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Valiant Hearts: The Great War // Collateral

Lots of death and two wildly different endings.


GAME REVIEW // Valiant Hearts: The Great War

Game summary: This is the story of crossed destinies and a broken love in a world torn apart. All of them will try to survive the horror of the trenches following their faithful canine companion. (IMDb)

For those who didn't pay attention in history class, the 'Great' in 'Great War' refers to the scale of this conflict and not how brilliant it was, something that Valiant Hearts: The Great War rams home over and over again with unending deaths in battle. It then goes one step further by providing historical context as you proceed through the game, in addition to collectibles that also help fill in what life was like during this time.

And make no mistake, life was very hard and this game doesn't really pull any punches with its depictions of various battles and the toll it took on the soldiers fighting. It also really helped me understand more about how much warfare changed in such a short space of time with lightning-fast advances in technology leaving those in command struggling to adapt and hundreds of thousands dying as a result.

Despite this horrific, epic backdrop, Valiant Hearts focuses on the stories of four people involved - Emile, Freddie, Anna and Karl, plus the dog who helps them out, Walt. Following their stories makes it easier to understand what's going on at an individual level rather than just eye-opening statistics when it came to the numbers that suffered over the course of 1914-17.

Yes, this game doesn't cover the entirety of World War I, so don't expect a triumphant or happy ending, because this game really doesn't have one. Instead, it has one of the saddest endings to a game I've ever seen and immediately vaulted this title to be up there with Blackadder Goes Forth for World War I stories that worked for me and that I'll remember for a long, long time.

This is despite the stylised graphics, which are more for simplicity's sake rather than being cartoonish or not taking the subject matter seriously - a decision I'm glad the developers made, because Valiant Hearts could've been made even more difficult to play through if we'd had realistic graphics showing the piles of bodies resulting from the near-constant barrage of artillery.

The decision was also made to not have the characters speak other than in very short sentences as acknowledgements more than anything else, with just a trio of voice actors providing any lengthy dialogue - James Barriscale as Emile and Polly Eachus as his daughter, Marie, who write letters to each other through the years to keep in touch. Dave Pettitt is the last of the three, as the narrator filling in the gaps between each part of the story.

So why am I not scoring this higher, despite so much praise? Because this is essentially a puzzle game - with only the occasional grenade toss or setting off of explosives that could count as combat, and they're still more to do with clearing a route rather than being overtly-aggressive acts - and too many of the puzzles just don't work and shatter any sense of immersion the game has been building up.

It feels like a good 15-20% of the obstacles are there because the developers needed to put something in the player's way, with a large chunk of these superfluous challenges relying on 'videogame logic' or just no logic at all to solve. Some are quick and could easily have been dismissed because they're over so fast that they don't really force you to stop and think about what you're doing, but they just add fuel to the fire that is the irritation of some others.

Even then, some of more 'gamey' puzzles are relatively simple, but involve back-tracking or even just just taking an action that doesn't really make any sense from an in-universe perspective. Apart from a couple of really poor moments, most of these interruptions aren't really that bad, but they do break the spell of feeling like you're in the middle of a war and are actually just playing a cartoony-looking game.

That's why it sticks out so much and brings Valiant Hearts down so much: the rest of the game is otherwise so good at bringing you down to ground level of a horrific conflict, and making you connect so brilliantly with an essentially voiceless set of characters. I don't whether it's just poor design work and those puzzles just don't fit, or if the developers felt they had to pad out the length of the game, but it feels like a serious flaw nonetheless.

I do just want to repeat though: Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a genuinely brilliant game for 80-85% of how long it lasts and it's only a few hours long too, so I really, really would recommend it if you want to experience a war game based on real history and real people (yes, a lot of what unfolds in the story actually happened!), but you don't want another mindless shooting game.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a great game that could've been an all-time great if not for so many immersion-breaking puzzles ruining the atmosphere. Aside from that single major issue, this game looks fantastic, the music is incredible and is otherwise a joy to play through, telling a serious story with a heart-breaking ending, filled with facts and details about one of the most horrific conflicts in history.



MOVIE REVIEW // Collateral

Movie summary: A cab driver finds himself the hostage of an engaging contract killer as he makes his rounds from hit to hit during one night in Los Angeles. (IMDb)

Collateral is a really good movie for the most part, but it has a trio of major issues for me that means I can't recommend it too strongly. It's a gorgeous movie, and I really loved seeing Tom Cruise as a villain for once - because he's fricking great at it - but it feels as emotionally vacant as his character, Vincent, and ends with what seems like a big chunk of the story for Jamie Foxx's Max still to go.

That ending is the biggest problem, dragging down the rest of the movie with it. It's a shame, because up until that final act I was loving this film and hoping the climax would be the icing on the cake, rather than souring the experience somewhat. Considering how well made the rest of the movie is, it's so disappointing to end the way it does.

Vague spoilers ahead, so be aware: the first problem is that Collateral devolves into an action shoot-out between the two leads. There is plenty of action earlier in the movie, but it was intertwined with the ongoing story fluently and the focus was on the characters. In contrast, the ending feels like they couldn't think of an equally intelligent way to end things, so it all ends with a run-and-gun sequence.

This then leads into the second problem, where the villain suddenly loses his incredibly precise aim and turns into a Stormtrooper from Star Wars. Think that's harsh? There's a scene early in the movie where a medical examiner flat out tells a detective (Mark Ruffalo in a minor and ultimately irrelevant role) how good a shot the guy is, drawing attention to the inconsistency.

Want to argue that he was injured in that final sequence? Sure, that could be seen as an acceptable excuse... if the very final showdown didn't come down to his precision being the thing that proves his downfall. That's spoilery enough - if I had to explain it any clearer I'd just be typing out what happened. Anyway, you shouldn't call attention to a skill someone has if that highlighted skill is going to be ignored when it proves a problem.

The last issue which left me disappointed is that Collateral would seem to be Jamie Foxx's movie for the most part, seeing as he's central to everything from start to finish, but it ends once Vincent is done and it feels like Max's arc is incomplete. Considering the events of the movie, there's no aftermath shown or anything to provide closure for the audience.

I know plenty might decry sequels - and I'm not asking for one here - but it really does feel like Max's story isn't finished, but the creative team behind the movie couldn't think of any way to tie things up, so just didn't bother. I was genuinely surprised when the credits started rolling because I was sure there had to be an extra scene or two, but apparently not.

Having so many issues with the ending only served to make me retroactively notice other issues, like Collateral being one of those movies where these characters and events could only exist in a movie, because the ending highlights the artificiality of what you've watched. On the other hand, if the things I've mentioned don't bother you, then you'll probably love this movie - the seams are just a bit too noticeable for me though.

To go off on a bit of a tangent, I like stories where characters feel like they existed before we met them for the story we're experiencing and will go on living after we leave them behind - assuming they don't die, of course. Characters that feel like they exist because a story needs people who will act in a certain way rather than how a normal human being would behave just frustrate me now - and Collateral falls into that trap.

And just to balance out all that criticism, I do want to end by saying how good the first two-thirds or so are, and how much I was really enjoying the movie before the ending let things down. Cruise and Foxx are a great pairing; the movie looks phenomenal too, with some incredible use of light and colour in night-time Los Angeles; and the constant sensation of dread and tension covering everything is just about perfect.

Also, the criticisms I have are pet hates of mine and it is unfortunate that there's so many of them happening at the same time leading to what I think of as a weak ending that others might view entirely differently - opinions are like arseholes after all: everybody's got one. Mine is that Collateral is a great movie for the most part with a really, really poor ending that I think could frustrate others as much as it did me.

Collateral is a good movie that I'd definitely recommend watching at least once, but how much you'll enjoy it may depend on how well you can tolerate the pitfalls it sleepwalks into - or possibly how much of an affinity you have for LA. There's a lot of good here, but the missteps are too large to ignore and, despite enjoying so much of this fantastic-looking movie, I came away a little unsatisfied with how it ended.




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