Batman Begins is roughly my favourite superhero flick. Drawing on a couple of the best Batman stories (Frank Miller’s classic “Batman Year One” and “The Long Halloween” by Jeph Loeb) and ripped to the gills with cracking performances, it gave us a meatier, more grounded, more convincing Batman than we’d ever previously encountered in the cinema, with all due respect to Adam West. Plus it had the Tumbler, which stupid backstory aside (for jumping over RIVERS? Really?) is one of the all-time coolest movie vehicles of all time.

Now there is another one. Of it. Which is even bigger, even grander and adds an absolutely spellbinding villain in Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker. By all rights, The Dark Knight should be one of the greatest films ever ever ever.

So why isn’t it?

When The Dark Knight is good, it’s very very good – see the Joker vs. the Gotham Police Department, the meeting between the Joker and Harvey Dent, the Joker’s origin, the Prisoner’s Dilemma set-piece on the two ferries that involves exactly none of the protagonists but provides the most tense and dramatic scene of the whole film and that the normally-infallible Mark Kermode wrongly believes should have been cut out – but it’s not good anything like often enough. You may have noticed that The Joker is something of a recurring theme in the list of “good bits”. You’d be right. Much as Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent was perfectly watchable, the Joker is the money and there are stretches of The Dark Knight that feel weirdly like we’re marking time waiting for him to show up again. The narrative is just too rambling and unfocussed, something that having two villains elbowing each other out of the way for screen-time didn’t help. By the end I felt somewhat bizarrely like I could have done with about 20 minutes more Joker but about 30 minutes less actual film.

Also, call me Mister Shallow but I had a hard time getting over Batman’s new Gruff-O-Voice, which kept making me a) think of Blackadder doing an impersonation of the Big Deep Booming Voice of his decapitated former prisoner, and b) expect Batman to say “Hi, I’m Duane Benzie”. Plus, I don’t know if there’s been a costume redesign since Begins, but there was something about the cowl that made Christian Bale’s face look offputtingly squashed and weird, like a baby having its cheeks pinched by an overly-affectionate auntie. These are things that probably wouldn’t have made an impression if the film as a whole had been gripping enough, but it just wasn’t.

Don’t get me started on Batman’s magic radar, or that after making a point of showing him unloading and throwing away every gun he takes off every thug he thumps, he’s then shown swerving through traffic / a crowded shopping mall at umpty-thrumpty million miles an hour on his profoundly silly Bat-Bike er… firing twin machine guns. Or the tragic underuse of the always-excellent Maggie Gyllenhaal – yet another example of how women in action movies are no good for anything other than being rescued or being lusted after, usually both at once.

It’s not all bad. The large cast put in pretty universally good-to-very-good performances, there are a number of spectacular set-pieces and it’s refreshing to see a mainstream blockbuster that has the ambition to try and be more than just Things Exploding. At the end of the day, The Dark Knight really isn’t a bad film. It’s just a massively disappointing one.


You may recall my mentioning in the dim and distant past that Bethseda’s first-person action-RPG Oblivion consumed well over a hundred hours of my life, most of which were spent either picking flowers or running backwards away from wildlife that I disturbed whilst picking flowers. There was some minor world-saving involved somewhere in amongst it all but I tried not to let that impinge on my adventures in extreme floristry.

So given the grip that Oblivion took on my life, it’s only with a certain amount of trepidation that I acknowledge Bethseda’s new game to be even better.

Fallout 3 is set in and around Washington DC following a nuclear exchange that’s left the area predictably devastated. Your character has grown up in an underground bunker in which generations have been raised completely cut off from what’s left of society and as the game proper starts you emerge blinking from the tunnels to try and find your way in the wider world by way of your wits, your charm and/or your shootiness.

Guess which one I went for.

Oblivion was and is one of the best-looking games ever made. A lush, larger-than-life world of rolling hills, thick forests and fanciful architecture, it made you feel like you were wandering around the cover of a high fantasy novel. It’s a playground of adventure, the natural habitat of characters with too many apostrophes and consonants in their names. Fallout 3 is beautiful in exactly the opposite way. It’s got the same rolling vistas stretching away as far as the eye can see in any direction, but rather than being grand and exciting it’s oppressive and melancholy, all bare trees, yellowed grass and gutted buildings. You wander through deserted towns filled with sad little Marie Celeste reminders of a society that was destroyed forever in the space of a handful of seconds – a children’s library full of ruined books and rusted toys, plates laid out on the counter of a diner, a charred skeleton in a hotel room’s bath. The largely-empty wilderness contrasts with the crumbling, claustrophobic concrete towers and broken tarmac of DC proper, which is packed to the gills with people and things that won’t think twice about killing you and taking all your stuff if you’re not prepared to do the same to them first. It’s a desolate, desperate place to live and one of the more atmospheric gameworlds in recent memory.

Pity that the NPCs aren’t generally as good as their surroundings. As in Oblivion the dialogue is generally iffy, the voice-acting is worse and the limitations of scripting often make characters’ behaviour odd at best and immersion-breakingly bizarre at worst. Fortunately other irritations have been resolved – the bonkers way everything in Oblivion’s world levelled up at the same time you did making you relatively speaking no better off for your increased experience is out, for example. There’s a new damage system which means you can pick on specific parts of your enemy’s body and opens up new tactical options – shooting the arm of a Super Mutant to stop him minigunning you to death, or wounding the antenna of a giant fire-ant to cause it to frenzy attacking its nest-mates or, best of all, a sniped headshot kill of an enemy who never knew you were there. To balance that, the AI is much more aggressive – in Oblivion most of the time if you missed or your opponent didn’t see exactly where your arrow came from a few moments after they were shot they’d go back about their business, clearly not wanting to make a fuss about the bloody great pointy stick that was jutting from their jugular. Miss your target in Fallout 3, or not realise that he’s got a bunch of mates hanging around, and you get a band of raiders in the face. And hurrah for that.

For all Fallout 3’s improvements over its stablemate, for me the bulk of its appeal still comes back to the world, though, the thoroughly impressive sense of place. You really wouldn’t want to live in the Wasteland, but my God it’s a fun place to visit.


Let me tell you about my birthday.

I had the day off, partly for birthday-related reasons but mostly because we were having a new sofa delivered so I had a very nice morning putting together my new Lego Y-Wing (it’s utterly lovely, if slightly fiddly thanks to loads of little pieces providing suitably authentic greebling. The engine nacelles were particularly fun to assemble and particularly awesome-looking) and playing some FIFA (fun but flawed – the excellent “Be A Pro” mode that sees you controlling only one player is ace for giving you ten other people to blame for your terrible performance).

About half-eleven, the sofa arrives. Delivery bloke ambles through the hallway, has a good look around and declares that It Is Good. He goes back to his lorry and gets the sofa which then completely fails to go through the front door. Delivery Bloke requests that I remove the front door, but initial attempts to remove the screws holding the hinges in prove awkward and mean an estimate of about half an hour to get the bloody thing off. Delivery bloke declares he has other deliveries scheduled and so can’t hang around. Delivery bloke sods off.

Bear in mind that the previous night we spent three hours plus dismembering the old sofas and carting them out the door, so we now have – count it! – no furniture in the living room.

I call my wife, who a) bought the bloody thing, b) was assured by the salescreature that it would go through the door and c) made doubly-sure by making a template of said sofa and checked it against said door. She calls the store and throws a wobbly. They tell her that the delivery blokes will finish their regular deliveries then fit us in at the end, and call us well in advance of their arrival so I’ve got time to get the front door sorted. Elaine says that as soon as she knows the time, she’ll arrange to head back from work to give me a hand. Coolio I think, and get back to pinging proton torpedoes at the cat and trying to break into the FC St. Pauli first team.

Half-one, I get a call from Delivery Bloke. They’re on their way and will be with me in 10 minutes. Cue panic. Elaine has to cancel her afternoon patients and comes rushing home, arriving pretty much the same time as Delivery Bloke, whereupon a second inspection reveals that the living room door’s going to have to go as well along with an extra block of wood that’s been attached to the frame to allow a smaller door to fit the door-hole (industry term). The door itself comes off easily enough, but the frame refuses to budge and eventually causes Elaine to attack it with an electric saw. Still, after maybe 20 minutes all the offending bits of our house have been removed and Delivery Bloke goes and gets the sofa.

Which still doesn’t fit through the front door.

Elaine calls the shop and throws Wobbly II – Judgement Day. Shop are singularly unhelpful, my personal highlight being when they asked if we had patio doors that we might try to get the sofa through. Oh YES! Because if we had patio doors, we DEFINITELY would have spent the last half-hour MUTILATING our sodding HOUSE to try and FIT THE COCKING THING THROUGH THE BLEEDIN’ FRONT DOOR, wouldn’t we?

Meanwhile, Delivery Bloke is on to his boss, who suggests that if we’re willing to risk a bit of scuffing we can try completely unpacking the sofa, chucking a blanket over the upholstered end and see if we can wedge it through the door. Given the huge sofa-shaped gap in the front room, and the fact that in a house with three kids, two dogs and a cat the bloody thing will end up hammered in no time anyway, we’re desperate enough to give this a whirl. And bugger me, if it doesn’t work after the necessary application of brute force and ignorance. Elaine and I collapse in an exhausted heap of stress until four hours later when I head out to go to poker and discover I’ve left my car’s lights on all weekend and flattened the battery.