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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Link Dump
You know the drill - some interesting stuff I've seen lately on teh interwebs:
  • Robot Exoskeleton: Power Loader: Towards the beginning of the video, some text starts scrolling across the screen that says "This is the power loader. The prototype robotic exoskeleton is designed to allow the wearer..." and I totally thought the next screen was going to say something like "... to act like Ripley at the end of Aliens!" but alas, the video was serious.
  • Google Predictive Search is amusing sometimes. I'd hit that. [via Nick Holmes]
  • A Sincere Letter of Thanks to Roger Ebert: Ebert trolled the video game industry again last week with his long-standing assertion that video games can't be art. Kevin Beverage from GameSpy brilliantly skewers both Ebert and the general response:
    Noting the content drought on many game enthusiast websites, you selflessly decided to peel the crusted top off of the cesspool that is the games-as-art debate, to present us gamers with the opportunity to wallow in our own intellectual feces for a solid week-and-a-half. And with bony fists raised in impotent rage and eyes fixed unflinchingly on our navels, we took up the call.
    Heh.
  • David Thorne: Awesome Person: Also apparently a "fucking legend". [via Nick Holmes]
  • Man At Very Top Of Food Chain Chooses Bugles: Somehow, the Onion never ceases to be funny.
    Acting on an impulse from an incredibly complex forebrain that has evolved over millions of years, Atkinson then took note of the Bugles' amusing conical shape and placed one on each of his opposable thumbs like little wizard hats.
  • Super Mario Crossover: Awesome concept - play Super Mario Brothers with other NES classic characters, like Samus, Simon Belmont, Link, etc... Awesome idea, and well executed too. I kinda wish I still had a gamepad for my computer though (and that it would work for this)...
  • Lawn Mower of the Future: Why didn't I ever think of this?
That's all for now!
Posted by Mark on April 28, 2010 at 08:26 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.



Sunday, April 25, 2010

Heavy Rain: Spoilertastic Thoughts
I was only a few hours into the game when I wrote my first post on Heavy Rain, so I thought it might be nice to revisit the game. In short, I loved the game. It's not without its faults, but my first playthrough was about as good as I could have hoped for. If you haven't played the game and it sounds like it might be your thing, definitely go play the game. Don't read anything about it, don't consult gamefaqs, and definitely don't attempt to replay the chapters. I think that's the best way to play the game, and I think some of its finest qualities can be impacted by treating it like every other game. The rest of this post will contain spoilers, though I'll put most of the egregious spoilers into the extended entry.

I don't want to fully retread everything I said in my initial thoughts, but I think that post holds up and my feelings haven't changed much. I was initially suspicious of the choose your own adventure aspects of the story, but for the most part, I was wrapped up enough in the story to not really notice the limitations. I wasn't sure if the controller scheme would hold up throughout the entire game, and it does grate at times. It was done well enough that it didn't entirely detract from the game, and there are definitely times when the controls were very well executed. The control scheme is probably the most obvious flaw in the game, and the one that would probably turn off the most people, but in the end, it worked well enough for me. The "thought" mechanic was basically pointless, but it's also completely optional. Visually spectacular, but not to Avatar levels. Voice acting is terrible and sometimes unintentionally hilarious, but it wasn't bad enough to completely pull me out of the experience.

A big deal was made about the game's mature themes. By "mature", I don't mean violence or sex, though both are present in the game. There's real emotion at the core of the story, and it plays out well. It doesn't really approach the great serial killer movies like Se7en or The Silence of the Lambs though. It's more like the middle-tier thrillers that were popular in the 90s, like Kiss the Girls or The Bone Collector. Or perhaps a really good X-Files episode. This isn't really meant as a slight. It's not a great story, but neither is it a really bad story.

I suppose I should disclose that my first playthrough did not come to a happy ending. Some of my characters did die. And you know what? I thought that was great. I've since replayed the game and tried to get a bunch of the other endings, and I honestly think that the first ending I got was the best I've seen so far (more about this later). Alas, in replaying the game, some of it's limitations become even more clear. I'll leave it at that for now. The extended entry will contain more detailed descriptions of my favorite moments in the game as well as some more detailed discussion about the game's limitations and where I hope gaming is going... So far, I've been kinda light on the spoilers, but the below contains massive spoilers and should be avoided if you haven't played the game yet.
  • I have to admit that I was fooled by the first chapter featuring the character of Madison Paige. In short, Madison wakes up in her apartment, you walk her around a bit and then you're attacked by a bunch of masked men. There's a QTE fight sequence that quickly gets pretty complicated (in terms of the number of buttons pressed and the amount of time you have to press them) and then... she dies. But wait! It turns out that the whole sequence was a dream! It's a trope we've all seen a billion times in horror movies and thrillers, but my heart was pounding and when the chapter ended, I was really shocked at what had just transpired. It's the sort of thing that would seem hackneyed and unacceptable in a movie, but that worked really well in the game. Presumably the addition of interactivity makes cliches like this acceptable. Or perhaps it's just that I've never seen this sort of thing in a game before - I have to wonder if future games would be able to pull this sort of thing off...
  • The moment of the game that is most frequently referenced by people who love the game is the scene in the police station when Ethan is being questioned by the police. A couple chapters previous to this scene, you control Ethan as he attempts to play with his son at a park. At the end of that sequence, Ethan blacks out and ends up a few blocks away, holding a piece of Origami. He runs back to the park, but he can't find his son. The next chapter after that, you're playing the FBI Agent as he researches the Origami killer at a police station. As that chapter ends, the camera pans over to a desk and you see Ethan being questioned by the police. They ask you simple questions: What time were you at the park? What was your son wearing? And so on. It's very unnerving. The way the game handles such moments is to put up a few possible responses (associated with various buttons), but they're not just floating around you as normal. When you're in high pressure situations like this, they become wobbly and hard to read. It makes what is already a tense situation almost unbearable. It's a really effective tactic, and this was one of the best parts of the game.
  • Of course, Ethan's blackout is also one of my biggest complaints with the story. In short, it makes no sense. There's no real reason for the blackouts, and the origami figure that's in his hand is only there to mislead the person playing the game. The writers attempt to make it a red herring, but it's a lazy and manipulative one because there's no real explanation that would make any sense here.
  • Speaking of the killer, it turns out that the killer is always the same character, no matter how you play the game. On the one hand, I think this is a missed opportunity. There are a number of red herrings strewn throughout the game (some more successful than the aforementioned blackouts), but the game doesn't really follow through on any of them. Now, I liked when the killer was revealed in the game and everything, but it would have been really interesting if the game adapted and chose a different character as the killer depending on your actions. I realize this is probably unrealistic in terms of time and budget for a game like this though, and one thing I will say is that playing the game once really does imply a greater flexibility in the game than is really there. So while playing the game for the first time, you don't know enough about what's going to happen to say what impact your actions had on the story. My assumption during that first playthrough was that almost everything was important. After replaying the game, I saw how limited the game was. When I first played through the game, I thought that maybe I had seen 40-60% of the content in the game. It turns out that it was more like 80%, and even then, the story had basically the same trajectory.
  • I made a lot of "mistakes" in the game, and I think that was actually a good thing. I mentioned in my first post how one of the interesting things about this game is that it actually lets you make mistakes in the first place, and after playing the game, I think that's one of it's biggest successes. This may be the first game I ever played where getting everything right isn't actually that great. In my case, I loved that I accidentally created the world's worst FBI agent by failing a couple of the quicktime events or picking the "wrong" option during one of those tense situations. The FBI agent has something of a drug problem, and you're confronted by this a few times in the game. You can choose to hold out, or you can give in and take the drugs. I think I managed to avoid taking the drugs the first time, but I got flustered and accidentally took them twice later in the game. Then there was the time I was interviewing a suspect and, uh, kinda shot him in the face. I didn't really mean to, but it was one of those tense situations and I panicked and shot the guy. This is one of the great things about the game though. In any other game, that would be a failure state and would cause me to have to replay the scene or something. In this game, I have to live with the consequences of my actions. I have to admit that I was expecting more consequences from that particular shooting though. While replaying the game, I managed to not shoot him and was kinda surprised to see that the result was mostly the same. There was one additional scene stuck in, but otherwise, the results were the same as if I'd shot him.
  • During my first playthrough, I actually managed to keep all my characters alive long enough to make it to the final chapter in the game. However, once there, I failed a number of things. I did succeed in saving Ethan's son, which was relieving, but while my FBI agent was fighting the killer on some sort of weird conveyer belt thing, I failed a bunch of QTE's, leading to the FBI agent's grisly death (he basically fell into a giant woodchipper thingy). Because of this, the killer got away. Meanwhile, Ethan saved his son, and was about to leave the building. Outside, the cops, who think Ethan's the killer, have already surrounded the building. Madison arrives and attempts to help Ethan... or she would, if I didn't fail the QTEs. As such, Madison gets arrested and when Ethan opens the door, he ends up getting shot by the police. It was a very tragic, very emotional part of the game for me, but I think it's actually better than the ones where he survives. The epilogues for this particular ending were great too. The killer ends up getting his comeuppance, courtesy of one of the other side characters in the game (it's a satisfying end to the killer's arc). Madison writes a book, and while at a signing, she seemingly runs into another serial killer who things she deserves a more challenging opponent or somesuch (we'll presumably find out in Heavy Rain 2). Norman Jaden (the FBI agent) is dead, but his non-friend at the police picks up Jaden's sicence-fiction super-glasses and enters a virtual reality world... and then Jaden mysteriously shows up which is really strange (in a good way). Ethan's son has a sad scene with Madison and his mother at the cemetary. All in all, I think it was a fantastic ending.
  • I replayed the game once with the intention of letting the serial killer win the game (thus earning the "Perfect Crime" trophy), and then used various chapter controls to replay individual chapters to see what would happen if I varied my responses in certain situations. As previously mentioned, this pretty much broke the spell of the game in that you begin to see how limited the branching possibilities really are in the game. The first time playing through the game, you feel like every choice has weighty consequences. The second time, I found out that a lot of things didn't have much in the way of consequences at all. This is a bit disappointing, but I have to admit that I've never played a game that made me feel this way before. I really hope that future games manage to figure out a way to create more divergent paths and branching choices. Again, I realize this sort of thing has to be difficult and expensive to develop and I imagine it would be difficult to work on a game where any one playthrough would only reveal a small portion of the game... by design. And yet, that would be pretty awesome if someone could manage it.
That about wraps up Heavy Rain for now. In the end, it's a really interesting game, perhaps the most interesting of this generation, even if it does have its flaws.
Posted by Mark on April 25, 2010 at 08:06 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.



Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Greatest Movies I've Never Seen, Part 2
One of the questions from the movie quiz I posted about on Sunday had to do with naming a "Movie you feel a certain pressure or obligation to see that you have not yet actually seen". I mentioned there a list of movies I compiled a while ago, The Greatest Movies I've Never Seen. There were 25 movies on that list, and at this point, I've seen 20 of them, so I figured it was time to revisit the list and fill it up with some other classics that I've never seen. So here goes: Well, that's 15 movies (including the 5 I never got to from my original list), which should keep me busy for a while. I went a little heavy on the Silent Film era this time, as that's a period I'm not tremendously familiar with. Indeed, most of the new films are from before 1935. Should be interesting.
Posted by Mark on April 21, 2010 at 08:40 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.



Sunday, April 18, 2010

Professor Fate's Spring-Loaded Great-Racing Spring Break Movie Quiz
Dennis Cozzalio of the Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog has posted yet another movie quiz. Previous installments answering questions from Professor Russell Johnson, Dr. Smith, Professor Peabody, and Professor Severus Snape are also available... Now, onwards to Professor Fate's questions:

1) William Demarest or Broderick Crawford?

Not being overly familiar with either filmography (kinda sad when you see 100+ titles in each), I'll have to go with William Demarest because he has more titles and also because of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (even if it was a smaller role, if I remember correctly).

2) What movies improve when seen in a state of altered consciousness? (Patrick Robbins)

I guess you could go with a lot of different things here, but the one that came immediately to mind was 2001: A Space Odyssey (particularly the ending). Other things that came to mind were Altered States and Solyaris. But as someone who rarely alters their consciousness (beyond beer), what do I know?

3) Favorite studio or production company logo?

This was a hard one, because who really cares about logos? I looked around at a few logos and came up with Dark Castle Entertainment, which has a logo that is much better than most of the movies that they produce:

Dark Castle

There are tons of variations on the image, and they're all pretty good. After looking at some of the other answers, I have to admit that something like the old Looney Toons logo would probably be more iconic. I also love the Criterion/Janus logos, but do they count as a studio/production company? Focus Features, Icon, and Legendary Pictures also have some well designed logos, but I'll stick with Dark Castle.

4) Celeste Holm or Joan Blondell?

As usual, I'm not especially well versed in either actress's filmography, but I'll go with Celeste Holm because of All About Eve.

5) What is the most overrated "classic" film? (Tony Dayoub)

It's hard to answer this without just falling back on a "classic" that I don't especially like (even though everyone else does). It's also tough because a lot of movies are considered "classic" because of their context rather than their content. All that being said, one classic I've never really got on board with is Easy Rider. Goddamn hippies. In all seriousness, I just don't get the reputation this movie has. I mean, I understand that it was made during the 60s and was this counter-culture phenomenon, but it's just not that well made and it never really resonated with me. I just found it to be an incoherent mess with no real point. This is probably a decent example of a film not working outside it's context.

6) What movie do you know for sure you saw, but have no memory of seeing? (Patricia Yokoe Cozzalio)

I don't really have an answer for this (I mean, how do I know I saw it if I have no memory of seeing it?), but there are probably a bunch of films where I only remember bits and pieces. For instance, I've seen Schindler's List multiple times, but I only remember a few scenes from that movie. I distinctly remember watching it though, both at home and once at school. I haven't seen it in about 15 years, so I remember very little... and it's probably worthy of revisiting.

7) Favorite Hammer Film?

I watched a few Hammer Horror movies as part of last year's 6 Weeks of Halloween and came away unimpressed. I suppose my favorite would be Horror of Dracula, but again, it's not exactly a great movie. I think the big issue I have with the Hammer Horror films is that they call to mind the Universal Horror films, which tend to be better (for instance, The Curse of Frankenstein is ok on its own, but it pales in comparison to Frankenstein or Bride of Frankenstein).

8) Gregory Itzin or Joe Pantoliano?

Joey Pants, hands down. Dude's in everything, and he's always good.

9) Create a double feature with two different movies with the same title. No remakes. (Peter Nellhaus)

This one's hard. The first one I came up with would work, except that I don't especially like either movie all that much: Crash (1996 - Car crashes are sexy) and Crash (2005 - You're a racist). So searching out alternatives, I found The Unforgiven (1960) and Unforgiven (1992), but I haven't seen both of them and there are slight differences in the title. Then there's Jack Frost (1998 - Heartwarming Holiday picture) and Jack Frost (1997 - Serial Killer Snowman), but once again, we've got two bad movies (even though I kinda enjoy both for what they are).

So here's what I'll end with: Black Sunday (1960 - Mario Bava's creepifying tale of a witch's return from the grave) and Black Sunday (1977 - John Frankenheimer's thriller about a terrorist attack at the Super Bowl). I haven't actually seen the Frankenheimer movie, but it seems interesting. And one more answer to this question: The Enforcer (1951 - Bogart, need I say more?) and The Enforcer (1976 - Dirty Harry sequel).

10) Akiko Wakabayashi or Mie Hama? (Ray Young)

Yeah, so I don't remember who did what in You Only Live Twice, but I'll go with Mie Hama because her name in that movie was "Kissy Suzuki". I mean, it's no "Pussy Galore" but it's kinda a double entendre, right?

11) Can you think of a (non-porn) movie that informed you of the existence of a sexual act you had not known of prior? (Bob Westal)

Honestly no, but for some reason, I distinctly remembered to look up this blog entry from Kevin Smith where he explains:
We can learn a lot from those "Omen" flicks. The first time the concept of ass-fucking was introduced to me was via "The Final Conflict" - the under-appreciated third entry in the original "Omen" saga, starring Sam Neill as the now-adult Damien. He hooked up with this reporter lady, and at one point, they're getting down. Suddenly, he flips the chick over and buries it, all evil-like, in her dumper. As an eleven year old without the benefit of an internet connection (or an internet, period), I was confused, to say the least.
So I wish I could regale you with such a story, but I can't think of anything.

12) Can you think of a black & white movie that might actually improve if it was in color? (Patrick Robbins)

It's a tough call, but I'll go with Sanjuro. It's one of my favorite Kurosawa movies, and it has this great sequence where Sanjuro suggests the use of red flowers dropped into a stream as a signal to attack. Kurosawa had wanted to figure out a way to make the flowers red, but couldn't get it to work (he later managed to get something similar working with the pink smoke in High and Low). There's no question in my mind that the movie would be better if the flowers were red... but if Kurosawa was able to film the whole thing in color? I'm not sure about that. It would be interesting though.

13) Favorite Pedro Almodovar Film?

I haven't actually seen an Almodovar movie. I know, I know, something I need to rectify. Filmspotting did a marathon a while back, so I figure that's a good place to start.

14) Kurt Raab or Udo Kier?

I'll go with Udo Kier, seeing as though I've seen a lot of movies that he's in and I always like him.

15) Worst main title song (Peter Nellhaus)

Over the past two years, I've watched a number of terrible 80s slasher movies, most of which have terrible main title songs. The problem is that they're so bad that I must have repressed the memory of them. In looking at the answers on SLIFR, I see that Patrick gave an exceptional answer to this one though, and I have to agree:
No contest - that atrocity "I'm Your Weatherman" during the opening credits of Groundhog Day. The movie's sole flaw.
16) Last movie you saw in a theater? On DVD, Blu-ray or other interesting location/format?

In the theater, I saw Kick-Ass, which I enjoyed muchly. I'm not sure how well it will age for me though. If the novelty of an 11 year old girl swearing like a sailor and eviscerating her enemies doesn't run out, and if the aggresively juvenile over-the-top violence holds up, I think it might be a top 10 candidate. On Blu-Ray, I saw Extract. It was decent, but nothing special. On DVD, I saw A Colt Is My Passport, part of the Criterion/Eclipse collection of Nikkatsu Noir. A solid, entertaining Japanese gangster picture, though I'm not sure "noir" really qualifies.

17) Favorite movie reference within a Woddy Allen movie? (Larry Aydlette)

I don't know, how about the homage to silent era slapstick comedians in Sleeper.

18) Mary Astor or Claudette Colbert?

I guess I'll go with Mary Astor, because I've actually seen The Maltese Falcon.

19) Favorite trailer (provide YouTube link if possible)?

A tough one, but I'll go with this unused trailer from The Exorcist. I imagine it went unused because it's just so damn freaky. That or the studio was afraid of inducing epilepsy in the audience (there's a strobe-like effect going on here, so be warned):


20) Oddest double bill you either saw or saw listed in a theater

Well, I didn't see it, but according to this article, Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro "were produced and screened as a package" in Japan. Talk about your cinematic whiplash. Fireflies is one of the most relentlessly depressing and infuriating movies ever (and I suppose I mean that in a good way, though I never want to watch it again), while Totoro is pure joy and just about the complete opposite of Fireflies. I can't imagine watching them back to back, but I sure hope Totoro followed Fireflies.

21) Favoite Phil Karlson film?

I got nothing.

22) Favorite "social problem" picture?

I tend to dislike this kind of movie, mostly because I feel like I'm being lectured at, which isn't very convincing or, more importantly, entertaining. That being said, someone in the comments mentioned Lone Star, which I've always found to be effective (if pretentious).

23) Your favourite Harryhausen film/monster? (Ali Arikan)

Jason and the Argonauts. Sword fighting skeletons FTW.

24) What was the first movie you saw with your significant other? (Patrick Robbins)

Why do you hate single people?! HMMM! I'm talking to you, Patrick Robbins!

25) John Payne or Ronald Reagan?

Going to have to take (another) mulligan on this one.

26) Movie you feel a certain pressure or obligation to see that you have not yet actually seen

A while ago, I put together a list of the greatest movies I've never seen. Since then, I've seen the grand majority of films on that list, so it's probably worth revisiting in a separate post. The one in my queue for immediate consumption is The Apartment.

27) Favorite “psychedelic” movie (Hey, man, like, define it however you want, man…)

I suppose the answers here are more or less interchangeable with the answers to question #2. I tried to find something different though, and came up with a couple interesting ones: Pink Floyd The Wall (in particular, those damn marching hammers) and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

28) Thelma Ritter or Eve Arden?

Thelma Ritter. Not because I know either one well, but because I said so.

29) Favorite iconic shot or image from a film?

The way-too-obvious choice is John Wayne in the doorway from The Searchers... but I'll go with something different: The final shot from Sunset Boulevard.

Sunset Boulevard
All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.

30) What is the movie that inspired the most memorable argument you ever had about a movie?

The only thing that comes to mind is Taxi Driver. It wasn't exactly a barn burner and it was probably more the result of two clashing personalities rather than differing opinions on the movie. But it's pretty easy to win an argument where your side says that Taxi Driver is a good movie.

31) Raquel Torres or Lupe Velez?

Man, I'm doing even worse at these than usual. Pass!

32) Favorite adaptation of Shakespeare to a film?

It's funny that I almost immediately thought of Kurosawa and movies like Ran or Throne of Blood rather than direct adaptations. A quick check of the comment thread at SLIFR confirms that I'm not alone on this either.

33) Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (in 3D)-- yes or no?

Flesh for Frankenstein has been on my list to watch for a while. If I remember correctly, it was on Netflix watch online last year and I planned on watching it for the 6 Weeks of Halloween marathon, but Netflix lost the rights or something and it wasn't available, so I never got to it. So that's a tentative "yes".

34) Favorite movie rating?

I guess I'd say R, but I do want to reference my favorite movie ratings poster, and my favorite there is the NC-17 section:

NC-17
Click for full poster

Ok, so I guess the couple that's all dressed up gets a certain point across. But the rabbit with the sunglasses? What's that supposed to mean? It's an embarrassed rabbit? And then there's the smiling loner who needs to keep his hands in his pockets. Brilliant.

35) Olivia Barash or Joyce Hyser?

Who are these people!? Seriously! Is this some sort of elaborate practical joke?

36) What was the movie that convinced you your favorite movie genre was your favorite movie genre?

Well, that would imply I have a favorite genre, though I guess Horror would count. And my lifelong fascination with horror movies can be traced back to two films: John Carpenter's Halloween and Don Coscarelli's Phantasm.

37) Favorite Blake Edwards movie?

Well, finally, I have an answer for one of these: The Pink Panther (and some of the sequels as well)

Phew! That about wraps up this edition. I know I complain about some of these questions and all, but I really do enjoy these things. I'm already anticipating the next one!
Posted by Mark on April 18, 2010 at 04:42 PM .: Comments (6) | link :.



Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Link Dump
Yes, another one.
  • Dear Subway, Inc. - I always thought they shaped the cheese like that because they didn't want to use as much cheese. This guy has a somewhat more optimistic outlook.
  • The Videogame Car - Apparently it's much harder to drive like that in real life than it is in GTA4.
  • Why records DO all sound the same - The unknown knows of the music industry. In all seriousness, it's pretty interesting how modern music mixing and mastering techniques are used to smooth out and "louden" music tracks.
  • 5 Year Old Baseball Star - This kid is better at baseball than I ever was, and he's only 5. He can consistently hit an 85 mph pitch (since he's so small, he actually gets pushed backwards).
  • Transformers Crossover - This felt vaguely infuriating until I realized that it was Anikin Skywalker, not the real Star Wars.
  • Auto-Tune Some Pizza - How is it that Auto-Tune never gets old. Ok, well, it does, but still, this was pretty funny.
Yeah, so, sorry for the gratuitous link dumps of late. Just not especially inspired right now. Hopefully something more interesting on Sunday.
Posted by Mark on April 14, 2010 at 09:04 PM .: Comments (5) | link :.



Sunday, April 11, 2010

God of War III
The first God of War was one of my favorite games for the PS2. I had some problems with it (namely, the Hades level towards the end of the game) and upon replaying the updated version, I noticed that some of the previous generation video game conventions were annoying (namely, the save points), but it's still a great game. I was less enamored with God of War II, but it retained the feel of the original and was still an excellent game. When I bought my PS3 last year, one of the major reasons was that God of War III was coming (and it's a platform exclusive for Sony as well). Having finished the game this week, I'm happy to report that it was well worth the wait. It's certainly not perfect, but it's an extremely well executed game.

Kratos

The critical response to the game has been mostly glowing, though there is an undercurrent of complaints about the repetitiveness of the franchise. Reactions seem to be split into a "OMG, this is the best game evar!" camp and a "It's great, but it's the same damn game, why am I playing this?" camp. Mitch Krpata falls into the latter camp, and makes an interesting case:
I don't know. This game does almost everything right. It's better in some clearly definable ways than its predecessors, and somehow worse in the gestalt. Playing God of War III, I was aware that I was playing a game that had been produced at a high level, but I just didn't care what was happening.
I actually think this is a valid point, even if it's not something that really bothered me. There were some things that didn't entirely work in God of War III, but it's still a great game and I think it's definitely a big step up from the second game. Indeed, much of what I don't like about this new game could be pinned on the preceding entry in the series (namely, the story).

I don't think any of the games have a truly great story or anything, but the first game has a solid character arc for Kratos. Of course, the story isn't completed there and there is little in the way of closure, but it works really well as a fresh take on the Greek mythological tragedy. Kratos fits right in with the rest of the Greek pantheon. He's a tragic figure, and there are times when you don't especially like him, but by the end of the game, I think enough empathy has been built up that you do care about him. As I mentioned in my review of the God of War Collection, Kratos is less likeable in the second game, and his motivations and actions are also rather odd. He starts the game as a war-mongering douchebag, for which Zeus lays the smackdown. So Kratos ends up in Hades (again) and makes a deal with the Titans to get revenge on Zeus. He eventually fights his way back to Zeus and something tragic (and rather silly) happens, leading to a literal cliffhanger of an ending. Even beyond those flaws with the story, there's no real character arc in part II either. Ultimately, this story just isn't very convincing, and given that the second game ends on a cliffhanger, God of War III starts off with a bit of a handicap.

Now, I'm not saying that they story they came up with was especially good and I think that Yahtzee's dramatization of the writer's conundrum is pretty spot on:
At this point, the story writer said "Shit, whose idea was it to put a thrilling climax at the start of the game? Now I have to contrive some unconvincing way to drag this out for another six or seven hours."
And indeed, they came up with basically the same idea as last time: send Kratos back to Hades (for a third time!), strip him of his powers, and make him fight his way back to the beginning of the game. This has, more or less, been the structure of all three games. Start off with a rousing action sequence, show the primary objective of the game, then make you jump through 10 hours of hoops to actually get to the objective. It would have been nice to perhaps break from tradition here, but again, the end of God of War II handcuffed the writers. Eventually, the story does progress to a point where Kratos actually regains his character arc and proceeds to actually redeem some of his past misdeeds. There's an element of hope injected into the story, and so I think what ended up happening was that the new team, having inherited a crappy cliffhanger ending, did their best to get out of that and provide their own take on the story. As such, I think the beginning of the game suffers a bit from inherited writing of dubious quality, but it eventually shrugs that off and the overall theme of the story works well enough (even if there are massive, titan-sized plot holes strewn throughout).

I can see how it wouldn't work for some folks though, and that's the sort of thing that can sap the fun of the game a bit, especially if you're getting tired of the game mechanics. Fortunately for me, I love the game mechanics, and while not much has changed since the first game, I think that actually works well here. The core combat mechanics are as fluid and satisfying as always; there's no need to muck that up, and I'm glad they haven't. The puzzles, too, are as inventive as ever, and I have to admit that this game flows much better than the second installment. There are still some platforming sections as well, but none of the amazingly frustrating stuff from the first game (i.e. it's actually fun in this game). Finally, the tone and pace of this game is impeccable. I remember complaining that the flow of the second game was worse than the original, but I shrugged that off as a typical sequel problem. Well, part three solved that problem - in terms of pacing, it's at least as good as the original, if not better.

There are some minor changes in the combat system though, not all of which are for the better. There are four weapons in the game, and as with the original and second games, the new weapons aren't very special or engaging (with one exception, which we'll get to in a minute). The blades of chaos (or whatever they're called now) are as great as ever and little has changed. Two of the new weapons are essentially the same thing as the original blades - pointy objects connected to chains. As such, they don't really add much to the proceedings. The third new weapon, and the only one I really connected with, is called the Nemean Cestus (a pair of fist gauntlets shaped like lion heads), and I actually had a lot of fun with this one. While perhaps not as versatile as the traditional blades, they do pack a whallop and can be a lot of fun (especially once powered up).

Kratos rockin the Nemean Cestus
Kratos, rockin the Nemean Cestus

We also get some new magic spells this time around, though each spell is now tied to the weapon you're using instead of being a separate function. So if you have the blades equipped, you can call on the Army of Sparta magic. But if you have the Nemean Cestus equipped, you have to use the Nemean Roar magic. This isn't that big of a deal, but I think the best magic is also associated with the default weapon, making it harder to branch out into other weapons (I have to admit, I barely used the Nemesis Whip and it does have a promising electricity area-effect magic attack associated with it). In addition to magic, you do also acquire some additional magic items. There's a bow that can shoot flaming arrows, there's the head of Helios which acts as a sorta gruesome flashlight (Helios was the Greek god of the sun, and you're literally holding his decapitated head throughout most of the game), and there's the boots of Hermes, which allow you to run up walls, etc... Some of these are important, some not so much (the Hermes boots are rather lame).

All in all, I'm actually pretty impressed with how many attacks and capabilities they were able to fit onto the controller scheme without making it all that confusing or hard to use. There were some times when I got tripped up, but for the most part, it was very easy to pick up (part of this may have something to do with my familiarity with the original games - not sure how well someone new to the series would do). And speaking of usability, things are pretty damn good this time around. When I revisited the first two games, I noted that I've become spoiled by current generation console games and computer games that have automatic save systems and checkpoints. The first two games had save points, and while that was fine for the previous generation, that's not acceptable now. I'm happy to say that God of War III has implemented a very forgiving auto-save system. Strangely, they have implemented save points as well. Theoretically, these are unnecessary, but I ended up creating a lot of save files anyway (not sure why they couldn't just let you save anywhere, but whatever). It would have been nice to have a sorta chapter system, so I could easily replay various sequences in the game, but according to an interview at 1up, this idea came up too late in the development process and was causing the team to deal with a lot of unintended consequences when they tried implementing it...

And so we come to the dreaded Quick Time Events discussion. The God of War games are certainly no stranger to QTEs, and indeed, the original game was my first real introduction to the modern QTE. I thought that game did a great job of it, but there are certainly a lot of games that do a poor job implementing them. The first Uncharted, for instance, has a few terrible QTE prompts that essentially equate to "Press this button to not die!" God of War games have always been much better at integrating them into the game, though God of War II actually reverted towards the end of the game and implemented a few really bad ones. But they got back on the right track with God of War III, and there are some really memorable boss fights in this game that essentially feature a series of QTE prompts, interspersed with some short combat sequences here and there.

Which brings up the visuals of the game, which are truly impressive, perhaps the most impressive that I've seen so far on the PS3. And the added power of the PS3 allows the QTE sequences to really soar, especially the Cronos bossfight about midway through the game. The sheer scale and scope of that battle is difficult to describe, even though it essentially boils down to the aforementioned QTEs interspersed with some combat. Visually, it's quite arresting. I don't think any of the boss battles are as great as the Hydra or Giant Armored Minotaur from the first game, which remain the best in the series (perhaps because of the seemingly rare combination of boss fight and environmental puzzle that the two aforementioned boss-fights rely on), but God of War III far outclasses the second game when it comes to boss fights. I think the improved capabilities of the PS3 hardware really allowed the game to soar, and the second game's bosses seem flat by comparison. Of course, the visual splendor isn't limited to the boss fights. There are many sweeping vistas throughout the game and numerous cut-scenes as well. You can't skip the cut-scenes, but you also don't have to watch them again (unless you are replaying the game from the beginning) because the game remembers that you already saw it and auto-saves after the cut-scene. From what I've read, it seems that these cut-scenes are where the game does a lot of the pre-caching that allows you to continually play the game without having to wait for loading screens (this is something I've always loved about this series - previous games have gotten around it by making you run through long, winding corridors, which might be a slightly better solution due to the perceived control the player retains). There are more cut-scenes here than in previous games, but I think they work well and don't interrupt the pacing of the game. The added horsepower of the PS3 does lead the developers to perhaps indulge a bit too much at times, sometimes pulling the camera back too far for too long. At first, this is an impressive feat, because you can still see and control Kratos, even when zoomed out, but eventually I found this effect grating. Fortunately, it doesn't come up that often.

The character and environment designs are great, as usual. One of my complaints about the original game was that the fixed camera was annoying. For the most part, you still don't have any control over the camera, but it's something I've grown used to and even embrace at this point. And the level designers seem to take advantage of the various blind spots, etc... in a way that makes me enjoy it more. I suppose you could make the argument that this is actually lazy level design, if you were so inclined, but when you look at how well the game plays, I don't think that argument would wash. Take, for instance, the labyrinth, which manages to evoke the sort of paranoid fear of Cube (for me, at least) with genuinely fun and entertaining puzzle set-pieces and action sequences. Other examples include varied gameplay sequences (i.e. a music minigame, the sequences where you're flying through a collapsing tunnel at high speeds, etc...) and the usual roster of challenging enemies and mini-bosses. There are still times when I really do wish that I could control the camera more and it's taken me a while to get used to it, so I can certainly understand the sentiment, but I feel like the game designers are able to make up for it with their level designs at this point.

You could still complain about some of the longstanding issues of the series, such as the fact that there are plenty of times when you seem to run up on a non-existent wall (Krpata mentions the Gardens of Olympus puzzle sequence, which features a bunch of walls you should easily be able to jump over, yet the game doesn't allow you. There's more to his complaint about the sequence, and it's valid, but I still enjoyed the sequence a lot). This certainly isn't perfect, but it's not like there are other games that have solved this problem yet. The music, sound effects and voice acting are also excellent. If you have any complaints about the game, I doubt it is with the quality of the production.

In the end, what we're left with is a game which is superior to God of War II in every way. The visuals, the audio, the pacing and flow of the game, the usability, the bosses, the level design and even the story are much improved in God of War III. When it comes to the original game, the comparison is a bit more mixed. God of War III has none of the low points of the first game. For instance, there's nothing approaching the frustration of the Hades levels from the original game. But I have to admit that the story of the original game tops the story of part three. This might not be that big of a deal... if God of War III wasn't so laden with cut-scenes. If you liked the first two games, this one is certainly worth checking out. I'm not sure how new players would react. Perhaps some of the things that seemed easy for me to pick up would be hard for someone who is coming to the game cold. Having played all three games in the past few months has been a fun experience though, and I'm happy with all the games. It's a great series, and well worth a play if you're a hack-n-slash action/adventure video game fan.
Posted by Mark on April 11, 2010 at 08:01 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.



Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Nanoha Ends and A's Begins
I finished off the first season of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha last weekend and moved on to the first disc of the second season, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's. As I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, the first season was slow going at first, and I had some major problems with a few things, notably the age of the characters combined with the fan service (apparently the specific term for this is "Lolicon", something I'd like to avoid from here on out). But behind all that stuff was a pretty good story, and I suppose I'm glad I stuck it out. I'll try to avoid major spoilers, but there are some things I want to talk about that require them, so there.

I've already gone over the basic plot of the series:
The story concerns a young girl named Nanoha whose life is changed when she runs across a magical ferret who gives her a stone called the "Raging Heart" (there seems to be some confusion in translations here, it sometimes being referred to as "Raising Heart" - I gather there's some sort of story there, but I don't want to read too much about it until I finish the series). The stone unlocks Nanoha's magical powers and she decides to help the magical ferret recover powerful but unstable Jewel Seeds (magical artifacts from another dimension). Soon it becomes apparent that they're not the only ones after the Jewel Seeds, and Nanoha gets caught up in the middle.
It turns out that the relationship between Nanoha and the other girl who is going after the Jewel Seeds (named Fate) is an important part of the series. It's pretty clear that Nanoha and Fate are only superficially opposed to one another, and Fate's mother is the real villain of the series.

This brings up something I did like about the series, which is that first impressions of characters, especially the villains, are often wrong. There are three primary villains in the series. There's Fate, but she's only following her mother's wishes and eventually you grow to like her. Aruf is Fate's familiar, and she's especially mean to Nanoha and Yunno. But then we see how well Aruf treats her master and I think she ended up being my favorite character in the series. Finally, there's Fate's mother. She is pretty thoroughly evil, but we find out later why she's doing what she's doing, and it's a legitimate motive, even if her methods are detestable.

Nanoha

The turning point of the series is when the Space Time Administration shows up. The universe gets fleshed out, and we start to get a better idea of what's going on. A few additional interesting characters are introduced and the story starts moving quickly. There are some things I found a bit odd though. At one point, the captain of the Space Time Administration ship comes down and talks to Nanoha's parents, explaining that Nanoha needs to go away for a while and that things might be dangerous... but there's no explanation of why Nanoha needs to go away. Her parents don't know about magic or Jewel Seeds or anything... and yet they still agree to it. The fact that no one in Nanoha's original circle of human family and friends knows about her magical qualities seems a bit odd to me. I keep expecting the other shoe to drop, but it hasn't happened yet (even 5 episodes into the second series). Everyone has such a cheery attitude about a 9 year old being put into a dangerous situation (and that includes Nanoha, which leads to strange cognitive dissonance for me while she's in a battle). Like I mentioned in my previous post, this sort of thing makes no sense to me. In an email response to my last post, a reader explained that a lot of other cultures have a recent and celebrated history of children soldiers, which does make a sort of sense. I guess my western sensibilities just aren't tuned right for this series, because stuff like this keeps tripping me up.

This seems to be a very uneven series from my perspective. There are a lot of little things I don't like about it, but there are also a lot of little things I do like. Some of the side characters are great (Aruf in particular, though I also have a soft spot for Amy). The sense of technology that drives the magic is actually very well done, and it kept the series from getting to out of hand with powerful magic (in the way that, say, Hellsing did). This is important because it means that there actually are stakes in the series, and that when a battle happens, I don't always know the outcome. There seems to be a tacit acknowledgement that physics are still important, even if they can be stretched a bit. Visually, the series does have an interesting look. Often, the animation is done to imitate camera styles - for instance, there are scenes which look like they were "filmed" with a handheld camera. It's not something I noticed much in other series, and it works really well here. Lighting effects are also well done. The music isn't especially my taste, but I suppose it works well enough.

The ending of the first series is reasonably well done. There are some specific revelations that are surprising, even if the general plot is a bit predictable. Nanoha and Fate become friends in the end, and Nanoha A's picks up right where we left off. This time, a powerful magical faction has appeared on earth, attempting to use another unstable horcrux artifact called the Book of Darkness. Things haven't evolved very far just yet, but the pattern of villains with understandable motives seems to be holding up. As previously mentioned, the whole thing still has a vaguely Harry Potterish feel to it, which is unfortunate because I probably enjoyed the Harry Potter books more than this series.

Ultimately, I'm glad I'm watching this series, but I think I've discovered a strain of Anime that I know I want to avoid in the future. The whole lolicon business is frustrating, especially since you can go a few episodes without it and just when I'm getting used to a normal story, I get slapped in the face with a creepy transformation deck or something. I don't really have that much of a problem while watching the show, but I can already tell that this is the sort of series where my opinion will degrade over time because the most memorable part of it is something I find annoying and creepy. Honestly, I struggled even writing this post, but I figured that I started writing about it and it wouldn't be fair to stop in the middle. Probably one more post when Nanoha A's ends. Anyway, lots more screenshots and comments in the extended entry.

Fate

This is Fate and her magical staff, Bardiche. As mentioned before, one of the things the series gets right is the way the magic is driven or at least enabled by technology. Every magician in the series has an artifact like this, and they seem to act like advanced computers. I don't know that I would call them artificial intelligence, but there's clearly a relationship between the magician and their artifact. In fact, I think I like this better than the parallel in the Harry Potter universe (which are wands and which are kinda lame).

Aruf

This is Aruf. She's Fate's familiar and often takes the form of a large dog/monster thing (I suppose you'd call her Yunno's counterpart). When she's in her human form, she still retains some of her doglike features (apparently a common thing in Anime), but in a cute way. As previously mentioned, she comes off as a bit of a brat at first, but you eventually come around when you see how loyal she is to Fate.

Aruf in doggy form

This is Aruf in her doggy form. Not quite as cute, but that was rectified in Nanoha A's, when she cuts down on her size:

Aruf in new and improved cute doggy form

Her new and improved cute-doggy form is certainly cuter, but I've yet to see how this plays on the magical battlefield:p

Amy and Chrono

This is Amy and Chrono, who work for the Space Time Administration. One thing I haven't really gotten into with this series is that there seems to be a quasi-romantic angle going on here. Chrono and Yunno both seem to have a thing for Nanoha, but it's not especially followed through in the series. Amy and Chrono also seem to be good friends, and sometimes I get the feeling that Amy and Chrono will get together. Or maybe Chrono and Fate will get together. Who knows?

Amy and Chrono, with bow

This is the scene that endeared me to Amy forever. After a particularly brutal battle, Chrono has a wound on his head. Fate and Nanoha have wounds as well, but their familiars are taking care of them. Amy dresses Chrono's wound, but then she ties this fruffy bow on top as a sorta joke.

Chrono

A closer look at Chrono, and his little magic technology thingy.

Nanoha is surprised

Nanoha, glassy eyed

Yunno is embarrassed

Like Trigun, this series sometimes uses exaggerated visual poses to emphasize surprise or embarrassment. In my last post, I mentioned that "Yunno and I have pretty much the same reaction" to the creepy lolicon stuff, and I meant that I kinda looked like that last screenshot of the ferret. The aforementioned emailer mentioned that someone could take that the wrong way, but I'm glad no one posted anything about that because I'm pretty emphatically not enjoying that sort of thing.

Visually Interesting Screenshot

Another visually interesting shot

Here are a couple of interesting visuals from the series. As previously mentioned, the series does a pretty good job with this sort of thing.

Orange Juice?

I'm always amused by English labels on stuff in Anime. In this case, we've got a half-gallon of Orange Juice, but it's labeled as 100% Pure Florida... Sunday? The box also mentions that it contains 100% juice, but I'm still not sure what they mean by "Sunday". It's also interesting that they chose to make it Florida OJ though. Is it common to have Florida OJ in Japan?

Villain?

This is one of the villains with a heart of gold that shows up in Nanoha A's.

Another Villain?

This mysterious guy has only just appeared in the series. His role is unclear, but he seems to be a villain as well. I do believe that later in the series, he will end up turning on the group of magicians he's helping out now.

Anime Attack!

One of the things that strikes me about this series is that it features many of the stereotypes of Anime. Stuff like power beams and someone jumping through the air with colors flashing in the background, etc...

Nanoha and Yunno wave goodbye

And that about wraps up this post. Probably one more post in a few weeks when I finish off the series.
Posted by Mark on April 07, 2010 at 08:24 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.



Sunday, April 04, 2010

Red Letter Media Review of Episode II
Hot off the presses, Red Letter Media's review of Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones. If you haven't seen the absolutely brilliant review of Episode I, watch that first because it is better than this one (though I haven't finished it just yet, so far, it's not quite as good). This isn't to say that this one is bad, just that, uh, it's not as good.


I think perhaps one of the things that makes this less funny is that many of the complaints from Episode I are carried over to Episode II. Many of the behind the scenes clips are the same, for instance. Also, in the Episode I review, there were all these strange allusions to the reviewer's ex-wives and how they died "mysteriously" in "unrelated accidents". Some people found them off-putting, but I thought they were fine in the Episode I review. In this review, there's way too much of the serial-killer stuff and it goes on for way too long at times. Still, it's pretty funny stuff and pretty incisive too. I look forward to finishing off this review tonight and also the inevitable Episode III review. I wonder what he'll go into after that?
Posted by Mark on April 04, 2010 at 07:44 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.



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