Thursday, December 13, 2012

Rise of the Guardians review

For a good many years I have found computer animated movies to be consistently solid and entertaining. Certainly there have been exceptions, examples that I didn't particularly care for or occasionally just disliked, but these are rare. In fact, I'd say more animated movies have far surpassed my expectations than those that have disappointed me.

Why is this? Is it just that they stick so solidly to a limited formula that, while not complex, never grows old? Is it that the animated film industry is full to the brim with experienced and skilled professionals who have a passion for what they create? Could it be that the money men give the creators more freedom to create what they want than in the rest of the industry? Perhaps it's the opposite; maybe the people who control the purse strings know what works and won't allow the creators to deviate from that mold? I have no idea whatsoever. All I know is, Rise of the Guardians is brilliant.

I mean, this movie doesn't put a foot wrong. It's visually splendid, imaginative, funny and exciting. The story has familiar elements - Terry Pratchet's Hogfather comes to mind - but those elements fit perfectly given the subject matter, and I'm guessing most children won't have encountered them before. It doesn't step beyond the scope of a children's movie the way some do, but that almost makes it more daring in my book; it doesn't feel the need to try to accommodate adults, no little nods and winks in our direction, this movie is for children and it doesn't feel the need to apologise for that. I'm thirty years old and I loved it. If you watch it and don't enjoy it then I'm sorry, but I pity you.

The characters are all imaginative and likeable - the movie has it's own take on each of these fairy tale figures, but they remain recognisable, and somehow the way each one acts just feels right. Santa is loud and jolly, but there's an unexpected sense of danger there; he's no-one's fool, and you wouldn't want to get on his bad side. The Tooth Fairies resemble humming birds, fast and industrious, but energetic and excitable, and oh so colourful. The Easter Bunny talks tough and is always ready for a fight, but without the exaggerated stubborn streak that such characters often display. The Sandman might not talk, but that doesn't stop him from brimming with personality.

And what of our protagonist, Jack Frost? He's free-spirited and mischievous, but very human and relatable. He may be a "reluctant hero", but he's a reluctant hero done right. He doesn't sulk and throw hissy fits about this not being his fight, rather he simply questions whether this is his place - and only briefly at first, which anyone would do when being asked to accept the rather daunting responsibility of safeguarding all the children in the world. That's not to say that he jumps right in with both feet and no reservations; ironically this children's animation is far more realistic than many films in that respect, and his own personal struggle with his place in the world is balanced against the rest of the narrative.

Speaking of the narrative, this movie has something that most animated films don't. I've mentioned this before when I talked about that other Guardians movie; a genuine battle between Good and Evil. Just as those Guardians did, these ones are fighting a war, and there's times when things really don't look good for our heroes, when evil really does look unstoppable and it's hard to believe there could be a light at the end of the tunnel. But that just makes it all the more heartening when they succeed in the end. As I've said before, I miss this kind of thing, and I was glad to see it here.

There's some great visual flourishes; Jack's creeping frost is beautiful, forming elaborate patterns and displaying recognisable images as it grows, Sandman's creations emit a warm glow as they spread hypnotically across the landscape, the Tooth Fairies' iridescent feathers are dazzling. Voice acting was great; and no doubt contributed greatly to how quickly we come to care about the characters. I have to be honest and say that I didn't pay much attention to the music, but a friend who is far more aware of such things told me it was great, and I do know that it did it's job perfectly as I always felt the emotions the film was trying to convey.

I found it rather interesting that the visual design for the villain, Pitch (as in Pitch Black, the Boogeyman) was so plain. I rather like it; sometimes simple is better, he certainly managed to convey a great deal of menace but also had a tragic element that would have been lost if his outwards appearance had been less neutral. Having said that, his nightmare creations were not very scary. I mean, they were horses. Angry horses, but horses. Not really the stuff of nightmares in my opinion. I suppose you don't really want the movie to be too scary, but the fact is I just don't think he has the impact of some of the great villains of animation. Perhaps it's his relatively plain appearance, or the way that he came out strong to begin with rather than suddenly escalating and catching us by surprise at the end (think Ursula with the power of Neptune's staff), or maybe it's the fact that the more you think about it the more you feel sorry for him. Regardless, he felt like a weaker element of the movie to me - but of course that's subjective.

The movie is not as moving as Up or How to Train your Dragon, though it is far more energetic and exciting. It might not be as epic as Legend of the Guardians, but it's much funnier and more consistent. The end might seem cheesy, even silly, to many of us, but it's something I would have loved as a child, and remembering that helped me to enjoy it today despite being a grumpy cynical old man. Perhaps what the film does most impressively is capture that spirit of wonder and excitement that we used to feel as children and can typically only remember fondly now. What more could you ask for from a movie starring Santa and the Easter Bunny?

I'm giving it a 9/10, it's highly enjoyable and I strongly recommend it.


There's a time in the middle of the movie where Jack acts very self-centered and even selfish, more concerned with getting answers to his questions than with, well, saving the world. He does some stupid things, and normally I would have little patience for the kind of mistakes he makes. But when I remembered that he had spent three hundred years ignored by the world, wondering who he was and why he was there, asking questions that no-one would ever hear, much less answer... well, then I understood how he could make such mistakes.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Hunger Games review

I finally saw this. Now, I have not read the books, so I do not know how the movie compares or how true it is. I can only judge the movie on it's own merits. And I apologise, but there will be some general spoilers.

Hunger Games was very well done. It had an interesting story, and did a great job of making us not only care about the characters, but want to understand them, to know what they would do next.

However, I felt it undermined itself somewhat. Apologies for the spoilers, but I can't discuss this without giving a little away. One of the interesting questions raised was: what would you do to survive? Would you kill someone in the same situation as yourself? Katniss never has to answer that question. There were times when it appeared she would be faced with that choice, but always the story prevented her from actually having to make it, even at the end. Whenever there's time spent on someone she doesn't kill, thus reminding us of the elephant in the room - that there can be only one - the story quickly finds a way to... "avoid the issue". The times when she did kill they always make sure it's clearly justified; either by making her kill to protect someone else and / or by reminding us the person in question was "bad". To that end they established early on that a number of characters were psychopaths who enjoyed killing children, and reminded us just before their deaths, thus allowing her to kill them guilt-free.

I don't really understand why that was done. Had she chosen not to kill, they could easily have saved her - it's not like they didn't do just that under other circumstances. If she had chosen to kill, we would not have seen her as a hero anymore, but would that really be so bad? Would it not have made for a powerful moment, a powerful story? But perhaps they wanted a traditional good-guy (reluctant) hero; it is a movie after all. So having her kill someone who wasn't "evil" was out, but also having her quit, having her not fight and thus look weak, was also out?

Again I didn't read the book, perhaps it didn't shy away from the issue and actually tackled it head on? I don't know, maybe I'll read it someday and find out.

One interesting thing about this movie for me was the role reversal. It wasn't pushed, it wasn't the point, it just so happened that in this movie the girl was the tough, intelligent one and the guy needed to be rescued. And to me, it felt strange, which when you think about it is disturbing. Fitting revenge I think; serves us men right with all our movies about tough strong men saving the helpless damsels. Now I guess I know a little about what women had to go through all these decades, having to watch our macho movies. There wasn't anything man-hating about it (unlike many "femme fatales" written by men, strangely enough), it was just... natural; this time the protagonist is a woman.

I did have an issue with the love story; I felt for him, but somehow I was never sure if she actually cared about him or she was playing it up for the cameras, milking the star-crossed lovers angle for the sponsors; we know she had, well, someone of interest back home, and the two never really bonded, plus he never did anything particularly impressive or self-sacrificing (at least not by that point) to win her affection, and the "backstory" of her having seen him once in the past didn't really sell it either. I don't know if that's a consequence of the acting (seems unlikely, I generally felt Jennifer Lawrence did a great job), the writing, my own inability to read between the lines, or whether it was actually deliberate. Perhaps the sequel will clear things up?

So overall I'm going to give it an 8/10. A strong, tense, thought provoking movie with it's fair share of action.


I thought the part where Rue saves Katniss and the two work together was well done, and as I watched I was thinking: how can you form this bond when you know only one of you can live? What will you do if you're the last two? But then the movie copped out and killed her so we didn't have to find out. This is what I was talking about before, where Katniss never has to actually make that decision. You might say that she did at the end, but remember she wasn't actually planning on committing suicide, she was bluffing to force their hand. So she didn't really have to make, or even really face, that choice seeing as she instantly came up with another way out.

The girl who ate the poised berries? There's edibility tests to find out if something is poisonous or not, if she was so smart she probably should have used them.

The dogs at the end? Wasn't that a little out-of-nowhere? All of a sudden the organisers got bored and said "lets get this over with"? And rather poorly animated as well.

When the girl with the knives could have killed her but sat there taunting her? A little out of place perhaps? And then she was quite lucky that someone else showed up to kill the girl and rescue her. Actually, she was rescued a number or times, which to our knowledge no-one else was. Rue, Peeta when she was hallucinating and when that last guy was choking her, the little sponsor gifts... so I guess she only really won because everyone was helping her, not because she herself was so strong? Add to the that the fact that everyone was talking about her from the start, she had the best stylist to draw their attention, and they even changed the rules for her sake, and she was arguably too central to the story - it wasn't about her in a difficult situation, it was about a difficult situation that revolved around her, if you see what I mean.

What's with the pin? When the old lady gave it away, I got the impression that the pin must have bad memories for her, regardless the only reason she would be giving it away for free is if it belonged to someone who died. A former victim of the games perhaps? Five minutes after she gets it Katniss gives it to her sister, who immediately and against the odds gets picked for the games. And after that she still acts like it's a good luck charm? Why? Clearly the damned thing is cursed! Get rid of it already!

I could be wrong, but it looked to me like every bow in the movie was different. So the bows she practised on were not the same as the bow she used to impress them and not the same as the one she picked up in the actual games. This seems a little strange; bows aren't quite "point and click", a little familiarity can be in order - hence I believe her initial miss when in front of the sponsors.

No "shocking betrayals" was nice; from the beginning to the very end I was half expecting Peeta to turn on Katniss at the end since it would have been a "dramatic surprise". Well, I suppose it would have been dramatic, though it would have undermined the story overall.

I had a little trouble with the part where they start throwing fireballs at her; isn't that a little excessive? Then she walks right out of that and straight into the other kids. I suppose they could have been drawn to the fire, but really: who walks towards a massive forest fire? Remember also that she was supposedly travelling away from the center of the arena while they were based there, staying close to the supplies.

Then for some reason she decides to climb a tree instead of running: not really sure why but OK. It was never really convincingly established why they couldn't just shoot her; their arrow's were within a couple of inches of her, surely they could have gone around for a better angle? It just wasn't very well done. Then they all went to sleep in the open without leaving anyone on watch? Hmm. Great opportunity for Peeta to kill them all in their sleep... oh well, hindsight and all that. Finally, where did the wasps go? Katniss climbed down from the tree a few seconds after the swarm killed that girl, yet despite the remains of the hive being right there all the wasps were gone? Oh, and how did the (roughly) 12-year-old Rue manage to move her somewhere safe without leaving a visible trail? Seems unlikely she would have had 2 days to recover if they could have followed her.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Gunless review

I stumbled onto this movie on IMDB, where the synopsis read:

"A hardened American gunslinger is repeatedly thwarted in his attempts to mount a showdown in a friendly town in Canada where no one seems to understand or appreciate the brutal code of the American Wild West."

You know, that actually sounds funny to me. So I watched the movie. Guess what? I actually really enjoyed it.

I wouldn't call the movie a straight comedy, but was funny enough to get me laughing out loud at times. The jokes aren't big and in-your-face, rather it has a quieter, slightly more subtle sense of humour. I found it quite refreshing; it seems most American comedies I see these days don't know the difference between laughter and vomiting. By which I mean all they do is try to gross the audience out. That and focus on genitals.

Well you know what? I don't enjoy looking at things that are disgusting, and when I hear jokes about genitals I feel as if a five year old has just handed me a piece of paper with some random crayon marks on them. Oh, very well done, you managed to break a taboo, aren't you a clever little movie? Sigh.

I'm not saying Gunless is high-brow, only that it doesn't look for it's jokes in the toilet, and I appreciated that. Perhaps it's because it's Canadian, not American? Or is that just an unfair stereotype?

I said that I don't consider it a straight comedy, and that's because it focuses more on character development than on earning laughs. The result is a deeper story than you would expect, with likeable characters and an interesting protagonist who actually surprised me. What's more the love story felt natural rather than forced or tacked on, and the end was well done.

Overall I give it 8/10; a fun and engaging film.


When the Montana Kid finally explains why he can't just let it go, and has to go through with the duel, well it surprised me, and impressed me. All of a sudden he became so much more human, rather than a cowboy cliché.

I liked how the end balanced the need to show him as a reformed character with the practicalities of a gunfight and the need for a dramatic climax. It's not easy to do; typically movies in this kind of situation sacrifice believability to show the hero somehow prevail without using a gun.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises review

I did not enjoy Rises. It's not that I don't like the series; I loved the first two and felt they both had very strong stories and themes. But this one just struck me as a mess. At the (rather severe) risk of sounding pretentious, this movie reminds me of a line from Shakespeare: "Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing". Ah-hem, sorry about that.

 Don't get me wrong, some of my very favourite movies are nothing more than mindless sequences of nonsensical action. My point with Dark Knight is that each individual scene makes a lot of noise but isn't actually much good. In my eyes Rises failed on the micro and macro level; neither the individual scenes nor the big picture are actually much good. Let me try to explain. What makes a good comic book movie? Typically comic book movies are about action, story, and characters - nothing special there. So lets break Rises down and look at each element.

First of all, action. This is probably the most important thing for your typical big-budget superhero movie, and the action in Rises was poor. Yes, there's some massive "spectacle" shots that are very well done. You've probably seen them in the trailer; the plane and the stadium? Of course they didn't mean very much to me because I had already seen them many times - and I try to avoid trailers for movies I intend to watch (I managed to go into Prometheus and Brave without seeing or reading anything about them, and that took several bouts of closing my eyes and covering my ears during the trailers in theatres). But beyond those two scenes there's nothing.

There's a motorcycle chase that's never anything more than shots of individual vehicles moving in straight lines with no indication of where they are in relation to each other, then a sudden nonsensical end. There's a scene with the police chasing Batman which really was nothing more than police driving behind him down one street and stopping when he drove into an alley - absolutely pathetic as far as action scenes go. There's a bit with bat-cycles and bat-tanks and bat-planes chasing each other, but it didn't make much sense to me that the motorcycle could take out tanks but the plane couldn't - and for some reason the tanks never even tried to shoot the motorcycle.

The fight scenes between Batman and Bane were positively shameful. These are supposed to be two highly skilled and experienced fighters trained by the finest Eastern martial artists, but they never threw a single kick. Every move was telegraphed; every punch drawn back past the ear then thrown forwards with a painful grunt. I'm no boxer, but even I know that when you throw a punch, your fist moves straight forwards, not back. Pulling your fist back not only gives your opponent plenty of time to see the blow and defend himself, it actually creates an opening for a swift fighter to slide his fist into your jaw. Besides, I don't think that it will actually increase the power of the blow much since most of the strength of the blow comes from the waist and hips - at least that's my understanding. Seriously, the fights were disgusting.

There was plenty of hustle and bustle, people yelling and shooting and running back and forth, but it was always like watching ants fight - just a lot of commotion seen from the distance. I've seen massive battles in movies like Braveheart and Gladiator that were very impressive, I might even say breathtaking. I don't really know why those worked better than the ones in Rises, perhaps it's because those scenes were peppered with close-ups of combat that were quite brutal. Regardless, the crowd scenes and battles in Rises felt like little more than filler for me.

The previous two Batman movies had very strong stories. The first one focussed on why Batman chose to wear a costume: to inspire fear, to become a legend. That is, in essence, the Batman story, and Batman Begins immersed itself in it, choosing the Scarecrow as a villain to help bring the idea to the fore. There's plenty more that can be told about the character, and the second movie chose to show Batman daring to hope for an end to his battle and a real life to follow, and to that end used Two-Face to parallel Batman's own dual existence.

This one I just don't get. Yes, I know the theme is that he "rises", but it just doesn't work. I thought that the movie did a poor job of establishing a low for Batman to rise from, and as a result his "rising" was more like a rushed Rocky III style comeback. I can't say much more without giving spoilers, so I'll just take the easy way out and say that it didn't work at all for me, even though the first two movies did.

The problem that the movie faced when it comes to giving us deep characters is that it's a sequel. I believe that continuing to focus on the protagonist as a human being rather than just a focus for the action becomes more difficult as any series gets longer. How do talk about his emotion, doubts, fears, hopes, and dreams over and over again without it getting repetitive or stale? I think the way to do it is to show how he reacts to different situations, so that his character is continually tested. At least that's the main way I've seen it done successfully in the past.

One problem of course is that most of the situations that super-heroes face boil down to the same decision: lay down or keep swinging? Another issue, one faced by movies as they have large time frames between iterations, is that the connection we established with the characters in the previous movie might be forgotten, or at least faded, by the time we sit down to watch the current one. This means you have to find a way to re-establish a connection without spending too much time going over old ground. Not an easy task I imagine.

The Dark Knight suffered less from the first problem as it was the second movie in the series, we hadn't got tired of watching Batman facing the same decisions. Additionally he had some other tough choices to make. Who should he save? Should he go as far as to actually kill? It also overcame the second problem by giving him something to look forwards to; a chance at a normal life. That's actually something that a man like Batman can't normally afford to do, making it a powerful emotional element, helping us to connect to him again.

Having said that, in The Dark Knight I felt that the Joker actually overshadowed Batman somewhat. This might just be a personal thing, but by the time Rises came out I didn't feel much for Batman (at least not the movie Batman, arguably the comics version is a different person), and I didn't feel that it did much to make me care about him again. I might even go so far as to say that the opposite was true; Batman made so many mistakes that I would not expect of him that I was turned off.

Now we've run into a real problem that the movie faces: the expectations of people who are familiar with Batman from other media, namely the comics. Without getting into the subject, in the comics Batman has to be near perfect in order to be relevant in a world filled with super-powered beings. He is pretty much considered to be as physically and mentally accomplished as a human can be without having superpowers. Obviously the movies don't hold to that; Batman is human, fallible. That's not wrong, and it's not fair of us to be upset with the movie for portraying Batman as a human being.

But there's another element to Batman in the comics that I believe the movie should have remembered. Superman is the Man of Steel, Batman is the World's Greatest Detective. That's not some meaningless title occasionally given to him, that's almost his official designation. He actually debuted in "Detective Comics" before earning his own comic. In Rises, he is an idiot. His idea of detective work is following a tracking device. He is tricked, manipulated, and out-manoeuvred at every turn. The only thing that allowed him to triumph at the end was his technological advantage - it really did mainly come down to his gadgets - and that practically every other character in the film put their lives on the line to help him. That is not the Batman I know, or at least not the one that I want to see.

Regardless of comic book expectations, Batman himself failed to impress me. The other characters did most of the work, and what little he achieved was purely thanks to the fancy gadgets he gets from Lucius Fox. If he wasn't Batman, if this wasn't a Batman movie and the protagonist was an original character, I still wouldn't have liked him as he never did anything worthy of being the hero of a city, and he never did anything to endear himself to us.

Besides this, the other characters are all wrong as well. Bane, the primary antagonist, essentially has no motivation for what he's doing, and it kind of shows. Plus his voice is just annoying and hard to understand. Catwoman in the comics does what she wants, when she wants, because she wants to do it. And she smiles as she does it. In Rises, Catwoman is a just another reluctant hero. She never smiles, never does anything because she wants to, but always because she "has" to. I didn't see the previous Catwoman movie with Halle Berry, but in the trailers at least she was acting like Catwoman; strutting and teasing. Another major character, who I won't name, had nothing at all to do with their comic book counterpart. At all. Not their name, not their history, not their role in the story, nothing.

The plot is very forced, there's just too many things that are too contrived or not believable. I have a number of specific complaints that I shall mention in the spoilers section. The special effects at least are perfect; in that there's a lot of them but you'll never notice it because everything looks completely real. It's just a shame they are never used to do anything particularly interesting - with the very notable exception of the opening plane scene, which was amazing.

While I'm not a particularly good judge of acting, there's a lot of great actors in the Batman movies. All the old hands were good but their roles were brief - even Christian Bale barely seemed to get the chance to really act. We didn't see Tom Hardy's face or hear his voice (and Bane is played as a very unemotional character) so it's almost as if he isn't in the movie. Anne Hatheway just struck me as the wrong choice for catwoman; she doesn't look or act like her in my eyes. Joseph Gordon-Levitt at least was given the chance to act a little; I would say he was the best new cast member - it's just a shame his role is more or less pointless.

I had some trouble deciding on a final score, but I'm afraid I'm giving it a 6/10. I believe that most people who do not have a particular investment in the character and who are not particularly discerning when it comes to action can enjoy it if they treat it as a mindless popcorn movie (huh, that's a lot of disclaimers), but there's just too much wrong with it in my eyes.


I had a lot of specific issues with the film. I'm listing them here, and I'm not blacking out the text as there's a quite lot of it and I don't want to make it too hard to read. Some of these are very minor points that could of course be explained if we start making up what happened off-screen, but the point is it wasn't explained and it all added up to a lot of questions and things that didn't make sense.

I mentioned above that a character does not match their comic book counterpart at all. I'm talking about Robin. The fact is that he isn't Robin, not in this movie anyway. The character does not have Robin's history or name, and he doesn't look or act like Robin, therefore he is not Robin. The revelation that his name is Robin is just part of establishing the ending, but it doesn't really mean anything to the movie and as such is purely superfluous and arguably poor writing.

Oh, and Robin - when he was a young boy no less - took one look at Bruce Wayne and "just knew" he was Batman? Seriously, that's what you're going with? Ugh. Supposedly he recognised the "hidden anger" of someone who'd lost his parents. Well, yes, Bruce Wayne has lost his parents, that's a known fact, so what? How does that make him Batman? Seriously, just all round pathetic writing. Actually, Batman does a really bad job of hiding his identity this time around. He clearly and without hesitation reveals to Catwoman that Bruce Wayne is connected to Batman, for example.

The film is called "The Dark Knight Rises". So why does he fall, and how does he rise? Apparently he fell because he wasn't afraid, then he rose again because he was. He learned the power of being afraid? How does that work? I'm sorry Mr. Nolan, I don't get what you're trying to say. Fear is a destructive force; an emotion that weakens and paralyses us. You might try to draw a parallel with the idea that a cornered animal is at it's most dangerous; but the reason why that's the case is simply because it has no-where to go and so has no choice but to fight, when normally it would chose to avoid confrontation. In generally, when it comes to human beings achieving great things, fear holds us back rather than propelling us forwards. Besides, he didn't look particularly afraid when he came back and (allegedly) saved the day.

And how does he learn fear? By being told by some old guy that it's better if he is afraid? Or was it that jump without the rope, that was supposed to be the first time he was afraid? And are you really telling me that in all the years of people trying to escape from that prison, no-one is ever scared when they take that jump? That people don't train for years to jump farther? That they can't think up some way to cross the final few inches and reach the ledge? Maybe hammer at the rock face with a bit of metal so that they eventually form handholds and work their way across? We are talking about years of mostly unsupervised living (how the hell did that prison operate anyway?). That little girl made it, and everyone else in that prison has at least an extra two feet of reach for grabbing on to that ledge, it can't really be that impossible. Besides, the whole thing was undermined by the fact that the ledge clearly had enough room for a bit of a run-up, yet everyone tiptoed to the edge then jumped from a standing start.

Talia Al-Ghoul was one of the few interesting elements of the story - or at least her big reveal did come as a genuine surprise. In retrospect I feel as if I should have seen it coming, seeing as she's one of the most important characters in modern Batman mythos and the movie spent some time speaking about Ras-Al-Ghoul's legacy, but then everything looks obvious in hindsight. That's actually what makes it such a good surprise: it fits very well with the story so that when it is revealed it feels important rather than gratuitous, and yet it was not foreshadowed or hinted at (at least not that I noticed).

Having said that, I had an issue with Bruce's relationship with her before he knew who she was. As far as I can tell the first time he meets her he speaks to her for two minutes during which time he accidentally insults her (and she acts insulted rather than laughing it off); the second time he begs her to take control of his company, shows her secrets very few other people know about, then sleeps with her. This is a man who isolated himself from the world for eight years; I wouldn't expect trust to come easily to him yet he trusts everything to someone he just met (hell, two people if you count how much faith he puts in Catwoman despite the fact that his only experience with her is in being robbed twice then betrayed and sent to his death, never mind her having a rap sheet longer than the Encyclopaedia Britannica). Then when she starts coming on to him, he isn't even suspicious? He doesn't suffer any hesitation at all? Really? It's not like women hitting on him is something new that he's never experienced and so has no idea how to handle or resist. I suppose that he's supposed to be in a low place in his life, but most of the time he didn't really act it; if anything he seemed happy to be facing challenges as Batman again, and he seemed to be handling the loss of his company quite confidently.

While we're on the subject of Talia, let's talk about her plan. It was all about revenge and completing the goal of Ras Al-Ghoul. That meant, apparently, getting revenge against Batman and destroying Gotham. But it seems she wanted Batman to see Gotham destroyed, and by his own creation. That's all very well and good, but I'm not really sure where "sleeping with the man you hate because he killed your father" came in to the plan. It wasn't necessary for any part of her plan; she already knew where the reactor was at that point, in fact she more or less owned it by then. The only explanation I can come up with would be that it was to hurt him even more when she revealed who she really was; the problem with that is that as far as I can tell she never actually intended to reveal that little nugget of information. I mean, the reactor was hours, minutes even, away from going critical and she was still playing the role of the innocent victim. At what point was she planning on letting him know, and how? Surely if she wanted to tell him she would have done it in person just before, or perhaps immediately after, he was shipped off to the prison?

She's very patient too. She waited for years after the death of her father to even start to make her move. It's my understanding from the movie's timeline that the plan took over three years to implement. Even after kidnapping the scientist who could turn the reactor into a bomb, they still waited 6 months before starting to implement the plan? I didn't understand why, maybe they were still planting explosives in the sewers? Regardless, I'm impressed by her restraint. Then, after putting Batman in a prison cell and forcing him to watch Gotham fall apart, she spends another 5 months just waiting for the reactor to explode when she could have triggered it at any time? Why? To prove that Gotham is corrupt, to hurt him by giving the people of Gotham hope? Either way, surely a week or two should be enough to get the point across? I get that she wanted him to suffer, but 5 months is a very long at time to just sit around in poor conditions, pretending to be someone you're not, just so you can imagine that someone you hate is suffering somewhere very far away. Besides, why wait around in the city anyway? Why not wait by Batman's side, watching him suffer, then enjoying killing him when it's all over? Why was killing herself ever part of the plan?

By the way, I didn't get how they were planning to kill Batman after the bomb went off and killed all of them. Or were they not planning to kill him? And did they really refuse to believe there was even the possibility of escape? They couldn't at least post someone in the prison, or even just outside of it, to keep watch over him? The doctor said it was Bane's prison now, there's no reason he couldn't at least leave instructions that Batman was not to be allowed to escape. It's even worse than the "James Bond Villain Deathtrap" thing (you know, where the villain takes the time and effort to tie Bond to an elaborate deathtrap and then doesn't even stick around to watch him die, just assuming everything will be fine?). It's quite contrived when you think about it.

I still don't get why Bane is there at all. He loves Talia apparently, despite the age difference. But he should hate Ras since he kicked him out of their little social club, so I don't see that he should have a personaly vendetta against Batman, meanwhile he knows full well that the plan is basically a long protracted act of suicide for both himself and his beloved Talia, so shouldn't he at least be hesitant to carry it out? Considering he's the the main visible villain for the whole movie, his motives are particularly weak and... second hand. I suppose it's just disappointing more than anything else.

Bane's mask "kept the pain away". What? Did it administer pain killers or something? Why would it need to look so weird to do that? Did he start to feel pain when Batman dislodged one of the pipes? Surely painkillers don't wear off that quickly? In fact, how can he need a constant supply? Doesn't it make more sense just to need a little every few hours? I suppose it could make sense if he's been taking painkillers for over ten years or so, he might have developed a resistance and so he needs crazy amounts now, but it was all presented as an afterthought, at best it was a weak justification for the mask.

Another thing; why were all those people so loyal to Bane? What did he promise them, how did he recruit them? I guess they were people who were unhappy with the severe inequality of wealth in the world, but that doesn't explain why they follow him, living in the sewers, committing crimes, even killing. If they were "regular people" pushed to fighting back against the system, surely some of them would have been at least a little reluctant to hold an entire city at gunpoint through the use of nuclear weapons? And if they were all criminals to begin with, well, it makes even less sense for them to follow Bane in the first place since they didn't benefit very much? I really just don't get where they came from.

When Batman was getting his behind handed to him in his first fight with Bane, why didn't he something intelligent? Surely he has some sort of taser or knockout gas in his utility belt, right? At the very least he could have used his grappling ropes (he does have those in this movie doesn't he?) to get some elevation and open up some distance. Actually, we know he has some kind of sedative bat-darts because we see him use them when Gordon is walking on the ice. You could argue that those were in his other costume, but that's a bit silly, surely he has something analogous in his main suit? After all, he knew he was going after Bane that night. Hell, didn't he use some sort of blades in his gauntlets against Ras Al-Ghoul in the first movie? And don't point at those silly little puffs of smoke he threw at Bane, or that EMP device because those are a different class of gadget. Besides, they were silly; you know he was trained by the same people who trained you, why did you think turning out the lights would work? Moron.

Bane didn't even seem to feel Batman's attacks the first time, then after Batman had his back broken he came back and started hitting harder? This from a man who apparently had been a cripple for the last 8 years? Yes, I get that he spent a little time training while in jail, but before he could train properly he spent months not moving BECAUSE HIS BACK WAS BROKEN. Besides, you can't tell me he was getting three square meals a day in there; by the time he got out he should have been malnourished at the least. Hell, I still can't understand how his back was miraculously cured in what they claimed was one of the worst places on earth - his leg too for that matter. I suppose though that the real question isn't why he was able to beat Bane the second time; it's why in the world did he think he would be able to the first time, when he was so out of shape after having given up for 8 years? Actually, no, he still shouldn't have been able to beat him the second time. Nolan really should have worked in something more that a simple boxing match for the second fight; Batman should have won using his wits, not just by hitting the guy in the face - after all, it didn't work the first time, surely Batman should have learnt his lesson? Again, Batman doesn't actually do anything intelligent in this movie.

Lets mention the "clean slate". A piece of software that, what, hacks every (government?) database on the internet and erases every piece of information about the given individual? Do I really need to discuss how unlikely it is that such a thing could even exist, never mind the idea that even Bruce Wayne (who's company hadn't been profitable for years at that point as it had been investing everything in alternative energy) could afford to buy what amounts to the most powerful weapon of the digital age being used as a flyswatter? OK, how about this: even if such a thing did exist, surely it would be obsolete in a few years as digital security continues to grow and change? It was just so out of place. But then everything about Catwoman was in this movie.

Why would Batman build a nuclear device inside his precious city? A reactor that a scientist who had never seen it before was able to convert into a remote controlled bomb in under a minute without using any tools at all? A reactor that, if not plugged in, decays until it explodes with a "10 mile blast" (I assume that's diameter, not radius)? I don't remember if it was supposed to be a fission or fusion reactor but either way I'm having trouble with the idea that it never occurred to Batman that it could be dangerous, as soon as some guy in another country claims it could be he shuts the whole project down. While we're at it, the reactor had a timer on the outside that showed TO THE MINUTE when it would reach critical mass and explode? Or was that to the second? That's very predictable instability. Oh yeah, and as far as I can tell the only security that the plant had was that the button that opens the door was hidden under the desk. In a small crappy office on a construction site. Seriously, Lucius walks in and presses a single button and that's it, there's the reactor, completely unprotected.

How is it that the bat-cycle (which is about 95% tyres) has the hardware to blow up a tank, but the bat-plane (which is much bigger and newer and more technologically advanced) does not?

Why did batman even have so many bat-tanks? By my estimates he had about 4 or 5? And why did they have heavy artillery? He doesn't even carry a gun, not even a knife, who was he planning on shooting with those heavy cannons? And most importantly, didn't he have some kind of security system to stop random people from using them? Surely Bane didn't have the technological know-how to overcome advanced security systems? I'm not even sure how he found the tanks in the first place! I suppose you could argue the kidnapped scientist did it, but he's a nuclear physicist, not a security expert or electronics engineer, and more importantly we never saw him doing so - if he was supposed to have disabled any security they should have shown him doing it, it's not like they didn't have time. I suppose it's not worth asking why Batman didn't have enough security to know what was going on right under his tanks, since he didn't have enough security to stop a cat burgler from getting his fingerprints and his mother's necklace. And his car, the moron.

Did Catwoman get his prints from the safe key-pad? Cos we saw her hand over prints of four fingers and a thumb, and who the hell uses his pinky and thumb to enter a code into a keypad? Fine, fine, I guess she dusted the whole safe, but that wasn't the impression I had when watching the movie.

How did Bane and Talia actually plan for ALL the police to get trapped in the tunnels? Only a complete retard would commit all the police in the city to a single task. And why did they bother keeping them alive, passing down food and supplies and everything, when they were planning to kill everyone in the city anyway? Oh, while we're on the subject, the bit where the police march on Bane was just stupid. A bunch of people armed with pistols and shotguns slowly marching towards a group armed with assault rifles and tanks? They couldn't come up with a better plan of attack? Then Batman swoops down in his little plane, shoots one tank with a single shot that breaks it's turret, then... flies off, parks it, dismounts, comes back on foot and starts hitting people with his fists? I get that the most important thing was to distract Bane so he didn't trigger the bomb (which doesn't hold much water since he's probably more likely to trigger the bomb when attacked, especially if his side starts losing, than when he thinks everything is fine and doesn't know that the bomb is at risk of being stolen), but they still wanted to win, right? By the way, almost everyone on both sides was armed - everyone except Batman and Bane. How did they not get shot? Did they wait until everyone was out of ammo before joining the fight? Kinda cowardly don't you think?

Batman was stuck in a jail cell on the other side of the planet for five months while the bomb slowly ticked down, yet somehow saving the entire city came down to the final few seconds? Really? You don't think that's a little too contrived? Five months and he couldn't have arrived a day earlier, or a day later? Or a few minutes earlier, or later? It's not like he actually knew exactly how much time he had left, did he? And if he did, why did he cut it so close? It's just too contrived.

Speaking of the bomb, I don't believe it should have been necessary to actually attach the jammer to the bomb to stop it from detonating, sure just having it close should be enough to prevent the signal from getting through? Personally I think Batman should have focussed on the getting the bomb instead of going after Bane, but I guess that's just hindsight talking. A bigger issue is that Batman stood around kissing Catwoman with less than two minutes left on the timer of a bomb with a "10 mile blast". Even assuming that the timer really is accurately able to judge when the nuclear decay of the unstable core would actually trigger an explosion, it's still irresponsible of him to waste time chatting and smooching when the lives of millions are at stake - was he really sure he'd be able to carry that heavy thing (radiation shielding is made of LEAD - which is not light!) with his small hover vehicle to a safe distance in time?

According to my calculations, if he started with about 1:30 on the timer and had to get it around 6 miles away from the city to be safe, even assuming he was on the very edge of the city and not, say, a mile or two in, and that he just needed to fly straight out from his current position and not circle around or something to make open seas, he would still need an average speed of about 240 miles an hour to make it. Not normally impossible for a flying vehicle, but again; a light hover vehicle that was never meant for lifting heavy burdens carrying a large metal construct that no doubt had lead shielding. Lets just say, if I was in his position, I would have jumped in that plane and taken off, no standing around locking lips and revealing my secret identity and what not.

By the way, why did he fake his own death? He didn't tell them he had fixed the autopilot even though he took the time for some last words, so obviously he intended to let them think he was dead, but at the same time revealed his secret identity... just what has his plan? And when did he fix the autopilot? As far as I can tell he had about a day at most (well, more like one evening, if that) to try and fix something he's never seen before when the guy who built the whole damn plane couldn't fix it (yes I know Lucius says he didn't have time, but he had enough time to build an entirely new and highly advanced vehicle including the control systems, if he couldn't get the autopilot working before he got bored I don't see how someone else would). Especially when he has so much else on his mind, like finding Catwoman and stopping Bane. Remember, Lucius is the tech genius here, not Bruce.

I mentioned that everyone else does all the work in this movie. Lets take a look: who beat Bane in the end? Catwoman. Who freed the cops? Catwoman. Who stopped the bomb from exploding? Gordon. Who organised the resistance? Gordon, with help from Robin. Who carried the bomb away from Gotham before it exploded? Lucius Fox - no, it wasn't Batman, he wasn't even in the damned plane, so the credit goes to the guy who made the plane: Lucius. You know what? Let's also give him the credit for beating bane, freeing the cops, and running down the bomb, since that was all done with the bat-bike he built; Catwoman didn't do anything particularly special while driving it. Hell, he probably built the jammer that stopped the bomb from exploding too.

What did Batman do? Built a bomb, handed it over to Talia, then climbed out of a pit. Oh, and he shot some guys with darts. While we're at it, what did Robin do? Helped organise a resistance, failed to free the trapped police, drove a bus, then failed to explain to the military that the bomb was going to explode anyway and thus failed to actually drive the bus to safety. This basically means he failed to do anything of any consequence, with the single exception of helping to organise a few people, for the entire movie. You could cut his role down to a total of five minutes and it wouldn't change the movie at all in any way. You could even cut him entirely from the movie with almost no change at all. Disappointing.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods review

I don't know if Cabin in the woods should be considered a spoof or not. Typically a spoof is like a funhouse mirror; it shows a distorted reflection of the subject being spoofed. Ideally this is a commentary or analysis; rather than an essay that dissects the shortcomings of the subject, the plot flaws and tired tropes, it simply makes them more obvious so we can identify and recognise them ourselves. Of course, sometimes it's nothing more meaningful than a funny reflection.

Cabin in the Woods doesn't do that. Rather than just parrot back a generic backwoods horror story in a funny voice, it writes a new story. A typical spoof would tell us how overused these horror story elements are, Cabin does so while actually still using them - and using them effectively too. This arguably makes it a homage rather than a spoof.

If you consider Cabin in the Woods a spoof, then it's an intelligent one. If you consider it a homage, then it's a very original one. Regardless, it's a fun movie with a clever plot. It kept me guessing right up to the very end, which not many movies do these days.

I give it a 9/10; fun, clever and original. Note that there is a fair amount of blood and gore and a little nudity. You have been warned.

I love how drugs cause the end of the world.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Binary Domain review

The first thing I heard about Binary Domain was that squad members might refuse to take orders if they didn't trust you. I was mildly intrigued, but when I heard more about the story I started to get quite interested. The plot reminded me of some Anime movies I had seen (Vexille comes to mind), but I didn't feel that made it derivative, rather I was curious to see it's treatment of the subject matter.

Let me start by saying the story doesn't disappoint. It manages to function as both the driving force for the game, and as a great story in it's own right. It gives you excellent reasons for being where you are and doing what you're doing every step of the way without feeling either padded or too short. You're encouraged to care about your teammates opinions of you, and to care what happens to them. It has some unexpected twists, and some moments that genuinely keep you guessing. And what's more, the story is not black-and-white, raising some questions that aren't easily answered.

The characters are mostly very well developed, with excellent dialogue and voice acting and good facial animation really helping to bring them all to life. There's quite a large and varied cast, and by the end of it I was quite fond of every one of my unit members. This is actually core to the game itself, with your interaction with your teammates being one of the main gameplay mechanics.

You see, each of your companions has a different degree of trust in you. The more they trust you, the more likely they are to follow your orders in battle. You earn or lose their trust based on what you say to them, and on how well you do in combat. This not only encourages you to think about how you use them in a fight, it also means you pay more attention to what they say and what they expect of you, so you get to know them better than you otherwise might. It's an ambitious idea, and it did work for me in that I found myself quite invested in all the characters, but it does have some problems.

First of all, communication is achieved through a microphone and voice recognition. I understand the idea; to be able to actually talk to them and hear them reply, but in practice it doesn't quite work. You see, it's functionally impossible for the game to be able to recognise and deal with every sentence we might want to say (it's still a little early for that...), so it has to limit your speech options. Now, in a game like Mass Effect, those options will be displayed on screen for you to pick one. But it doesn't make sense here to show you a selection of sentences; apart from ruining the immersion you're going for by having people read something out rather than respond naturally, the player would most likely prefer to simply press a button to select an option rather than reading out a long sentence he's already read to himself. So instead the game gives you a limited set of accepted responses to use, things like "yes", "no", "dammit", "thanks", "I got it", and so on. The idea I believe is that initially you'll press the button that shows you your choices then speak one, but eventually you'll have an idea of what they are and so you'll just respond naturally.

But this limited selection is a problem. Your teammates dialogue is quite complex and varied, at least enough that answering everything with "OK", "Thanks" or "Dammit" doesn't feel natural. To me, the shortcomings of voice recognition here made it feel more like a barrier to communication rather than an aid. Without the compromises needed for voice recognition, the game might have been able to offer more detailed dialogue options, and would be able to vary the options more based on the situation.

However, I should clarify that I decided early on I didn't feel like talking into the microphone (maybe it was because I was checking my dialogue options all the time anyway, or maybe I felt silly talking at the wrong times when the game wasn't expecting it), so I turned it off and made manual dialogue selections. Perhaps if I had stuck with it I would have gotten used to the limited options and it would have felt more natural?

I imagine it would help a lot in combat anyway. I did not cooperate with my teammates very well, one reason being the limited number of voice commands I was initially presented with, but the other was obviously that I was usually too busy to open the dialogue selection - a problem I wouldn't have had if I had been using verbal commands. I regret that now, and I'm considering giving the game another try with voice recognition on, to see if I can figure out how to make the most of it in actual combat. I'm not sure how well it will work considering what I really want them to do is usually rather more complex than I expect them to understand, like "You go left I'll go right" or maybe "I'll keep it busy while you shoot it", or perhaps "Distract the giant gorilla robot while I reload the big gun! No, don't lead it towards me, go the other way! What the hell are you doing? God, why are you so useless!". Ah-hem. Actually, it's probably a good thing that they can't understand everything I say.

Despite this issue, I thought it a very interesting system that was well integrated into the game. I found myself trying to understand what each character was really like, what really made them tick, so I could select the best responses to endear myself to each of them. Then I realised I was so trying so hard to earn their approval that I was saying what I thought they wanted to hear rather than what I wanted to say, or what I thought my character should or would say. How many games can make you say that?

Actually I'm quite impressed by how much of a difference the trust mechanics made to how much I care about other characters in the game. I can't help but wonder what difference it would have made if the main character was a silent protagonist. As it is, his own personality and dialogue are an important part of the story, but in a different type of game would it have led to an even stronger connection with the characters? It's an intriguing idea.

The graphics are good, though not amazing. Generally environments are clear and detailed without being noisy, perfectly fitting to the futuristic setting while looking good and running at a solid framerate even with a decent number of enemies rushing forwards. In fact some larger enemies and set pieces look very impressive, and as I alluded to before the human characters look great, with plenty of personality and detail. Worth mentioning is that it's quite easy to spot enemies, even when they're behind cover (you can see my Rage review for the full rant, but suffice to say I find enemies tend to blend into the environment in many games these days, making them hard to spot).

The rest of the game is a standard, though well executed, third-person shooter. The weapons are nothing special, with the normal assortment of assault rifles, machine guns, sniper rifles, shotguns, and missile launchers. Unusually there's a variety of each, which is a rather nice change. You can carry several weapons; specifically you always have a pistol, your own special assault rifle, and one other weapon, plus an occasional extra heavy weapon. Your teammates each have a specific weapon, such as a heavy machine gun or sniper rifle, which of course controls what they are best at and hence how you should use them on the battlefield. Your assault rifle has a special secondary 'burst' weapon, which comes in handy against bunched up groups of enemies or some of the larger models. Pistols are weak but have infinite ammo, which is a good thing as you don't want to get into a punch-up with a robot if you can avoid it. Other weapons work as you would expect, but some are more fun to use than others.

Overall firing the guns don't give you as much of a feeling of impact as in some games (coughAlanWakecough), but this is made up for by the enemies. Robots lose armour and body parts to sustained fire, jerking and sparking as you lay into them. What's more they try to continue to function despite the damage: blast a robot's gun arm off and they will run over to the fallen weapon and pick it up with their other hand. Knock them off their feet and they'll come crawling towards you, hanging on to your legs and leaving you vulnerable as you try to shoot them off. But blow their head off and they get confused and start attacking their friends, drawing their fire. You soon learn to recognise and enjoy the distinctive 'ping' of a robot's head flying off, as it's an effective tactic when your enemies are dug in.

I did have some trouble with the cover system and related context sensitive controls; occasionally I would sprint into the open when I was trying to snap to cover, and sometimes traversing complex terrain while in a hurry could be frustrating. It didn't affect me very often though; the truth is these issues are common to third person shooters, Binary Domain is no worse than most.

As is common in such games, you and your teammates can survive for a while after being downed, giving others time to get to you and heal you with a medikit. Binary Domain has a more involved system, however. When knocked down a teammate will ask if you need help or not, you can either accept their help or heal yourself. Likewise, when a teammate goes down another may ask if he should help them, you can of course chose to do it yourself. Medikits are limited (you can see how many each of your friends is carrying, but for some reason you can't swap them between people), so part of the issue is deciding how to keep the supply distributed. But the real advantage of the system is that it makes you more involved with your teammates during a battle. Do you rush over and help them yourself when they go down, or do you expect them to take care of themselves and not bother you while you're busy gunning down robots? Do you accept their help when you're wounded, or is it important to you to carry your own weight? It's all part of the connection you form with the characters.

You can upgrade both your own primary weapon and those of your teammates. There's also some enhancement modules you can buy to improve a character's health or let them carry an extra medikit or the like. Neither system is terribly deep, but together they do add something to the team-centric focus of the game. Do you spend your money on yourself or your teammates? How best to equip them? Will you display favouritism by spending more money on some characters than others? For example, one of my teammates annoyed me once by telling me off after a tough fight, so I removed all their enhancement modules as a way of exacting some small measure of personal revenge. I would have liked to see the enhancement system especially fleshed out a little, but the weapon upgrades certainly work well: even though I spent a lot on my teammates, near the end of the game my assault rifle had the power and ammo capacity of a heavy machine gun while being accurate, controllable, and still quick to reload.

Even in hard mode you can take a fair bit of fire without going down, and fortunately the screen only darkens and reddens at the edges and never the center (not while you're still standing anyway), which I am extremely grateful for - if you've read many of my reviews you probably know how much I hate the "one bullet and you're blind" nonsense that plagues modern shooters. This means that it's actually possible sometimes to walk towards enemies, laying down a barrage of fire, without dying. That's not to say it's too easy, only that you don't have to spend the whole game cowering behind cover; I found the game more dynamic and exciting than most cover-based shooters I've played. In fact I had more fun than I initially expected to, walking forwards laying down a stream of bullets and watching the robots in front of me getting blown apart bit by bit.

Worthy of mention are the game's boss battles and other set pieces, which strike an excellent balance of visual punch and player interaction. Some of those boss robots are immense, and unlike many games beating them isn't as simple as learning a couple of patterns and hitting them a couple of times in the right spot - these guys can take a hell of a lot of abuse and avoiding them isn't easy, which makes each fight a real battle.

The set pieces, cut scenes, and slower moments of gameplay do a good job of giving the characters personality and generally mixing things up and enhancing the feeling of adventure and danger. When I reached the end of the game I felt as if I had done more than just shoot through lots of robots, I felt as if I had been through a hell of an adventure, in fact I felt as if it was amazing that we had gotten so far. That's certainly not something I can say for every game I play.

I'm going to give it a 9/10. Yes, some of the squad mechanics didn't work so well for me, but I still had far more fun with it than most games I play these days, especially third person shooters.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Eat Lead review

I recently picked up some old games I missed first time, including Matt Hazard - or rather, Eat Lead: The Return Of Matt Hazard, to give it it's full title. While the reviews I read did not speak too highly of it, I thought it looked like a game with a sense of humour, which is exactly what I wanted.

It goes without saying that humour is subjective, so I can only speak for myself when I say that I found Eat Lead to be entertaining. The game is very self-aware - while it doesn't exactly break the fourth wall, Matt Hazard knows he's playing a videogame, and most of the humour might be considered "in-jokes" - at one point Matt visits a familiar looking carpenter in a factory that produces all the exploding barrels used in videogames, to give an example.

You might not think it very witty, or you might appreciate the nod to the fact that so many games try to hard to be so realistic and to justify every little detail, when the truth is we all know none of this is real, it's just bright lights dancing across a screen for our entertainment. Personally, I thinks it's nice to see a game that remembers why we're all here: to have fun.

And that's exactly what Eat Lead tries to do, by taking advantage of this self awareness to liberate itself from some of the rules that modern videogames impose on themselves. Zombies battle alongside space marines and Russian soldiers in seedy night clubs as you gun them down with super-soakers and plasma pistols. You might be in a Japanese restaurant one minute, then walk through a door and find yourself in a Soviet nuclear missile silo. Saloon doors open in mid-air to admit gunslinging cowboys while Nazi "Waferthin" troops seems to appear out of nowhere as their 2D sprites turn to face the camera.

You will have noticed that I said "tries". Unfortunately Eat Lead's gameplay is mediocre at best. It's a basic cover-based third person shooter, and never anything more. The weapons aren't particularly satisfying to use, and sadly the most unique weapon in the game was a rifle that could be charged up for a more powerful shot. There's a few special abilities and temporary power-ups, but they don't really add anything to the game. What's worse, for some reason I found aiming very hard to do, at least at speed; achieving headshots at distant targets hiding behind cover with a humble pistol was far easier than trying to hit an exposed enemy right in front of you with an assault rifle if that enemy wasn't standing completely still.

Strangely, despite the mediocre gunplay, Eat Lead has the best implementation of a cover system that I've seen. It's quick and easy to move between and around cover without exposing yourself - something that's not true of some high-profile big-budget third person shooters I've played recently - and there's even a streamlined, if not really necessary, "point-and-click" cover system for advancing into cover. What's more, this is the only game I've ever played where you could smoothly look or aim all the way around your position in cover without the camera fighting you, which is a very nice feature.

While enemies are visually interesting, there's very little different between them in game terms. Zombies spring up where normal enemies die, Nazis disappear by turning away from the camera after taking a few rounds and can't be killed until they turn back, space marines are very resilient, fembots have to be finished off up-close. That's about it. Actual level design doesn't vary much either, as you can imagine it can all get a little repetitive. It's a shame that the same creativity that went into the writing wasn't applied to the actual game design.

Despite these issues, I actually found the story and characters entertaining enough to keep me playing all the way through. Little moments kept things interesting, like a character from a different type of game who spoke with speech bubbles that Matt has to click on to advance through, or a part when I genuinely wasn't sure if the game had glitched or not (it hadn't). Not wanting to spoil anything, but... gunning down developers who didn't know how to play their own game? Genius!

In the end I've settled on a 6/10. If the controls had been just a little better, or the gameplay just a little more creative, I might have given it a higher score. Unfortunately it takes more than a sense of humour to make a good game.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Rage review

I have spoken previously about how impressed I was with the Rage demo, so it should come as no surprise that I bought and played through the full game. You'll forgive me I hope if this review is even more long-winded than usual.

I played Rage on the X-Box 360. Now, the X-Box is a console with no lack of first person shooters, however most of these in recent times could be termed "console shooters". That's not to say that you can't get these types of shooters on the PC, but simply that they've been designed to work better for consoles and console players. This comes down to factors like the controller, the use of a television some distance from the player rather than a high resolution monitor a mere arm's length away, and perhaps the kind of players who predominantly play on one system or the other and the kind of experience they are looking for. My point is that on the PC, Rage may not stand out. But on the X-Box, it really does.

Lets start with the graphics. These are the best graphics I have ever seen on a console, at least in a first person shooter. I don't know if Rage's graphical engine is more powerful than, say, Crisis 2, and there's games with unique art styles or full of beautiful imagery that are more visually pleasing. But Rage's combination of high resolution graphics and unwaveringly high frame rate just make it a joy to play. But there's more to it than that. The environments are bright and detailed without being too noisy, and most importantly it's never hard to see what's happening.

Now, I'm going to go off on a tangent for a moment, so please bear with me. As you will know if you've glanced at my other blog, I occasionally paint Warhammer miniatures. When I first started, I obviously painted things in simple primary colours; to paint a model I would probably use one shade of blue, one shade of red, and some pure black. But reading painting tutorials and looking at pictures of competition-winning models online, I slowly started to understand a more about the use of colour. I saw how analogous colours that softly blend into each other are so visually pleasing, blues blending into greens or reds into yellows, that sort of thing. I saw whole models that were painted entirely in different shades of the same colour that looked amazing.

So I started to try to use more uniform colour palettes, to use common "wavelengths" in different colours. The idea (at least as I see it) is that a colour is a mix of different wavelengths of light, so by having different colours that share some wavelengths they would better tie together. For example I would paint two different colours, say an orange and a light brown, then stain them both with the same reddish wash to introduce those shared wavelengths. I'm sure I'm doing an awful job of explaining this and any artists reading this are shaking their heads at how ignorant I am about colour theory, but I'm not an artist, I don't know much about this stuff except what I've recently started to learn from experience. What I found was that my models started to look too uniform; they lacked contrast and definition. That's not necessarily to say that they looked bad, but it wasn't easy to make out the individual parts of the model because it all tended to blend together. So now I'm trying to find a balance; colours that look like they belong together but are distinct enough that the model's details are easy to make out at a glance.

The reason I'm talking about this is because I think games are going through the same process. The limitations of the technology meant that games started with simple, brightly coloured sprites. As the technology has progressed and the art started to mature, certain artistic sensibilities started to appear. Bright primary colours were replaced with more realistic muted tones and uniform colour palettes, aided by the use of post rendering filters to tinge the entire screen with that shared wavelength. Take for example this screenshot of Killzone 2:
A veritable cornucopia of colour.

Now, this all creates some very pretty screenshots. However, a problem I have found is that I sometimes have great difficulty actually reading the screen. I literally can't see the enemies much of the time. It may sound silly when you look at a screenshot, and it's my understanding that not everyone has this problem, but when the bullets are flying, my screen is filled with muzzle flash and smoke and is being coloured red by the damage indicator and blurred by motion blur as I'm running and turning and so on, in that split second that I need to identify and target my enemies, I can't seem to make out the grey soldiers from the grey ground, grey walls, and grey sky. This is sometimes made worse by busy textures and unhelpful lighting. And of course there's the military shooters, where it's dark, the bombed out environments are incredibly noisy, your enemies are wearing camo that's the same colour as the environment, they're almost completely behind cover, and your screen goes dark red as soon as you get hit.

But if Rage is any indication, the games industry is starting to understand the problem. Whether it was under the harsh desert sun or in a dingy rubbish-filled sewer pipe, I never had any trouble spotting enemies. Part of this is thanks to the high frame rate and texture resolution, but that's certainly not the whole story. I can't tell you what's really responsible because I don't really know, but even though environments are very detailed and non-uniform, filled with piled up garbage and the like, and your enemies are similarly clothed in a patchwork of detailed, mismatched garments, and they spend plenty of time hiding behind cover, they aren't hard to see.
Looks good AND I can see the enemies.

Artistically the imagery is fitting. Desert wastes hold both crumbling abandoned cities and sleek, high-tech Authority installations. Inhabitants, both friend and foe, wear random pieces of shabby clothing and protective gear and carry rusted old makeshift weaponry, while Authority enforcers wear head-to-toe protective suits and carry shiny new guns and energy weapons.

The graphics and art style, therefore, are both visually impressive and perfectly suited to the game. You do need a significant install to the hard drive for best results, and if you look there's occasionally some noticeable texture streaming as you turn the camera, but I personally never found these to be a problem, not even a minor distraction.

Of course, graphics alone don't make a game. Happily, Rage has some of the best gameplay I've experienced on a console shooter. The game is fast, the controls as extremely precise and responsive, weapons are satisfying to shoot, as is the way enemies react to being shot. You can advance slowly and pick enemies off from a distance or run and gun up close and personal. Enemies are no pushovers, but regenerating health and the defibrillator makes it forgiving while letting you know that you're making mistakes, there's challenging sections but enough tools at your disposable to fight your way through so you should never get stuck.

The speed of the game reminds me of Unreal Tournament 3, which of course is a port of a PC shooter. Unreal was very fast paced, characters moved quickly and smoothly leading to very intense high-speed combat. It's worth noting that Unreal did not have an "aim" button, and it didn't need it. Rage does have the aim button, but you can manage pretty well without it if you want to, which is a testament to just how well the controls work.

Unlike many modern shooters you're not limited in the number of weapons you can carry. You can't just pick them off your victims corpses however; like older games you buy or unlock weapons as the game progresses, at which point they are yours to use at any time. I quite like this; no more having to constantly stop and decide which of the weapons scattered around the floor to use until the next time you run out of ammo.

The weapons themselves are mostly standard; pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, sniper rifle, missile launcher, minigun, and of course the BFG. Perhaps the most interesting weapon is actually the crossbow. In addition to regular bolts, which are powerful and silent, it can also fire charged bolts for electrocuting multiple enemies standing in water, mind control bolts, and sticks of dynamite. Having said that, my pick for the most enjoyable weapon/ammo combination in the game is the shotgun with exploding slugs. I can't really describe how much impact this thing has, it's just devastating.

In addition to your firearms, there's a range of secondary items which include bandages, RC car bombs, automated machine gun turrets, and even small machine gun droids that fight alongside you. All in all, there's a satisfying range of options for dealing out death.

All these weapons, ammo types, and tools would get confusing to use in actual battle, but luckily there's a very intelligent control setup for switching between them. Worth mentioning is that holding the weapon change button open the weapon wheel, but tapping it just switches to the next weapon. With a little thought you can arrange weapons to make the most of this, for example you can put the shotgun after the sniper rifle so if you're using the sniper rifle against a distant foe when suddenly someone pops up right beside you, one tap will whip out the shotgun for some fast close-range power.

There's some scope for upgrading weapons, but this is very minimal and almost feels like an afterthought, without even a dedicated interface in the equipment menu. For example, once you by a monocular you can't "unequip" it, so you'll always zoom in when aiming your pistol. More developed is the crafting system, which allows you to craft tools and even fancy ammunition from random junk you can pick up in levels or buy in shops. You need recipes for this, which you find, buy or unlock as the game progresses. It's an interesting diversion, if you wish you can ignore it completely and simply sell any junk you pick up, it's entirely up to you. It's worth mentioning that you can buy or craft most types of ammunition, so you don't have to be conservative with the fun stuff that way some games force you to be.

There's a good variety of enemies, with bandits, mutants, and soldiers of various types. Some will hang back behind cover, but other will charge forward, yelling and screaming, climbing up and swinging and doing whatever it takes to reach you - it's all very impressive, as well as somewhat scary. The way they react to being shot is also very cool; the more reserved enemies scramble for cover while the more aggressive ones stumble but try to keep their feet and maintain their forwards momentum, overall it lends weight to your shots and just makes the experience more engaging.

The game also features some driving segments and side missions. These include racing and vehicular combat, plus you'll have to fight off bandits when driving to and from mission locations. You pick up several vehicles over the course of the game, these can be upgraded using credits won in races. I am not a particular fan of driving games, but I found the racing and combat to be easy to get to grips with and fairly enjoyable. It might not be for fans of more realistic racing games, and unfortunately for them there's no getting away from spending a fair amount of time driving. For everyone else, it helps to break up the action segments and stops the game from becoming repetitive.

Which is not a bad thing as the main story has a decent run-time; It took me about 14 hours to finish Rage, at least according to my last save game. There's a fair number of side missions that I didn't do, and I didn't really get into the racing, so there easily several more hours worth of gameplay in there, and I'm not even considering multiplayer. So it's good that there's ways to take a break from the killing; in addition to driving there's a few minigames to try. The most involved of these is the card game; in addition to the starter deck, you can find cards scattered around levels. The rules are simple, which makes it easy to get in to and quick to play, but after you've played a few rounds you realise that you don't have much control over the game itself, all the skill is in building the deck. It's entertaining while it lasts though.

So the graphics and gameplay are great, the game is a good length and there's a fair variety of things to do. Is there anything wrong with the game? Well, it does have a few weaknesses. Perhaps the most obvious is the story. The basic plot isn't very well told; it's post-apocalypse, there's these arcs with people from the past in them and something about meteors and the only surviving government is actually evil. Or something.

The story never really gives us very much substance. Despite the good voice acting I never got to know any of the characters enough to care about them. The Authority are supposed to be evil, but that doesn't really tell us very much about them, and what's worse is that they are faceless. We never even see their leader, General Cross, we only hear him mentioned. It just felt a bit distant to me.

I never felt that I had a personal stake in events, I was just doing what random people asked me to do. This is partly a result of playing a silent protagonist, but other games have overcome this problem and made the fight feel personal - take Singularity for example, where I felt a personal responsibility for everything that was happening. Rage just never managed to give me that sense of personal motivation.

Furthermore, the game felt as though it ended too soon. I understand leaving narrative hooks for a sequel, but this felt almost unfinished. I would have at least expected a showdown with General Cross, even if it wasn't a final showdown. In fact the end-of-game battle, while intense, was a little non-memorable as it was against the same enemies you had been fighting the entire level. There's only a handful of what might be termed "boss encounters" in the game, and these peak about halfway.

Another thing that I wasn't personally a fan of was the very linear level structure. Which you have a large open world to drive around in and towns you can wander around and explore for a while, once you arrive at a mission you are typically just walking down a single corridor. A very thematic, decorated corridor with plenty of twists and turns, but a nevertheless a narrow corridor with absolutely no branches. It's not such a bad thing, but in this case it feels a little strange because of how it contrasts with the greater freedom you have outside of the missions, it would have been nice to have more open levels that you traverse rather than a single path that you travel.

The levels also felt somewhat static. It might just be me, but there's some games where the levels feel more solid and interactive, almost more real. Some of this has to do with physics objects that react to your presence or to being shot at, some of it might be that bounding boxes more closely follow the visible geometry, so when you jump around you interact with the environment the way you expect to. But in Rage, I felt as if the levels were less real, less solid, more of a backdrop that I couldn't effect or interact with. Bounding boxes seemed to be more general; a pile of garbage felt more like a featureless wall than an actual collection of different objects when I would walk into or along it. I suspect this is a sacrifice made for the sake of the high framerate and graphical quality, in which case it's probably a sacrifice well worth making. It's never a problem, but when there's games these days with fully destructible environments I felt that it was worth mentioning.

So after all that rambling on, what's the verdict? I give it 9/10, it focusses on what's important and as a result is easily one of the best first person shooters I've played on a console.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Alan Wake's American Nightmare review

After I finished the extra Alan Wake episodes, my appetite was whetted and I decided to roll straight into American Nightmare. This is not a true sequel; to continue the TV series comparison from my previous Alan Wake reviews, American Nightmare is a lot like a spin-off movie. Longer than the specials and with some changes to the basic formula, it has it's own self-contained story that's canon and does advance the plot, but is not necessarily required viewing.

American Nightmare has two game modes: story and arcade. The basic gameplay is mostly the same as before, but with some tweaks and added features. Rather than describe the core gameplay again, I'll focus mainly on the changes in this iteration of the series. If you're not very familiar with Alan Wake you might want to read my original description of the game.

Perhaps the biggest change to the formula is the more open-world approach in the story mode. While previously Alan Wake had very linear levels, American Nightmare has open environments across which you travel back and forth to achieve objectives. The game is still linear though, with no side missions or optional objectives (with the exception of collecting manuscript pages), as a result the open world, and certain story elements that I won't spoil here, might come across as cost-cutting measures.

This may be the case, but personally I prefer to view them as an attempt to provide the player with as much gameplay as possible for the budget. The story mode took me around 8 hours to complete, which is a respectable run time for a campaign these days. Add to that the excellent arcade mode, and there's a lot of fun to be had for something that's not a full game. Besides, the story does a great job of giving you a reason to keep backtracking, and I found it interesting to see the changes each time I revisited a familiar location.

Speaking of the story, Alan now has a new nemesis: Mr. Scratch. He is a far more personal foe in that he's essentially an evil doppelgänger. It might be a bit of a cliché, but that's because it works, and I found it to be very well handled here. This is in no small part thanks to Matthew Porretta putting in a brilliant performance as the grim Alan and the morbidly entertaining psychopath Scratch. Oh, and I love how they actually say Scratch's name in the game.

The main plot seems a bit aimless on the surface, and arguably doesn't make much sense outside of the context of the Alan Wake framework; that is, it makes sense in that literary devices drive the narrative. Why a radio telescope? Because it's a good metaphor for trying to send a message from very far away. Remember that in Alan Wake, writing is Alan's weapon; it's the story being written that shapes the reality. The story needs to be dramatic, so dramatic things happen. Yes, it can be very abstract, in fact it could even be viewed as lazy game design - you need to play a music CD in order to have an asteroid knock a satellite out of orbit?

But that's missing the point. Alan Wake has always been about blurring the line between reality and fiction; in the story that manifests as Alan directing reality with his writing. In the game that manifests as the same gameplay elements that work for the game by making it more dramatic, make sense in the story for the same reason. Why is there an assault rifle leaning against the wall here? Because Alan Wake wrote it in to make the story more dramatic and give the protagonist, himself, and advantage. Because the Remedy put it there to make the game more dramatic and give us, the players, an advantage. There's no need to stretch credibility to try to set the scene; setting the scene is now part of the narrative.

Much of the real meat of the story is told in radio and television broadcasts. The player can stand and listen or simply walk past if he chooses, but I would recommend listening in as these are actually more meaningful to Alan than his interaction with the in-game characters, who are all strangers who don't do very much other than move the plot forwards and perhaps help us see how much Alan has changed. On the radio we hear familiar voices of Alan's friends talking about how they have dealt with his disappearance, an on the television we see Mr. Scratch taunting Alan and giving us a glimpse of the atrocities he commits.

I mentioned that Alan has changed. He's not wasting any more time asking questions and wondering what's happening, he knows what's happening and what he has to do. His time fighting the Dark Presence has made him harder, tougher. It's a subtle thing I think, but I appreciate it. Alan doesn't whine or complain, he just gets on with it, and I like that. That's not to say he's emotionally dead; he does talk about his past, his old friends, about what's happened to him. His own character, the mistakes he's made, are still central to the plot. It's just that he's accepted the situation and he knows his only option is to fight.

The changes to the combat are relatively small but have some rather significant consequences. First of all, your flashlight will not burn off a Taken's protective coat of darkness without focussing. This was a huge deal for me, as I had developed a habit of momentarily dazzling Taken with a burst of focussed light to slow them down, then burning off their darkness with regular light while backing away. This meant I almost never needed to change batteries in my flashlight. The new system is balanced somewhat as the flashlight recharges more quickly, and now that I've gotten used to it I think it's a change for the better. It feels more like this is how it should work, and it makes the combat more tense and challenging.

Health works differently too. Previously health would regenerate slowly, or more rapidly when standing in a "safe haven". Now Alan's health bar is split into three sections, as long as there is some health in the current section it will regenerate, but once the section is gone it won't come back until you reach a safe haven. This is complicated by the fact that safe havens are temporarily exhausted once used, so you can't keep running in an out of one during a battle. Altogether this creates a less forgiving health system, which again ramps up the tension and difficulty.

There's a much greater variety of Taken this time around. One type of enemy can transform into a flock of birds in order to confuse and flank you. Another splits into two smaller enemies when shot. There's a misshapen giant who wields a massive buzz saw, and a one particularly annoying specimen hangs well back and throws grenades with surprising accuracy. What's more, they seem to me to be more intelligent now. The Taken have always liked popping out of the woodwork behind you, but that was about the extent of their guile, and once they had revealed themselves they would pretty much just come straight at you. Now, however, they continually try to flank you, limiting your mobility and forcing you to keep splitting your attention between multiple vectors. You have to keep track of multiple targets at once, and it becomes a nerve-wracking balancing act of splitting your fire to keep them away and focussing it to take them out.

With the Taken posing more of a threat, it's good that you have more ways to deal with them. The game features far more weapons than before, some of which are much more powerful. I was impressed to find that every single one, from the humble nail gun to the combat shotgun, was satisfying to use in some way. There's also some degree of balance; the assault rifle uses up ammunition quickly, the crossbow is extremely powerful but has a very slow fire rate, the combat shotgun is fast and powerful but takes a long time to reload.

Weapons can be unlocked by collecting manuscript pages as you progress through the game, and once unlocked are available in arcade mode. Luckily you have now have a minimap that gives you a hint when there's a manuscript page close by, so hunting them down isn't too hard, and with the open world system it's slightly less distracting than it was in the original game.

There's now ammunition restock stations scattered around levels; these will fill you up on ammunition for the weapons you are currently carrying. They can only be used once every few minutes, but this isn't much of an issue in the story mode as there's no time pressure anyway. This is about the only change that I didn't think worked very well in the story mode, as I've always considered the scarcity of ammunition to be an important factor in a survival-horror game. However, given the problems of trying to provide a balanced supply of ammunition in an open world game with a large variety of weapons, it was probably a necessary compromise. At least this way you don't have to run around exploring if you'd rather just get on with the story.

The arcade mode does away with all narrative concerns and focus on pure combat. It takes the form of arenas with waves of enemies spawning in. Your goal is to survive ten minutes and rack up a high score. You have a combo meter that builds up as you kill Taken but is instantly reset as soon as you get hit. This means that to get a good score you need a lot of Taken so you can build up a combo so each kill counts for more, but you really do need to play a flawless game to avoid have your combo broken. It creates a fast, intense and totally nerve-wracking experience as you desperately dodge enemies while continually backpedalling, frantically firing and reloading, trying to make your meagre supplies of grenades last and trying to judge when to make a break for a safe haven or ammo station.

In fact, this is the scariest Alan Wake has ever been, as a single hit can ruin your chances of a high score, so the stakes are higher than they've ever been for the actual player. Here is where all the small tweaks to the gamplay suddenly come into their own. Safe havens and ammo boxes are a valuable yet scarce resource to be carefully rationed, weapons and ammunition are more important than ever, grenades are a life-line and without flares it would be impossible to spare the time to grab a box of ammo or use a restock station.

Worthy of special mention is the way that Alan turns his head towards the nearest enemy. It seems a small thing, but you soon learn to watch out for this tiny visual cue; hit the dodge button quickly enough and if you're lucky you'll have the satisfaction of dramatically dodging a rusty scythe or axe in glorious slow-motion as a Taken emerges from the bushes behind you. If you're unlucky you've dodged too early and left yourself open, and have to scramble desperately to create some distance and bring your flashlight around before it's too late. And when you're currently being chased by six or seven Taken, desperately reloading while you wait for your flashlight to recharge, only for Alan to turn to look at something off-screen... well, that's a scary moment, let me tell you.

I've always loved the combat in Alan Wake, as I've mentioned before it's easily my favourite third person shooter based on the merits of it's combat alone. In the Arcade mode, this has been distilled to a purer experience. As a good skill-based game, you can play it over and over without getting bored, perfecting your skills and chasing a high score. The only thing missing is a multiplayer mode; playing this in split screen with a friend would be awesome.

I'm a little unsure how to score American Nightmare seeing as it's not really a full game. I decided to give it a 9 out of 10, based purely on the fact that I really did enjoy it a lot. That's a very subjective score of course, but if you take it for what it is, a little more Alan Wake with a filler story but improved combat, you'll probably enjoy it too.

BOOM! Screenshot!