26 February 2009

Oscars 2009

Sooooo….I was wrong. Spectacularly wrong, it would seem. Not only did I get called on my ‘Heath Ledger will never win an Oscar’, but I also got totalled ousted on Iron Man winning best visual effects! In Bruges also didn’t get Best Original Screenplay, which was sort of disappointing, and Frost/Nixon lost out to Slumdog for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Reader_BestActress_WinsletK Forunately, though, quite a few of my other predications were seen to be correct – Slumdog won Best Picture and snagged Danny Boyle a fully deserved Best Director award. Sean Penn won for Milk, and Kate Winset for The Reader. Wall-E was Best Animated Feature, thank Christ, and one of the few ‘minor’ awards that I called: The Dark Knight won for Best Sound Editing. Sooo….6/10 correct predictions isn’t bad, right?

236x368_hostBio_hughJackman_v2 As for the Ceremony…I was in two minds about it, in all honesty. On the one hand I there were the thoroughly enjoyable moments – Ben Stiller ripping into Joaquin Pheonix, Jack Black ripping into Dreamworks, Will Smith being himself and thus fantastically amusing, Hugh Jackman being strangely affable – but on the other hand, there were some absolutely horrendously staged bits – particularly the moments where five previous winners each had one nominee to yak about, and then there was Daniel Craig and Sarah Jessica Parker’s horrifically stilted delivery of the artier of the awards.

That and the fact that The Dark Knight and Wall-E were snubbed for Best Picture nods, I don’t know whether I have a bitter taste in my mouth or not.

But there we go – not exactly the most satisfactory of Oscar years, but it was nonetheless bizarrely entertaining. Here’s to next year – mayhap the Academy may grow a pair and actually let a comic book movie into the mix.

23 February 2009

Mirror's Edge Review

Potential is a funny thing. Almost everything, invariably, has potential. Every idea, every whim and every fancy - each and every one has potential. And boy, did Mirror's Edge have potential. First person platforming? Good idea in theory. Throw in free-running? Excellent idea. Unfortunately, potential needs to be realised, and DICE have cocked up the execution rather spectacularly.

The thing is that there's actually - and potentially, for that matter - a lot to like about Mirror's Edge. For starters, the environments are absolutely stunning, all bright colours, spectacular skyscrapers and harsh sunlight, with the red of ‘runner vision’-highlighted objects made easy to spot and head for thanks to the starkness of the rest of it. But again, good potential, bad execution – the character models and animations are lacklustre considering the amount of polish that’s on the environments. Enemies are the same three models repeated endlessly, and that detracts from what is otherwise a fantastic-looking game.

There’s even a half-decent story thrown in about an attempt to rid the world of the runners that serve as an underhanded method of communication that suffers from no wire taps or surveillance. Unfortunately, whilst the concept is good, the story itself is half-baked and not fleshed out enough to be satisfactory.

The free-running too - when you are indeed allowed to...y'know...run freely - is excellent, with responsive – albeit slightly counter-intuitive – controls and a real sense of freedom to move and do what you like (within the context of the game, of course).

It’s just such a shame that it fails to capitalise on this earlier potential. The level design is…well, horrific. There’s perhaps too much structure to it, too much order, and thus it almost defeats the purpose of being able to free-run when you’ve more or less got a predetermined path of obstacles to get through. That is, when one of the obstacles isn’t a heavily armed battalion of policemen.

Which brings us onto Mirror’s Edge’s most crippling flaw – the combat. Put simply, the controls are simply not capable of coping with the combat that the level designers want you to be able to deal with. To steal an analogy, it’s like the gameplay designers and the level designers weren’t in communication at all. the gameplay is designed for evasion, with quick takedowns incorporated into a rather clunky combat system that relies on movement over brute force – ideally suited to targeting one man in a wave of enemies, defeating him and breaking through the lines to keep on your path.

To make matters worse, there are frequently moments where you simply cannot avoid the combat, and this is where the frustrations ebb in. Even if you lower yourself to using guns to defeat your foes, they’re frustratingly inaccurate and ineffective, and you’ll find yourself constantly breaking glorious momentum to try to beat the shit out of the wave of baddies who are in your way, to pretty much no avail.

This is repealed somewhat by the eminently playable time attack mode, where by you are simply presented with a goal and allowed to approach it how you like, the aim being to get to it as quickly as possible, and you have the option of playing through a true-blue story level complete with baddies, or specially tweaked time-attack levels with no baddies whatsoever. But seeing as this is purely a single-player game with little to no multiplayer content, you can’t help but have a bad taste in your mouth after the demoralising and frustrating single-player campaign. The concept would've made a fantastic movie - unfortunately, it's wasted on a mediocre game. Worth a rental if anything, but preferably avoidable.

Ross' Rating: 55%

Push Review

If there is anything truly wrong with Push, it’s almost certainly down to the studio executives who bought it, bunch of money-grubbing bastards. Basically, it’s got Jumper syndrome: what’s here is a good start, but it feels like too much has been held back for a potential sequel. Fortunately, though, whilst the same potential as Jumper is here, this is thankfully a much more interesting, livelier affair.

The story goes that psychics are real and wandering around our world without us even noticing them. Various subsections of ‘psychic’ exist here, including telekinetic Movers, oracle-like Watchers, and people who can force their thoughts upon others called Pushers. Stitchers, Sniffers, Bleeders, Shadows and Wipers finish up the list, but to tell you about all of them would detract from the fun of discovering them in the film. There’s also, handily, a sector of the government whose sole purpose is to hunt down any psychic and attempt to harness them as a weapon – enigmatically named Division. But when one Pusher named Kira (Camilla Belle) survives a supposedly lethal injection of a ‘psychic steroid’ and subsequently escapes from Division, the complex ripples of her escape come to affect two other psychics – a Mover named Nick (Chris Evans) and a Watcher named Carrie (Dakota Fanning). Thing is, the ripples result in something rather unfortunate – their deaths. (Not spoilers, by the by, this much is given away by the freaking trailer!)

It is, perhaps, one of the better original mythos’ developed for a movie – borrowing from almost every aspect of comic-book mythology without ever seeming like cheap imitation. This is mostly down to minimalist, kinetic direction from Paul McGuigan that is rather thoroughly grounded in reality. The powers aren’t flashy or showy, but boy do they work.

This, in fact, gives way to some thoroughly entertaining action sequences. Of particular note is a showdown between two Movers that involves them telekinetically manipulating their pistols, attempting to push each other out of cover without exposing themselves. It’s tense stuff, and pleasingly played out. There’s also a very dark sense of humour transposed onto a lot of the action – from firearms being used as telekinetic clubs, to nonchalant shots of random bodies plummeting onto cars, if you don’t have a dark smirk on your face, then you probably don’t have a sense of humour.

The performances, too, whilst not all absolutely stellar – Camilla Belle probably couldn’t act her way out of a box, let alone convincingly – are still of a decent quality. Chris Evans, in particular, is showcasing himself as a particularly versatile actor, and a decent one at that, his Nick a bored, uncertain mess of a psychic who gets by with his luck and a ready wit. Dakota Fanning, too, is at least decent in her first truly ‘grown-up’ role. Djimon Honsou and Neil Jackson are suitably menacing as the primary antagonists.

Unfortunately, the film is let down by rather sloppy pacing,with a sagging middle section that feels like it’s padding out the runtime rather than anything else, and this is down to a relatively weak story. It’s almost certainly been truncated by some studio head honcho waxing lyrical about twelve sequels, but unfortunately it becomes a weaker film for it.

There’re also a couple of rather ropey special effects, and a couple that seem – in McGuigan’s quest for minimalism – that the special effects team simply forgot to put into the movie. This gives the film something of an unfinished feel, like there’s a director’s cut or a final cut in there somewhere that was just begging to be released.

At the end of the day, though, the real question is whether or not it’s entertaining – and that it is in spades. The flabby, all-over-the-place middle section aside, it’s full of action, dark humour and interesting ideas – and considering the shoestring budget, this is nothing if not an incredible achievement. If only the story were more fleshed out, this could’ve been one of the most surprisingly good films of the year. As it stands, it’s in dire need of a sequel, and if indeed it does precipitate, add one star onto the rating below.

19 February 2009

Oooh! A bog!

Yes, that is perhaps the most interesting thing about Skye. The insane thing about the place is that on the one hand the place is absolutely stunning – I’m talking jaw-dropping natural beauty here – but on the other hand that’s more or less the exact reason why it’s so stunningly boring. I mean, a lot of it is unexplored, but it’s not because its inaccessible or somehow dangerous to explore, but simply a ‘can’t be arsed’ attitude towards the land, and that has a tendency to ruin the joy of exploring.

To explain, Fee – in her infinite wisdom and excitingness – decided that it’d be a fantastic idea to have a road trip to the Isle of Skye (handy Google Maps link!), and more specifically the towns of Portnalong, Dunvegan and Upper Milovaig. And as the saying goes, a picture speaks a thousand words…so…here’s several pictures!

The ‘wigwam’ we stayed in.

The first night we went for a walk. I found this. It was awesome.

Sheep that looks like a dog!

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The many cliffs of Neist Point

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Neist Point Lighthouse and Dunvegan Castle respectively.

That’d be me…I was having a rest…also know as ‘slipping on the mud’.

Probably the artiest picture I took all holiday….

Fee, Nathan and Me with Nessie. Apparently I was the happiest to meet it…

Yes, that is the choice few that were actually half-decent. The rest are either blurry or horrifically framed…

Nowt much happening now. Back to the day-to-day shite of finding a job and playing video games. Have fun, kiddies!

14 February 2009

Far Cry 2 Review

The first thing that Far Cry 2 deems to tell you is how damn pretty it is - and by God, is it a visually stunning game. Unfortunately, it turns out that this is going to be a one note song. Sure, it'll try a few other notes and chords, but most of them simply ring too familiar, and a couple even fall flat on your ears.

As I mentioned, the game is absolutely stunning, with enormous draw distances showcasing some of the most detailed landscapes in video-gaming history, populated with low brush and trees of impressive realism. Architecture for buildings is realistic and pleasingly impoverished, despite limited access to their interiors, and character models are expressive whilst managing to avoid delving into the uncanny valley. But perhaps most impressive of all is the fire physics. Whilst not as beautiful as Alone in the Dark's, what it has got over that is propagation - with blazes set by Molotov cocktails and large explosions advancing through the plains, burning down trees and enemies alike. It looks amazing, especially when viewing the carnage you've created during the night. Never before has such a realistic depiction of the desert been realised than it has been here.

The physics engine - whilst not quite at the level of the Source engine - is still robust enough to handle most of what you decide to throw at it, be it launching a Jeep off a small outcropping into the middle of, or blasting a group of enemies with an RPG, bodies and chunks of vehicles fly about in a rather entertaining manner.

The controls, too, are responsive and intuitive, with the PC version featuring full gamepad compatibility. Two omission in the form of the ability to go prone - particularly when most cover leaves you with your head and shoulders poking out over it is perhaps a little frustrating - and some kind of rock-climbing ability seem slightly lazy, but those aside, you can pretty much pull off 90% of the manoeuvres that you want to. Coupled with the 'choose your own way' style of mission undertaking means that there's very little to limit how you tackle any given mission. Do you sneak in with silenced weapons? Snipe from afar? Or just throw a grenade into the mix?

The story is fine, although it fails to be truly engaging partially due to the massive expanse of the map - you'll spend hours driving around, and the large amount of time between story missions means that by about the half-way point you'll probably have forgotten what you were doing anyway. Fortunately, it doesn't detract from the action, which is plentiful and just about enjoyable.

But this is where the flat notes start to hurt your ears. The weapons - despite having a vast array of them at your disposal - feel underpowered and rather unsatisfying, particularly the smaller of the small-arms. They're difficult to aim, and this fact is compounded by a lack of sticky-aim when playing on console and/or using a gamepad on PC, and you'll have to expect to use an average of four or five shots from a standard assault rifle to kill any given enemy. Given that the 'arcade-y shooter' in realistic context saw its death around about the time Call of Duty hit our screens, its rather bewildering that there are barely any weapons which can kill with a single shot to the head. Notable exceptions are the sniper rifles, and - obviously - any of the explosive weapons.

The health system too seems rather flawed - seemingly an attempt to combine the recharging health of new with the health meters of old, it instead is simply an annoying break in combat that feels clumsy and awkward at best. It does, however, make way for one of the more satisfying healing animations - your character leaning down to wrench a bullet from their thigh, or pop out a dislocated elbow feels incredibly visceral, especially from the first person perspective. Had this been included with a true blue regenerating health system, the game would've been better for it.

The final, critical, glass shattering chord, however, lies with the AI. Too clever for its own good, instead of being challenging it comes across as relentless, with generic soldiers hunting you down mercilessly, regardless of how far you run and how many you kill. Almost as soon as you approach a guard post, you'll be greeted with a hail of bullets from at least two sources. The third and fourth guards - depending on whether you're on foot or in a vehicle - will either mount up on a machine-gun-equipped jeep, or they'll spread out and start flanking you instantly. This is without you firing a single shot. If you're in a car and manage to drive through the guard post without your vehicle becoming too damaged, the aforementioned armed vehicle will pursue you and continue to chip away at both you and your jeep's health, until eventually you have no choice but to hand-brake turn and fight.

Considering that there are usually at least three or four guard post between where you are and where you invariably need to go, this seemingly minor frustration ('What? So you can't deal with a few guards every so often? Just because the AI's good at fighting you? Wimp.') turns into an absolutely enormous annoyance, and coupled with the fact that they are seemingly invulnerable to bullets, along with their uncanny ability to reduce you to one bar of health from a mile away despite the fact that there're three trees between you and them means that the combat becomes less of a challenge and more of a grind. Expect to see yourself constantly quick-save and quick-loading, as on the harder difficulties, you will be dying or cowering in a corner using all of your morphine syrettes.

But all things considered, the AI isn't quite enough for me to be against recommending the game. The impressive open-world visuals, free-form mission style and challenging gunplay - relentless AI aside - more than make up for the relatively weak story and lack of any real innovation to the genre.

Ross' Rating: 75%