stone belts out the final verses of La La Land‘s penultimate song, Audition (The Ones Who Dream), it’s difficult not to internalise them and ponder what they mean individually to each of us.

Simple words constructed in such an easy sentence, yes, but never have truer words been spoken – or, rather, sung – about the frailties of human endeavour to overcome obstacles in life and achieve greatness against all the odds.

It is, for this very reason, why La La Land deserves every plaudit and accolade that is bestowed upon it.

lalaland3A movie full of charm and emotion, music and comedy, joy and sorrow, and that is stirring and heartbreaking, inspiring and moving, at its heart, La La Land is a straightforward story about two lost souls trying to passionately pursue their dreams in one of the most soul crushing cities on the planet.

And, yet, La La Land resonates deeply within cinemagoers, who have had the pleasure of sitting down and watching two hours pass by, as they marvel at the abstract nature of a story that echoes within the very core of humanity as a whole.

It is a microcosm of every individual’s dream of becoming someone greater than who they are, thanks in part to realising those dreams and accomplishing goals. Regardless of whether any person still holds onto their dream, has realised or has seen it fall away and felt diminished because of it, it is human nature to have aspired, and continue to aspire, to be more than what we are.

lalaland1In La La Land, both Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) portray the trials, tribulations and struggles of people doing their best to realise their lifelong ambition to make it as an actress in Hollywood and successful jazz club owner respectively – a battle that is relatable to each and every viewer, if not by profession then certainly be their desire to become successful at what they’re most passionate about.

The beauty of the film’s narrative, and the manner in which it is so intimately portrayed, meant that it wouldn’t have mattered what dream each character was pursuing – the duo could have been attempting to make it as a lawyer or football player, or a journalist and politican – and that is down to the core values at the heart of the film.

Feelings of hopelessness, dejection, hurt and acceptance of defeat make way for triumph, elation, healing and refusal to surrender before returning again, as if to offer up a glimpse into how our own lives bear resemblance to rollercoasters – the dips and falls to-ing and fro-ing with the highs and crescendos.

lalaland4That the flick is filled with other striking symbolism, such as its soundtrack detailing each character’s arcs or the changes in colour and tonal feel of Stone’s costumes throughout the film’s length, only add to the simplicity of the human nature on display in La La Land, and help to convoy the overall tone of the motion picture to the audience.

It is also helps to have such a marvellous cast carry out the roles to a tee. Both Stone and Gosling shine as the will-they-won’t-they couple, with each bringing their own gravitas and comedic timing to events, while the supporting cast – including Golden Globe winner J.K. Simmons and singer-songwriter John Legend – help to drive the story forward whether it be through the film’s musical numbers or screen time in other capacities.

And what of the film’s original score itself? If there’s a catchier, more triumphant display of award-winning direction than that concocted by Justin Hurwitz this year, it’ll be some soundtrack to dethrone La La Land‘s ability to worm its way into your head and stay there for days on end. From the bright and breezy opening number of Another Day of Sun – a fine musical number that sets out the scene for the two protagonists with their backstories – to the duet’s performance of City of Stars, La La Land‘s musical score is as good as they come.

lalaland2Director Damien Chazelle has assembled an all-star cast, sensational musical score and jaw-dropping backdrop to a deserved Oscar-winning contender of a film. Yet, without its humanistic values on display across its 128-minute runtime, La La Land could be viewed by many as just another musical comedy for those of a certain disposition to enjoy.

As it is, the fundamentals that make La La Land such a triumph is its ability to resonate with even the hardest of hearts, and what it means to be a person striving to become their best self.

If that’s not something to reflect on and to be inspired by, especially with the way the world is at the present time, it’s hard to say what is.

Fight Off Your Demons: The Battle Continues

One year. One whole year has already passed. It feels so surreal.

It’s bizarre to think that, on New Year’s Eve 2015, I was stuck in the midst of another unrelenting battle to keep myself from circling down the proverbial drainpipe into another pit of self loathing, misery and depression.

It only feels like yesterday that I was sat at my desk, laptop open and alcoholic beverage nearby, typing out the thoughts as they came to me. It was difficult to write, it was even more anxiety-inducing to publish, and it was terrifying to show my family and friends something I was even afraid to admit to myself.

That night, I vowed to attempt to become a better person, to become mentally healthy, to test myself in ways I hadn’t done so before and become the individual I saw myself becoming years ago.

Now, 2016 has come and gone and, staying true to the promise I made myself that night in 2015, I went back and re-read that deeply personal blog post of mine to see how far I had come.

The honest truth? I’ve not come as far as I had envisioned.

mhLooking back, I still found myself ducking out of some social engagements. I got stressed out over simple things like journeying home from work, frantic to get back to my house and just relax for the evening – a bittersweet irony, given how much I worked myself up on the bus about getting home. I lost my temper far, far too easily with those closest to me over the most insignificant of things. I’m still yet to summon up the courage to begin conversations with people who I’d like to meet or, even more personally, chat to women I find attractive. And I didn’t make the most of other opportunities when they fell in my lap.

It hasn’t all been bad though. I started the year by earning a gold standard diploma for my journalism studies – an achievement I never thought I’d be rewarded with. I picked up the fitness bug, spending most of the year running and building my stamina, and have been a member of a gym for almost five months now to build up my strength. I went to gigs to see bands I’ve wanted to see for years. I watched films that made me think about life differently. I got a job that makes me get up in the morning. And, perhaps most importantly, I realised how lucky I am to have the family and friends that I do have.

It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up. – Vince Lombardi

With a New Year, then, comes a fresh start. It’s something of a cliche to hear people around this time of year come out with phrases like “New Year, New Me”, but I genuinely feel like such a mocked phrase could actually be relevant to me as I continue on to become the best version of me I can be.

In order to do that, changes need to be made. As someone who’s very much a creature of habit, said change won’t come easy, but if I want to continue up this road of fighting off my demons, change must occur.

With that in mind, here’s a few things I plan to do this year:

  1. Spend less time online and, in particular, less time proscrastinating on social media. It’s time to stop comparing myself to others, and the perceived fun that they’re all having, on the likes of Facebook and Twitter. I want to create new, happy memories of thoroughly enjoyable times of my own, and add them to those I’ve already got.
  2. Read the self-help books that will go some way to helping me sort my mind out. They’ve been sitting on my shelf for a while now and, if I’m to continue down this road of recovery, I’ll need all the help I can get.
  3. Continue my pursuit of becoming a fitter version of myself. This will include more gym sessions and less comfort food – the latter especially if I don’t stick to the former. I’ve got a new workout programme to follow and, all being well, I’ll see it through.
  4. Begin meditating again, especially on days when I don’t physically work out. Even if it’s just 10 minutes at some point during the day, finding some space and time to centre myself and find some peace will be beneficial.
  5. Meet, talk to and hang out with new people. No matter how nerve wracking it is, it would be good to get a handle on my social anxiety and become comfortable interacting with anyone.
  6. Appreciate the small things in life more, and stop stressing about things that genuinely don’t matter. Why get worried about journeys home? Or stressing about what I need to get done every day? Things work out in the end, regardless of time, so I need to quit putting so much pressure on myself for no reason.
  7. Spend more time in the company of family, friends and loved ones. My support group is important to me, and I’d like to give time, effort and other things in return for that.
  8. Vow to stick to the vast majority of the above points. In the event that I slip up on them from time to time, I’ll try not to beat myself up over doing so. Be kind to yourself, Tom.

img_1155It’s easy to write the above points down, and think I’ll stick to them just because we’re a couple of days in to a new year, but I have to become and remain determined, honest, confident, self-aware and hopeful that I can achieve them.

Nothing in life worth pursuing is easy, especially when you feel like most every day things are such a toil due to the mental struggles I’ve had, and continue to have. However, I really, really want to spur myself on and, knowing that I have the support and belief from family, friends, colleagues and relative strangers, I can go a lot further than I’ve already done.

I’m ready, 2017. Let’s do it.

Which Everton youngsters could feature for the first team before the season’s end?

Everton supporters could be forgiven for turning their attentions elsewhere as the 2015/16 season draws to a close.

Heartbreak in two cup semi-finals, a potential second bottom half Premier League finish in a row and a loss of faith in current manager Roberto Martinez have rendered the final four matches of this campaign irrelevant to many Toffees fans.

Despite gloomy skies engulfing Goodison Park, though, there is a chink of light for those of a Blue persuasion.

Sitting third in the Under-21 Premier League Division One table, Everton’s youth side have impressed under the watchful eye of former Toffees left back-turned coach David Unsworth.

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The club has a long tradition of handing youth players the opportunity to work their way through the ranks into the first team, with Michael Ball, Wayne Rooney, Leon Osman, Tony Hibbert, James Vaughan and Ross Barkley just a few of the talented young stars who have gone on to feature for Everton’s senior squad.

And, with a number of the current crop making their mark at under-21 level, here are five of the brightest talents who could feature for the Blues in the final weeks of this term.

Keiran Dowell

Kieran Dowell has been the name on the lips of many Evertonnians in recent weeks thanks to some sterling performances for the Under-21 side.

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The 18-year-old attacking midfielder, who has been with the Club since the age of seven, has netted a number of sensational strikes in recent victories over Norwich City, Manchester City and Leicester City – the latter of which saw Dowell bag a superb hat-trick.

Adept with the ball at his feet, with an eye for a pass and a box of tricks to boot, the Ormskirk-born teenager made his first-team debut in the 1-0 home defeat to FC Krasnodar in the Europa League in December 2014.

Dowell put in bright cameo appearances in two of the first team’s pre-season fixtures against Hearts and Dundee before an injury curtailed his chances of impressing further, but expect him to be in and around the senior squad for the Toffees’ final fixtures of 2015/16.

Matthew Pennington

Warrington-born Pennington is another of Everton’s youth players who has enjoyed first-team exposure during the current campaign.

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A centre-half by trade, with the ability to figure at right-back, the 21-year-old has started matches against Barnsley and Dagenham & Redbridge in the Capital One Cup and FA Cup respectively.

Pennington had been earning rave reviews for his displays whilst on loan at Walsall but, due to the Blues’ injury crisis ahead of their recent FA Cup semi-final, the defender was recalled and took up a place on the substitutes’ bench at Wembley.

With Ramiro Funes Mori still suspended and Phil Jagielka’s season potentially over, Pennington could be in line for an appearance or two before the season’s end.

 

Callum Connolly

Accomplished in a variety of positions across the park, including centre midfield and full back, Connolly’s versatility has ensured his presence as a mainstay in the Under-21 side.

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The 19-year-old was part of the team that secured the 2013/14 Under-21 Premier League title, and has represented England at Under-17 level.

A member of the Everton youth ranks since the age of nine, Connolly enjoyed his first taste of senior football in the recent 1-1 draw with Southampton, receiving praise for his performance from fans and manager alike.

A likely contender for a place on the substitutes’ bench in the finals weeks of the season.

 

Tom Davies

Davies has been a member of the Toffees’ academy since the age of 11, and has rapidly risen through the ranks to become a regular at Under-21 level.

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The 18-year-old midfielder was on the scoresheet in the first mini Merseyside derby of 2015/16 – a match that ended 3-3.

Like Connolly, Davies made his first-team bow in the Goodison Park clash with Southampton, with his eight-minute cameo giving him a platform to show off his undoubted ball control and skills.

Feisty in the tackle despite his small demeanour, further appearances may lie in wait before the season’s end.

 

Mason Holgate

The only youth player on the list who hasn’t made his way through the Club’s academy, Holgate joined the Everton ranks from Barnsley for an undisclosed fee in August 2015.

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The 18-year-old defender has settled into life on Merseyside particularly well, and was handed a place on the substitutes’ bench during the Blues’ 5-3 Capital One Cup triumph over his former club back in September.

The former Tykes player has become a regular under Unsworth for the youth side, and recently bagged his first goal for the Under-21s in the 2-0 win over Chelsea.

With the ability to play at right-back and centre-back, Holgate could end up making his first senior appearance for the Toffees before the end of the campaign, with first-choice full back Seamus Coleman currently nursing a hamstring strain.

Who is the real hero of Quantum Break?

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Heroes and villains. Protagonists and antagonists. Good guys and bad guys.

Whatever terminology is used to describe them, it is usually easy to recognise who to root for, and who to root against, in any form of entertainment.

In Remedy Entertainment’s recently released Xbox One exclusive title Quantum Break, it seems easy to assume, on the surface at least, who are the heroes and who are the villains.

The player takes control of Jack Joyce, who returns to the fictional city of Riverport after six years away to aid longtime friend Paul Serene with a time travel experiment at Riverport University.

The pair become imbued with time-altering powers after the test goes awry, Paul Serene travels into the future, and returns 17 years older and hellbent on allowing something called ‘the End of Time’ to occur.

Naturally, Joyce opposes his best friend-turned nemesis’ viewpoint and sets out on preventing the onset of a ‘permanent time stutter’ – an event which would see time break down, and hold the world in a perpetual fixed state of immobility.

Serene, who leads the shady Monarch Solutions corporation, is only interested in allowing a select few members of the human race to ‘survive’ the apparent End of Time by initiating the Lifeboat Protocol – a plan which would allow the chosen few to retain the ability to move as they look to find a solution to time’s end.

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So far, so simple with regards to who the hero and villain are – but look a little deeper, and those roles aren’t so easily defined.

If Jack Joyce is not the hero of Quantum Break‘s story, then who is?

There are four potential contenders for the ‘Hero of Quantum Break‘ crown in my mind, and each has their own pros and cons.

Note: Spoilers for Quantum Break are likely from this point on, so turn back if you are playing the game and haven’t finished it, or if you are going to play it at some point.

Jack Joyce

On the surface, it seems pretty clear that Jack Joyce (portrayed by Shawn Ashmore) is Quantum Break‘s undeniable champion.

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Along with attempting to stop Serene’s plan to allow time to end, Joyce also has revenge on his mind after Serene seemingly murders his brother and world renowned physicist William Joyce – another action that lends credence to Jack being the good guy as he seeks retribution for this incident.

With the aid of Beth Wilder and either Amy Ferrero or Nick Marsters (depending on what decisions you make at certain junctions in the game) Joyce ends up stealing back the countermeasure (or chronon field regulator) – an object made by his brother that can prevent the End of Time from happening.

Again, it seems logical that Jack is indeed the hero this story needs.

But, during Quantum Break‘s fifth and final act, it is revealed that a) William is actually still alive (he’s saved by Jack himself via time-travel logistics) and b) the countermeasure does not prevent the End of Time; instead it merely seems to halt its inevitable arrival.

So can Jack be viewed as being the hero, when his path for vengeance stands for nothing in the end, and after stopping the initiation of the Lifeboat Protocol, which we can safely presume is the only way that a solution to the End of Time can be prevented?

Paul Serene

Paul Serene (Aiden Gillen) appears to be the primary antagonist of Quantum Break.

He appears to murder Jack’s brother William, kills Beth Wilder when she comes into contact with the countermeasure, and is only concerned with allowing the best of humanity to continue on at time’s end thanks to the Lifeboat Protocol.

But are Serene’s villainous motives as clear cut as they seem?

paulsereneQB

Afterall, Monarch’s head honcho is the only person with a plan in place for such an occurence.

Of course it’s helpful that, due to the time machine experiment going wrong, he sees the End of Time itself and vows to find a way to rectify it when it transpires.

Furthermore, he’s not leaving the other seven billion people on the planet to die – those outside of the Lifeboat Protocol and without the necessary equipment to move inside of the permanent stutter are merely held in place, unable to move due to time’s end.

Providing a solution is found, time would restart and those seven billion individuals would be unaware of anything happening.

Would Serene’s actions not be viewed as heroic, then? Is sacrificing a few people worth it to save the lives of billions?

Beth Wilder

Beth Wilder (Courtney Hope) is an operative employed by Monarch solutions, but whose allegiances lie with the Joyce brothers due to circumstances that are explained during Act 4 of Quantum Break.

Throughout the story, she helps Jack escape Serene’s clutches, aids him in securing the services of Paul Serene’s chief scientist Sofia Amaral to help fix William’s old time machine, and attempts to steal back the all-important countermeasure.

In the end, Wilder suffers a heroic death at the hands of Serene six years in the past due to a cleverly put together plot that sends her both forwards and backwards in time in a bid to locate the countermeasure.

bethwilderQB

But, in being an aide to Jack Joyce to stop the End of Time, she only assists in pushing him down a path which, for the mean time, appears to have been fruitless, what with the End of Time still likely to arise.

Due to other time travel mechanics later on in the story, she also causes her own enclosed time loop – going back in time to tell her younger self that her only priority in life is to stop time from ending and, in doing so, prevents herself from ever being able to live a happy life.

It is often said that the mark of a true hero is to put your own needs aside for the greater good, but what kind of hero would end up being the one who causes their own life objective and untimely death as a result?

William Joyce

World renowned physicist and Jack’s older brother, William Joyce (Dominic Monaghan) is the creator of both time machines that exist in Quantum Break, as well as the countermeasure that can apparently stop time from ending.

willjoyceQB

Building the chronon field regulator, after being informed of its necessity by a time-travelling Beth Wilder, Joyce ends up producing the only object capable of preventing the End of Time.

But, in being the scientist that first discovers the existence of Meyers-Joyce field, subsequent unearthing of time-related chronon particles and, a as result, building two time machines that are able to send things into the past and future using those particles, Joyce appears to set in motion all of the events for Quantum Break – even if it is indirectly.

Naturally, he does all he can to prevent time’s inevitable end, but is it difficult to look past him being the instigator of the events which unfold throughout the game?

The Verdict

So who is the real hero of Quantum Break?

All four individuals are trying to prevent the same thing, the End of Time, from occuring but each character ironically appears to launch its unavoidable onset through their various actions throughout the game.

In spite of this, however, their major decisions and actions can be deemed as heroic – even Serene who, in the end, is only trying to save the human race.

Perhaps the characters will be defined more clearly as ‘hero’ or ‘villain’ in the hinted-at sequels but for now, it is arguable that all four are heroic in some form throughout Quantum Break‘s story.