Enter Bielsa.

Leeds United have just been promoted to the Premier League. Not just promoted, but as the Champions of the 2nd tier of English Football. Drink it in.

But how?

A squad assembled from broken dreams and stuttering careers, unfulfilled potential and mismanagement; the core of a side that limped to a 13th place finish over two years ago, written off as nobodies, as bottlers, as just plain average. In a footballing world of big money, short term-ism and high criticism, these players were done. They haven’t got what it takes. Leeds United haven’t had what it takes for years. A football club in the depths of despair, or not even that. Beyond the depths of despair. Treading water. Never abject enough to be relegation fodder, but rarely a force to be reckoned with at the right end of the table. Beaten down by years of hurt and years of Championship stagnation, of false hope and missed chances. A massive opportunity, a chance to write themselves into legend, slipping away year on year, often without a fight. Why should they bother again? For a coveted 13th place finish?

Enter Bielsa.

Average goes out the window. But the players do not. They’re galvanised by a man, a legendary figure who sees their worth, who grabs them by their lapels and shakes them from their miserable mid-table mediocrity and screams, possibly via a translator: “You’re better than this!”.

See he knows what it’s like.

El Loco they call him. A genius, a maverick, an influence on the greatest minds modern football has ever seen, but also in some eyes, a perennial failure. A career of care, and passion, of absolute football obedience, but one without accolade or prize. Claims of Bielsa burnout and a temperament that makes him unpredictable and volatile, inflexible and stubborn. Tales of him storming out of the Lazio job within days of being appointed, of carrying a live grenade onto the pitch with him back in his days at Newell’s Old Boys.

Leeds United were taking a gamble.

Sometimes gambles pay off.

Leeds United are Champions of the 2nd tier of English football. Next season Premier League football will return to Eland Road. An incredible achievement and a massive moment in the history of the club. Two seasons of high drama and scintillating football. A swift, almost unfathomable change in culture and standards. A true Bielsa team. But also a medical marvel. A social experiment almost.

See, the joy of this team is not in how good they are, it’s in the fact that no one ever thought they could be this good, or even any good at all. What Marcelo Bielsa has done to these players is nothing short of remarkable. The story of Bielsa is one of legend; the man is a genius and deserves all the praise he gets and more and I can’t wait to see him manage Leeds in the Premier League. But when he asks that the praise be directed towards the players, or his staff, or even the Groundsmen, he’s not just being modest, he’s asking us to try and see what he sees: people. People who gave their all because they had been given their self worth back. That’s how this amazing thing has been achieved.

The phrase ‘More than the sum of its parts’ is probably apt in describing Leeds under Bielsa, and it’s a fair assessment, but I think there’s more to it than that. In the shallow world of football, it’s easy for the average fan to criticise players, managers or owners and with social media, a scathing comment is now only seconds away. Footballers as commodities, as playthings to be tossed aside when we’re done with them, isn’t new. And it is what it is. I’m guilty of it myself. The only man who I think isn’t guilty of it is Marcelo Bielsa. A man of strict moral principles, he saw something in these players that a lot of us just couldn’t.

Take Mateusz Klich – a vital cog in Bielsa’s machine, and until Sunday’s game against Derby County, un-droppable. He is a far cry from the unknown entity of 3 years prior, sent out on loan and cut adrift after a handful of games, destined to be another Casper Sloth or Brian Montenegro. Fans saw few glimpses of the tireless, clever footballer who is now a driving force in this Leeds side, and while it took an injury to Adam Forshaw to let him in, Klich has never looked back and Bielsa found a puzzle piece that fit.

Captain Liam Cooper saw other obstacles to his development; often the butt of fan’s jokes, “League One” Liam has been at the club a long time. He’s a Leeds fan. But often deemed not good enough, prone to lapses in concentration, and guilty of giving away lazy, silly fouls. But he can now stand tall, etched in legend as the man who wore the armband in a historic, brilliant team. His transformation has been miraculous under Bielsa. A true example to his teammates and the supporters, Bielsa saw in him a fortitude and a leadership, and a weight was lifted from his shoulders. Gone is the panic, or the worry from his performances. “Premier League” Liam now.

Then there is Patrick Bamford. As interesting and unusual as footballers come in terms of upbringing, he’s a striker often maligned by the fanbase, and you could say the cards have always been stacked against him. Despite his peak years ahead of him, he’s labelled a journeyman, but he has debunked all those silly preconceptions, and hurdled plenty of criticism, to become the hardest worker in the squad, and the top scorer. Bamford perhaps most sums up Bielsa and his principles. Many people have said Bamford isn’t good enough. That he’s profligate in front of goal, that if he was any good, he wouldn’t have been sent to so many different clubs. Where people see a statistic that says ‘Not good enough’, Bielsa sees the perfect number 9. A selfless focal point and a vital element in the way football should be played. And he does score goals. Not loads, but enough.

There are other examples throughout this squad; Stuart Dallas, part time utility-man turned influential, versatile mainstay; Gaetano Berardi, once thought of as limited in ability and too hot-headed to be anything but a liability, is now a calming, solid figure when called upon, and in central defence no less, another Bielsa masterstroke that no one else could see. Even newer players such as Jack Harrison and Helder Costa, both often frustrating figures for the fans, but both players who reap the rewards from their hard graft, working their fingers to the bone and Bielsa sees it, appreciates it more than numbers. Is this blind loyalty? I think it’s more to do with trust and respect.

If there is one star in this Leeds United team it is Kalvin Phillips – but even he wouldn’t be the player he was if Bielsa hadn’t looked him over, and known seemingly instinctively, where he should be playing, as a deep lying play-maker mixed with an old fashioned midfield destroyer. He’s never looked back either; from the first minute of Bielsa’s first game in charge, a glorious, euphoric and surprising 3-1 win over Stoke City, Phillips has been exceptional. He is easily the most impressive of Bielsa’s experiments, especially considering that a few weeks before that Stoke game, I was wishing that it had been Phillips who had just left for Italy and not Ronaldo Vieira. I had nothing against Phillips, but he was an academy product who just didn’t seem to fit and he hadn’t been particularly great wherever he had found himself, so I saw much more potential in Vieira. How wrong I was. A colossus in his new role; rarely less than an 8 out of 10 and often unplayable, Phillips is the poster boy for this Leeds side. He’s become the star player, but without the hardships, and the hard work, along with the golden touch of Marcelo Bielsa, he could easily have been out the door, and I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. I can’t imagine this side without Phillips now.

Or without Pablo Hernandez – the mercurial El Mago, so often the architect of brilliance. He’s the closest thing Leeds have to a luxury player, but he’s nothing of the sort. Deemed a gamble and past it when he signed in 2016, Hernandez has been a shining light since. He is now 35. People will say we lean on him too heavily. Perhaps, and he will probably only play a cameo role from now on, but this season Hernandez has relished it. And Bielsa knows it. Hernandez has been a creative spark since joining, but under Bielsa he is a leader. He hasn’t let his age catch up with him, he’s even better than before. When another manager would have signed a younger model, Bielsa saw Pablo Hernandez for the symbol and the person he is, and he let him shoulder the burden of creativity, of driving this team forward. EA Sports would have made you get rid of him. Bielsa made him necessary.

I think Marcelo Bielsa feels it all; the lifeblood of this club is now ingrained in him. For all of his global appeal, his standoffish persona, his iconic legend, isn’t he just a man who sees the best in people? A man who strives to do things the right way, and to do it with passion and principles, no matter what others think? He got over ‘Spygate’, and stood up for his principles; he got over Steve Evans telling him he wouldn’t be able to do it on a cold Tuesday at The New York Stadium; he got over ‘Leeds falling apart again’, and the players were right there with him, every step of the way. Perhaps he sticks with them so religiously, moulds them into relentless footballing machines, because he identifies with them. Betterment of oneself, isn’t that what we’re all striving for? And they’ve done it. He helped them to. And they helped him. And he got a trophy for his troubles, finally. These players went from apparently not good enough, to the best team in the league, some of them maturing into excellent footballers and some into potential stars. Others will just be proud that they could prove their doubters wrong, and find their self worth again.

As this magnificent season draws to it’s protracted close and we enter the silly season of transfers, wide eyed and blinded by the shiny, resplendent pull of Premier League riches, the murmurings begin. Links to players of global renown – Argentinian wonder kids, and Edison Cavanis – are par for the course, and we deserve to dream and hope that Leeds United can now attract these types. But before we dream of players who everyone says are bigger and better, we should take time to cherish those that got us there; players that gave their all for this club, for themselves and for Marcelo Bielsa so that they wouldn’t just be another name on a list, or a statistic in a column. Bielsa told them they’re better than that, and now look at them, they’re legends. They just needed a chance to prove it.

Enter Bielsa.

Review: Shadow of the Tomb Raider

A review.

The third installment of the rebooted Tomb Raider trilogy, 2019’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider finds Lara Croft, well, pretty much where we left her.

Playing through this game, I was struck by a similar feeling to when I played through Rise of the Tomb Raider: crippling deja vu. Is it just me, or have Crystal Dynamics just released two add-ons to the absolutely stellar first Tomb Raider? To be fair, it’s been a long time since I played the 2013 release, but I was blown away by it. It’s easily one of my favourite, most surprisingly great games of the past few years. Many agreed, so I suppose you can’t blame the developers too much for sticking by what worked, but 6 years later it just feels a bit meh, however, that being said, I found Shadow of the Tomb Raider bizarrely compelling from a gameplay perspective at least and I did enjoy it.

THE GOOD

What I enjoyed most is that the core systems here are still very good. I know I’ve just criticised the game for not breaking from convention, but the gameplay is what made the first so good and I was happy that it still felt satisfying to climb and jump and generally raid tombs as Lara. The tombs themselves are good, not too long or difficult so as to be a slog, but challenging enough to feel rewarding. A lot of the puzzles you encounter are quite clever too and this is where the game shines really.

The new gameplay additions, though few, are all sensible and logical and help Lara feel like the experienced raider she is now – you can now rappel from great heights along with more verticality when climbing and now properly swim, and the game gives you plenty of opportunities to use these in missions and while exploring. Side quest have also been fleshed out considerably, and many times I found myself more compelled by these than what was going on in the main missions.

A special mention must go to the DLC, which is a series of side quests all built around a tomb to explore. I found these pretty enjoyable; short, sharp and fun and with plenty of rewards for someone with the time to delve into them.

All of the side quests are found in the hub areas which are fun enough, and visually pretty interesting, while offering up something different than dense jungle locations for you to explore. Speaking of visuals, SotTR looks pretty handsome; the environments and lighting are wonderfully immersive though I found some of the character models slightly dated looking, along with the lip-syncing on some NPCs being a bit off but overall, it’s a good looking game.

THE BAD

Like I previously mentioned, the series, in my eyes, has just kind of stagnated. It’s very strange to me to see a second sequel, on the next generation of consoles, feel so samey and bland. Rise of the Tomb Raider was similar; the only thing I remember from that game is that a bit of it was set in snow. Whenever I think I’ve remembered something else, it turns out it’s from the original, and I fear Shadow won’t age much better, though I do think it’s more memorable than Rise.

In terms of gameplay, not too many issues arise really though I found some of the action sequences and stealth segments to be a bit reliant on trial and error, and there’s an over reliance on stealth segments that just get a bit repetitive. In fact, though there is quite a bit of variation – missions and tombs – a lot of this game boils down to repetition and by the end I was just achievement hunting to keep myself going.

What I struggled with most was the story; I found it to be incredibly boring. I tried to be engaged with these characters but I couldn’t, and, unfortunately, I found myself skipping cut scenes. I don’t know what it is about Lara in these games, or Jonah or any of the characters that you’re supposed to be rooting for. I think they’re just unmemorable which is a shame. To be fair the game attempts to delve into Lara’s past here and explore her relationship to her parents when she was young, but this for me wasn’t particularly strong. It seems a lot of these character strands seem to just dip in and out when they fancy it or when there’s a lull. That same old Trinity-are-here-to-ruin-things trope takes up most of the story, along with the impending apocalypse inexplicably caused by Lara, that seems very rushed and muddled and for me it just felt like the narrative hadn’t progressed at all really.

SUMMARY

I like these games, don’t get me wrong. There isn’t anything inherently bad about this or its predecessor; they take all that was fantastic about the first game and keep it at the forefront. The issue I have is that it’s 6 years of absolutely no innovation and a stale story that didn’t need 3 games to tell it. Now I’m not saying every game has to break the mold but I do think more had to be done with this series. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is certainly not the least memorable; it’s expanded game world and sheer amount of things to do and collect kept me pretty entertained though the disappointing story had me struggling to keep my eyes open. I think that’s where its main issue lies: this is the 3rd game of an origin story and I don’t think that much has happened despite the developers seemingly banking on the weight of Lara’s narrative to keep people invested but it all falls a bit flat for me.

Absolutely worth a play if you enjoyed the previous two but at the same time, it’s failure to budge from convention is its biggest undoing.

6.5/10

Review: Red Dead Redemption II

So here we are.

Red Dead Redemption II. Eight years in the making, with a GTA in-between. Huge waves of hype and expectation on its shoulders. The big question on everyone’s lips: Have Rockstar Games delivered “The Greatest Game of All Time”?

Well, it’s hard to say.

Probably not.

THE GOOD

The one thing I can tell with absolute certainty is that I loved my 90+ hours spent with Red Dead Redemption II, though the game seemed to have me caught in some kind of time warp as I’m sure it felt longer than that. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, who knows, but generally, the game did a wonderful job at keeping me captivated.

This was in many ways down to just how gorgeous the game is to look at. As soon as I passed from the early “tutorial area”; a gleaming, dense mountainous region covered with snow, into the wide open vistas and lush forests, I was awe-struck. Rockstar have created a world that looks stunning, and is visually fresh and interesting wherever you go. The detail in the environments is incredible, too. There were many occasions on my adventures where I would pass a tree, or see a rock, and I would actively go towards it, expecting something to happen because almost everything looks like it has a story to tell. It’s remarkable.

This extends to the people and creatures of the world. I can honestly say in all my years of playing videogames (and that’s a lot of years), I have never experienced a game-world so immersive and engaging. I’m not just talking that kind of superficial – oh-every-NPC-has-a-daily-routine – thing, I mean just how surprising, and off-the-cuff the world appears to be. Now of course, it becomes fairly clear that most of what happens when interacting with NPCs for example is scripted, and a few things do re-occur, but that doesn’t matter because the game does an amazing job of drawing you in by attempting to make your character and a stranger have short conversations that, while brief, seem to be logical exchanges. It’s a small thing, but it’s very cool.

Speaking of the character, I loved Arthur Morgan. I loved his characterisation and I loved just playing as him. In my eyes, he is easily Rockstar’s best protagonist since Niko Bellic (sorry, John Marston.) When the first trailer appeared, I was sceptical. Arthur seemed very unlikable. He seemed like a brutish thug; hard-faced and angry, and in many ways he is that. But as you delve deeper into the game, his layers are peeled back. Hell, even a couple hours in, I had already made up my mind that I liked him. He’s complex, and dryly funny, but I think what makes the character, and Rockstar handle this very well, is that you see his struggle with morality creep through more and more, even when there’s violence and chaos around him, you get a lot of chances to see into him and how he feels deep down, and it’s not heavy-handed, which it could have been. This is helped by the Journal, which can be easily overlooked as it doesn’t serve any gameplay purpose, but if you take the time to read Arthur’s inner thoughts, it provides vital context to our hero.

So I had a blast playing as Arthur; you can customise him to an enjoyable degree; there are a lot of different clothing options, including special garments that can be crafted with the right materials, and barbers so you can give him the sharpest haircut in the West. The dynamic hair growth (borrowed from The Witcher 3, and why not?) is a very nice touch and looks great, especially after there’s a cut scene that involves a passage of time, and by the end of it Arthur has a huge beard, which again, keeps the immersion high. The strength of Arthur’s character helps the narrative, and I certainly think the game is all the better for returning to a single protagonist, as opposed to GTA 5’s three. While I maybe didn’t enjoy the story perhaps as much as I could have – for reasons I will go into later – I still thought it was very good. In classic Rockstar fashion, it’s well-written, well-acted and quite moving, especially in how it all ties in with the original game and Arthur’s role in that.

In terms of the supporting cast, it’s great to see John, Dutch, Bill, Javier, Abigail and Old Uncle again. Even little Jack Marston. John and Dutch, are especially given a lot of screen time and it’s very cool to see their characters develop into something like we saw in the first game. Most of the new characters are interesting enough, Sadie being the stand out for me, and the camp system – A hub area of sorts where the group lives, that Arthur can upgrade by donating funds or goods – gives you the chance to interact with everyone that little bit more, though I would have liked to have gotten to know a couple of the minor characters more; a few seem only there to make up the numbers, however, most of them get a little time to shine which is nice.

THE BAD

Perhaps “bad” is a strong word, but I’m trying to keep the Western theme here. The game is not without its flaws, which goes without saying really and what I didn’t enjoy about the game, while certainly not a deal breaker, is worth mentioning. We’ve got to be fair, after all.

First and foremost, the controls. The controls in Red Dead Redemption II are a bit clunky, and they take some getting used to. What I found, was that because of the context sensitive scheme Rockstar have gone for, it was often difficult to differentiate one action from another. Occasionally, I’d want to mount my horse in a town, but if a passer-by happened to be standing next to my trusty steed, I would instead tackle the poor soul to the ground, which would instantly send the town into panic and my wanted lever up, which was a frustrating occurrence that happened more than once. I will also mention horse riding, which is also awkward, and very often, if you’re not careful, leads to both Arthur and horse crashing into rocks, trees, small animals, people, buildings, you name it. When in full flow, riding across the beautiful landscapes is exhilarating, but this can quickly be stopped by a turn being unexpectedly awkward, and next thing you know, you’re careening off a cliff.

The clunky controls are probably most frustrating during combat, which is a shame. The game feels like GTA 5 in terms of gunplay, but less fluid, and there are several moments where you’re running away and you’re expected to look behind you and shoot, which just doesn’t work and invariably, I ended up careening off a cliff. Seeing a pattern?

In the grand scheme of things, any issues with the controls are small, minor inconveniences; it’s just a shame that Rockstar don’t seem to have any interest in streamlining them, especially for combat, but after a couple hours, you kind of get the hang of them.

My biggest gripe with the game however is the pacing. This is something that crops up fairly often in open world games – There’s a high-stakes story unfolding and you’re a vital cog, but all you want to do is go off and play Poker etc. – but I think Red Dead Redemption II struggles with it that little bit more. So often during the story, events transpire that urge you to act, that promote urgency; characters are often heard saying that the group can’t stay here, or they need to do something quick, which is all well and good for drama, but far too many times, I would find that the design of the game would immediately plonk you back into the open world compelling you to just head off and explore. Like I said, a common issue and one that can easily be brushed off, but for me, the very essence of the tale Rockstar is trying to tell goes against the open world structure that it lets you do it in. Dutch and the gang are wanted criminals, they are in hiding and on the run, but frankly they do a terrible job of it. The game seems intent on undermining this entire aspect, the crux of the story in many ways. As Arthur you’re allowed to do whatever, which is great, but it’s very jarring to be walking around camp after your location is discovered – Dutch, imploring you to act quickly because you could be compromised again at any moment – to then have free rein to go off hunting animals for a week.  Now, to be fair, the games throws a few curveballs at you, especially later in the game, that made getting through the story missions seem a much more time sensitive task, but I just feel like a tighter pace was needed more often for the story’s sake, and a greater balance could have been found between story beats and free-roaming. Indeed, personally, the more linear sections of the game were arguably my favourite parts; the beginning, as the gang regroup in the snowy mountains, I thought was superbly well done because the progression of it made sense. There is another important narrative section later on that follows a similar principle, and the story flows all the better for it. In terms of the missions, I thought there was a slight lack of memorable set-pieces. I kept expecting GTA 5-esque heist missions, with elaborate planning, and multi-tiered structure, but other than some train robberies, and a cool, hopefully Maverick inspired theft on a riverboat that’s hosting a gambling competition, you get nothing like that. I’m probably being a little harsh, as the missions are generally hit rather than miss, which given the sheer amount of them, is pretty impressive.

SUMMARY

This should really be “The Ugly” but never mind. The game is beautiful, so I bypassed it!

When I first played on Red Dead Redemption II, the game it most reminded me of was The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which is high praise as far as I’m concerned. I’ve been asked a couple times – “Do you think Red Dead Redemption II is the best game ever?” – And my answer is no. When it all comes down to it, it’s a silly question really. You get from a game what you get from it; subjectivity is an amazing thing. I still prefer The Witcher 3, and why? Well, I’m not entirely sure. Since finishing the game, I’ve even thought that I maybe preferred GTA 5. But these games are all their own unique experience; The Witcher 3, GTA 5 and Red Dead Redemption II are all worth your time and money (Especially The Witcher 3, I love that game!).

It may not objectively be the greatest game of all time, but it is still an absolutely remarkable one; another Rockstar classic that deserves all the praise it gets. It’s not without its problems, and there are more than there probably should be, but the sheer ambition of the open world, the emotional, well-written story and unbelievable visuals made my time in the Wild West well worth it.

9/10

Welcome!

I’m very new to this whole thing, so I thought I’d ease my way in with something simple, like a Top 5 list of my favourite video games of all time!

Top 5 games!

1 – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Immersive, engaging, captivating, constantly surprising, and brilliant fun to play. 250+ hours well spent in an open-world like no other. I’ve not played a game before or since where every single second seemed to be so lovingly crafted and rewarding, and yes, that includes Red Dead Redemption II.

2 – Shenmue 1/2

Weird and wonderful fighting/adventure/life-sim series that’s rough around the edges but so charming and ahead of its time that I didn’t care. The first game felt like more of a prologue to the second, so I’ve mashed them together. Incredible.

3 – The Last of Us

Heart shattering narrative meets simple, but effective game-play to create an instant classic. Naughty Dog’s wonderful, memorable game touched me deeply and left me in tears; one of only two games to do so. The main reason I bought a PS3 and I couldn’t wait to replay it when I bought my PS4. Glorious.

4 – Mass Effect 2

One of the truly great sequels, Mass Effect 2 takes the first game and improves on it in every way. The combat is 100 times more fun and approachable, while the spirit of the series soars with gusto. Filled with so much to do, and an unbelievably likable and complex cast of characters allowing Bioware to produce arguably the most incredible ending sequence I’ve ever experienced in gaming.

5 – Heavy Rain

Quantic Dream’s masterpiece. The studio may divide opinion, but there’s no denying that they produce quality work and Heavy Rain is testament to that. More akin to interactive cinema than traditional gaming, Heavy Rain is a twisting, turning thriller full of tension and heartache. The sheer amount of potential outcomes in the story is mind-boggling and it’s a mesmerising ride all the way.