30 October 2008

Quantum of Solace Review

Is it unfair to judge a Bond film on the title music? Because if so, then I could well deliver a very harsh judgement upon Quantum of Solace. But I like to think I'm marginally more 'professional' than that, and despite the fact that it makes a poor impression of itself with the ridiculously overwrought title sequence - coupled with that music, of all things - it does at least attempt to redeem itself.

The story is a direct continuation of Casino Royale - Bond's got Mr White, the man he kneecapped at the end of the previous movie, in the trunk of his car and he manages to get him somewhere where he can be interrogated. The information discovered sets Bond on the trail of the mysterious organisation Quantum and the enigmatic Dominic Greene. Along the way, he joins forces with Camille, a mysterious and beautiful woman who's more than her first impressions might give away.

The story connection isn't the only thing from Casino Royale that this latest Bond movie takes advantage of - it also rides in on an absolutely incredible wave of hype thanks to Casino Royale's enormously successful reboot of the venerable franchise. But the problem is, no matter where you lay the blame - QoS not being good enough, CR being far too good - the fact of the matter is that after the high of Casino, Quantum simply fails to deliver...enough.

In all honesty, the problem is the director. Marc Forster simply isn't an action director, and if it isn't obvious in Quantum of Solace, then it's not obvious at all. Where most action movies have maybe a 60% 'hit rate' - that 'wow that was awesome' factor - QoS scores maybe 33%, with only 3 out of the many action beats bringing real satisfaction. The first, the pulse-pounding opening car chase, is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of vehicular carnage. It's not up there with the greatest car chases of all time, but judged on its own merits, it comes out shining. A rooftop chase through Siena, Italy was pretty difficult to screw up, and the supposed balletic climax that the trailer implied is neatly and enjoyably tossed out the window in favour of a far more amusing and interesting finish. Finally, there's a boat chase which, whilst borrowing heavily from the likes of Face/Off and Indiana Jones, still comes out the other end better for it.

Then there are the other, slightly less engaging ones, and this is where it becomes clear that Forster was riding his luck, and barely got away with it. One in particular is bizarrely intercut with a performance of Tosca for seemingly no reason. If there's dramatic significance to it, it's completely lost on me but even if it weren't, it distracts from what could otherwise be a wonderfully choreographed piece of action, and at the end of the day, that's what Bond movies are - action movies. The finale, too, is simply too pacily edited to keep up with what's going on - taking a page from the Peter Berg school of climax film-making by trying to stitch two entirely separate pieces of action together in one scene. Instead of making us care about both, it instead means that there's absolutely no focus, and thus when we should be caring about one, we’re instead wondering what’s going on in the other part.

It's particularly unfortunate that elsewhere, Forster's direction genuinely shines - because the drama portions are wonderfully staged. Daniel Craig delivers another broody and layered performance for Bond, wonderfully evolving the character to keep up with the progression of the story. Olga Kurylenko completely undermines her terrible performance in the abomination that was the Hitman movie adaptation to bring a tough and genuinely likeable Bond girl that is far more than just a pair of legs in a Little Black Dress. Judi Dench throws in a decent, albeit underused, performance as M, with the woman looking genuinely hard-pressed to deal with the political fallout that Bond's roguish actions produce.

Forster weaves all of the characters and the story together wonderful, and although it does suffer from ‘middle child’ trilogy, seeing as the producers announced plans to release Bond movies in connected triplets, the story is reasonably satisfying.This makes the bum notes in the action sequences all the more disappointing. Had he allowed someone competent in their own right to take charge of the second unit - as Danny Boyle did for 28 Weeks Later - then perhaps better action sequences could've been produced. As it stands, they're troughs in what could've otherwise been a really rather great movie.

At the end of the day, there's still enough here to like that you can't instantly dismiss Quantum of Solace, and if Casino Royale weren't the great film that it is, then this may well have made a better impression on me. However, as the franchise stands at the moment, the very first true Bond sequel adheres to the oft broken rule of sequels - the second one is always inferior.

Ross' Rating: 6/10

28 October 2008

Video Games Galore!

Plenty of video game stuff is dragged along with this post.

First off, there's The Force Unleashed. See my review for what I thought of that.

Next, Fable II - that's absolutely brilliant. I haven't finished it yet, so a review ain't appropriate - but so far, I'm really enjoying it. It's not too easy, nor too difficult. The story is vaguely interesting, but what's special is the huge amount of peripheral depth - with the most interesting thing being that they've separated the question from the gold-earning, which serves to get you stuck into the extra stuff. You can buy up real estate and businesses, do various medieval-esque jobs, and a whole host of other stuff that is actually pretty entertaining - and the genius thing is that most of the people I know have spent more time doing the peripheral stuff than they have pursuing the main story quest.

Firearms are a welcome addition, and Lionhead have added some amazingly entertaining animations to go with them that really suit the Fable universe. So definitely a recommendation from me there.

Far Cry 2 is the other game that I've tried as of late, and in all honesty, I was a little unimpressed. Contrary to the major criticism - that the getting between missions is boring and tedious - I actually think that the shooting gameplay is fundamentally flawed. Ten assault rifle rounds to kill a guy? Why is that? Haven't we moved on from the arcadey shooters of yesteryear? Haven't games like Call of Duty and such shown that gamers take to realism like fat kids to cakes? It's incredibly annoying, and considering how scarce ammo is, you'd think it'd go hand-in-hand with realism, but apparently not. Good things, though, were the propogating fire and the typically strong AI, as well as the free-roaming African setting. Haven't played enough of it to give an opinion of the story,but what I've done so far is pretty good fun. Might try nd get back into it after Fable II...

Job's going well - it's reasonably hard work, but it's also good fun, and I've managed to see the majority of Saw V. It's pretty poor, truth be told - nowhere near the heights of I and II, content to pad out the gaps in the story of III and IV instead of doing anything new and interesting with the franchise. No idea who's fault it is, but whatever...I won't be paying to see it.

That's about it. Latas.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Review

The Force Unleashed is a very perplexing game. There's so much that it has going for it, and yet at the same time there's a lot that - from any other developer - would be considered heinously bad game design. But seeing as it's LucasArts...apparently they can get away with it. Still, they've managed to produce a decently entertaining game that, whilst rife with problems, still has a thoroughly enjoyable core set of gameplay elements.

As you probably know, The Force Unleashed is a 3rd person action game that puts emphasis on hugely over-the-top Force powers being blasted about. It uses a couple of revolutionary technologies, and its story finally fills in the gap between Episode III and IV, which has been so closely guarded by all the creators of Star Wars.

The story itself is actually pretty good. It goes that you step into the shoes of Darth Vader's secret apprentice, who Vader abducted as a young child and trained to help him fight the Emperor. It's a bit of a startling revelation, in truth, but it fits surprisingly well into the Star Wars canon. What's more, it's highly cinematic, with some fantastic cutscenes (both standard and interactive) that are at the very least equal to anything that the prequel movies churned out, if not better. There's a huge amount of imagination being thrown at the CGI entries into the Star Wars saga at the moment, and the Force Unleashed is no different. The only problem with it is that it suffers the current generation trend of short and sweet stories, but don't hold that against it.

What's more, there isn't a single bad performance from the 'cast', from Battlestar Galactica's Sam Witwer in the lead role to the voices of the supporting roles, everyone throws in at the very least a decent performance, and this helps draw you in deeply to the story and connect with the characters, giving emotional gravitas to the final, chaotic battle which ends in a rather unexpected manner.

The core gameplay mechanic is, of course, the lightsaber battling and the Force abilities. They're all linked together with the combo system, and you can put together some ferocious combinations of lightsaber blows and Force lightning, push and grip. Later on you acquire the ability to chuck your lightsaber at opponents, as well as an ability that propels all the enemies around you away. When pitted against wave upon wave of basic enemies, this system allows you to plough through them with relative ease and - importantly - is an enormous amount of fun.

However, it falls down when the game tries to up the challenge, pitting you against tougher enemies that simply feel odd. In an attempt to counter-act this tidal wave of Force energy, the designers decided to give a lot of enemies the ability to survive many, many, many lightsaber strokes - and this goes against the whole mantra of the Apprentice being 'unleashed', as having to pound at a 'Stormtrooper Commander' for four or five lightsaber strokes when you should be able to take him down with a single one is just frustrating. There are so many other ways of making enemies more challenging, and yet LucasArts still made the decision to make them tougher where they really shouldn't have. A good half of the boss battles, too, feel unnecessarily difficult, especially towards the end of the game - with the games final couple being exercises in luck and trial-and-error rather than skill.

It also fails to expand the game outside the combat - the platforming elements feel tacked on and half-arsed, with a lot of them being badly laid out and poorly pointed towards. One particular moment - where you must take down a Star Destroyer using only the Force - is wrestled from iconic and pulse-pounding into a frustrating exercise in just trying to get through it without dying, simply with the addition of wave upon wave of TIE fighters coming after you and interrupting your attempts. Realistic? Sure. Fun and iconic? Not any more.

The level design, despite being absolutely gorgeous, is yet another black spot. It simply lacks the required logic to funnel you towards the next fight, and you'll find yourself backtracking and going in circles quite a lot. Which is a huge shame, because the level of detail involved is absolutely incredible, and had there been more thought put into the actual layout, it could've been one of the most beautiful games ever produced.

The new technologies are also hugely underused. Euphoria - the new AI tech that imbues character models with nervous systems and human-like reactions - feels completely peripheral. On my play-through, I only encountered a handful of moments where the Euphoria really shone through. The enemies simply don't have much chance to use their new-found abilities before the Apprentice cuts a swathe through them and they're dead. DMM - Digital Molecular Modelling for those who don't know - is also sorely in need of better use. Lightsabering through walls would've been nice, but as it stands there's very little in the way of destructible environments, and whilst the effects that are there are incredibly impressive, there's simply not enough of it included in the game for the amount of brouhaha that LucasArts made of it.

At the end of the day, The Force Unleashed is a trade-off game - you should go into it expecting both pulse-pounding action, and frustrating banality in equal measures. It's just about pushed into 'worth it' by the incredible and cinematic story. There's a lot to like about it, but the crap that you have to wade through to get to it prevents the game from achieving greatness.

Ross' Rating: 65%

17 October 2008

Call of Duty: World at War Beta Impressions

It's alright.

Really, that's all I've got to say about it. Getting a beta key was suspiciously easy, but I dived in and...it's alright. Okay, I should probably elaborate, shouldn't I?

In terms of gameplay, it handles in almost exactly the same manner as CoD4. But that's a big 'almost' I just stuck in there - a lot of it has been dialled back, for some reason. The sprinting feels weird now - the camera bob has been changed a little bit and it just feels off. Also, even though it's only in the beta stage, the footsteps are completely out of sync with the camera bobbing, and that seems like something rather fundamental to get wrong, even in a beta. To wit, the footsteps go 'clippyclipclippyclippyclipclap' where they should go 'clip clap clip clap clip clap'. It's rather disconcerting, to say the least.

The next thing to have changed is the melee attack - in CoD4 it felt visceral, there was a real lunge to it, and it just gave you a real sense of satisfaction when you knifed someone in the back. Not so in CoD5, the knife attack feels weak and pathetic, and has the most puny sound effect to accompany it that is too loud and at the same time not visceral enough. The lunge, too, has been done away with for a more standard, non-dynamic stab. It's just...unrewarding.

One thing that Treyarch did carry over from CoD4 is the weapon upgrade system, and the huge number of weapons available for unlocking. Unfortunately, none of the weapon upgrades feel appropriate - are we honestly expected to believe that ye average battlefield soldier in World War 2 were running around with 'aperture sights' strapped to their Thompson SMGs? Or indeed, a suppressor? Treyarch have maintained their run of being seemingly unable to understand how firearms work, particularly WW2 ones - see the pulling back of the slide of the M1911 in CoD3 every time the damn thing was pulled out. A system akin to Medal of Honor: Airborne's would've been far superior - that had realistic Thompson upgrades that eventually turned it into the 'traditional' Tommy Gun, and similar 'battlefield upgrades' for all the other weapons too. It was a decent system in an otherwise mediocre game, and yet CoD5 would've done well to take some cues from it. As it stands, it tries to copy and paste CoD4's system into a World War 2 setting, and it - in my opinion - just feels misplaced. Oh, and the pistols in the game have been made pathetically useless. No idea how they managed that.

The graphics seem to have taken a turn for the worse too, but then again that could well be downgrading it for beta purposes, so I'll hold my tongue on that until the actual release. There're also a couple of map glitches that are already being exploited (people 'hiding' under the terrain map and being able to shoot up, but remaining completely invisible to everyone to name one), but again, those'll be sorted in the release.

Okay, enough about ranting about the bad. Good things - the level design is good. Very good. Excellent, in fact. Nicely balanced levels, and they counter having CTF in non-symmetrical maps by having the teams switch side at 'half-time'. It slows the flow, sure, but also ensures no-one can say 'oh I hate this end of the map'. A fine idea.

The wide variety of weapons is welcome too - in the beta alone there's 10 weapons, and previews of about 25-odd that will be unlockable later. Allied and Axis weapons are available, with everything from the M1 Garand to the mental Russian PPSH make an appearance. Throwing aside the silly upgrades, they handle realistically - and, after CoD4, feel distinctly under-powered for obvious reasons - and have great sound design.

The 'War' gametype makes its return after being excluding from CoD4, and it's well implemented - it plays similar to the Warfare gametype in Unreal Tournament 3, in that there are capture points, but only one can be captured at any given point. There's a line of them, and you can either push forward or be pushed back along the line. First team to control all of the line wins. Damn good fun.

Also, the replacement for the Helicopter kill-streak reward is both genius and rather silly - dogs. It kinda makes sense, but in all honesty it doesn't feel nearly as lethal as the helicopter, seeing as you can just murder the dogs as they come at you, and they need two pounces to kill you. It'd be better if there was just one pounce and a quick-time event to save yourself before death. Oh yeah, they did that in CoD4.

That's about it, really. Does this count as a review? May as well tag it as such.

14 October 2008

Is it can be waffle time?

No, I couldn't think of a clever title for this post. Let's just get over that hump and move on.

I have a job! At a cinema! Hurray!! Dead chuffed about that - the interview was nerve-wracking to the extreme, and they asked the rather 'ARGH!!!' question of 'Why do you think you'd be good to work here?'. I reckon that's a really unfair question to ask for a job interview - surely it's up to the interviewer to decide that, instead of me telling them why? I kinda flapped my jaw without saying anything for a couple of seconds, then I just came up with something about my having relevant expeience and loving films. Think I mumbled...

But it doesn't seem to have made a difference! Hurray! I start on Saturday, and it's free cinema for the duration of my tenure! Which is fucking wicked, I tell thee. I mean, I was always happy to pay to go the cinema, all it did was limited how often I could go. Now, I have no limit, which kicks ass. So hopefully you guys - the two or three of you who regular check this place, anyways - can expect lots more movie reviews. Which is good!

Not much else happened on the movie front beside the movement towards the cinema - haven't been for a while, and I've been bogged down in watching Sex and the City (not my choice - apparently if Fee's going to watch Firefly, I have to watch SatC). It's not nearly as unbearable as I thought it would be - it's very well written, and the guys in it are really relatable, even if they aren't explained as well as the female characters (it's very much portrayed from a lady's perspective). I'm still never going to be convinced that the movie was necessary - I saw the final two episodes, and it ended without any plot strings hanging - but I suppose for completion's sake I'll have to watch it. So that's a good few hours of my life to while away. But then! It's onto Firefly, which'll hopefully kickstart some inspiration in my brain for my book!

Speaking of my book, I finally finished another chapter - which is fantastic news, as this was one of those transition chapters where you do have to fill in the gaps, but nothing really happens. I'm honestly find those the trickiest to write - I wish I could think of nifty little 'filler' chapters akin to the similar concept in TV series that have a self-contained little happening, but I honestly can never think of one appropriately brisk and relevant to the story. Hopefully on my 're-write' stint I can segue a few of those in. Still, my next chapter is very much a story chapter, so I shall hopefully be able to forge forward with that.

LoveFilm is slowly filling out the fringes of my film knowledge - I've got Saw IV to watch, along with The Orphanage to see if I'll still feel the same way the second time around (review's in the sidebar if you want to have a look). Also watched An Evening with Kevin Smith, which was excellent - and AEwKS2: Evening Harder is on it's way soon. Genius of a title, that.

Well, that's about it for today. Jeez, this post has a lot of tags. Apparently I'm very tangental today. Yay.

7 October 2008

Random Thoughts

Not much going on really - still can't afford to go to the cinema, so no new new movies have been seen. I have watched a couple of not-quite-so-new movies...

First up is Starship Troopers 3: Marauder...and it was...okay. I've seen the first and second ones - first good, second attrocious - and the third one more than makes up for the crimes of the second without actually being that good. It's solid sci-fi entertainment, but it doesn't reach the rather brilliantly over-the-topness of the original. What it does do is bring back the satirical overtones that the first one had and the second one ditched. The first - I think, but film analysis isn't exactly my strong point - satirises the kind of extreme patriotism found in the BNP and the so-called 'redneck' states in the US, and the concept of using propoganda as a tool to infuse said patriotism into its people during a time of war.

The third is slightly more on the nose, methinks...but it's there. Basically, it says 'nationalisation of religion is bad'. And that's it. Not exactly the brainiest of satires - and nowhere near as amusing as the original's - but at least it's present. Anyways, Starship Troopers 3 gets a solid 5 from me - entertaining dross and ultimately forgetable.

I also watched In Bruges - technically for the second time, but this time I actually paid attention and it had decent sound quality (yes, I may have downloaded it after I missed it in cinemas). It's an absolutely fabulous movie - full of black comedy, slightly over the top violence and some genuinely gorgeous camera work. The three core performances are brilliant too, with Colin Farrell shining as the hitman with the mortally wounded soul. Definitely an 8/10, maybe even a 9/10. Glad I bought it, really!

Still waiting on the cinema job - the lady who does the hiring had last week off, so hopefully I'll hear back from her within the next few days. Got another interview for working at a club as either a doorman or a ticket hander-outer.

That's about it...so...yeah. Latas!