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Assassin’s Creed Odyssey falls far short of its own wondrous sandbox – TechCrunch

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It’s hard to imagine a better demonstration of the state of AAA gaming today than Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, a game where the whole of the wine-dark Classical Aegean is available for you to ply with your oars — but which operates according to a risible, cartoonish video game logic that seems, if possible, even more anachronistic. Should you play it? Absolutely.

(Very minor spoilers ahead.)

In case you haven’t been following the Assassin’s Creed… well, odyssey, the last few years, the game took some time off following the lavishly produced but ambivalently received Unity and Syndicate games, set in revolutionary Paris and Victorian London, respectively. The series, critics said, was wearing itself a bit thin despite the fabulous set dressing.

You can imagine everyone’s surprise when AC returned in Origins, set in an enormous swathe of ancient Egypt. New systems nudged the game from the stealth action of its roots toward the expansive, open-world RPG currently in vogue. It was a little rough around the edges, but the scale was welcome, as was the shift away from the increasingly turgid Assassins versus Templars secret society scramble.

The news that the next game would take place in Ancient Greece at the time of the Peloponnesian War thrilled me to no end. I’ve always been a fan of the Classical era, Homer and Herodotus and Periclean Athens and all that. I’ll also admit to an unironic love of “300” and the story of Leonidas’s last stand — the graphic novel, not the movie, which was awful.

Are you kidding me? Look at this.

Here, then was that world brought to life with all the fidelity that Ubisoft’s hundreds of artists and modelers could bring, with a narrative combining secret societies with classical warfare, historical figures and high-seas adventure (I loved the pirate-themed AC Black Flag). On paper this is the greatest game ever to grace the screen.

And in a way, it is. Ubisoft’s rendering of the Classical world is so beautiful, so massive, so obviously a labor of love and skill and intensive research that I have spent much of my time in the game simply gawking.

The costumes! The statues! The landscapes! The light! It’s a feast of details at every location, from the idyllic backwater of Kephallonia, where your hero begins their story, to the sprawling, bustling Athens just approaching the zenith of its glory. I (that is to say, my character) walked past the Theatre of Dionysus in its construction, which I have visited in person (now ruined and restored, of course), and on up to the Acropolis, where I scaled the Parthenon and looked out over the tiled roofs under one of which, for all I know, I may find Plato sitting and writing The Symposium.

Seriously.

Then I meander to the harbor, board my black ship and split the seas to explore any of the islands in the entire Aegean — any of them. The whole Aegean! Well, most of it, anyway. Enough that you won’t ask for more. Here be mythical creatures, political machinations, stormy seas and sunny shanties.

The world that Assassin’s Creed Odyssey inhabits, I feel confident in saying, is the largest and most impressive that I have encountered, with special credit given for having to reflect reality to a certain extent, which is not a limitation shared by its eminent competition in the open-world genre, like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild.

In my opinion, both as a gamer and a lover of antiquity, it is worth the price of admission to experience this world, to see and hear Ancient Greece in a way that was heretofore impossible, and simply to revel in the almost inconceivable level of craft that was so obviously put into this mind-boggling world.

And now, having made that judgment, I will proceed to trash the game I just recommended for about two thousand words.

The game itself

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, the game itself, is embarrassing to play. The characters you interact with and the minute-by-minute gameplay are so uneven that I truly believe that Ubisoft simply didn’t have time to adequately play-test it. It feels like the game was just too big to run through once they’d made it so they just shipped. If someone from Ubisoft were sitting next to me as I played, I would expect them to be cringing constantly.

It’s an incredibly lopsided collection of old and new ideas, balanced and unbalanced systems, good and bad UI, intuitive and baffling combat, beautiful and repulsive graphics, and excellent and laughable voice acting. I haven’t finished the game, let alone all the side quests, but although I expect to encounter more good things as I go, the bad things were apparent pretty much from the first few minutes and haven’t abated.

The AI of the people in this game seems to have regressed 10 years to a simpler age. They are truly idiots all, from people on the street to elite soldiers.

Good old Adrastos the Logician, engaging in hand to hand combat.

One of the first things that happened when I got my horse and learned to have it follow a road was that it mowed down a few laborers. This, I found, would happen everywhere I went: every character in the game walks right in the center of the road and dives madly out of your way as you canter down it, screaming and cursing. Wild animals cluttered the road, and reacted confusedly as I approached, throwing themselves under the hooves of my steed, Phobos.

This was my first taste of what would become a theme. Why, I asked myself, wouldn’t these people just walk on the side of the road? The developers clearly accounted for horses riding down it, and have behaviors and barks for when that happens. But it’s so weird, so unrealistic, so video gamey. Surely in this lovingly rendered world it is not unusual for a horse to run down a mountain road? Why then do they behave in this way? Because the people were not created intelligently — it’s as simple as that. None of them.

I once emptied a military camp of guards and then set about looting the place. A woman was being held captive in a cage — not an uncommon thing to find — so I let her out. As she escaped, thanking me, I turned to take the items out of a nearby chest. The woman, mid-escape, screamed with rage at me for this theft, snatching a nearby spear and rushed me in righteous anger. What?

Perhaps I can’t expect every peasant to be a genius, but guards too (of all ranks) are unbelievably dense. They will step over the corpses of their fellow men to get to their post and not say a word. They will fail to hear the clashing of swords, or not notice a guy being violently flipped over and disemboweled, a matter of feet away. They will follow you one by one around corners where you can dispatch them individually and fail to see or care about the ever-widening pool of blood. They are as dumb as the dumbest guards from games that came out 10 years ago.

“Mother of Spiders”

Not much better are the much-ballyhooed mercenaries, who come after you if you do too many bad things. It’s not really clear what the bad things are, but eventually you’ll see a red helmet icon on your map and know you’ve been naughty. They’re basically guards with special weapons and a few characteristics like “weak to fire” or “takes 20 percent less ranged damage.” Technically they have backstories but you have to drill down to their description to find them, and by the time you’re doing that you’ve probably already killed them. You can recruit them for your ship, like you can recruit anyone, but they generally amount to stat bonuses with funny names like Demos the Drunk. He didn’t act drunk — just had a spear I wanted, so I took him out. I mean, the variation is welcome, but it’s nothing like, for example, the nemesis system in the Mordor series.

Combat is a real mix. You are no longer a fragile assassin who can be killed from a few good hits, but a powerful warrior with supernatural skills like instant mid-battle heals and teleportation. This is combat between equals, but your equals are generally stiff types with two or three attacks they repeat over and over, glowing a bright red or gold before doing so.

A slippery-feeling dodge system zips you through these attacks, or you can parry some of them, then slash away at your attacker. Some guards or targets, especially if they’re a level or two above you, will take minutes of patient slashing before they drop. I was sent on a hunt to kill a legendary boar that I gave up on after a couple minutes because I had only taken its health down by a quarter while not being hit myself.

Compared with other action RPGs it’s pretty listless stuff. More appealing is the stealth, which the fools of guards are obviously there to encourage, since you can empty a camp or fort of its occupants systematically and it can be quite satisfying. But with the perfect knowledge effected by scouting such a place with your eagle’s x-ray vision, it feels more like bullying than anything.

The Peloponnesian War is going on around you, though you’d be hard-pressed to notice most of the time. You don’t exactly take sides, since whatever area you’re in, your enemies are the ones in control. You can weaken the faction in power by various means and force a battle (a melee in which the combat, now against dozens, feels frustratingly sloppy), but ultimately the guards and camps feel much the same as one another — Spartans have different helmets from Athenians.

I thought at first this would be deeper than it is. I had looted a variety of armor pieces, several of which suggested I could use them to blend in among the Athenians whom I was at that moment working to undermine. So I donned them and headed to the nearest camp, hoping to walk about unsuspected, Hitman-style, sowing chaos by releasing caged animals and setting fire to supplies. Nope: I was immediately attacked on approaching the gate, before I’d even come in or done anything suspicious. The guard that had never seen me before apparently recognized me as the bloodthirsty mercenary who’d wiped out a camp a mile or so away, minutes earlier. No espionage for me.

It’s never really clear who you’re fighting or why, because the locations and people are just names. It doesn’t matter if they’re Athenian or Spartan, just that they’re the ones between you and the treasure chest. I guess that’s the life of a mercenary, but it doesn’t make you care a lot.

That was a quest?

The RPG elements, from gear to abilities, have almost no integration with the game itself. From the very beginning you can see your whole skill tree, including things involving the magic spear that you don’t yet know is magic. You gain new abilities and upgrade your ship not through interesting quests or meeting interesting people, but simply by spending points and resources.

When your ship’s captain says the hull ought to be upgraded, it’s not the start of a quest to find some cool big trees or visit his hometown where he left his ship-building tools and pals. It’s literally just a reminder to stock up on wood and iron and press the button to upgrade in the pause screen.

When you meet a talented carpenter whose brother is being held by bandits, it isn’t a quest to reunite these guys for a power team that enables a ship repair superpower. He just turns out to be a regular guy who increases your hull strength by a couple of percentage points.

Quests, talked up ahead of release as being fully voiced and emergent, as though you’re receiving a request from help from a needy merchant or the like, are nothing of the sort. Every one I’ve encountered so far has been a variant of: Kill these five wolves specifically. Kill these three Spartan elite guards specifically. Kill these bandits. Sink these ships.

Each has a flimsy justification (they’re blocking the road; they stole money from me) and are often atrociously acted. In one I found the quest giver asleep; he obligingly woke me up to say he wanted to take the fight to some bandits who had been demanding money from him. As soon as I agreed, those very bandits appeared not 10 feet away and instantly ran him through. Quest failed.

There are deeper side quests, to be sure. But the hundreds of quests you’ll see on quest boards or appearing randomly in the wild are like this, and rarely give more than a spritz of XP and gold. Sometimes you can recruit the quest-giver, though they might or might not be helpful on your crew.

I wish that they had taken the time and effort that went into creating 20 or 30 of these quests and made one single side quest with multiple steps, characters that mattered a bit, and provided substantial rewards like a new ability for your ship.

Even main story quests, such as the targets you’ll be taking on, can be disappointingly shallow. You’re supposed to be following threads and clues, but several are just handed to you: Here’s some lady. Here’s her exact location. Go kill her. No dialogue, no footwork, no alternatives. Stab this person and take their shiny thing. Shouldn’t I at least try to get some information out of her? Why isn’t there even a death cut scene like in so many of the other games?

The writing is hit and miss. The main story and its immediate side quests are fine — I’m perhaps 25 hours in and I’m interested to see where it’s going, even if it’s not particularly surprising. And it helps that the writing and voices for the main characters are leaps and bounds above the rest.

I chose to play as Kassandra, as opposed to Alexios, for a lot of reasons. And I love her. She’s well-acted, her writing is funny and occasionally realistic, and I like that she is indistinguishable from her male alternative in every way. Your companions, especially Herodotos and your exuberant captain Barnabas, are great.

Yet other characters are ridiculous: badly written, worse acted. Even major ones. I remember one exchange with a soon-to-be-target who was pressuring me to torture some poor sap. His voice acting was so bad, especially compared to his interlocutor Kassandra’s, that I was laughing out loud. He was far from the only example of this.

Games like The Witcher 3 have spoiled us on the quality of the writing and quests, but that should be a new bar to meet, not a high-water point. It’s sad that Ubisoft hasn’t upped its game here, so to speak; it feels like 90 percent of the game I’ve played so far is purely mechanical, and even at its best it sits like a layer of butter spread thinly across an enormous Greek piece of toast. But what toast!

It’s tantalizing to see how good a game like this could be, only to be let down again and again with elements that would feel out of date 10 years ago. I’m having a great time when I’m not shaking my head at it, and enjoying the scenery when I’m not being attacked by one of the evidently 50,000 bears out for my blood in the Classical world.

As I wrote earlier, to me it is worth buying just for the good parts. But as someone who cares about games and loves the idea of this one, I can’t help but observe how dated and baffling it is at the same time. It doesn’t live up to the world it was created to inhabit, but that world is practically a complete game in itself, and one that I immediately loved.

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How Foundation preserved Asimov’s big ideas while bringing the story to vivid life

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Enlarge / The only constant is change in Apple TV’s adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation

YouTube/Apple TV+

When showrunner David S. Goyer took on the monumental task of adapting Isaac Asimov’s hugely influential Foundation series of science fiction novels for Apple TV+, he knew it would not be a straightforward matter. As I’ve written previously, the author himself admitted that he wrote strictly for the printed page, and he always refused invitations to adapt his work for film or TV.

But Asimov was more than happy to let others adapt his work to a new medium, and he was wise enough to expect that there would—and should—be significant departures from the print version. In doing so, Goyer had to strike a balance between respecting Asimov’s sweeping visionary ideas without lapsing into slavish reverence and over-pontification. To my mind, he did it beautifully, producing more of a remix than a straight adaptation that is compelling and powerful in its own right.

Another challenge was figuring out how to incorporate science and technology that was reasonably accurate. An astrobiologist and planetary scientist at Jet Propulsion Lab, Kevin Hand had worked with Goyer years before on Krypton, and the two had stayed in touch. So when Goyer needed a scientist with expertise in space, interstellar travel, and planetary dynamics, among other topics, naturally he turned to Hand.

Ars sat down with Goyer and Hand to learn more about the journey to bring this classic work to television.

(Some spoilers for the Apple TV+ series below, but no major reveals.)

Jared Harris stars as visionary mathematician Hari Seldon.
Enlarge / Jared Harris stars as visionary mathematician Hari Seldon.

Apple TV+

Ars Technica: It’s incredibly difficult to adapt this huge body of work for the screen, even in an extended format like streaming television, in part because the Foundation series is such a beloved classic work of science fiction. What did you see as the most daunting challenges?

David Goyer: The books have been revered for 70 years. A lot of people have a very personal connection to the books. Even if you aren’t a fan of science fiction, if you go into someone’s library or home office, the one piece of science fiction that you will see on any serious person’s bookshelf is Foundation. That’s a tremendous responsibility. But I also knew that if the show was going to work, it would have to appeal to people who’d never read the books—and hopefully to people who don’t even like science fiction. 

When Asimov was writing the books, he was writing in a post World War II environment. He was using science fiction as allegory to talk about his contemporary world. That was 70 years ago. If we’re using an allegory, I have to reference post 9/11. I have to reference climate change, the rise of nationalism, the Me Too movement, all of these things. These are the things that are happening now.

I asked the Asimov estate if they were okay with that, and they said, yes, of course. Asimov himself recognize even before he died that certain liberties would have to be taken. These are books about ideas, about philosophy. I think people tune into streaming shows primarily for characters and emotion. They need to become invested in the fates of these characters. For me, that was the big challenge: how do I make it emotional?

Lou Llobell plays Gaal Dornick.
Enlarge / Lou Llobell plays Gaal Dornick.

YouTube/Apple TV+

I had to figure out ways of having characters embody his themes. So the question that I posed my writers and my actors, my directors, anytime we were going over a scene was, I know we’ve got spaceships and we’ve got robots and we’ve got nanotechnology and gene editing. But if we strip all of this away, does this story still work on a purely emotional contemporary level?

Take Dawn, the youngest Cleon. That’s a story about a teenager who doesn’t feel secure in his own skin. I think a lot of people can relate to that. It’s also a story about legacy and sacrifice and what we are willing to give up for future generations for our children. I don’t think I could have adapted this prior to being a father. I don’t think I thought that much about what the world was going to be like for my hypothetical children. But I think about that a lot now.

Kevin Hand:  From a science standpoint, it’s not just the magnitude of concepts like psychohistory. One could imagine that conscious beings could eventually be treated like particles in a thermodynamic system so there might be some mass predictability. That is easy to sustain from a plot standpoint because that’s what Asimov did. But the rest of the Asimov stories are pretty choppy.  The original books were not really books, they were stories—little vignettes set in different periods of the galactic fall and the rise of the Foundation. As great as the original Asimov books are, from a character standpoint, they’re relatively weak. David and his team had to figure out how to maintain character consistency, as well as consistency of scenes associate with those characters. And that means maintaining consistency in the planetary environments and establishing shots of the solar system, to give a sense of where you are as you can go through the galaxy.

Brother Day (Lee Pace) is not pleased with Seldon's dire predictions.
Enlarge / Brother Day (Lee Pace) is not pleased with Seldon’s dire predictions.

YouTube/Apple TV+

So my role has largely been helping define and refine the solar systems and planets on which the characters act and on which the plots unfold. David loves thinking about different kinds of stars. Could we have a planet around a pulsar in this scenario, because a pulsar is just visually cool? But then we have to deal with the radiation environment that any organism would experience on that world. Do you want photosynthesis to happen on a planet? If so, you’re subscribing yourself to some variation of a G2 type star that allows yellow light to be the driving force for green plants to flourish. Certainly there might be plants that utilize other pigments on other worlds, but then you hit a practical constraint: if we’re filming in a jungle on Earth, you’re stuck with green.

We’re looking at a storyline that could go on for eight seasons. So you don’t want to make a decision that you’re going to regret later on. You don’t want to commit yourself to a planet that has certain characteristics, and then later on regret the choice of those characteristics. There’s a lot of thinking about the immediate need of science and planetary context for an episode. But also, is this a planet that’s going to be in the show for the long haul? Or is this just a one-off?

Ars Technica: The destruction of Trantor’s space elevator, the Starbridge, is a focal point of the pilot episode. What were the scientific considerations involved in staging that?

Kevin Hand: We had to think about the rotation of Trantor. What happens once you destabilize the top? Instead of just crashing down straight at the base, you’re wrapping around the planet. That much we know would certainly happen. Then you have to factor in the atmosphere and momentum. Would it spiral as opposed to just laying down flat? We played around with a few different scenarios. In the end, there is that scene of the Skybridge laying down like a long cord across the planet. That helped cut that chasm and set the stage for certain characters later going into that chasm and seeing the sub-levels of Trantor.

The fall of the Starbridge
Enlarge / The fall of the Starbridge

Ars Technica: David, you’ve said that you consider time to be a character in its own right in this series, because the books span thousands of years. Can you expound upon that?

David Goyer: In my first meeting with Apple, I said, I don’t think it’s possible to adapt this without taking time jumps. Sometimes we are going to jump forward a generation. Sometimes we’re going to jump forward 100 years. Sometimes we’re going to jump back 400 years. Sometimes we’re going to tell two stories that are not in parallel timelines. I need to know that you’re okay with that. If, you’re not, I don’t think we can do this show.

The tropes of science fiction allow us to explore time in ways that we couldn’t do in a contemporary drama. We can deal with a character going into cryo sleep and waking up 40 or 50 years later, we can deal with crazy concepts like time dilation, where time is relative. All of that is nerdy and technological, but it’s only interesting if it’s also emotional. Episode five is a major one for Gaal’s story. It very much plays with time in all sorts of different ways. The first season is largely narrated by Gaal. I’m interested in unreliable narrators. This isn’t just purely an omniscient narration. Gaal is telling the story from some distant point in the future and reflecting back on what we’ve seen. What is she editing out? What is she adding? Is it a subjective depiction of the events that are unfolding or is objective?

There’s a lot of power in history. What we choose to forget and what we choose to remember, what we choose to record in history is important because it changes our orientation to the past and to the future. Hari Seldon is using psychohistory to predict the broad movements of civilization. He can’t predict your individual lifeline, what you had for dinner, but he can predict the broad movements of humanity. Is he predicting a probable future or a definite future? And when you’re dealing with predicting the future, what does that mean in terms of our own human agency?

A rare mathematical treatise with personal relevance for the young genius.
Enlarge / A rare mathematical treatise with personal relevance for the young genius.

Apple TV+

Ars Technica: Math also a character of sorts, and I especially loved how you portrayed the mathematics. It’s visually elegant and arresting, but also, in a way, emotional and human.

David Goyer: It’s funny because math was the one subject in school that I was terrible at. I had a mathematical block, even with a tutor. I got D’s. But I was always fascinated with math. I always wished in another life, I could have been a mathematician. I approached math in the show almost as if it were like communing with angels. I like this idea that Gaal and Harry are the only two people that can read the math. It’s impenetrable to everyone else.  When we talk about the prime radiant and the depiction of math, I wanted the visual depiction of it to be beautiful and almost mystical. I didn’t want to have Roman numerals. We did a lot of concept art and visual effects tests for how the math would be portrayed.

Ars Technica: It’s always a challenge to determine just how accurate the science needs to be in a fictional series. Kevin, what was your basic philosophical approach as science advisor? 

Kevin Hand: Our attitude was, let’s do our best to have a decent degree of fidelity to the science, but not lose sight of what’s going to be dramatically gratifying and serve the story well. As you well know, the science on screen does best when the stories and characters drive what you’re watching and the science is incorporated in a way that doesn’t jar you out of the story. If it’s bad science, then it’s just a laughable film, but if you’re overly subscribed to the science, then that breaks the viewer’s connection to the story also. The classic example is the attempt to retroactively explain the Force in Star Wars. You just didn’t need to go there scientifically.

Brother Dusk (Terrance Mann) confronts an adolescent Brother Dawn (Cassian Bilton).
Enlarge / Brother Dusk (Terrance Mann) confronts an adolescent Brother Dawn (Cassian Bilton).

Apple TV+

For example, in the scene where a professor on Synnax is drowned, originally he was just tied to books. But books are not going to sink anybody, so you need to tie some rocks to those books. Also, you want the planets to appear majestic with moons and rings. But if you actually do the Kepler’s law analysis of how fast a world should be going at what distance, you end up with systems that are somewhat similar to the Earth and our moon. As big and beautiful as our moon is, it’s really not that big in our night sky. So if you want a dramatic establishing scene of rings and moons, you need a bit of Keplerian leniency as to where exactly you place the planet and how fast it goes. Just go with a nice visual and don’t worry about the rotation of moving around the planet.

The scene where Dawn jumps off the ledge is a good example of knowing when science can inform you about what not to show. In the original script, you see him slam down into the ground, but if he really had a protective force field, he would bounce. If you want to show the full fall, then you’re going to have to show this bounce. Or just show kind of the aftermath, which is exactly what they did. You see the initiation of the jump and then you see him just kind of suspended. That’s a beautiful way to incorporate science in a way that doesn’t actually show on the screen, but helps inform a scene.

Gazing at the stars.
Enlarge / Gazing at the stars.

Ars Technica: David, you’ve talked about how you saw so much more in them when you re-read the books in your forties, compared to reading them as a young man. That element is incorporated into the Cleons. Brothers Dawn, Day, and Dusk are genetically the same person, yet their outlook changes as they age. To me, this says something about the timelessness of Asimov’s series, and why they still resonate today. 

David Goyer: The show is about the politicization of science. Three years ago, when I was adapting it, the pandemic was not on any of our minds. I would argue that Foundation is even more relevant now than when Asimov was writing about it 70 years ago. And it’s certainly more relevant now, three years later than when I started adapting it—almost eerily so.

My father first gave me the books when I was 13. He was a fan of science fiction and he said it was the greatest science fiction work ever created. We didn’t have a great relationship, so I didn’t even read it until I was in my mid-twenties. I was still youthful and impetuous. I’d been told this was an important work, but I found it dry and I didn’t get it. I picked it up again in my forties after I became a dad, when I wasn’t maybe so impetuous and was reflecting back on my life—reflecting back on cycles that I had followed.

I think Asimov was onto something, not just with Foundation, but in its approach to history. It’s that humanity and history are cyclical. It’s human nature when you’re young to want to discount everything that’s come before, to feel like you’re unique and that you’re just discovering the stars for the first time. And then it’s human nature as you get older to realize, in some ways you are unique, in some ways you’re not. There’s a beauty and wisdom in the past, and the people who have come before you, and you learn to embrace that. That’s the journey that I think we take as human beings, and that’s the journey that’s dramatized by Dawn, Day, and Dusk in the show. That was certainly my journey when I was introduced to Foundation.

All episodes of Foundation S1 are now streaming on Apple TV+.

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David Tennant makes a dashing Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days preview

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Phileas Fogg (David Tennant), Abigail Fix (Leonie Benesch), and Jean Passepartout (Ibrahim Koma) set out on the adventure of a lifetime in a new TV adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days The series debuts January 2, 2022.

Jules Verne’s 1873 novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, inspired numerous real-life attempts to navigate the globe, as well as various film, TV, and radio adaptations of varying success. The latest TV adaption by the BBC stars a perfectly cast David Tennant as the globe-trotting adventurer Phileas Fogg, and judging from the preview, it looks like a particular entertaining way to kick of the new year.

(Spoilers for the 1873 Jules Verne novel below.)

Fogg is the novel’s main protagonist, a gentleman of modest fortune who gets into an argument with his pals at the Reform Club over a newspaper article about the opening of a new railway section in India,. The article claims this makes it possible to circumnavigate the world in 80 days. Fogg’s colleagues are skeptical, so he makes a wager that he can accomplish the feat. It’s a significant wager, too, amounting to half of Fogg’s fortune, with the other half required to finance his journey. If he doesn’t succeed, he will be ruined. Fogg takes his new valet, Passepartout, with him, departing London by train. Complicating matters is a Scotland Yard detective named Fix, who mistakes Fogg for a fugitive bank robber and tracks the pair throughout their travels.

Enlarge / David Tennant is perfectly cast as gentleman adventurer Phileas Fogg.

YouTube/Masterpiece PBS

Their means of transport include trains, steamers, paddle boats, ships, a wind-powered sledge, and even an elephant at one point. They rescue a young Indian woman named Aouda in Bombay, and overcome bison herds blocking a railroad track, Passepartout’s kidnapping by Sioux warriors, hurricane winds, and a fuel shortage as they make their way back to London.

Fogg initially thinks he has lost his wager—and his fortune—since Fix briefly arrests him once he’s back on British soil, before realizing the actual bank robber had been apprehended three days before. Then Fogg realizes that, in fact, they had lost a day during their travels, and makes it back to his club in the nick of time. He wins the bet (sharing the winnings with Passepartout and Fix) and marries Aouda.

Verne was fascinated by all the technological innovations of the late 19th century, especially the First Transcontinental Railroad in the US and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, as well as the linking of Indian railways across the continent the following year. Global tourism was now a reality, at least for gentlemen of means. An Englishman named Thomas Cook was the first to complete an around-the-world trip over seven months in 1872, and a newspaper article about the feat may have influenced Verne. The author may also have drawn inspiration from the world trips of one George Francis Train, and Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “Three Sundays in a Week,” which also involves a lost day as a plot device.

Ibrahim Koma and Leonie Benesch co-star as Passepartout and Abigail Fix, respectively
Enlarge / Ibrahim Koma and Leonie Benesch co-star as Passepartout and Abigail Fix, respectively

YouTube/Masterpiece PBS

Verne’s story, in turn, inspired the late 19th century journalist Nellie Bly to make her own world tour, completing the trip in 72 days. She even met Verne in Amiens, and wrote her own bestselling book about her adventures. Monty Python alum Michael Palin made the charming TV travelogue, Around the World in 80 Days with Michael Palin, in 1988, detailing his recreation of Fogg’s journey, without resorting to airplanes. There was a 1989 miniseries adaptation starring Pierce Brosnan, and a heavily anachronistic 2004 film starring Steve Coogan and Jackie Chan, as Fogg and Passepartout, respectively. (The latter was a critical and box office failure, although it did garner a couple of Razzie Award nominations.)

In addition to Tennant, this new adaptation stars Ibrahim Koma as Passepartout and Leonie Benesch as Abigail Fix, a journalist (no doubt inspired by Bly). Shivani Ghai plays Aouda, and Peter Sullivan plays Fogg’s primary antagonist, Nyle Bellamy. Per the official synopsis: “Following an outrageous bet, Fogg and his valet, Passepartout, take on the legendary journey of circumnavigating the globe in just 80 days, swiftly joined by aspiring journalist Abigail Fix, who seizes the chance to report on this extraordinary story.”

Up, up, and away in their beautiful balloon.
Enlarge / Up, up, and away in their beautiful balloon.

YouTube/Masterpiece PBS

The trailer opens with our intrepid trio taking a stagecoach ride across the Old West, which serves as the perfect mechanism for introducing them. We also see Fogg announce his ambitious goal of circumventing the globe in 80 days, drawing laughter from the stodgy men in his private club. “Some are born to adventure, and others frankly are not,” Bellamy tells him, clearly implying that Fogg is the latter. There’s some truth to that: Fogg is prone to seasickness, for starters, and when he gets a fly in his eye while walking through a field, he briefly panics, to Abigail’s exasperation.

Of course, we already know that Fogg will exceed all expectations on that score, rising to every occasion as necessary, despite his comfortable, sheltered life to date. Tennant is utterly charming here, striking the perfect balance of energetic curiosity, enthusiasm, and just enough fastidiousness to keep us chuckling. And there seems to be good chemistry among the three leads. We’re looking to this one. Let the adventure begin!

Around the World in 80 Days premieres on BBC1 in the UK and on Masterpiece PBS in the US on January 2, 2022.

Listing image by YouTube/Masterpiece PBS

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Andrew and Lee continue watching The Wheel of Time—and it’s getting real

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Enlarge / We spend time getting to know some Aes Sedai in this episode, including Liandrin (Kate Fleetwood).

Andrew Cunningham and Lee Hutchinson have spent decades of their lives with Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson’s Wheel of Time books, and they’re bringing that knowledge to bear as they recap each episode of Amazon’s new WoT TV series. These recaps won’t cover every element of every episode, but they will contain major spoilers for the show and the book series. If you want to stay unspoiled and haven’t read the books, these recaps aren’t for you.

New episodes of The Wheel of Time will be posted to Amazon Prime subscribers every Friday.

Andrew: If I had to come up with a Friends-style episode title for this week’s Wheel of Time episode, it would be “The One With The Dragon Reborn Misdirects.”

I’m not sure how much screen time or effort I really want the show to devote to the Great Mystery Of Who The Dragon Reborn Is. Changing who it is would vault us out of “adaptation” territory and into the realm of fanfic, so at the end of the day, I don’t really think the series is going to change it on us. But I will say that, if I knew nothing at all about the book series going in, the show is at least making a reasonable case that any of our five Two Rivers-ians could be the Dragon. And at least so far, the show is managing to do that in a way that is consistent with what we know about each of these characters’ long arcs.

Lee: Oh yeah. I like the misdirection. We don’t have the luxury in the show of getting into each character’s head and knowing their internal landscape, so playing “Who’s the Dragon?!” is a good way of giving the audience something substantial to chew on beyond just dialogue and setting. Showrunner Rafe Judkins has said that the show is not changing who the Dragon is and that book fans will know immediately. But this gives folks who haven’t read the books a nice little mystery to ponder.

This episode gives us our first on-screen showing of what a male channeler’s madness looks and feels like, too. In the scenes where Logain is facing down the king of Ghealdan, we see that the weaves he channels are mixed together with blackness—the corruption of the Dark One. (The show also uses “corruption” over the book’s choice of “taint,” presumably to avoid all the memes that would come from having everyone saying “taint” all the time. Haha, taint.) Logain is beset by shadowy figures that seem to form themselves out the corruption, and they seductively whisper dark things to him, like, “Hey, you should totally kill that king guy.” It’s a neat effect, and I think it works great.

And I’m enjoying Logain’s… whatever the actor is doing. Sumptuousness? Weird presence? Whatever it is, Álvaro Morte is doing a great job of making Logain feel like the kind of bad guy who would definitely treat you to dinner plus a Bond villain monologue before murdering you.

Logain Ablar (Álvaro Morte) is mentioned and seen from afar in <em>Eye of the World</em>, but in the show, he gives us our first up-close look at male channeling.
Enlarge / Logain Ablar (Álvaro Morte) is mentioned and seen from afar in Eye of the World, but in the show, he gives us our first up-close look at male channeling.

Amazon Studios

Andrew: I am glad you mentioned the “taint” thing because if this adaptation keeps all the characters from talking and thinking about “the Dark One’s taint” all the time then I will be willing to forgive any and all other shortcomings.

The visual effect of the taint corruption on the One Power is probably my favorite visual effect in the series so far, strictly in terms of how economical and effective it is. You can still see the wisps of white, mixed in among the inky tendrils, but even before you see Logain’s madness manifest itself, it’s clear that something is wrong here.

That we’re meeting and talking to Logain at all is one of this episode’s two big departure points from the books—I believe we only spy him from a distance once in Eye of the World, and he doesn’t become a player in the story until a few books in.

We meet him because we’re inside an Aes Sedai encampment, which Moiraine, Lan, and Nynaeve have sought out so that Moiraine’s Trolloc-inflicted wound can be fully Healed. And the show uses this encampment to give us our first big dose of how Aes Sedai society is structured. We get a basic outline of the different Ajahs and their motivations, we hear about the Amyrlin Seat, we meet a few named characters from the books like Liandrin and Alanna. We physically move around a lot less in this episode, and the opportunity to take a breath makes the world-building and lore-dumping feel more organic and less forced.

I actually loved all the stuff with the Warders, since in the books you hear a lot about how they interact with each other but don’t actually get to see the kind of comradely backslapping that happens here.

The Warders' comradely interaction is a highlight.
Enlarge / The Warders’ comradely interaction is a highlight.

Amazon Studios

Lee: Agreed, the Warder stuff was fun. This is a very different Lan from the one we see in the books—still stoic, but not flinty and unapproachable. He and Nynaeve manage to have an entire conversation about Lan’s fallen homeland of Malkier without either of them grunting or punching each other. I’m here for it—hell, I’m here for anything that makes Nynaeve less of the emotionally stunted bully desperately in need of therapy that she starts out as in the books.

Your comment about the Aes Sedai camp showing a bit of how Aes Sedai society works is dead on, and one of the most interesting bits is watching the Green sister in charge of the camp, Kerene (Clare Perkins) keeping Red sister Liandrin (Kate Fleetwood) firmly in check. Book readers know that among the Aes Sedai, women who are stronger with the One Power are kind of automatically in authority over those with lesser power, and Kerene (who Moiraine says has turned back entire armies with her channeling) is firmly in command. For a while, at least.

We also see a bit about why False Dragons are so feared—and what happens to them. A major job of the Red Ajah is to hunt down False Dragons and “gentle” them (that is, permanently sever them from the One Power, so that they can never again channel). False Dragons that have great strength in the One Power tend to raise armies of followers and wreak massive destruction—as Logain has done with Ghealdan. The Reds have snagged him up in a cage, and they’re transporting him to the White Tower to be tried.

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