Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Legend of the Guardians

I wanted to watch this for a while for one simple reason: I like owls, and the idea of a movie about them was intriguing. Plus the name suggested something more than the animal-centered comedy animation that we see so many of these days. A few days ago I finally saw it.

I found it to be one of the most epic animations I've seen in a long time, and I enjoyed it immensely. Watching it made me feel like a child again, I felt awe and fear and amazement.

Looking back, it feels as if the focus of western animation, at least on the big screen, has moved away from the old 'confrontation between good and evil' and shifted focus towards the personal growth of the protagonist. Take for example Megamind, How to train your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda, Wall-E, Up, Toy Story; whilst all have very credible threats, the focus is more on the characters understanding themselves and their place in the world than defeating some great evil.

Is this a reflection of the times? The idea that the real battle is not against some outsider, but against the worst parts of ourselves? I don't know. All I know is that animated movies with "The Lord of the Rings" style epic struggles against the all-consuming forces of evil are few and far between these days. But Legend of the Guardians does it, and it does it well.

Without going into detail in the plot, it does feature many classic elements of fantasy, with emerging evil, legendary heroes, struggle and hardship and an unlikely band of companions thrown together in the face of adversity, and it all works quite well. I was certainly taken at the time, finding it to be very engaging.

In retrospect, there was almost too much story for the movie. This is expected as it is an adaptation of series of novels, but it means that certain story moments feel rushed, the whole thing feels a little chronologically compressed and suffers a few inconsistencies. For example, two young owls, having only just learned to fly and having flown quite a distance to escape pursuit, almost immediately set out and cross a great distance that it is suggested even adult owls would find almost beyond their endurance. And it's over sea, so there's no chance they could have rested on the way. In fact the same trip is undertaken at different times in the movie and it feels vastly different each time, and while some of this could be explained as non-linear storytelling, other times it just doesn't make sense.

These issues are actually quite minor, but it feels as if it would have worked better as a much longer movie or even a series. It certainly feels as if the world is rich enough to sustain a longer run-time, even with just the current story arc. Or perhaps I think that as an adult, while a child would grow bored by then. Actually that's quite unlikely in my experience; I believe children to have a greater endurance than most adults as far as watching TV and movies goes. Perhaps it's for the sake of the parents, who are unlikely to take their children to the cinema to watch a two hour movie?

One issue that did bother me a little was the 'message' of the movie. Arguably one of the messages was of equality in that the evil owls believe they are the 'master race' who have the right to rule over smaller weaker owls, while the protagonists are of mixed species (including the one that the evil owls belong to, so it's not a case of 'this race is evil' the way it often is in animal-based storytelling) and the main Guardian of the film is in fact a smaller breed of owl. Another is that war is not glorious and it has terrible consequences.

However, the big 'lesson' that the main protagonist learns is to trust his gizzard, not his head. How exactly does that translate into human terms? Trust your gut I suppose, but to a child it may come across as something like 'don't think about what you're doing, just do what you feel like'. Either way I disagree; I believe people already don't spend enough time thinking about their actions.

Another thing that worries me is an argument between the hero and another character where he is accused of being a foolish dreamer and he responds something to the effect that 'our dreams are what make us who we are' (I'm probably misquoting that). While I agree with the generally concept of not giving up on our dreams, the dreams they are talking about are idle daydreams, not goals or hopes for the future.

The quality of the animation is fantastic. It is both technically and artistically impressive. Since owls are nocturnal, much of the movie occurs at night. The artists have taken advantage of by creating some stark images that use the darkness to their advantage, so the available lighting (moonlight, fire, lightning) has more impact. Also worth mentioning are some impressive flying sequences that reminded me why I used to dream of flying, with glorious dawn skies and intense lightning storms.

The visual style itself is unusually realistic. Surprisingly the owls are barely anthropomorphised at all - no wings gripping objects or wingtip feathers gesturing like fingers. Perhaps this style is possible thanks in part to the complete absence of humans, which bypasses most worries about the uncanny valley, but regardless it lends a sense of weight to the film that is perfectly suited to the story. Feathers and fur look amazing, metallic objects are stunning (perhaps doubly so as they stand out so much as almost everything else is mostly natural), and the various set-pieces look wonderful.

There are some excellent dramatic scenes and surprisingly engaging fights. There's more action that I expected, with some pretty effective use of slow motion at times. The sight of owls wearing helmets and carrying weapons is surprising at first, but it quickly comes to feel natural, thanks in large part to how the setting grows (at one point we actually see a smithy), and how effectively they use the weapons while flying.

Overall I give it a 9 out of 10: it's a little lacking in depth in places, but you won't care too much as you quickly get drawn in to this epic and visually stunning movie.

The thing with the "flecks" feels a little strange; perhaps not out of place exactly, but most of the film does not stray too far from what is believable of a world of intelligent animals while the glowing energies of the flecks are more fantastical. Having said that, I wonder if there is some sort of basis to it. I'm not sure why it matters, but I believe there is some kind of justifiction possible.

I believe the flecks are meant to be magnetic. It's my understanding that birds navigate at least partly by sensing magnetic fields, like a built-in compass, so I suppose the idea is that excessively strong magnetic fields destroy their sense of balance and hence their ability to fly or even stay upright (and would probably make them nauseous, explaining how it affects their gizzard the same we that we feel sick in our stomachs). I don't think bats have the same navigational ability, so would not be affected by magnetism.

I do have one other complaint: the Cain and Abel story. I get the idea that the two had the same start in life but ended up in such different places, meaning that who we are is not just a consequence of our blood or situation, but of our choices. However, it felt a little generic and more importantly a little forced: Kludd was a little too quick to turn "dark side", and Soren was always shown in a brighter light (such as when they are 'branching', and Soren is instantly better and Kludd openly cheats). It would have been easier to believe if Kludd had just been a close friend or more had happened to lead them down seperate paths; instead it ends up feeling more like Kludd is inherently evil and Soren inherently superior, as they make such vastly different decisions for no obvious reason, which I don't think was the idea.

Oh, and what's up with the snake? How the hell did that happen?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Singularity review

Seeing Singularity on the shelf the other day, I vaguely remembered reading that it was an FPS with some time manipulation mechanics (to be honest, I think I was confusing it with Timeshift in my mind), and I decided to give it a go. I was not expecting much, a basic modern-day sci-fi FPS with bullet time and some other gimmicks that would keep me entertained for a weekend. What I found was something rather special.

I am sorely tempted to walk you through the start of the game to try to explain what surprised me about it, but I'll save that for the spoilers section. Instead I'll just say this: I was probably twenty minutes into the game when I finally picked up a gun. Up till that point the worst I had done was stab a couple of wooden boards into submission with a knife. But I had saved a life, and in doing so broke the world.

This initially slow pace is because Singularity has quite a strong story. It's not as deep or elaborate as more RPG-like games and the supporting characters aren't very well developed, but it still gives a you a much better reason for what you're doing than most shooters. Personally I found it engaging and one of the game's strong points.

Speaking of the plot, one of the pivotal moments has you carrying a man to safety. I found this to be really engaging, because this was one of the few times I could remember in a shooter when I had a chance to actually save a life. If you're the hero, how come all you're supposed to care about is killing people, and you're never supposed to care about saving all the civilians or friends who get gunned down in front of you?

I remember in Half Life 2 I would always order my squad mates to hold their position so I could take care of the enemy without them getting killed - that's what heroes are supposed to do, right? Well, it generally doesn't work - certainly the game never cares if you've saved a few grunts or hid in the back and let them all die. But Singularity actually gave me a chance to save someone, and even though I knew it was all scripted, it was still an intense experience.

I think one of the things that helped draw me in was that the main character is almost a silent protagonist, so it feels more like the consequences are of your actions, not his. I say almost because the mold is broken in a few ways, but mostly these work well for the story rather than detracting from it.

Unfortunately the supporting cast just don't engage with the player. At one point you're saved by a woman called Kathryn who is apparently a British agent but dresses more like she belongs in Mirror's Edge. She basically plays the role of Alyx Vance, but she's just not very good at it as her presence makes less sense, she's less useful, and generally behaves less like a person and more like a set of player instructions. Your other source of directives, Victor Barisov, is even less interesting despite being far more integral to the plot. The main villain himself has his moments and is quite villainous, though it sometimes feels less as though he is the main threat and more as if time itself is your opponent.

As mentioned, the game centres around time-travel. While this is used to good effect in the story, and leads to some very atmospheric and visually impressive scenes, it doesn't really do very much in gameplay terms. You have a handful of abilities, such as the ability to age or renew some objects, slow down some enemies or prevent them from teleporting around, but these are so specific and context-sensitive that they never amount to much more than fancy switches.

For example, you can age or de-age some objects, but only specific objects and there's only the two extremes. So essentially it's nothing more than a visually interesting switch some objects have. There's a few puzzles that rely on this, but they're generally not very taxing and have very little variety. You can levitate and throw some objects, like barrels, but that's hardly related to time-travel and actually serves to highlight the static nature of the environment - in any given area they may be a handful of boxes or barrels you can pick up, and lot of boxes, lamps, telephones, chairs, and other small objects that may as well have been carved out of the ground you're walking on. It feels artificial and makes the environments feel less realistic than they would if you couldn't move anything at all.

When using your time powers on the enemies, the effect depends on the enemy, so some will slow down, others turn around and attack their friends, while one type of enemy jumps up and chases you for a few seconds then explodes. Again the lack of consistency is annoying. If all the enemies reacted the same way it would make sense and feel like time manipulation, but instead it feels like the enemies themselves have some sort of switch you can flip.

Speaking of enemies, there's a fair variety, especially when compared to the ubiquitous modern military shooter. There's solders with a variety of armaments, and a range of monsters with different abilities and appearances. While none are terribly visually impressive or imaginative, in gameplay terms they're nice and varied and some are quite scary, others are dangerous enough that you have to figure out the best weapons and tactics to take them on.

One interesting thing about this game is that it doesn't follow the modern trend of regenerating health. Instead you have a health bar and can carry a few med kits. Here's the thing: you're health bar is short. Seriously, it only takes a three or four attacks from most of the monsters to kill you, and if you let yourself get caught out in the open against soldier you lose most of your life in the few seconds it takes you to get to cover.

This is brilliant, because it means that combat is scary again! It's not about walking forwards until you get shot then hiding for a few seconds, in this game you need to move carefully, against monsters you will run like hell while firing like crazy, against soldiers you will need to use cover and advance slowly, pulling tricks like ageing their cover to destroy it and de-ageing objects to hide behind yourself, or using some of the more interesting weapons.

The weapons are a bit of a mixed bag. Unfortunately you can only carry two, though there's plenty of opportunity to swap as needed. Also all the regular weapons can be upgraded, but this doesn't really work as well as it should because every weapon has exactly the same upgrade options, none of which have any visual impact, and upgrade modules are hard to come by. As a result the system feels tacked-on and lackluster, failing to instill the kind of sense of ownership that some games do.

While the standard weapons are underwhelming, but some of the special weapons are brilliant, and just incredibly fun to use. The first weapon you get is an impressive (if ugly) looking revolver that's surprisingly pathetic. I had to empty almost the entire cylinder on the first enemy in the game. The fact that it was weak made sense from the perspective that a pistol should be weak and you get more powerful weapons later, and also in terms of establishing the enemies as credible threats (and in this case as scary monsters), but that's what small semi-auto pistols are for, not revolvers

Large revolvers are supposed to be powerful and slow, not weak and slow. Take for example the magnum in Half-Life, which will kill a soldier in a single shot but takes skill to use because of the massive recoil. Or better yet the revolver in Resistance 2; not only will kill standard enemies with a single shot, it also has a secondary fire mode that detonates the bullets you've fired, allowing you to kill an enemy then blow up the bullet when another is running past the corpse for multiple kills with a single shot, making it great fun to use. The Singularity revolver in contrast is very disappointing, neither fun to shoot nor effective in game, and simply not worth using.

The assault rifle was powerful and effective, and basically the best all-round weapon to use when you have the ammo, but it was not really fun to use due to excessive muzzle-flash and camera shake. The shotgun was powerful at close range, but damage dropped off so quickly with range it was just silly, basically it was only really worth using when running low on assault rifle ammo. There's also a rocket launcher, which has the advantage of being a 'special' weapon. This means that you can carry it in addition to your regular two weapons, but you drop it if you try to use a regular weapon. This works perfectly for a limited-use weapon like this, and the rocket launcher itself works well.

The sniper rifle follows the Resistance model, and allows a few seconds of "bullet time" when zoomed in. Great fun to use thanks to the game's damage system (I'll get back to this later), and it's power makes it a great choice against most enemies, but as you would expect limited ammo capacity and supplies greatly restrict it's use. That's not a bad thing, it makes it more of treat when you do use it, but if you could carry more than two weapons so you could afford to carry it and only use it when needed would have been nice.

There's a minigun that puts out a hell of a lot of firepower and actually has a pretty decent ammo capacity. The main problem is that you cannot move very fast when firing or spinning the barrels, and if you walk around without spinning the barrels it will take a moment to start spitting out bullets. This makes it unsuitable for standard use as you may get surprised and killed before you actually get it firing, but extremely useful in intense fights.

Now for the more unique weapons. There's a weapon that fires powerful spikes, but you have to charge it up before firing. I find it annoying and very difficult to use, and only bothered with it in one single section of the game where you fire at large unmoving targets.

Then there's the explosives launcher. This either lobs grenades in typical grenade-launcher fashion, or drops a remote-controlled explosive sphere that you drive around and detonate at will. You cannot move when using this alternate fire mode as the thumbstick controls the movement of the grenade instead, which works surprisingly well. You can see an outline of the ball through objects, and it has a pleasing weight and momentum, which makes rolling it behind enemies cover and blowing them to bits surprisingly easy and fun. There's even a couple of Overall a very powerful and effective weapon that's quite unique and a lot of fun to use.

Perhaps the most entertaining weapon in the entire game is the 'seeker' rifle. This is another special weapon, so you only get to use in a few areas in the game, but it is incredibly fun to use, as well as being insanely over-powered. Basically, it's a powerful rifle which fires exploding bullets that can easily kill all but the most powerful enemies with a single shot. The big deal though is that when you hold the aiming button when firing, you can guide each individual bullet in slow motion right to the enemy, "Redeemer-style". It's easy to wipe out whole armies from behind cover, slowing homing in each shot to it's doomed target. Not only that, but you get a second after the impact to watch them die in glorious slow motion. For example, you will come across soldiers carrying ballistic shields that are proof against most of your weapons. With this gun it's not a problem, just guide the bullet under the shield and watch their legs go flying off.

Which leads to my next point: the hit reactions are not only very well done, they're also quite gory. Limbs get blown off, monsters explode in a shower of bits, and you can even freeze and shatter enemies using barrels of liquid nitrogen (in addition of course to blowing them up with the exploding barrels). I have to say, freezing a soldier then shattering him in slow motion with the sniper rifle creates a rain of glittering shards of ice that's quite impressive, as well as very morbid.

I think one of the most interesting things about this game is that I experienced so many memorable gaming moments that weren't large set pieces, but more subtle in-game affairs. The gameplay is great fun thanks to the use of non-regenerating health and some great weapons, and will perhaps appeal to more old-fashioned gamers for the same reasons. Finally, the story is engrossing and well presented, with some genuinely unique moments.

Overall I give it a 9 out of 10: while it has a number of shortcomings, these are more than offset by some genuinely great moments.

Some may find that Singularity starts too slowly, that it takes too long to get to the action. Personally I felt it worked extremely well - a hell of a lot happens before you even get to pick up a gun, including what I consider one of the game's most memorable moments (for me, it was probably one of the most memorable gaming moments I've experienced). If you don't want that spoiled for you, please stop reading now!

The game starts with you in a helicopter, so obviously it's not long before you crash (but not before you're treated to the view of a giant hand holding a sickle rising from the sea). Exploring the crash site, you find a visitors centre featuring a large statue of Stalin's head in the lobby. There's plenty to see here, including a scale model of the island and an orientation video for new arrivals. If you take the time, you'll get an idea of what the island was for and how it worked. Suddenly there's a bright flash, and everything has changed. The broken down walls are back up, there's people everywhere. Oh, and the building is on fire.

You see a man fall as the ground gives way beneath him, managing to grab on to the edge with one hand. You lift him up and start to carry him to safety. There's fire everywhere, people dying left and right, but eventually you carry him to the relative safety of the lobby where survivors have gathered, and place him in front of the statue where a medic is waiting. A moment later the light returns, and you're back in the present.

But suddenly it hits you: the statue has changed! Stalin's head has been replaced by a statue of... the man you just saved? Crap.

One moment I was happy, proud even, that I had managed to saved someone, the next I was hit by the realisation that my actions had far greater consequences than I had imagined. Yes, I know it was all pre-scripted so they weren't "my" actions. And yes, even as I carried the man to safety I knew that I was changing things. But while the thought occurred to me, while I was expecting to be confronted as some point with the information that I had changed history somehow, I was busy playing and was certainly not expecting such an immediate and impressive display of how large the changes were. What's more, it's not read out, explained to you as if you're some sort of idiot, rather it's there in front of you and you are left to come to your own realisations.

As the game progresses you move back and forth in time and make more changes, and each time the world seems to get stranger. The second time I screwed with the timeline, I jumped back to find strange glowing plants had taken root all over the island. The third time, I stepped outside, looked up and saw a flock of luminescent ethereal microbe-like creatures gently floating across the sky, like a cloud of other-worldly dandelion seeds. At that point I actually stopped for a moment and said to myself "What the hell am I doing to the world?". And that was something special.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Jurassic Park review

Jurassic Park was just re-released in the cinema. It's my understanding that it was exactly the same movie, just the print was restored or something of that nature. Now, I saw Jurassic Park in the cinema when it was originally released, and have not seen it since. I vaguely remember enjoying it at the time, but then I was probably 10 or 11 back then and my tastes weren't terribly refined, so I wasn't sure whether I would enjoy now, or my overly-critical adult self would spend the whole movie wincing at obvious flaws, cheesy acting, and poor effects.

As it happens, I did not wince. Even though I haven't watched the movie since it's original release (at least not in it's entirety, I may have caught bits on TV now and again, not sure to be honest), I could still remember a lot of scenes. That alone is an indication of how good the movie is, but what's more telling is that I pretty much knew who was going to live and who was going to die, I was watching scenes that I remembered a little, and yet still my heart was pounding, I was glued to the screen, completely engrossed.

As I watched I started to wonder how come, when movies had achieved such a pinnacle so long ago, we've so rarely managed to produce anything of such caliber since? Surely we've got it figured out by now, if Jurassic Park is any indication? But then I tried to figure out why it's so good, how it succeeds when others fail, and realised I could not arrive at any concrete conclusions. Perhaps that's the problem; movies are an art form, it's not simply a case of sticking to a set formula, and very minor nuances can sometimes make all the difference. And I suppose most movie productions are driven by business these days, so the art gets pushed to the side a little.

So lets try to talk about why it's so good (although this will be more of a list of good points than any real analysis of them), starting with the special effects: a few of the CGI scenes look a little bit low-budget by modern standards - as in, if you saw this quality of animation in a modern summer blockbuster you'd be a little disappointed, but if you saw them on a TV show you'd marvel at the high budget and quality of the effects. And that's only maybe 2 or 3 scenes out of a movie that's full to the brim with dinosaurs. There were times when I was frankly stunned, the T-Rex scene being a prime example. The movie also used animatronics, which were brilliant, and most of the time I struggled to tell the difference between the two. This really was a ground-breaking movie that still holds up very well almost 20 years later.

The characters were interesting and likeable. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) starts of with a bit of a 'grumpy old man' vibe, more comfortable around books and bones than around people, but when it all goes wrong he doesn't hesitate to risk his life for others, and steps turns out to be surprisingly capable. And he grows as a character as well, initially having a strong dislike of children but then bonding and caring for two.

Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) is likewise tough and capable, facing danger head on when necessary, but in her case it's arguable more impressive from a writing standpoint because the character is incredibly upbeat and positive. What's impressive about that you ask? Well, most of the 'tough' female characters I see in media have a bad attitude. I can only assume that most male writers feel the need to have their "femme-fatale" show how tough she is by delivering constant one-liners and verbally putting down all the "macho men" around her. Personally I think the need to put others down speaks of a lack of confidence, and find such characters un-likeable. Ellie doesn't need to criticise people around her, rather she's quietly confident, but never the damsel in distress.

Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is entertaining, not silly or slapstick but light-hearted. His presence helps balance the movie, the fact that he's somehow able to make you laugh in the middle of a T-Rex chase without ruining the tension is impressive.

John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) is positively charming, a millionaire who isn't a complete jerk - what a concept. And while generally mild-mannered and almost child-like in his enthusiasm, he's certainly no pushover; from the first moment he steps onto the screen he has his way and everyone else is simply swept along.

I loved Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck), not for anything he did or said, but just because of how he carried himself: the hardened professional hunter who's been places and seen things, things he'd rather not talk about and you probably wouldn't want to hear. Just a fun character who I wish we had seen more of.

The character of Lex Murphy is perhaps not developed much during the movie as she spends much of the time being terrified and running for her life, but Ariana Richards does an absolutely amazing job - I have never seen such absolute terror portrayed on screen in my life. She's not forcing screams out at the top of her lungs as she claws at her face, nothing so melodramatic. No, she honestly seems to be so terrified that her mind and body have simply shut down, completely unable to deal with the situation. She sits there, completely petrified, her eyes so wide it must hurt, and just shakes. I honestly believe part of what makes the dinosaurs so scary in Jurassic Park is her reaction to them. Her naked terror is one of the most vivid things I remember from the movie.

Joseph Mazzello, as Tim Murphy, also does an impressive job as an annoying but inquisitive young boy. I think I was subconsciously relieved that it wasn't me he was pestering as I watched him chase Alan between cars, apparently oblivious to the fact that he wasn't wanted. His performance is very natural, unlike some children I've seen on screen who are basically just led around by the adults, stopping to woodenly deliver lines when called for.

Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero) is a lawyer who's out of his element, and while he sees Jurassic Park as license to print money, he doesn't fall into the trap of being an outright slime-ball. Dennis Nedry (Nerdy?), played by Wayne Knight, is entertaining without overdoing it. And hey, look! It's Samuel L. Jackson back before he became Samuel! El! Jackson! Never seen without a cigarette in his mouth, he somehow manages to make the role of computer engineer a dramatic one.

The fact that all the characters are well written and acted is a big part of what makes this such a good movie. We care about them, we see the wonder and fear in their eyes and we feel amazed and terrified. The other part is that it's not an action movie, or a horror movie, but an adventure movie. When we finally see dinosaurs on screen, they are shown as majestic, fascinating creatures. We stare at them with a sense of wonder, and even at the end when we fear them, we don't hate them. And that's something special.

Jurassic Park is full of memorable moments and brilliant details. The waves in the glass of water as we start to hear a deep booming sound, the sight of a Tyrannosaur's gigantic eye staring in from the car window, the sudden moment that the leaves part and there's a raptor RIGHT THERE... you won't forget this film in a hurry. One of my favourite moments is when a raptor is peering in through a glass porthole, suddenly it snorts and the glass fogs up. It sounds like a small thing, but somehow it just stayed with me, perhaps because it was one of the moments that made them more real.

After a review like that, I can't possibly give it anything less than a 10 out of 10. I've never been particularly fond of dinosaurs, but even so I enjoyed this movie immensely. If you haven't seen it yet, you should, and even if you have the chance to watch it on a big screen is worth jumping at.

Priest review

I just saw Priest. Let me start by mentioning the setting: a vampire infested post-apocalyptic world with a strong gothic theme. As a fan of gothic sci-fi I appreciated this, and thought it was a combination rarely seen in movies. And while the action was not ground-breaking, it was more entertaining than what I see in most movies. The plot itself was serviceable; or at least it could have been if a little more intelligence had gone into it. And that's pretty much the problem with the whole movie.

The character design was stylish and appealed to me, but the characters themselves never caught my interest. Priest has probably the worst dialogue I've ever heard in a movie; there wasn't the slightest hint of subtlety or, for that matter, intelligence. In every scene the characters say the most the basic and obvious thing possible. Take for example the oft-repeated church motto: "To go against the church is to go against God". OK, we get it, The Church Is Bad, you can stop hitting me on the head that a hammer now.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with the protagonist, "Priest". He's a "troubled hero" with a "troubling past", so obviously he spends the entire movie looking constipated and says as little as possible. Except when he breaks his silence to deliver truly terrible tough-guy dialogue and one-liners, like "There are always two points, A and B. Know them both, and you'll kill a vampire". Um, what? No, really, what the hell was that? The worst part is that I actually like Paul Bettany, I consider him to be a good actor and I have seen him play both dramatic and comedic roles very effectively. But here, trying to deliver macho dialogue in an American accent, he just seems to be the wrong man for the role.

It doesn't help that his "American" just fails sometimes. Although in all fairness, he's not given an intelligent line of dialogue in the whole movie. Having said that, I was surprised by how well he handled the action scenes and even some of the "tough-guy" moments when he wasn't hamstrung by the scriptwriter. By the way, Maggie Q was good in both action an character scenes, while no-one else really managed a performance worth mentioning.

It feels as if we are watching the first efforts of an amateur script-writer trying to piece together a script, and the dialogue was tacked on later. So we need the the vampire hunter to pick up his weapons again and go searching the post-apocalyptic wasteland (which is actually referred to repeatedly in the movie as "the wasteland") for vampires? How about if the took something important to him, like a family member? Great! Now it's all personal too! But now we need to raise the stakes (haha) near the end? OK, they actually have a master plan to take over the world, and only our hero can stop them! Want to show how tough the villain is? Have a good guy put on a (completely out of place) show of martial prowess, only for the bad guy to kill him easily with a single blow.

If this sounds no more cliched than every other movie out there to you, then it's because I'm not doing a good job of conveying just how simple and by-the-numbers everything is. Take for example the vampire's master plan to wipe out humanity: attack them. No devious trick, no acquisition of some new weapon or technology to tip the balance of power, they just hopped on a train and started attacking villages. It seems they've been spending the last few years reproducing, building up an army so they can attack us. Isn't that, you know, kinda natural behavior for every single creature on earth anyway? Reproducing? How come, after literally hundreds and hundreds of years fighting vampires before Humanity got the upper hand, no-one considered the fact that if you don't keep an eye on them, they might repopulate? Never mind how the hell they managed it when they live in a wasteland with no food other than possibly humans, and we normally notice when people start disappearing en-mass (I'm not even going to ask what humans eat when there's cities so full of us that the smoke permanently blocks off the sun for miles around, but not a single plant seen in the whole movie).

The vampires themselves are, well, not really very vampiric. They are completely inhuman, there's no real suggestion that they drink blood rather than just devouring the whole body, and infecting humans just... makes them kind of weird, rather than turning them into actual vampires. Priest uses shiny chrome weapons that might be silver, Priest carves small crosses into the heads of Hicks' bullets, and we do catch a glimpse of a weapon that looks like it fires silver stakes, but overall the traditional tools and aesthetic of the vampire hunter are somewhat missing from this movie - surprising when you consider that the world is ruled by the church and the protagonist has a cross tattooed across his face. Not that I'm saying the film should style itself after any traditional notion of vampires and vampire hunters, only that in a setting that seems to have such a strong gothic base, there's so little of the expected gothic stylings and imagery. Or maybe that's just what I personally would have liked to see.

Perhaps the most surprising example of the lack of depth is the priests themselves. First we are told that vampires are faster and stronger than humans, then that the church "found" the ultimate weapon: Priests, warriors with extraordinary powers. And that's all. What these powers are or where they come from is never really discussed, and although it's mentioned that they manifest and there's a suggestion that they are inherited, it's basically just swept under the rug. And when the wars are over? This world-dominating Church, which refusese to tolerate any dissent from it's people, takes these devastatingly powerful, highly disciplined Priests and... tells them to bugger off? Really? Not one of these guys considers using the Priests to continue to enforce the Church's will (we know they have enforcers, we've seen them - big guys with heavy armor and shotguns)? Or worries what will happen when these unstopable murder machines find themselves with no guidance, direction or purpose in a world they don't know how to live in?

To be fair, the film has it's moments. If anything, there's enough that I liked about the movie that I wanted it to be better. It felt as if all the elements were in place for a decent action movie - interesting settings and stylish character designs, good actors, good action and visual effects, - but someone just didn't know how to use them. Probably the script-writer, if the mindless dialogue and A-to-B plot (see what I did there?) are any indication.

Overall I give it a 6 out of 10 because I liked the unusual setting, and because it can be entertaining despite it's flaws.

If you're interested in the style of this movie there's a few things you could check out. Trinity Blood is an anime in which vampires have taken over half the world and the church rules the other half, it has a much more 'period' look though there's some pretty advanced tech running around. A personal favorite of mine is Darkwatch, an old videogame where you play a vampire-cowboy in an undead-infested Old West. This game had brilliant designs that were truly a fusion of western and gothic themes.

As a side note, I have to ask: why does the church have to be portrayed as being bad? I'm not even Christian, but I don't understand why absolutely no-one is willing to show any religious organisation as being anything better than a corrupt hierarchy of mindless devotion to rote learning at best, and an evil power-hungry juggernaut at worst. In Priest, humanity has been fighting vampires for ever, and the Church is what has kept humanity alive and finally found a way to defeat them, and there's a suggestion that the character's faith is a good thing (certainly it's never shown as a bad thing). Yet the church is still portrayed poorly, not even as something evil, just as an organisation that's so stupid it's behaviour practically guarantees it's own extinction.

I mean, here's one of their best Priests asking for permission to investigate a possible vampire attack, but they completely refuse to even investigate the possibility that bestial man-eating creatures that have been eating humans for all of recorded history might be eating people. And they would rather imprison or kill him than allow him to wander out into the desert and have a look for himself.

I'm not blaming Priest for the modern portrayal of religion. Priest is so mindlessly written that it's just following the pack, and doing a poor job of it at that; the Church's actions aren't so much sinister or corrupt as just plain stupid and nonsensical here. But I thought it worth special mention since it's actually called Priest and the hero has a crucifix tattooed across his face.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Space Marine review

I finally got my XBox set up again. First thing I did? Finished Kill Team. Second thing? Finished Space Marine.

I'll just quickly mention that Killteam is a decent 2-player top-down shooter, but the dark visual style and cluttered levels makes it more of an effort to play than some. The inclusion of both shooting and melee, however, makes it a little different to most that I've played. The classes work well and their special abilities can be fun and useful. Worth mentioning: take the Sternguard with a missile launcher, pick up a quad-fire power-up, then trigger his rapid-fire special for a veritable sea of missiles!

Now, Space Marine. This might actually not be the best time to release a game called "Space Marine"; the term has come to be used, in gaming at least, to refer to a generic overly-masculine, over-armoured jar-head in a sci-fi setting, and it's use in gaming press is typically negative, indicative of an over-used wish-fulfilment cliche. However, while that description may fit the Warhammer space marines, they differ significantly from the standard gaming mold.

While a standard space marine is much like a modern day soldier dressed in military sci-fi apparel, the Warhammer versions are more like Knights Templar dressed in gothic sci-fi apparel. When they're sitting around in a transport on the way to the mission, they're not talking about how many alien scumbags they're going to waste and what they're going to do to the local hotties when they get there, they're praying to the Emperor to give them the strength to purge the foul Xeno filth. They don't yell random nonsensical noises like "hoo-wa" in the middle of battle, they recite scripture.

In fact, the setting of the whole game will probably feel very strange to players unfamiliar with 40K. Why are there orcs in space? What's an "Adeptus Mechanicus"? Who are these inquisitors, and why are they such jerks? What's this 'chaos' stuff? And why do these guys have such massive shoulder pads? The game makes no effort to explain any of it, and it may be off-putting to some. Veteran 40K players, on the other hand, will feel right at home.

As a fan of the 40K universe myself, I really appreciated how faithful everything was to the 40K universe. All the weapons, vehicles, characters, architecture, and dialogue, as well as setting and story, were true to the source material (in fact the game is arguably closer to the fluff than the tabletop game itself in that a single Space Marine can actually take on a horde of orks here). I have to admit I found it rather gratifying that the game didn't feel the need to explain itself to people who don't know 40K; it felt like the game was made specifically for the fans (as opposed to many movies adapted from comics and games, but that's a rant for another time).

The protagonist, Captain Titus of the Ultramarines, was well written in my opinion. He does not display very much emotion, in fact he may come across as flat and lacking in personality. In my view, however, the fact that he is reserved and not given to theatrics or outbursts of emotion is fitting for an Ultramarine Captain. It might be argued that his writing is more subtle than is the norm in games; his personality is revealed through his actions rather than his words. And, unlike too many video game 'space marines', he doesn't growl and act angsty all the time, he simply accepts whatever challenges come and meets them head-on.

The support characters also have a more depth than in some games, such as the young Leandros, who's rigid adherence to the Codex Astartes is a continuing theme. Actually, as I mentioned in my review of the Ultramarines Omnibus, that's something of an issue for the Ultramarines in particular, both in the fluff and in how players feel about the chapter. Speaking of, some people had evidenced disdain for the fact that the game is about the Ultramarines, seen as the most boring chapter. But they are the 'standard' marines, while many other named chapters are more themed, so it makes sense. Ideally later games or DLC can star other chapters (plus I believe you can play as others in multiplayer, which I haven't tried yet), though that is easier said than done to be honest.

Gameplay is fun. It's uses the Gears of War style over the shoulder 3rd person viewpoint, but unlike most modern third person shooters it doesn't have a cover mechanic and instead has a strong (arguably God of War influenced) melee element, as many enemies prefer to run up and hit you than to shoot you - if that doesn't make sense then just go with it, it's a wargame thing. Furthermore, you have motivation to get in close because of the way the health mechanic works.

You have a shield and a health bar. The shield regenerates itself given time, but that does not translate into regenerating health as your shield won't last long and you'll find yourself losing health in your very first fights. Health can only be regenerated in three ways: dying and respawning, triggering Rage mode (think God of War), and performing executions. Enemies, when weakened and stunned, can be executed God of War style. This regenerates some health depending on the level of the enemy. The problem is that other enemies don't just stand back and watch, trying an execution while surrounded by enemies (typically when you need it most...) is risky as you may die before you finish.

This makes fights strategic as you try to create space to tackle enemies in smaller numbers and pull of executions mid-battle, and try to tackle both the hitty enemies who are in your face and the shooty ones that are hanging back firing at you. The different balances of close up and ranged power of your enemies makes fights play out differently depending on who you're fighting and what weapons you're carrying.

Speaking of weapons, a large selection of weapons from Codex:Space Marines are here, and they all do pretty much what you would expect. The basic bolt pistol has infinite ammo, but that's the only good thing that can be said for it. It soon gets upgraded to the plasma pistol, which is more powerful and can be quite useful against some enemies thanks to it's charge mode. You also have a boltgun (assault rifle), that later gets upgraded with more powerful kraken ammo. You always have the bolter and pistol, but you get two other guns that you can swap out. The stalker boltgun is a fast medium power sniper rifle, and the storm bolter is inaccurate but has a very high rate of fire. The Vengeance launcher fires grenades that are manually triggered. The lascannon is a much more powerful sniper weapon with a better zoom but very limited ammo and a slower fire rate. There's no flamethrower or shotgun, but the latter at least will not be missed thanks to the extremely powerful meltagun - you can only hold ten rounds but this weapon will incinerate whole mobs of enemies up close, it's great fun to use. There's even some heavy weapons that you can rip from their moorings, Halo 3 style; the heavy bolter, plasma cannon and autocannon, which are again great fun.

Close combat weapons are more limited, with the choice of chainsword, power axe, and thunder hammer. I'm not sure about the differences between the chainsword and power axe, based on the fluff I had assumed the power axe was the more powerful of the two but now I suspect that chainsword had advantages as well, possibly in speed? The thunder hammer at least is very powerful, especially in conjunction with the jump pack, but it's slow to swing and you can only use the bolter and pistol when carrying it, so it's not always the best solution. Speaking of the jump pack, Space Marine makes much better use of this than in Halo Reach, and the jump pack segments are good fun, especially the last one thanks to the somewhat surrealistic setting.

It's probably worth mentioning that the whole game has only one quick-time event (to my recollection at least). Without getting in to the argument concerning their use, I felt this one was quite cool visually, though some people might find it a let-down, but I can't go into that without spoilers so I'll leave it there. On the subject, the game does have slightly less set pieces to break things up than some games - there's no driving sections at all, for example, so the game is arguable more repetitive than many, though I personally didn't find that to be a problem. The bosses, however, were slightly annoying as they did not differ much from regular enemy fights.

Graphics are pretty good, but the environments suffered from 'one-colour' syndrome. The characters were better, and they remained true to the miniatures without looking funny - that's actually a lot harder than it sounds since the minis are modelled in 'heroic scale', which means everything is exaggerated to make it easier to paint and to make detail stand out on such tiny figures, especially when viewed from a distance across the table. By the way, that's why they have such massive shoulder pads - to make it easier to paint chapter markings on the models (try it some day and you'll understand). To be honest, there wasn't as much variety in setting or enemy as I would like, but that was at least partially dictated by the story so I'll let it slide.

I'm going to have to give this game two scores, one for the newcomer and another for the 40K fan:
For newcomers I rate it 8 out of 10: a well executed 3rd person shooter that differentiates itself from the pack in gameplay and setting.
For fans I rate it 10 out of 10: the best action 40K game ever, both true to the source and fun to play.

I have heard some mild criticism of the game from 40K fans that I would like to discuss. People mention it's ridiculous that a Space Marine captain would rush into combat with nothing but a pistol and combat knife, not even a chainsword much less a power sword. I see what they mean, but it can be excused in my opinion by the fact that he wasn't initially planning to jump out of a space ship in a jump pack, so he was not properly equipped. I know it's a weak justification at best, but the point is that as far as sacrifices made for gaming reasons it's not so inconceivable as to break immersion.

Another point is that poeple have a hard time accepting Leandros criticising his Captain. Again, I agree that it's unlikely given the way Astartes are meant to be supremely disciplined, but we need to remember that they are still human and do still have different personalities, a Space Marine who's not good with authority is not common but not impossible. In the Crimson Fists novel Rynn's World, for example, both a young scout and a seasoned veteran captain show signs of insubordination. Leandros is a new marine who fresh from his indoctrination, so he's having a hard time dealing with what he sees a disregard for the rules. Without it the cast wouldn't have had very much to talk about:
"Where should we go next?"
"Let's go kill some orks over there."
Not very interesting is it?

Just one thing: it's a Daemonic invasion, right? So why just the one type of daemon? I'm not terribly familiar with the Chaos codex, but surely Bloodthirsters aren't the only daemons of Khorne? Also, some people might argue with the whole chaos power source sub plot, but it's no worse than most 40K novels I've read - there's always an insane doomsday device that threatens to shift the balance of power if the good guys can't get to it first. It's a big universe, just go with it.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Drive review

I saw this yesterday at the cinema. To be brief: the plot was nothing special, the dialogue was not particularly intelligent, and the end could have been stronger. BUT! The cinematography was brilliant. Everything had impact, the action was tense, the violence shocking. You might not remember very much of it the next day, but while you're watching it you'll be totally engrossed.

To go into a little more detail: you might say it wasn't a plot driven movie, but a character driven one, although the protagonist always remains something of an enigma. No-one spoke very much, the movie driven more by action than words, but I feel that when they did speak the dialogue could have used more wit or flavour. Nevertheless, the cast's body language told you all you needed to know, and did a better job of conveying some things than trying to put them in words would have.

The protagonist's reasons for his actions are not explicitly explained, which is not necessarily a bad thing, except that near the end I really didn't understand his thinking. It left me personally feeling that the end didn't make very much sense.

As I said before, the movie really drew you in. While other movies will have a VTOL jet fighter chasing down a truck and blowing the hell out of a highway, Drive has no need for such theatrics, and the simple act of waiting outside a building, or driving slowly down a street with a patrol car going in the other direction, are tense moments that have you glued to the screen. And when violence does erupt, it is simply shocking.

The actual violent content is not high; in terms of volume it is far less than a typical action movie, and in terms of content it is not any more gory or offensive than a lot of things I've seen, and yet in this movie a single slap, that I was expecting no less, made me start. You might say it makes violence actually feel violent.

So overall, I give it a 9 out of 10. Not a great story, but a great piece of cinema.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Dead Space impressions

I've been playing Dead Space for several days now. It sounded really good when I read about it, I liked the setting and people had a lot of good things to say about it. While I don't normally play survival horror games, that's more to do with my hatred of the Resident Evil control scheme than for the feeling of fear and trepidation that a good one inspires. The truth is I really wanted to like Dead Space, and there's much about it that I did like, but after a few hours playing it felt more like a chore that I had to finish than something I wanted to do.

I don't know why that's the case. I didn't finish the game; I stopped early in chapter 4 or 5. I've been thinking about it, and here's what I've come up with: the enemies didn't scare me, the RPG elements interfered with the horror elements, and the lack of some form of health station meant that I was a little too obsessed with hoarding health packs. I shall attempt to explain, but bear in mind that this is going to be even more subjective than usual. Also, I played on normal mode, perhaps the difficulty difference on hard would have been enough to make it scarier and changed my overall opinion, though I believe most of what I have to say would still have been valid. Since I didn't finish it I'm posting this as my impression of the game rather than a review.

First of all, let me say that the setting is brilliant. A huge spaceship in a distant, uncharted sector of space: it's the perfect setting. There's no chance of help from outside, you are surrounded by the cold hard vacuum of space and only an increasingly fragile metal hull protects you from the a silent yet agonizing death. Plus it reminds you how little you really know about what's out there, what horrors exist just outside our protective atmospheric bubble? Well, here's a little glimpse. Think Alien and Aliens: when done well it works like a charm. And the game does a great job with the setting; as you work your way deeper into the ship (well, further into the game anyway) it gets progressively more disturbing. At first there's a perplexing lack of people and intermittent signs of damage, but soon the lights are dark and flickering as if the ship itself is dying, there's blood all over the place, and the random corpses on the floor have been replaced by still-living humans seemingly being absorbed into the living tissue growing across the walls (I had to try very hard not to think about that, because if I did I would not have been able to turn the system back on again out of revulsion and horror) - and that's just halfway through the game. There's lots of little voice and text recordings that give you glimpses into how things fell apart to begin with; desperate pleas for help and insane rantings of people driven mad. And the makers haven't forgotten the fact that we are in space; the ship itself is falling apart and you're constantly fighting to prevent catastrophes just to buy a little more time.

But the real menace is the Necromorphs; clearly (wisely) influenced by the Xenomorphs in the Aliens movies, they crawl around through air vents, ready to attack you at any time and at any angle; it makes you paranoid to the extreme and every little sound has you spinning in circles for fear of being ripped apart from behind. But there's an added wrinkle; they're not just aliens, they're aliens made from our own dead - the inherit fear of the completely alien enhanced by the horror of the recognizable corrupted into a grotesque new form. It's a great idea, on paper it's a real winner - if I was reading a book about this stuff I probably wouldn't sleep for a few nights.

The problem seems to be that it's let down, not by execution, but by necessities of gameplay. The developers chose to make Dead Space a third person game; I assume there's certain advantages to that, though I can't think of any really compelling ones. Perhaps it's more cinematic? Less camera jittering and more slow, careful exploration? Perhaps it was for fear of alienating (haha) survival-horror fans, or the fear of trying to make a first person game with a slow movement speed and non-regenerating health in these times? It's true that first person shooters in narrow corridors feel very confining, but that can work to the benefit of a horror game. We know that first person games can be scary; just check the internet for a list of FPS/horror games. Admittedly I have limited experience myself, but several regular FPS games had levels that gave me quite a scare. Ravenholm in Half-Life 2 is probably well known, though the one I found most memorable was the dark office level in Area 51 (pitch black apart from your narrow flashlight beam - right until something leaps at your face and your muzzle flash lights up the room; brilliant). Personally I believe the first person perspective is inherently more terrifying because it's happening to you rather than some guy on screen.

Regardless, the game is third person. Let me take a moment here to talk about Resident Evil. The controls for the first few games were terrible. You could not move while shooting. Compare this to Devil May Cry, another Capcom game, where you can double-jump off walls while shooting, and perhaps you'll see why I find it so limiting. Even in the cutscenes of Resident Evil 2 we see people back-pedaling while firing at the advancing hordes, yet you cannot do it in game. People said that's why it was scary; if the controls were better the zombies would be no threat at all. I say, that doesn't sound like a well designed game to me. Anyway, Dead Space seems to have the opposite problem; because of the third person perspective enemies had to be made slow, otherwise they would be too hard to kill when they're coming at you from all sides. That makes a single enemy too slow and too easy to kill; they have effectively turned Necromorphs into zombies, and made them less scary in the process. No-one is scared of one zombie; everyone knows it's only a horde of them that's dangerous. This is in stark contrast to the Xenomorph in Alien; there was only one yet it carried the whole movie.

So there's the first problem. The individual enemies aren't really scary. Yes, you're still scared of being caught from behind or mobbed, but it would be far more scary if you faced less enemies, but each one was terrifying. This, I believe, is caused by one of the main problems of the game. It claims to be a survival horror but plays in many ways like an action game. The problem is that the two tend to be in many ways polar opposites - while action is traditionally about the feeling of empowerment, horror is about the feeling of helplessness. I think it's easier for action games to have scary segments than for horror games to have action segments. Changing the rules to suddenly make the player vulnerable can be very disconcerting, but empowering the player undermines the atmosphere of fear; the feeling of vulnerability that is so vital becomes hard to sustain when you're the one ripping things apart (the exception would normally be at the end of a game, when it's time to stop running and strike back).

Another problem I noticed was the strategic dismemberment system. Like Zombies, Necromorphs have a vulnerability you should aim for. Unlike Zombies it's not their head, but their limbs. It sounds appropriate in a horror game at first, but there are some issues. Apart from the fact that it feels weird to see them ignore getting their head blown off but die when you shoot their tail off, and apart from the aforementioned "less scary when you're the one ripping things apart" problem, it takes the focus away from the enemy. Instead of blasting away and praying they fall before they reach you, you're focusing on lining up your shots. Instead of staring at their hideously deformed faces - the visual focus of the creature - as they come closer and closer, you're busing staring at their legs because shooting there is the best way to slow them down and kill them (thanks to the wide beam of your weapons and the enemy's slow, shambling gaits, it's far easier to get leg shots than you would expect), so you're not really looking at it. Make no mistake, it's technically and visually very impressive, seeing a monster lose it's legs yet keep crawling along the floor towards you is very cool, but since you always target the leg so the same thing happens every single time it quickly changes from dynamic to formulaic.

There's a number of different weapons all designed around the dismemberment system. This is one of the strong points of the game, at least if you see it as an action game. The initial plasma cutter works quite well and I was still using it with success when I quit, the only real problem being that you'll need to reload mid-battle in the larger fights, which can be fatal. The second weapon I got was basically an assault rifle, which was very effective thanks to it's high rate of fire and ammo capacity (especially once you've upgraded it's clip size a bit), and it's alternate fire is brilliant when you're surrounded in tight spaces. The flamethrower looked nicer than in most games but seemed to be very weak - I had to spend it's entire canister to kill a single small enemy that I would normally kill with just a few shots from the plasma cutter. I also briefly tried the force gun, which looked like it would be fun. There's a line-cutter that should be very powerful based on how little ammo you can hold for it, and a ripper gun that I'm told is extremely effective, but I didn't buy them (more on that later). There may be more weapons unlocked later in the game.

On a similar vein, your suit has magnetic boots and an oxygen supply (only about 40 seconds initially, but you can upgrade it later). These are used for two other types of gameplay: zero-gravity sections and vacuum sections (and combinations of the two). The zero gravity bits are a great use of the setting and work very well, and the vacuum segments help change the pace a little by introducing a timed sections that force you to pick up the pace as well as being thematically very fitting. However, this again makes the makes the player feel less vulnerable. Personally, I think it would have been better to start without these two abilities (plus this means at one point the player could open a door only to be almost sucked out as air rushes into the void, so he has to grab on to the door and pull himself out before he suffocates or loses his grip - a one-time scare that would help ramp up the tension and increase the overall threat level), only to unlock them later. This allows the introduction of the zero-g and vacuum sections and allows the player to reach previously inaccessible areas - which is actually a good objective for the player ("You need to find an air supply for your suit so you can reach the control room!" or something of that nature).

There's also a couple of psychic powers: stasis and telekinesis. Stasis slows things down, leaving enemies helpless for a short while, but it uses energy that has to be replenished in charging stations or with stasis packs. It's also needed to pass environmental hazards and solve puzzles, but there's always charging stations around for those times. Telekinesis works much like the gravity gun in Half-Life 2, able to lift items and either drop or throw them. While it's main use is for interacting with the environment, it can be used to throw things like explosive canisters and fan blades at enemies. Fan blades are not terribly useful, but throwing canisters is a great way to conserve ammo and quickly take out powerful or numerous enemies. Between all the weapons and psychic powers, there's quite a few ways to take down Necromorphs. That's good for letting the player enjoy fighting aliens, but bad if you wanted them to feel vulnerable and afraid.

But the real issue with the weapons is that you have to buy them. And this is where it all breaks down for me. Shops? Money? In a survival horror game? Money implies order, stability - people only use money because they are confidant that other people will also accept that money. In any sort of a catastrophe money immediately becomes completely worthless. And yet here, in deep space, on a ship that's rapidly breaking down, who's crew have either become monsters or been killed by them, we only have to walk a few feet to reach a shop where we can buy weapons, ammunition, health, etc. It completely undermines the biggest advantage of the space setting, the feeling of being isolated, the feeling that everything we understand and rely on is gone, that nothing is as it should be. Plus it undermines the scavenging and scarcity of resources - you're not so worried about ammo and health when you can probably buy more. Ammo, medkits, and especially weapons are supposed to be scavenged - slowly giving the player new weapons is also a good way of creating a continually changing and escalating gameplay experience, seeing the available weapons and having to decide whether to bother buying them or not when your current weapons seem to be doing the job and you're saving up to upgrade your kit (you can only sell back at half the price) is neither fun nor encourages the player to experiment. What's more I didn't find money to be inherently scarce; I had quite a bit saved up by the time I gave up on the game.

And how do these shops operate anyway? Are they like vending machines, with a local store of items, or are they like a fetching system from a central storage location? The fact that they can be used to save and retrieve items from anywhere on the ship suggests the latter, in which case I have to ask: how come such a system is working when everything else on the ship is falling apart? Regardless of how it works, surely an engineer like Isaac or his friends, who are constantly hacking doors and the like, can't find a way to simply raid the shop? Get their hands on all the weapons and ammo? Why didn't the crew try it (or even just buy those weapons - surely some of them had some money saved up) when everything was going to hell? We never see any weapons lying around except the first plasma cutter Isaac picks up. There's ammo scattered around everywhere, arguably because the game's "weapons" are actually industrial machinery. Which we never see lying around. Actually, it doesn't really make sense either way.

This ties in to the other main RPG elements, upgrading your equipment. Your weapons, suit and psychic powers can be improved using power nodes. But it can take several power nodes for a single upgrade, and they are quite scarce. I think I'd found at most 10, which is probably enough to upgrade one weapon halfway. You can buy power nodes, but they cost a lot (I said that I had quite a bit of money before; but if I had spent it on power nodes I would have been able to buy 5, which would probably buy about 3 upgrades - a weapon generally has 10 or more to get). The problem here is that, if you want to upgrade your weapons you need to save up, which means not buying weapons, ammo or health if you can possibly avoid it. In other words the weapon upgrade system tends to prevent you from using weapons - somewhat ironic, don't you think? Not only that, but it led me to desperately hoard everything - health, stasis packs, air tanks, everything - because I refused to buy them. This won't be as big a problem for most, but people who obsess over games (like me) will find losing a big chunk of health after being caught by surprise a bitter pill to swallow, not because it makes the next section of the game harder, but because it means you have no option but to use a medkit (there is no other way to recover health), which potentially means less money to spend on upgrading. Having 'med stations' that fully heal the player would have helped alleviate this problem, and would probably just help gameplay as you have something to 'look forwards' to, to hold out for.

Finally, a couple of minor complaints that I wish to mention. There's no option to add subtitles to speech; sometimes I had trouble understanding what people were saying (not everyone has a great speaker system). There's a few areas that are almost pitch black, but you only use your flashlight when in aiming mode, which slows you down (including your turning speed preventing you from spinning to see what's around quickly, which is why I generally prefer to scan my surroundings normally and only using aiming mode when I have a target). Speaking of which, you cannot adjust your sensitivity (perhaps to prevent you from turning quickly and force a certain difficulty level) or any of your controls except for stick inversion (something that I consider inexcusable, no matter how many times people tell me that players might choose a "wrong" control scheme if you let them).

What it all comes down to is that, in my opinion at least, the game can't decide what it is. The focus on action and RPG elements serve as distractions from what the game claims to be, rather than enhancing the experience. I think perhaps the creators should have considered the maxim 'less is more' - trimming the fat might have created a more bare-bones experience, but hopefully it would be a more tight and focused one. Perhaps it's a game that can be enjoyed by a wider audience than something like Silent Hill, but I think it will be less enjoyable to people who were looking for an actual horror game. As it is, it's certainly not a bad game - there's a lot that it does very well and nothing that it actually does wrong.

So while I didn't enjoy it myself, I'm giving it a 7 out of 10: a good game that could have been a great one.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Mirror's Edge review

Several years ago, a group of my friends were trying to think of game ideas. One idea I suggested involved a first person shooter where you jump between rooftops (the idea involved playing around with gravity or something - this was a long time ago and it was far from fully formed). Not a terribly original idea, but the point was it was the kind of thing that sounded cool to me. So when, years later, I heard about Mirror's Edge and saw the videos, it genuinely felt as if someone had finally made the game I always wanted to play. And it looked amazing; somehow they had taken the first-person perspective, which everyone knew was awkward when it comes to precise movements and positioning, and made it control perfectly for platforming. It was like playing Prince of Persia as the Prince.

So obviously I rushed out and bought it. But for various reasons I never got very far before. I'll not list my excuses here, what's important is that this was my fault, not the game's. But being on holiday this month, I decided to go through and try to finish the old games in my collection that fell to the wayside. So a few days ago I finally put Mirror's Edge back in the 360, and started a new game.

Mirror's Edge, developed by DICE and published by EA, is a game about free running or parkour. It may be considered a first person shooter as you can shoot guns in the game, but I believe it's more appropriate to call it a first person platformer. Even if there were any earlier first person platformers, of which I know none, I think it would still be fair to say that this game is the first of it's kind. Which is why I find it surprising that it's so well designed and finely polished. Many games, when trying to implement an ambitious new system, will have some rough edges, some compromises - all too often a game is released which doesn't live up to the potential of the core idea. Or a game tries to shoehorn too many ideas in while simultaneously "ticking the boxes" (implementing elements of previous successful games), and the result is an unfocused mess.

Mirror's Edge successfully avoids these pitfalls. Everything about the game is designed from the ground up to work with the core system of free running, and it all comes together perfectly. The simple, clean graphics make it easy to judge distances and figure out what you can interact with, without making ledges and pipes and other items stand out like sore thumbs (referring back to Prince of Persia, if there was something you could grab or interact with in a special way it often looked out of place). The simplified nature of the graphics also means that the colour coding and "runner's vision" don't look out of place, allowing them to direct you more naturally than more obtrusive directional markers many games place in the HUD. The story and setting support both the gameplay and the graphics. The combat takes advantage of the player's speed and mobility, and the player's vulnerability encourages avoiding confrontation - which again supports the free running and fits with the story. Even the music fits well with the high-rise environments and helps create a feeling of lightness and freedom.

The free running mechanics are very well executed. The unusual control scheme takes a little getting used to, with the left trigger representing downwards movements (ducking, sliding, rolling, dropping) and the left bumper used for upwards movements (jumping, climbing), along with the right bumper spinning the player 180 degrees. Depending on the situation, these few buttons can be used to achieve a variety of moves. It all feels very natural once you've had some practice, and running along chaining a number of moves together to bypass a series of obstacles feels very rewarding when pulled off correctly. This is perhaps the game's greatest strength; just moving around the environment is fun. Considering the fact that the game is based on free running, it pretty much had to be. In comparison to third person platforming games (the foremost of which I consider to be the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time games), you can achieve just about all of the same moves and a few more, such as sliding under low obstacles, which is quite impressive when you think about it. Additionally, I felt that the moves chain together more smoothly, and coupled with the more realistic role of speed and momentum, Mirror's Edge just feels more natural.

This is also true of the environments; in Prince of Persia many levels don't look natural, appearing more like a series of recognizable objects (pillars to climb up, poles to swing from, edges to grab) than an actual room or building that someone would build. While it's still easy to tell exactly what you can interact with and how in Mirror's Edge, surfaces and items that you can climb or jump off sit in the environment better and the levels just feel a lot more believable; which makes it feel less like you're jumping through a series of hoops that someone has laid out for you and more like you're forging a path where one does not exist. And since these items look like they belong the levels are filled with them and you can interact consistently with anything in the level, unlike Prince of Persia or Uncharted where practically every climbable ledge and pole is necessary to pass the level, or traditional shooters where typically the only places you can climb are the ones where you need to. Interestingly, the environments have more variety than you might expect; in addition to the rooftops players have to navigate a range of indoor areas such as warehouses, subway tunnels, ventilation systems, offices, car parks, and construction sites. The differences are not just visual; different levels present different challenges. Many rooftop segments, for example, are about speed as you are often being chased, while interior sections are about figuring out how to pass obstacles - it's not always obvious thanks to the more natural levels, which don't necessarily highlight a path for you.

Combat is interesting. To overcome the main problem in first person close combat, that is your tendency to move right past the enemy while trying to close to melee distance, Mirror's Edge uses a subtle "lock on" when you get in close. Basically this helps you point directly at the enemy so that when you walk forwards you walk right up to them until you collide and stop, rather than slipping past. That's not to say it's impossible to get past them, far from it, only that it usually won't happen by accident (at least once you've had a little practice). It is subtle enough that you normally won't notice it, and it won't interfere if it's your intention to run past an enemy, but effective enough that close combat works better than any first person game I've played before. There's two combat buttons: a strike and a disarm. The disarm takes down an enemy with a single button press, but requires very specific timing on stronger enemies and it will take a fair bit of practice to learn to pull off consistently, but they do look pretty cool. The strike button triggers a simple punch or combination, but can be combined with the jump and duck buttons when you have some forwards momentum for flying and sliding kicks, which are pretty cool. The flying kick is powerful and fun, but the sliding kick is typically easier to land and stuns opponents for long enough for you to land another combination, making it your best bet for dealing with tougher enemies.

You can also trigger a brief period of slow-motion. This can be used to help deal with difficult enemies or jumping sequences, or just make particularly cool jumps feel even more dramatic. It recharges when you run, but you always start with it charged so you can always use it when you get stuck.

With only two buttons and a limited number of moves, you may think that combat is simple. And it is a little, but that doesn't make it easy. When you're busy dealing with one opponent you'll be taking fire from any others in sight, even disarm moves take too long and you probably won't survive if you try disarming an enemy in front of his partner. Thus it's essential not to attack groups directly, but to use your maneuverability to draw them out and split them up so that you can tackle them one at a time. You can also pick up a downed enemy's gun (or steal it with the disarm) and turn it on the rest. This is especially useful when you face multiple enemies in smaller areas, which starts to happen more frequently later in the game.

The actual shooting mechanics are simple and lack the refinements of a dedicated shooter such as aiming assist or a targetting / zoom mode (with the exception of the sniper rifle), however the AI is not designed to keep moving and make use of cover the way it would in a true shooter, allowing guns to be used effectively with a little effort. I do not consider this to be a shortcoming of the game; Dice is after all a very experienced developer of first person shooters such as the Battlefield series. Rather these elements were simplified in order to support the free-running gameplay (as well as the tone of the game and the plot); the player is encouraged to rely on speed and agility to try to overcome or bypass enemies rather than picking up a gun and shooting his way out. The fact that weapons only have a single magazine of ammo and cannot be reloaded, and also that the player cannot climb (or even move quickly) when holding anything larger than a handgun further supports this.

The story is something that may not appeal to everyone, but I feel it's not only suitable but relevant. Obviously inspired by Orwell's 1984, the game is set in a city where the government control is absolute and non-compliance is not tolerated. The game does not go into detail about the rights and wrongs of it; probably a good idea as doing so may come across as dry or preachy or possibly alienated some potential players. It simply goes into enough detail to create a plausible reason for people to run across rooftops: since all communications are monitored, some people need non-conventional means of getting messages and packages around. That's where the runners come in; carrying packages across the rooftops, they maintain their client's privacy (I assume there's some reason why they can't carry packages on street level, I guess Big Brother watches the streets?), thus making them valuable to people who don't like the government knowing their business.

Not only does this justify the gameplay, it also fits in perfectly with the graphics; the clean visual style fits the idea of a tightly controlled futuristic city where everything looks perfect on the surface and the 'rough' elements are pushed out to make people feel safe. But there's might be more to it than that. This is just conjecture on my part, but I suspect the intention was to appeal to youths who feel constrained by the safe, boring sensibilities of society at large and enjoy the excitement of edgier living. The runner's themselves are certainly 'hip' (so far as I can judge these things, which is not very far); not exactly gang members but certainly not safe, mainstream citizens.

You play as Faith, a female runner trying to find out why her sister was framed for murder. The mystery element of the plot creates rather more interesting mission goals than the standard "blow that thing up so that you can get to the next thing you need to blow up" seen in many shooters. It's not particularly deep, not that you would expect it to be, but it does seem to lose it's way just a little bit in the middle. That's not really surprising; as you design a number of missions to fill out a game and give it a decent amount of variety and length of play time, most games see their plot meander back and forth to accommodate those levels. Perhaps it's because the plot in Mirror's Edge is a little more focused that this becomes more noticeable than in many games where the plot is less cohesive. Overall the story does tie in to the setting very nicely and I personally enjoyed it. The end was not a neat conclusion with everyone living happily ever after, but it was a certainly not the kind of dark, doom-and-gloom depressing nonsense that I'm seeing in many games these days. In fact it was completely suitable both in terms of the story and as a game; a victory, but not the end of the war, satisfying but leaving plenty of scope for a sequel.

Strangely, there are in-game cut-scenes which take place in first person, but also between levels there are animated cut-scenes in a different visual style and traditional perspective. These are pre-rendered in a stylized 2D which I believe (but can't be sure) is actually a really well cell-shaded 3D. I believe these were shot from a normal camera perspective in order to show Faith so we can get familiar with her as a character, which we cannot do from the first person. I'm not sure why the particular visual style was chosen, I suspect pre-rendered video was necessary to give the characters more natural movement and expression than the game engine could provide, and the 2D style was chosen as being more interesting. Perhaps it was done because a slightly different style would feel a little strange, while a very different style wouldn't have that problem - I believe slight differences can sometimes be more unsettling that significant ones, but this is pure conjecture. At any rate it works well enough. I did feel that more time spent fleshing out the supporting cast and their relationships with Faith, or just describing the world of the runners in general, would have been time well spent. As it is the city feels a little underpopulated and the runners don't have much presence.

If the game has a flaw, it's that it can feel a little drawn out at times (though this is probably subjective); you will spend an entire level running and jumping, watch a brief cut-scene, then go right back to running and jumping - after a few levels it can feel a little repetitive. These days most games break up long sections of shooting or fighting with different activities such as exploring, puzzle solving or driving. And while this becomes much less of a problem nearer to the end where there is more combat, you might find Mirror's Edge feels a little drawn out around around the middle and may prefer to play it in shorter sessions. But if you do start to feel a bit bored halfway through I recommend that you persevere; the game does pick up again.

Overall I give it a 10 out of 10: the game sets out to do something new, which it does almost perfectly, creating a unique and highly enjoyable experience. Furthermore, it shows great potential for the future of first person games.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Less spoilers from here on

I've decided to try to make my reviews a little more "professional" - that means (hopefully) less rambling and some form of warning before I drop any spoilers (I'm thinking of saving spoilers until the end, a sort of post-script for people who have read/seen/played the subject of the review).

So if you're one of the zero people who've been following this blog, from now on you'll have spoiler warnings. If on the other hand you're reading this blog top-to-bottom (i.e. newest to oldest post chronologically), then older posts than this one will throw spoilers around without warning, so read at your own risk.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Call of Duty: Black Ops review

I played some multi-player on the PS3 a few months back, I was OK (about half my games I wasn't in last place). A few days ago (right after finishing Killzone 2) I started the single-player campaign on the XBox 360, I finished it in a couple of days. I'm not going to talk about the online-multiplayer, instead my review is focused around the single player campaign.

The first Call of Duty game I played was a demo for Call of Duty 2. I enjoyed the demo; the controls were good, graphics were fine, and most importantly you started off with the Lee-Enfield Number 4. With full 10-round magazine and authentic reload animation using two stripper clips (or just the one if you had 5 rounds or more still in the magazine - how cool is that?). I then played the first Modern Combat, and I loved it. Then of course came the second Modern Combat. I despised it.

If it hadn't been so popular and literally broken world sales records, I would merely have hated it. If I had played on normal rather than hard, I probably would have simply not liked it very much, who know?. But as it was I hated it. It's relevant to this game to mention the main reasons why I disliked it, the biggest would have to be the "red-screen-of-death". I call it that not because your screen goes red when you're dying, but because when your screen goes red you can't see anything and this generally causes you to die. It's not just a light uniform red, the screen goes dark and is covered in blood splatters, making it even harder to see. And like in Killzone 2, the red screen made it hard to see the red directional damage indicators, though I feel it wasn't quite as bad because the damage indicator was a bar rather than a tiny blood splatter. Playing on hard difficulty, as soon as you get shot the screen turns red and you lose the ability to see the enemy shooting at you. In many if not most levels the enemies are wearing camoflage and hiding behind cover. Typically the instant you step into their line of sight you get shot, so now it really is impossible to tell where they are and where you were shot from, so you have to backpedal and hope to reach cover before you die. Then you have to cautiously step out and hope to catch a glimpse of movement or muzzle flash before you're blinded and have to duck back into cover again. Now you have to try to roughly line up the shot before you step out, leave cover and quickly try to line up the sights on the few pixels of exposed enemy before you're blinded again. Now, after you've recovered again, step out and fire blindly in the hope that you've hit him, ducking back if you're not on target properly. Repeat until the enemy dies. Now repeat the whole process for the next enemy, ad infinitum.

Then there's the constant loss of control. In the first Modern Warfare there was a level where the only control you had was to look around. Your character was driven across war-torn streets then executed. It was a very powerful scene, and I was impressed. There were also a few moments when you had no or very limited control, most notably in the ending sequence. This also worked very well and had a powerful impact. Modern warfare 2, however was so full of scripted scenes where you're helpless and someone has to save you that I grew absolutely sick of it. Taking control away from the player is a big deal, you have to be careful about doing it. They were not careful. It seems they saw it as one of the reasons the first was so successful, so they crammed in as many sit-back-and-watch-yourself-be-a-wuss moments as they could.

The strange thing is that Black Ops has many of the same problems as Modern Warfare 2, and yet I enjoyed the game far more. Some of it may be just me; I was expecting a lot of scenes where I wouldn't have any control so I had resigned myself to it, and I was playing on medium difficulty so I wasn't instantly blinded by the very first shot that my near invisible enemies made. But I think some of it was caused by the fact that I just found the plot far more enjoyable and the characters more interesting.

I can't say conclusively, but I do feel that the red screen effect was toned down slightly. At any rate, I found it to be far less troublesome than in Killzone 2 - certainly the environments were far, far more colourful and the enemies stood out better (and had more variety) which just made it much easier to see when wounded. Plus I think they spent less time behind cover and more time relocating and even charging the player than in MW2, which not only solved the problem of trying to shoot camouflaged enemies behind cover, it made the game more dynamic.

Concerning the loss of control, Black Ops was even worse than Modern Warfare 2 - I actually believe that a good half of the playtime involves you having no or little control (I am however including the cutscenes in this estimate). Furthermore, the game alternates between scenes where you can only look around and scenes where you can't even do that, which I find perplexing and consider to be a mistake - especially when it moves smoothly between these scenes so one moment you have no control and the next you have a little but you don't realise it because there was no indication, or one moment you can move your head around and see what's happening but then it focuses in on someone's face and you have no control at all.

But somehow it all works better. Perhaps it's the fact that the game starts off with you tied down, and keeps coming back to it between levels, so it sets the mood right from the bat - you're not in control of your destiny here. Maybe it's something to do with the greater variety in these set pieces - you're not just falling and being caught and pulled up over and over, or the way that they felt less like a result of your failure for not jumping far enough and more a result of events that are truly out of your control. Perhaps it's the fact that the story is interesting and many of these scenes are in fact important story points, so you want to watch and find out what's happening. Maybe it's the fact that the game jumps back and forth in time, so many scenes feel like playing out memories and we intrinsically accept that things are going to turn out a certain way, making it less frustrating when we lose control. In fact, while jumping between characters in MW and MW2 sometimes broke the flow of the plot and made it feel a little disjointed, in Black Ops when it does this it is describing events that have already happened (and it jumps between characters that we know and have fought alongside rather than someone completely different on the other side of the world) so not only is it more interesting to finally play as this character, it also flows better and feels more like filling in the gaps.

As I mentioned before the story is more interesting, it's told in a more engaging fashion, keeps you guessing the whole way, escalates nicely to create a real sense of menace near the end, and in fact I just found it more plausible than that of Modern Warfare 2. The characters are interesting and likable, maybe it's thanks to all the time spent on exposition rather than gameplay that we get to know them better. Perhaps there's something to be said for how it manages to get across to the player the sense of obsession and confusion that the protagonist himself is feeling - honorable mention goes to the scene where numbers start flying out of the walls. And the Fight-Club bit worked well too, especially as you actually play through the events, sometimes from different viewpoints.

The gameplay is classic Modern Warfare - quick and brutal, well-polished (other than the red screen nonsense). The game was set in the time of the Vietnam war, which alone is unusual in games. Fortunately it meant that most of the weapons we are familiar with were available. There was vast range of submachine guns, assault rifles, machine guns, pistols, sniper rifles, shotguns, and a few special weapons available. What it really translated to was the standard modern-day FPS weapons, but in a number of configurations that created a little variety. All were well executed, although I found red-dot and reflex sights were not clear and preferred iron sights, in contrast to the original Modern Warfare. Honourable mention goes to the SPAS12 with incendiary ammo, which is an absolute beast - just wave it in the enemies' general direction and they die in droves, it's just insane really. Levels are varied and well designed, directed but not "narrow". They are also quite colourful at times. This is a big deal actually; it helps buck the recent trend towards everything being coloured in shades of grey and brown. The vibrant greens and blues of the forests are a welcome change.

There's certain things about the Call of Duty games that aren't always to my tastes, namely the squad-based gameplay. It creates a very dramatic experience, it really feels like you're in a real war, there's a strong sense of importance and urgency. Which is sometimes the problem. I always feel I have to rush forwards and carry my weight, after all I can't let my friends do it alone. But this inevitable leads me to run forwards carelessly and get killed, I have to force myself to move forwards slowly, stick to cover, be methodical and careful even if that feels contrary to the tone of the situation. Another thing is the way that you start every level with a specific weapons loadout, personally I've always preferred it when you had some control over your weapons so you can stick with (and perhaps even upgrade) your weapon. But it makes sense in the context of the narrative, and you do get your own weapons to upgrade and dress up in the multiplayer, so I can't complain.

Although, I will complain about the fact that you have exactly two weapons, whether they are pistols or longarms, even though there no logical reason why you would need to drop your backup pistol to pick up a rifle. I know it's a gameplay issue, but it gets on my nerves a little. Especially since there's times when you pull out a pistol anyway even though you clearly didn't have one before (or even pull out a knife, when at other times a knife is a selectable weapon). In fact there a set piece where you pull out a pistol that's empty - I never used it, so why would I be carrying an empty pistol? It's not a bid deal, but it's just one of the things I like to point out.

In my review of Killzone 2 I complained about receiving orders while taking fire. In Black Ops you still receive instructions verbally in mid-level, but it's usually when you're not actually engaged in a firefight and more often the action would stop for a set scene that keeps you in the loop, so I didn't find it a problem (and it maintained the advantage of mid-level instruction, that is to keep things varied and engaging).

I will take this opportunity to mention that the AI sometimes get in your way and wouldn't move, and when a character had a scripted path or position they would simply walk in a straight line and push you out of the way - a little outdated compared to many modern games. There's quite a few differing gameplay sequences that help break up the action, including an interesting level where you alternate between direction a squad on the ground from inside a plane and actually controlling that squad. I quite liked the bit where you're crawling through tunnels armed with a revolver and flashlight - and you can turn off the flashlight.

While I don't want to talk about online multiplayer, I will mention the "Zombie" mode. It supports two player split screen, which I think is a very good thing (though personally I think all games should have a split-screen campaign so I don't give it that much credit), and it's an interesting diversion but it has serious balance issues. Up till the third wave it's still quite easy, but then the zombies suddenly start appearing faster that you can board up entry points and they're suddenly much tougher to kill - as you backpedal while frantically reloading and firing you always, always, always get killed from behind as the zombies suddenly start breaking through multiple entry points simultaneously. Because of this the games are always about the same length and it's very hard to make any progress. One tip: take the time to aim for the head, it makes a huge difference.

Overall I give it an 8 out of 10: fun, varied gameplay and a good story successfully overcome the game's few weaknesses.