#RPG – Review: DUST Adventures

I got my much awaited copy of DUST Adventures, the RPG by Modiphius Entertainment, set in Paolo Parente’s world of DUST, which has been used for model kits, a board game of world domination set in the same universe, comics and two battle games, one a more simplified and swift board-game battle – not too dissimilar to Rebel Assault (though it pre-dates it) and the other a more conventional wargame.

It’s fair to say that I’m something of a DUST fanatic and it’s also fair to say DUST has lost a fair bit of impetus recently due to changing partners from Fantasy Flight and getting embroiled – like so many people have – over fights about Kickstarter money. Here’s hoping the RPG and the new figure releases sets that in a different direction.

Modiphius, of course, are on the up and up – launching off their Cthulhu-themed world war two releases and branching out into a lot of other new projects. They’re definitely ones to watch if they don’t expand too fast – which is always a worry – or their Kickstarter led business model doesn’t fall through in the wake of all these other crowdfunding scandals which, to be fair, haven’t yet embroiled them.

So what’s DUST? DUST is an alternative world war two scenario wherein the German explorations in Antarctica lead them to discover an alien spacecraft buried in the ice and a surviving alien in a life support pod. The real pivot point of the alternative history doesn’t really come in until 1943 when Hitler is assassinated and the deployment of walkers – made using reverse-engineered alien technology and uniquely best suited to the combat conditions in Stalingrad lead to a German victory there.

With the removal of Hitler and the application of super-technology the Germans regroup and are able to go back on the offensive.

To cut a long story short we see the emergence of three great superpowers, the Axis, who are no longer Nazis (a shame really, since Nazis make great baddies), the Soviet Bloc – the SSU – which unites Russia, China and large chunks of South America following Marxist revolutions, and the Allies, which is mostly the United States and the former Empire of the United Kingdom, with a smattering of independent nations here and there.

England has been invaded in a successful Operation Sealion and even America is not untouched, suffering SSU incursions into Florida and Alaska. It’s now 1947 and the allies are hard pressed on every front still behind when it comes to technology and becoming increasingly desperate – when a UFO allegedly crashlands in Roswell, an event that may change the tide of the war again…

Aesthetically DUST has always been rooted in the pulps, bombergirls and pinups and that kind of fast-paced, weird war with uplifted gorillas, zombies, laser weapons, tesla weapons, supersoldiers and power armour has always been what the boardgame has been about, albeit with a harder more serious edge than some other treatments of the same concept.

With that out of the way let’s get into the game itself.

System

Characters creation is fairly simple, you toss a few points into a handful of statistics, select a few overlapping skill packages that represent your former life and experience and then you’re good to go. Characters in the DUST RPG are essentially the same as the heroic characters from the boardgame and wargame, super-tough heroes with special abilities that take them over and above the norm.

The game uses a fairly simple dice-pool system, again derived from the board-game and wargame and while you can use special dice (marked with targets, faction symbols and shields) you can – thankfully, also use normal dice counting 5-6 as the ‘target’ which is, typically, a hit. To succeed at a task you’ll be rolling a dicepool of Statistic+Skill and sometimes an Advanced skill on top. For example, a sniper might roll Mobility+Firearms+Sniper Rifle in taking their shot. Most of the time when you’re doing something of ‘average’ difficulty, you’ll be rolling to aim for two successes. Keep in mind that the whole system is skewed towards the heroic level, so an average person only has 1 in any statistic and probably only 1-2 in any skill, so some poor Chinese conscript is likely to only be rolling two dice with their attack and for those following along at home that’s only a one-in-nine chance of succeeding – without adding any more complications.

For players, they can push themselves beyond their normal capacity by using Action Points, a game-altering mechanic that along with their more unusual abilities lets them bend the game to favour the heroes. While there’s no explicit suggestion that the Games Master have Action Points of their own to spend, I would strongly suggest doing so.

The system itself is fairly intuitive from there, all the sorts of mechanics you’d broadly expect from a dicepool system. Damage gets a little complicated, especially compared to the existing boardgame where a point of damage is a casualty for a normal soldier and a level of damage for a hero. Here you get ‘capacity’ for mental damage, physical damage and non-lethal damage and everyone’s going to get at least two points in it, which can impact somewhat negatively on the pulp feel of gunning down whole units of enemy soldiers at a time and may have been an aesthetically compromising rules decision here.

Presentation

The game is hardback and just over 200 pages in length, it’s well put together and full colour throughout, though a lot of the art has the muddiness and lack of clarity that a lot of game art does these days. The layout is a bit cramped and this is not helped by a nearly two inch border column either side of the page spread which is occasionally filled with sidebar information and in-game fiction, but more often left blank. The page real-estate this takes up could, perhaps, have been better used to space out and present some of the content in a clearer way, or to include more background information on aspects of the gameworld that are under-explained, such as Japan.

A major disappointment for me was the art, not so much its execution, but its content. There are too many photographs of miniatures in here, fair enough that the makers of DUST are primarily in the model business, but to me it never looks good for much the same reasons as TV show games never look that good if they fill their pages with still images from the show. Art just works so much better thematically. Still, it wasn’t just that but that the pinup aesthetic so integral to DUST’s development and history had been so vastly toned down.

Call it sexism or whatever if you like, but the pinup is emblematic of the era and has been integral to DUST’s appeal since its inception lending it its unique visual style and supporting its cast of what you might call ‘strong female characters’. For them to be downplayed and largely absent is extremely disappointing.

The other disappointment is the lack of expanded detail on the game world. I was hoping to find out more about the background of the game world than what I have already gleaned from the wargame materials but there’s not much extra here – something that would have sold the book to non-RPG fans who are just fans of the game and its world.

Scores

I give marks out of five, before anyone jumps on me, and three is ‘average’.

On style I have to, sadly, give the game a three out of five. While it’s competently executed the muddiness of the art and the seemingly deliberate avoidance of the pinup aesthetic dramatically compromises the presentation of the book. While the material in it is sufficient to play it is cramped, sometimes hard to reference and has a lot of wasted space.

On substance I again give the book a three. There was a missed opportunity here to expand on the game world’s background, tease material for forthcoming releases and go into detail and this was missed.

Overall that gives DUST adventures a 3, an average score, but this is largely down to my investment in the broader game world and the intellectual property as a whole.

I would still recommend the game, but contextually within the IP as a whole. DUST Adventures reads more like a companion volume to the rest of the material, rather than necessarily as a stand-alone game of its own.

I’ll still be playing it.

[Review] Destiny: The Taken King

Z-1Destiny

I already liked Destiny.

This is an unpopular position to take and has made many people very angry.

I could always see the game within the game, the lore, the secrets, the hints of Big Ideas(tm). I enjoyed rooting them out, browsing the revealed grimoire information online (find the dead ghosts myself?) and figuring out what was going on and who my character was in this universe.

Of course it had some flaws. Not least hiding all that rich lore and story away where your average player wasn’t going to bother with it. Being limited to FPS gameplay. Becoming repetitive. Relying far too much on the grind. Relying far too much on multiplayer. All the rest of it. Plus it had the problems all MMOs have where everybody has done all those heroic things so nobody has any unique acts of heroism, plus the world never truly changing despite your actions.

Still. I loved it. The progression. The customisation. The lore. The look and feel. The world. The Big Ideas. It was just a flawed presentation that might have worked better as an RPG (so I made one…)

Previous Expansions

Neither House of Wolves nor The Dark Below really did much to change any of this. House of Wolves filled in a bit of lore about The Reef and the Queen and her Brother (whom, one suspects, may have had a Game of Thrones relationship…) and the Fallen who had settled there as well, The Dark Below took the mask away from a big enemy and gave us a bit more to understand about the Hive, but really this was more of the same.

2QThe Taken King

The Taken King is NOT more of the same.

The most jarring thing about The Taken King is how it has rejigged everything. Your ‘Light’ is now more akin to a ‘gear score’ in standard MMORPGs and, once you get past how jarring it is to lose all your old unupgradable gear (I almost cried) this change to the system and the gear subsystems is great. Just don’t forget you can upgrade purples to have higher attack/defence from other gear and don’t discard them, like your humble author (who probably shouldn’t have played all day).

On the other hand, you get swords now.

Story-wise presentation is much better now and… here be spoilers… the plot makes good use of Nolanbot, Cayde-6 (Nathan Fillion) and Eris Morn (Morla Gorrondona – which might have been a better name for the character, come to that) when it comes to exposition and really starts to, finally, bring some of your allies to life.

Now, I actually liked Dinklebot’s delivery (another unpopular opinion which has made many people angry) and find Nolanbot worse, but the way they’ve improved the ghost’s interactions and exposition – including scanning things for pure story reason during missions and patrols – is better.

You now have lore in the game, where you can get at it.

Patrols have a minor overhaul and have been more integrated into missions, you also get mysterious signals with unclear objectives you have to figure out.

The questlines dealing with The Taken King and leftovers from House of Wolves are better integrated, better explained, more ‘present’ as story and just generally better.

I haven’t bothered with PvP yet (I loathe PvP and only engage in it out of necessity or sufferance), but I’m told that the new Mayhem Mode is a lot of fun and that there are eight new maps. The most interesting new map is set in the European Dead Zone, which holds out promise for the future that we may get more content set on Earth and outside the now monotonously familiar Russian patrol zones.

Personally I’m holding out for Saturn, Jupiter and their many moons coming along in the future.

Guardians

Each Guardian now gets access to a third subclass that they can obsessively level up, can now level up to 40 and can further refine their gear to absurd and obscene levels.

Titans now get to be Sunbreakers, a solar class with all sorts of explosions and smashing powers.

Warlocks get to be arc-empowered lightning-throwers as the Stormcaller subclass.

Hunters now get to be void-empowered bowmen, kind of like the old Dungeons and Dragons cartoon ranger. Playing a Hunter this is what I have gotten to play so far and I honestly find it a little lacklustre. More effective in team play, playing solo it just doesn’t seem to have the sheer, devastating power of the arcblade attacks and, once I’ve levelled it up completely, I’ll be changing back.

ZAll things considered…

This is much more like the game Destiny should have been at launch. Finally the complete game we deserved. If it had started with this sort of level of presentation and polish I don’t think we’d have seen the harsh kinds of reviews we did. With the changes I would up my original review score of 3.75/5 to 4/5. There’s still some issues with the PvP necessity, more in-game presentation of lore needs to happen and we need new places to explore and conquer (the Dreadnaught is just too much like the Moon).

It’s also left some new things unexplained and taken some major NPCs out of the game (or has it…?) before we had a chance to really connect with them.

Still, things are really starting to look up.

Call of Cthentacle being Played

I gave out some free copies of Cthentacle at the Gamergate Birmingham and some of the guys played and recorded a session after I left.

Enjoy!

Review: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

A narrative computer game, derisively called a ‘walking simulator’. EGttR is as long-winded as its name, painfully slow to play with no meaningful interaction.

There’s zero point to this being a computer game or interactive experience since it isn’t really an interactive experience in any meaningful way. It would have been better as a film, radio-play or miniseries.

Pretty though.

Style: 4/5
Substance: 1/5
Overall: 2.5

#RPG – What IS the Appeal of Apocalypse World?!?

8850393Trying, again, to ‘get’ Apocalypse World

I’ve tried, several times, to get my head around Apocalypse World. I’ve appealed for help, listened to Podcasts and Actual Play and read the book over and again and I still can’t see how there’s really a playable game in here – worthy of the name – or what the bloody hell the appeal is to people.

This is immensely frustrating as I generally have an intuitive grasp of games systems and their appeal, even if I don’t personally like them very much.

So why not share my experience and frustration to see if that helps people help me…

The Basics

TB1. The first, major, problem with the game is that it drips pretension to such a degree that it is almost painful to read.

TB2. The archetypes and friendship-oriented play seems singularly ill-suited to the trops of a post-apocalyptic setting (with the exception of zombie horror, which is often ‘social horror’ in a similar way to ‘social science fiction’. Setting and system are not in harmony.

TB3. Bleh, psychics. See 2.

TB4. ‘Master of Ceremonies’, see 1. It’s kind of a tradition to rename Games Master at this point, but particularly bad choices still grate. At least it’s not ‘Hollyhock God’. Terminology in general is a problem this and a lot of other pretentious games have. It renders their communication more opaque than is strictly necessary.

TB5. Moves. I loathe and detest the whole idea of ‘Moves’ as they are presented in this game. For me the great, grand appeal of the RPG over other forms of interactive entertainment is the sheer freedom that they have, in spite of the limitations of rules. Apocalypse World, however, seems to hard-code into itself an extremely limited set of interactions that herd you into thinking in terms of ‘moves’ rather than ‘what is my character doing?’ Weirdly, the same problem 4e D&D had.

TB6. Strictly in terms of probability you’re going to hit a ‘7’ on 2D6 21/36 times (nearly 60% of the time). This seems a bit too easy for what’s supposed to be a dangerous setting and 10+ is a ‘strong hit’ – or a good result. Modifiers don’t seem to, normally, extend to more than +/- 3.

TB7. Character creation is normally pretty sacrosanct. Allowing another player to interfere with your character creation by ‘highlighting’ a statistic for you seems to me to horribly dismantle perhaps the most important aspect of player agency.

TB8. Stat terminology pretension rears its ugly head again and while Hx seems like a reasonable concept it makes less sense later on.

TB9. Gear isn’t well described here and the apparent rules raise some red flag but it’ll have to be understood ater.

TB9. Harm and healing seems needlessly complex and counter-intuitive. Debility seems to make sense though, not dissimilar to FATE’s consequences. Again, not well described here which makes it hard to know what to really think at this point.

TB10. Character advancement based on Hx seems to be just begging to be abused and could either turn every game into an orgy or a backstab-a-palooza.

The Characters

TC1. These characters just kill any desire I might otherwise have to play. The pretentious descriptions suck the potential joy out of them.

TC2. For a game with a largely non-explicit background, the explicit use of psychic weirdness relating to abilities not necessarily rooted in psychic power is an annoyance.

TC3. All these interwoven relationships are really going to fuck a game up if one of the players can’t make it from session to session and means that pregenerated scenarios for conventions are going to be in trouble if you can’t fill your table completely.

TC4. While you can get moves from other Playbooks with advancement, some moves on characters seem like things anyone should be able to get anyway and, again, the specificity of the moves is inherently limiting and anti-RP, a huge turn off.

TC5. Pre-set statistic grabs also limit your options and do not appear balanced, at all. EG: On The Battlebabe why would you take the second entry (total +3) as opposed to any other stat-grabs, which equal +4?

TC6. With gangs etc at your disposal from the get go, there’s much less impetus (or reason) to build, less goals for a character to have and less reason to take risks or do anything yourself.

TC7. Carrying +1 forward to your next roll often won’t make any sense. The Gunlugger, for example, will get a +1 on their next roll after having sex, but how will having had sex necessarily relate to what they’re doing?

TC8. Hardholder has all the problems that a Chopper has, but with the added problem of not being able to move, severely limiting game possibilities.

TC9. The other huge problem with ‘set moves’ is that they’re a bit of a throwback to very old RPGs where different things you did might have entirely different rules, whereas today (thankfully) most games operate under a unified rules-set. With every move acting differently, reference is demanded. I guess this is why there’s ‘playbooks’ but it seems like a sticking plaster over a basic design fault. Specialist booklets would normally be bonus material, not a necessity.

TC10. Helping or hindering people is based on your relationship with them, not your applicable statistic to the task at hand. So if you were trying to move a heavy object you’d be better off asking your girlfriend than Hunk Meatloaf the bodybuilder.

TC11. Rolling Harm in addition to taking it is going to slow down play. There’s also huge potential for abuse by Games Masters (sorry, MCs) and Players alike – repeatedly slapping the weapon out of someone’s hand on your attacks for example, will not be hard to do at all.

TC12. These Battle Moves aren’t explained at all. There’s a Battle Countdown but it doesn’t explain how it counts down, why it’s limited or what it does. It’s just thrown in there.

TC13. Why is ‘doing stuff under fire’ based on Cool and not based on what you’re actually doing? Given the layered rolling etc elsewhere why not roll Cool to see if you do better or worse at what you are really doing under fire?

Character Creation

Didn’t we cover this already? No, it’s more like the unspoken stuff from most games and a recap.

The Master of Ceremonies

MC1. So no predetermined plot. Fine. This is my favourite way to play but the game does not seem tailored to help the ‘MC’ with their improvisation, or indeed anyone else, another flaw with very set character types and set ‘moves’.

MC2. It’s useful to compare Apocalypse World with Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Where LotFP takes a ‘this is how I do it!’ tone, AW seems to take a more ‘this is how it IS done’ tone, which is offputting.

MC3. This mostly seems to be fairly generic advice, which can be useful, but again it ends up dripping pretension which just makes me want to be contrarian.

The First Session

TFS1. This was always the problem with FATE as originally written too, spending all that time on a formalised getting-to-know-the-characters and linking their backgrounds made it hard as fuck to throw together a game on short notice and was actually less meaningful than building relationships in play or in a free for all, or even simply ignoring the problem altogether.

TFS2. The worksheets seem like a good idea in theory, but as presented here it just seems like a confusing mess.

Prep for Play: Fronts

FR1. Fronts seem – like much in this game – needlessly complicated and hard-set where they don’t need to be and vague where they don’t need to be either. When should the clocks count down and why use clock terminology when the ‘clock’ only has six segments anyway and would be better and more conveniently represented by a D6?

FR2. Stakes aren’t well enough explained, or how they come into play.

FR3. With regards to opposition, so far at least everything seems to depend on the players FAILING. Not on an enemy succeeding. This would seem to rather rob NPCs and enemies of agency or, indeed, having a point. This isn’t like in Numenera, ‘baddies’ seem to be genuinely pointless. This may clear up in a bit.

Rules of Play: Moves Snowball

RoP1. Yeah, even the example of play shows the problem with the set moves.

RoP2. MC ‘moves’ don’t even seem to be moves and have, again, been unnecessarily formalised. This is stuff that emerges naturally through play.

Rules of Play: Harm & Healing

HaH1. Sources of harm don’t appear to include enemy action (as a direct attack) just screwing up, still.

HaH2. Cinematic harm doesn’t seem to fit with the implicit setting.

HaH3. How does harm against/from enemies work? Seemingly by fiat, or by forcing the player to make a roll – and fail. Sucking the tension out of the game. NPC harm is also a special case – again – further complicating matters.

HaH4. Gang damage seems like it wouldn’t work too well in practice either. A PC group could blast away at an enemy army forever and never do it any harm – at least by the rules.

Improvement

Imp1: Still not convinced the advancement system isn’t ripe for orgy-led/Hx tinkering abuse and handing over control of your highlighted stats to others robs the player of choice in character creation.

Imp2: Multiple characters? Because it leeches away player investment in characters and is ripe for abuse, again.

Basic Moves

BM1: ‘Bargains’ are a genuinely interesting ideas for a mechanic (yes, but…) but aren’t particularly well described or covered.

BM2: The battle clock is better described here, but still seems unnecessary and something that would emerge during play anyway.

Character Moves

CM1: Why are we filling a book with repetition?

The Character’s Crap

TCC1: Abstracting money is old hat and has always been super annoying. Abstracting barter makes more sense, after a fashion, but does harm immersion.

TCC2: As with most low-fi game systems the absence of distinction between types of gear and weapons makes them far less important, which can harm story and character specialisation due to the meaninglessness of the choices. The descriptive words here also seem somewhat useless or unnecessary to point out. This is especially an issue with the vehicles.

Advanced Fuckery

AF1: So it takes the advanced and optional rules before making things easier or harder is even an option.

Conclusion

This was probably the most useful thing in ‘grokking’ the game (even though its for Dungeon World), but I still l don’t really ‘get it’. https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/3269630/dwdotcom/eon-guide/Dungeon%20World%20Guide%20pdf%20version%201.2.pdf

AW is complex where it should be simple and simple where it should be complex. The ‘moves’ make it relatively inflexible and each move restricts a player unduly by their playbook and in their actions – as well as being further disempowered by several, deliberate system choices as written.

Relying on players fucking up, rather than enemies doing well is done better, IMO, in Numenera and the rules here as a whole seem manifestly unsuited to the implicit setting, as well as being hugely open for abuse.

I just cannot understand the appeal here. The disjointed mechanics and design choices seem antithetical to roleplay, to immersion, to the implicit setting, to making reactive, in-character choices and on top of that are ripe for abuse.

Character customisation and scaling is particularly pathetic, you only have statistics that range (normally) from -2 to +2.

If I were to use this for anything I’d have to tear it down to virtually nothing, boost the scale (2d12 would at least take the scale to 10, -4 to +4), get shot of the moves and cut out all the needless hectoring and pretension.

I’m not saying any of this to be mean. I have issues with other systems whose popularity escapes me as well (Savage Worlds for example) but AW appears to be a particularly egregious example where I can’t see anything that it actually does well enough to justify the love some people seem to have for it. There’s pretty much nothing a more conventional RPG doesn’t do better.

The one good thing I can take from it is only the nature of dice results.

1. No, and something bad happens.

2. Yes, but something somewhat bad happens.

3. Yes and something good happens.

This also might work even better if it were further expanded.

The appeal of this game as a means of doing anything remains a total mystery. What the hell does it do well? Why did it get all those awards?

#Review – The Peripheral

20821159I like William Gibson and I like – or adore – the overwhelming majority of the things he has written. He’s generally a switched on guy, a good egg and – despite having made the poor life choice to re-tweet that appalling bigot and sexist Chris Kluwe too often (EG: ever) – is an interesting person to follow on Twitter, where he’s a curator of the interesting and muse-inspiring.

It pains me, then, to say that his latest work The Peripheral is fucking awful.

It’s full of great ideas such as a post-apocalyptic New World Re-order, the future of drone technology, poverty-tech, the fate of techno-veterans, quantum communication with alternate timelines and so on, but in terms of telling an actual story?

It fails, utterly.

The Peripheral might as well be a ‘literary’ novel in that, while lots of ‘stuff’ happens, nothing really gets resolved in any sort of satisfying way and then it abruptly…

…stops.

I haven’t been left this dissatisfied since receiving half a blowjob.

This is a damn shame since, on paper, there’s good and interesting plots to get your teeth into. Illuminati-like financial conspiracies from another universe, a murder mystery, the threat of a Presidential assassination and the question of whether there’s meaning or worth in providing altruism to a universe you know the approximate future of, even though there’s really nothing in it for you.

None of these are handled with any emotional or structural satisfaction and it all just sort of tails off into a shapeless mush.

Avoid and wait for his next one.

Score
Style: 3/5
Substance: 1/5
Overall: 2/5

[Review/Analysis] Mad Max: Fury Road

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Review

Tom_M_1803904aYou’ve seen plenty of reviews of Mad Max: Fury Road by now, so I’ll just cut to the chase and then skip on to the commentary like a crack-addled roo on hot sand.

It’s a great film, you should go and see it.

Remember how they said the freeway scene in Matrix Reloaded aimed to do for car chases what they’d done for gunfight? They failed. This didn’t.

Score
Style: 5/5 (I almost want to see an animated version so Brendan McCarthy’s insanity can be dialled back up to 11)
Substance: 4/5 (while very little is explicitly explained and a lot isn’t shown, the whole all hangs together very nicely)
Total: 4.5/5

With that out of the way, let’s delve into the themes, design, mythology and all the rest of the film.

Caution, we’re going to get DiGRA level pretentious here.

HERE BE SPOILERS

Analysis

Fury Road is an ‘important’ film and looks on course to be a near-universal, critical success – if not necessarily an immediate financial success (earning 2/3rds of what Pitch Perfect 2 has on opening weekend, which is a fucking disgrace).

Fury Road in the Mad Max Mythology

521796-mel_gibson_mad_max_photograph_c10104041The Mad Max timeline is pretty straightforward for the most part, though hard and fast timelines are hard to come by. If we take year 0 of the collapse of civilisation as being concurrent with Mad Max it runs something like this…

0 – Mad Max
2 – Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
17 – Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome

As we progress through the films the Mad Max series becomes more and more surreal and incorporates more and more mythological and strange elements, culminating in Max passing completely into legend as a demigod hero archetype of the Great Northern Tribe.

The availability of guns and fuel, combined with the strangeness of Brendan McCarthy’s designs probably places Fury Road as a ‘Mad Max 2.5’. Neither a reboot nor a sequel, but rather another story in Max’s legend, told around camp fires in the tribal societies that spring up as the world starts to recover.

119492Less Stalk Strine

Mad Max’s sheer ‘Australianness’ is a bit more muted in Fury Road than it is in previous instalments, though it is still present in accents, outback sensibilities, slang and hints of aboriginal style – especially in the older women that appear later in the film. The strangeness of the heads of the three settlements (Immortan Joe, The People Eater and the Bullet Farmer) further enhances the weird, Dreamtime esque nature of the film, which often seems to be surfing a line between hallucination and car chase.

It is a shame we don’t see more uniquely Australian vehicles, like Holdens (the old types of which are great looking muscle cars) but that’s more than made up for with the customisations which render the vehicles as iconic and mythological as the villains and characters.

In the later Max films, and in this one, you also get a sense of a similar veneration/guilt of the aborigine that one also sees in the relationship of the Americans with their own native tribes, a sense that a degeneration into a tribal culture is a way to survive… and that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Environmental Apocalypse

MadMaxFuryRoadImmortanSince its inception Mad Max has been invested with environmental and societal concerns about the breakdown of the world and order as a whole. This began with oil wars, spread to water wars and culminated in a limited nuclear exchange. The sense of looming environmental apocalypse remains large in the public consciousness, more than oil wars did in the 70s or nuclear war in the 80s.

This instalment brings that sense to the fore and while the film was 90% practical effects, the CGI that has been used seems to have been used to enhance that sense of a blasted wasteland and the out-of-control weather than threatens it. The storm in particular is almost a character in and of itself, recalling superstorms from certain other forms of doomsaying, prophetic fiction.

The destruction of the outer world is reflected in destruction of the inner world this time around, something previously (largely) unexplored in previous instalments. Many, even most, of the people in Fury Road have some kind of deformity or problem, from the anaemic, albino war boys to the tumour-ridden People Eater and the amputee Furiosa. Max’s inner destruction is mental, and he is strangely ‘absent’ (mentally) from much of the film.

The macro-environment is ruined, the micro-environment of the body is ruined by deformity and the societal environment is ruined by the lack of hope for the future, with even the possibility of healthy offspring being a rare and valued commodity.

It’s also worth noting that the three warlords are also three old men, people from the time before, a generation responsible for the collapse and living off the bones of the old world.

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Warlords, Child Soldiers, Sex Slaves & Failed States

nerdy_mad_max_fury_road_1If something new has been added to the mythology of the series with this ‘episode’ it is bringing in – or replacing – the feral children of before with concerns and themes taken from the war torn areas of Africa. The Warboys are child soldiers, brainwashed and made vicious with indoctrination and promises of an afterlife. The sex slaves (the wives and mothers) recall the fate of those taken by Boko Haram and Immortan Joe, along with the heads of the other settlements, are warlords of the Somali ilk – ruling through fear and force of arms.

Mad Max has always had warlords and bandit leaders, but – while in the background – the shared rule of the three warlords is something new and their uneasy and grudging truce brings a believable, grounded element to an otherwise over the top film. A plausibility.

Immortan Joe – The Hero

Immortan Joe, hinted to be a former military officer before the collapse, may actually be the hero of the film, for all his violence, evil, imprisonments and slavery.

Hear me out.

  • Joe has forged his people into a powerful bloc and has secured peace with two neighbouring settlements for fuel and ammunition, trading water and even milk (albeit human milk) with them and helping to sustain them.
  • He rains water down on the people below, to buy their loyalty, sure, but it’s still an act of munificence and one that’s unnecessary from the point of view of such a warlord who might well be better off keeping it for himself.
  • His society is strong enough and wealthy enough in terms of resources that it can afford to keep the sick and mutilated and even to treat them – with blood transfusions and medical aid.
  • Even more than that, he gives the mutated and cancer-ridden sons of the apocalypse purpose, a reason to live, a way to be strong and useful as his warboys.
  • Joe is not just a scavenger, he has hope, he has a vision for the future and the survival of the human race and his breeding of that future generation (despite his age, he may be a healthy option compared to children of the apocalypse) bears fruit (albeit stillborn thanks to being hit by a car) in a perfect baby boy, cancer free.
  • Everything was going great, right up until they capture Max and Furiosa and the wives make their selfish run for freedom, lacking Joe’s vision for the future. Things that may well doom the future of the human race…

Harsh times can require harsh measures. A society is only ever as free and liberal as it can afford to be and in the world of Mad Max, there’s not much to spare. Joe might well have been exactly what was needed – and now he’s dead. (Side note, the same actor played Joe that played Toe-Cutter in the original).

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Feminism?

maxresdefault (2)There’s been a big fuss about whether Fury Road is a feminist film or not. This was largely spurred by a blog post on Return of Kings bemoaning it as ‘feminist propaganda’ and a disproportionate reaction to that bemoaning characterising it as a Men’s Rights moan (it isn’t, RoK isn’t part of the Men’s Human Rights Movement and has a lot of nasty things to say about the MHRA as it happens). While RoK occasionally has some thought provoking articles on it, they’re generally thought-provoking in the same that ones on – say – Jezebel are, in that they make you want to put your fist through sheet glass.

The film has also been (secondarily) marketed in many blogs, critical sites and newspapers as being a feminist film.

But is it?

No. I don’t think so.

Much has been made of the Furiosa character, but kick-arse female characters are nothing new and in many ways she’s simply a ‘Miss Male’ (as you might put it). Her femininity is absent from her as a character, while it is simultaneously invested in the wives. The wives are far from strong, soft, feminine, first really seen in virginal robes and ‘frolicking’ in water in a scene played in no small part for its sensuality and from Max’s point of view (a ‘male gaze’, albeit one really more concerned with getting a metal mask off his face than ogling boobs).

The wives are damsels in distress, to the power of a hundred. The other mothers in The Citadel are – literally – brood mares and milking cows. Furiosa, it can be assumed, is infertile otherwise she wouldn’t be driving the rig.

Charlize-Theron-Furiosa-Total-FilmThe closest the film gets to feminism are the older women from Furiosa’s original settlement who are a bit ‘Mary Sueish’, combining the aboriginal wisdom tropes and a grab-bag of classical female tropes from old mythology. While they’re set up as agricultural, mother-Earth types in a way we first meet them using the sexuality and nudity of their younger members to bait a trap and we find they’ve resorted to banditry, just like everyone else. They’re just as vicious, just as compromised and even without taking that into account these aren’t feminist tropes – they’re very ancient stereotypes of women as totems of fertility, fecundity, agriculture and peace.

So is it feminist?

No.

It’s plausible, it’s grounded in the real-world fate of women in failed states and it taps into both ancient mythology and new apocalyptic myth (The Road and its human farm springs to mind) and it treats everyone who can fight or contribute as equals.

It’s an egalitarian film if its anything, but only for those in a position to assert their independence. Neither the Warboys nor the Mothers (or wives) have any freedom, because of circumstance and necessity.

Max, on the other hand, is barely human in this, male or female. He’s a force of nature. An animal bent on – as he says at the start – the single goal of survival. This is, strangely, best exemplified off-screen when he disappears to ‘dispose’ of a pursuer, and we never actually see what he does.

Basic Film, Far from Basic Scope

90% of the film is practical effects and that’s a huge part of its charm. CGI still can’t compete with practical effects and this, combined with the sheer pace of the film (and, I think, the fact that every shot has been fine tuned by Miller right down to the frame rate) keeps your attention glued to the screen. This is ano mean feat in a world where our attention spans have been eroded by constant stimulation and access to electronics.

This seems, hopefully, to be part of a swelling trend to return to practical effects. The new Star Wars – so we’re told – goes back to old-school practical effects as much as possible and judging from the quality of Fury Road that’s a hopeful trend and something that may help me get back into cinema, to which I have become increasingly jaded of late.

Straightforward filming techniques, practical effects, attention to detail and above all an overriding commitment to the concept without compromise are what stand Fury Road out from the crowd and while little is explicitly explained it dwells in a sweet spot of modern mythologising in away even the New Gods of superhero cinema can’t.

Go see it.

It’s fucking bonkers.

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