Sunday, 5 July 2020

Star Wars Lockdown Rewatch-athon: The Inbetweeners

With the horrible nineties-ness of the Prequel trilogy finally in our rear view mirror Mrs SOTL and I settled in for The Inbetweeners.


No, not those Inbetweeners.  These Inbetweeners...


Not part of any of the accepted trilogies of 'The Skywalker Saga', Solo and Rogue One nestle inbetween The Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope.


SOLO


Solo is the Star Wars film that nobody was really asking for and it's also the one whose complete and utter stinkathon at the box office was the reason why Disney suddenly slammed on the brakes for future Star Wars movies.  If you're not attuned to the fates of the box office then the sheer scale of Solo's underperformance may have passed you by:




That's right, folks.  Despite 35 years of ticket inflation, and huge new emerging global markets for Star Wars like China Solo only grossed about the same as Return of the Jedi did!

And yet, I have to say I found Solo to be pretty fun and a solid entertaining two hours.  It's certainly better than I remember it being the first couple of times around, and I actually found myself feeling sad that we'd never see the sequel that was so clearly being set up.  It's lightweight stuff, though, and I feel like if you stop to think about any part of the film for very long then you'd rapidly see through it and be able to start picking it all apart.


I often think that modern Star Wars fans can be separated into two distinct types: there's those who want love the Star Wars universe and want to see how that develops and how all the pieces and characters and events fit together, and then there's those who have the simpler motivation of simply wanting to be swept up and entertained by a space adventure for a couple of hours.  I think Solo probably serves the second group pretty well but massively lets down the first group.

On this rewatch I found myself drifting more towards the second group of fans than I maybe was when I saw Solo in the cinema, perhaps because my wife was alongside me to give the true casual's response and she thought the movie was a lot of fun.  I liked Tobias, I thought Dryden Vos was a suitably threatening crimelord, Alden Ehrenreich maybe wasn't the perfect Han Solo (I'd have cast Adam Driver again fwiw) but he was a watchable lead and Donald Glover was a fantastic Lando.


Virtually everything that happened was dumb or broke some perfectly sensible piece of Star Wars lore for no good reason.  But I had fun for my two hours.

Force Rating: 6/10 (and my wife would have scored it higher)



ROGUE ONE


I'm going to share a personal Rogue One anecdote:

I work in the cinema industry and occasionally that lands me a nice exclusive treat or two, so for Rogue One I got into an advanced screening before the official release that had a Q&A with the cast & crew.  Somebody in the audience asked a question along the lines of "which member of the cast is the biggest rebel" and I remember Kathleen Kennedy threw a little shade at director Gareth Edwards by saying something along the lines of "well I think Gareth went rogue a few times during the making of this movie so I'd say he's the biggest rebel".  I already knew that Rogue One had been waylaid by enormous reshoots as Disney hastily tried to fix the movie's tone.  All movies have reshoots but I understood Rogue One had LOTS of reshoots... when I first saw Rogue One in that advanced screening I was braced for a disaster.

This never happened.
I was wrong and came out saying 'you know what, that was actually pretty good'... and I think every single rewatch has only further improved and cemented my appreciation for Rogue One.  The funny bits are funny, the action scenes are gripping, and some of the characters are really compelling: K2-SO, Baze and Chirrut are great, and I have to confess now that Director Krennic is my favourite Star Wars character by far.  I've worked with too many people who are just like him and it brought a really believable face of human ambition to the moustache-twirling evil of the Galactic Empire.


On top of that it's probably the best-looking Star Wars film, and I absolutely adore and appreciate all the effort that went into making the look and feel tie into A New Hope.  Not only that, but with Bail Organa's brief appearance it calls back to the prequels and pulls them in too.  Repurposing the unused footage from the Battle of Yavin was genius and all the 70's haircuts and facial ornamentation are delicious.  Yes, the CGI Tarkin looks a bit waxy but I'm so glad he was there to steal the Death Star from under Krennic's nose.  I can take or leave Shoretroopers but Deathtroopers are awesome, as are the designs for the TIE Striker and TIE Reaper... everything was on point.


The only complaint I really have about the whole film is that the two leads, Jyn and Cassian, are perhaps the most bland and vanilla characters in the whole of Star Wars.



Despite the reshoots (which clearly completely restructured the film, based on the fact 80% of the shots and dialogue from the original trailer never made it to the final cut) Disney managed to craft a fantastic movie.  I unapologetically love Rogue One and I'm happy to place it in my top three Star Wars films.  

Force Rating: 9/10

One more Krennic shot before I wrap it up...



Next Time: The Original Trilogy

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Star Wars Lockdown Rewatch-athon: The Prequels

About three weeks ago a very unexpected conversation occured in the Stay on the Leader household.  It went something like this...
Me: "Did you watch The Last Jedi without me?"
Mrs SOTL: "No, why?"
Me: "It's just that the bar was way over at the end of the film"
Mrs SOTL: "Ah!  I gave your Disney+ password to Helen and she watched all the Star Wars films in order with Andy, that'll be why"
Me: "Oh, did you indeed?"
Mrs SOTL: "I wouldn't mind rewatching them all myself at some point"
Twenty-four seconds later...



EPISODE I - THE PHANTOM MENACE

Going into this rewatch-athon I would have told anybody standing close to me that The Phantom Menace was the worst Star Wars film in the franchise - completely unwatchable and at least each episode of the prequels was better than the one before until you got to Revenge of the Sith, which was actually ok.  Because of this firmly held opinion I've actually not watched The Phantom Menace properly very often, and certainly not for a long time.  I've probably watched the Red Letter Media review more often than I have the film itself.

But you know what?  For the first time ever I didn't hate it.


Maybe I'm mellowing in my old age but actually it was kind of ok, especially if you ignore all the bits with Jar Jar Binks who really is so bad that I was right to have forced myself to forget him.

But yeah, take Jar Jar out and whats left is clunky but well-intentioned, and almost works even if it never really gets going.  The opening on the Trade Federation ship is workmanlike then the film all too rapidly veers off into Jar Jar land and only really recovers once everyone gets to Tatooine.  I've never been in love with podracing as some are but it's some much-needed action in the middle of the film, and from there is moves swiftly enough to the final act.  The climactic lightsaber battle is ok although the droids vs Gungans CGI has aged very badly.  

Overall, though, I felt like I was suitably entertained for my two hours so maybe I've given Phantom Menace an unfair slaughtering up to now. 


Jesus christ, though, Jar Jar was incredibly annoying.  He really does only get worse with age.

Force Rating: 4/10 (a grudging 5/10 if you ignore Jar Jar)



EPISODE II - THE ATTACK OF THE CLONES

I was starting to get worried as the yellow text crawled up the screen at the start of Attack of the Clones.  Everyone says it's the worst one but my memory was that it was ok.  But my memory of Phantom Menace had been wrong so what was I about to let myself in for?


Oh my god this film is dire.  I think what had happened is that I'd remembered all the interesting bits from Obi Wan Kenobi's trip to Kamino and his tussle with Jango Fett and blotted out everything else.  But there's so much you need to forget.  Anakin's lecherous attempts at flirting, Padme's 'oh what, how dare you find me attractive in this backless form-hugging dress?', the rubbish car chase, the droid assembly line so clearly inspired by some video game George Lucas had played the night before, the whole fumbled romance subplot, the CGI overload of the final battles.

I like Kamino and actually this film lays down an awful lot of the lore for what is to come like the Clones, the Death Star, Palpatine's manipulations to rule the Republic so it's a very important episode in the story.  The actual experience of watching it happen is excruciating.  


Seismic charges still go BWAAAAAANG really satisfyingly though.  And Natalie Portman is nice to look at, so there's that too.  So that's two points for Attack of the Clones...

Force Rating: 2/10



EPISODE III - THE REVENGE OF THE SITH

From the moment that Anakin finally picks his side and comes under the influence of Palpatine this film fairly rips along and the final act is really strong as we see the Republic consumed by the Empire.  You get Cody's betrayal of Obi Wan, the Jedi falling one by one, the temple burned, Padme being spirited away by Senator Organa, and then the ultimate duels between Obi Wan, Anakin, Yoda and the Emperor.


Unfortunately up to that point in the film is consumed by one main problem: what THE FUCK is going on?  At the end of Attack of the Clones we had Count Dooku scurry away to hide with Palpatine as the Clones routed the droids from Geonosis because they're a kick-ass Clone army of Boba Fetts.  Now we drop into the start of Revenge of the Sith and suddenly the droids are in orbit over Coruscant and they've kidnapped the Emperor but now there's this Grievous guy in charge and who the hell is he? 

I'm Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?
TBH they already pulled this stunt once in Attack of the Clones when they introduced Count Dooku as the villain in the third act having spent the second act talking about somebody called Syfer Dias instead.  It's just lazy deus ex mechanica plotting and here it is again. So it's all just a blur of names and situations and set pieces instead of a coherent overarching villainous plot across the films.  And look, I imagine that if I'd watched all the Clone Wars cartoons and read all the books and done all the homework that George Lucas clearly expected me to have done then maybe I'd know the answers to all this... but I haven't, and neither has my wife.  Instead I just had to shrug repeatedly at her questions and admit that, no, I don't know why anything is happening either.

Once Grievous is gone and Palpatine makes his play the second half of the film is much better, though.

Force Rating: 5/10

So that was the prequels and taken together as a body of work they're... soulless?  Is that the right word?  The Phantom Menace is slow going but the second two are so frenetic and yet somehow all the energy is seemingly misdirected rather than focused.  Our primary protagonists are Obi Wan and Anakin but all their fantastic Jedi scrapes seem to revolve around them constantly making bad decisions and luckily bailing each other out all the time.  Surely they train Jedi to do better than this?  To think ahead before jumping headfirst out of the 356th storey window after a small drone, for instance?  

And for a trilogy that really should ultimately be about a love story - a love that creates the rest of the Skywalker saga - the central romance and relationship is so terribly badly bungled at every turn.  Anakin's uniquely charmless and unpleasent yet gets the girl anyway.  Padme's character flips awkwardly and inconsistently into whatever she needs to be to service the plot - wise and decisive one minute, a giggling maiden the next then a simpering nothing in the final film as she's brushed aside by the plot completely.  Now that she's pregnant with twins the plot has everything it needs from its only female character so after being a central force in the first two films Padme just sits and simpers in her room.
In truth there's not really much sense of characters or their personalities driving events through any of these films, they're just there to service the plot's inexorable march towards setting up the world that A New Hope will inherit.  There was just a big checklist of facts and we've gone down it ticking them off one by one.  It's filmmaking as a technical achievement, screenwriting almost more as an administrative function than an artform.
"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."
  - Macbeth
Still, at least I've enjoyed them more on this rewatch than I have in the past.  I can't go so far as to say that I actually like any of them, but I don't necessarily want those six hours of my life back.  And at least my wife and I could look forward to much better films to come!

Next time: The Inbetweeners (Solo and Rogue One)....


Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Hyperspace Format - Initial Scouting Report

The following blog was written and ready to post about a month ago... then I got what I'm 99% sure was Coronavirus and X-Wing and blogging sank pretty low on my list of priorities for a while.  Thankfully we're all out the other side of it now, I'm fine and my family is fine and perhaps a little normality can return.
I mention that only because it explains why I'm using older data.  The performance of ships & lists that I'm discussing is what I pulled from Metawing in early March, so it covers the first month and a bit after the points changes.  On a calendar that looks like a long time ago now but as X-Wing events are frozen in carbonite it's probably almost bang up to date with all but the last weekend or two of Store Championships.
Who knows when we'll get back to playing again, but when we do this may be something you want to know....

HYPERSPACE SCOUTING REPORT

After the points changes in January I wrote a couple of blog that ran-through of how I thought the various factions were looking ahead of the coming Hyperspace Store Championships season.



We've now got a good month of results behind us so let's have a little look at what's actually happening and see what we can learn about Hyperspace and how to succeed at it.  Deploy the probe droids!



HYPERSPACE SCOUT REPORT - THE BAD GUYS

Click to Expand
I foretold hard times for the Galactic Empire in Hyperspace and saw only two routes out for Imperial players - the Decimators and accompanying aces, or a high Initiative jousting list of aces that just tried to embrace variance and punch through.

What we can see from the last month of Hyperspace results is that I was mostly right and that Imperial ships have struggled to make an impact.  What I got wrong, though, was the call that it would be a selection of high Initiative aces that would work for the Empire when there's more evidence that going the other way and spamming in as many low initiative TIE Strikers or TIE Advanced as possible can work.  It's not a very reliable strategy as you're very open to swings of variance in these squads but if you bring enough glass cannons (like the 6 TIE Strikers list) you can stand a chance of doing some real damage before they shatter.  And it's also true that when you bring a collection of glass cannons like this just a little following wind in variance can be enough to send you all the way to the top.


It's grim reading, though.  Metawing isn't seeing many Imperial lists doing well enough to appear in List Fortress (which often only has the top cut lists) and when they do appear they tend not to do well.  The two most popular pilots - Darth Vader and Duchess are played more often - are clearly consistently underperforming given they've put up the worst percentile average scores of the main Imperial pilots.


Unless you can become one of those strange people who actually understand how to use Decimators successfully Imperial players seem destined to just strap themselves to as many red dice as they can find and pray to the green dice gods!


From one spinning Skywalker to another...


I finished my description of the First Order's prospects in Hyperspace with "you can put almost any combination of pilots onto the table and be a tough opponent to face" and from the incredibly even distribution of play across the First Order ships it seems like players have been doing exactly that and there's no clear favourites in what First Order players are choosing to take to the table.

There should be, though.  The TIE/fo is clearly outperforming all the other First Order ships and rapidly eclipsing almost everything but Supreme Leader Kylo Ren.  From what I expected to be a very broad faction what we're finding in competition is that the more Epsilon Squadron Pilots you run the better things seem to go.


What I find extremely interesting in the First Order results, though, is that although individual ships or pilots aren't really spiking hugely strong percentile performances the best SQUAD archetypes certainly are.  It seems like a clear case that it's the specific configurations of pilots that are driving results for the First Order rather than the pilots themselves... eg Kylo will feature in bad squads and good squads (overall percentile of 31% is pretty average), but the good squads with Kylo look really good (55-60% percentile performance is exceptional).  The same is clearly true of other pilots and ships as well.

For First Order players it's a strong case of... 



Separatist players were wringing their hands at the Hyperspace changes.  No Belbullab?  No Sear?  No Ensnare?  Their faction was finished if you chose to listen to most of the Separatist players and their crocodile tears.


Not so, I said in my Hyperspace appraisal.  Vultures were untouched and incredibly strong, while the Hyena Bomber was probably the most underrated ship in Hyperspace format.


Skip forward two months and Separatists have the #1 squad archetype in Hyperspace and four out of the top 5 Separatist squads feature Hyena Bombers.  At the risk of looking like Nostradamus with my predictions the Techno-Union Bomber is even rated the #1 pilot in Hyperspace format!

Who would ever have predicted that?


There is very little variation in the Separatist faction.  You play Vultures and Hyenas - some of one, some of the other - but 9 times out of 10 you never even look at Sith Infiltrators and 99 times out of 100 you don't look at Nantex Starfighters without Ensnare.  The Separatists are really only half a faction which is kind of a shame from a diversity point of view, but that half faction features two of the most undercosted ships in the game and access to some of the strongest Boba Fett counters in Discord Missiles and Plasma Torpedoes.

Hell, two ships?  Most of the time the faction may as well just be two pilots!  The Separatist faction is like wonder material Graphene - paper thin but incredibly strong nonetheless.




HYPERSPACE SCOUTING REPORT - THE GOOD GUYS

Click to Expand
If my outlook for the Empire faction in Hyperspace was bleak then I saw even less on the cards for Rebels.  I didn't believe in five T-65 X-Wings, I didn't believe in double-tapping B-Wings and I didn't see much hope for what was left of Rebel Beef either.


And yeah... pretty much all that came to pass.  Rebels are in a really terrible place for Hyperspace format with not a single ship, squad archetype or pilot consistently doing well.  There just isn't really any compelling reason to run Rebel ships at all.  Yes you can get assemble some great shared red dice modifications into a four-ship 'Beef' list, but even with all those dice mods you're going to lose out in a brawl against a swarm of TIE/fos or Vultures because there's just too many of them and you can't whack-a-mole the enemy fast enough to stay ahead of the incoming damage.

I know a lot of players have explored the Millenium Falcon with Hotshots & Aces cards - either Leia pilot or K2-SO crew.  The feedback I've had from those efforts, which seems to match the results on Metawing, is that it *CAN* work if you fly it perfectly at all times but you're on such a knife-edge of viability that a single mistake can end your chances at any moment.  It's probably the most fun to be had in the faction though, ducking and weaving with the Falcon.

Rebellions are built on hope.  Without Wedge there is precious little of that to go around.



I said that I expected the Resistance faction to be strong in Hyperspace and they have been... but I probably got as much wrong as I did right regarding why they were going to do well.  I expected to see the faction dominated by Poe Dameron and RZ2 A-Wings but in truth both those lines of attack have struggled to punch through in the way I expected.


The big swing towards cheap generic swarms has hurt the 5 A-Wings squad a lot, especially as they don't have Crack Shot to help their 2 red dice punch through against 3 agility opponents.  5 A-Wings hasn't been a complete failure but in hindsight I understand why it has struggled so much - five measly 2 red dice attacks simply isn't enough to bring to the table in this Hyperspace format regardless of how attractive your ship and pilot abilities are.

Like the A-Wings I think Poe has also suffered somewhat from just how much Hyperspace turned into an aggressive spam of cheap ships.  While he's perfect for hunting aces but vulnerable if he takes too many shots back, Poe has found tables full of ships and arcs to be very dangerous places to be.  He also hasn't enjoyed having Fenn Rau crawling over his back with the big points bids in Boba Fenn squads.  


It's not all over for Poe, I think, and the more that Boba-Fenn turns into Boba-Koshka the better Poe gets so I think he'll be around for a while.   But I thought Poe was going to be the poster boy for top ace play in Hyperspace and he's certainly not that.


What HAS been good, and certainly came out of my blind spot, was both Cova Nell and Kazuda Xiono.  Players are still adapting to getting best use of Kaz and he's been inconsistent in finding top finishes (watch this space, though - Kaz is very good!) but Cova Nell has the best percentile performance of any Resistance ship in Hyperspace.  While Rebel Beef has largely failed it seems like Resistance Beef has the tools, tricks, independent dice mods and stronger ships to be able to hold its own much better against the swarms.


For Republic players in Hyperspace I noted that almost all of the old stalwarts of the faction had gone as the Jedi dominance of the back end of 2019 was torn apart in FFG's own 'Order 66'.  But I also saw potential routes forwards in assembling some great four-ship lists based around the strongest remaining Jedi in their Aethersprite fighters.


And that's pretty much exactly what came to pass - I even had a Dedicated ARC in my example Republic squad two weeks before everyone was stunned to find Dedicated in the final of the Milton Keynes System Open!

Milton Keynes marked the launch of Hyperspace season and although the Jedi made an immediate splash in the System Open I think it's fair to say that the Republic hasn't really built on that initial platform.  They're not out of the running by any means but as other players have adapted to Hyperspace since the season began I think the Republic has largely stood still.  Maybe they're all suck in another endless council meeting?


What has changed for the Republic is that players found a way to break out of the four-ship squad shackles and we've seen lists based on massing the generic Jedi Knights do much better than I ever saw coming.  The Jedi Knights are uniquely expert at dismantling the generic swarms in Hyperspace with their mid-level initiative, maneuverability and CLT firepower.  They've struggled to cut through against some of the top lists and aces but when the local metagame is right the CLT Jedi have had tremendous success.  How else to explain why Barriss Offee and the Jedi Knight are outranking Obi-Wan and Ric Olie in Metawing?


One of the overarching learnings for all factions in this analysis is how much cheap generics are bossing things, be they Vulture Droids, Epsilon Squadron Cadets, TIE Strikers or these Jedi Knights.  It fits with the theme of this Hyperspace season that it's the humble knights who are doing so well for the Republic.

Maybe this is why Palpatine got rid of the younglings?




HYPERSPACE SCOUTING REPORT - SCUM

Annnnnd Scum.


I didn't do a Scum prediction for Hyperspace for two reasons.  Firstly, I knew that I was working on Scyk-based Scum lists myself and didn't want to tell everyone what I had planned for Milton Keynes, and secondly because it was already completely bleeding obvious that Scum were about to take over the world with Boba Fett and Fenn Rau.  Or Nom Lum.  Or Skull Squadron Fangs.  Or Cartel Spacers.  

Nobody needed me to give them tips on how to build scum squads for Hyperspace!


And what's happened?  Yep, it's a Boba-eat-Boba world out there, with more Mandalorians than an entire series of The Mandalorian.  Indeed, if this is what happens when the Mandalorians are allowed to take over then I don't blame the Empire for razing their kind into the ground!

What I think almost nobody saw coming was Koshka Frost.  All eyes were on Fenn Rau as Boba's wingman but Milton Keynes proved that we were all wrong and the best partner for a Firespray is...another Firespray.  No other ship is better suited to complement the playstyle of a Firespray than another Firespray.  No other ship can distract from Boba, or do such a good job of replacing Boba if he dies, as mini-Boba Koshka Frost.  

BTW: The fact that Boba Fett (35% percentile) has a lower score than Koshka Frost (47% percentile) doesn't mean that Koshka is better than Boba, it just represents that a lot of the time Boba is being played with Fenn Rau or Skull Squadrons and those squads are dragging Boba's average down.

It's not all there is in the faction, and as well as having the best pilots the Scum faction also has the best strength in depth (it's #10 pilot, Dengar, is ranked 38th on Metawing, much better than any other faction's #10 pilot).  There's a lot of things to like in Scum, and I've already bored everyone with how good I think Scyks are and you should all be playing Scyks, that's right Scyks, because Scyks are the bestest.  Scyky Scyky Scyks Scyks.

If you get this reference you're OK in my book
But Boba-Koshka really is something else, and it will take squads that are aiming directly for it to really keep this squad from dominating the rest of Hyperspace.  There certainly are those tools... Discord Missiles, Plasma Torpedoes, Outmaneuver etc... but the challenge for players trying to bring Boba down is to bring a list that can include those tools and still beat generic swarms.

Maybe Coronavirus is going to turn out to be just what was needed to save us all from Boba Fett!  Silver linings and all that...