29 May 2009

Employedness...like Loch Ness...

Whaddya think? 
So yeah, I've now been employed by the Edinburgh Fringe Society for 9 days, and I'm generally feeling better about myself. Work seems to veer greatly from ludicrously easy to frustratingly difficult and slow, so it averages out at about the right level. But work is work, and hopefully some moneys should start a-flowing their way into my bank account, instead of the constant stream going out of it.

Work has also brought me to appreciate the Genius function on the new range of iPods - a single press of a button and you can choose the mood of a playlist or make it go off an a stylistic tangent from what you've already established. Essentially means that there's very little downtime between songs, thanks to the lack of need to choose and subsequently find which songs you want! Brilliant stuff.

Elsewhere...big news today: Pixar's latest outing, Up, sees its cinematic release Stateside today, and the general consensus seems to be that it's Pixar's best film ever, even better than Wall-E! I have to say that the latter statement does stretch plausibility somewhat - if it is genuinely better than Wall-E, I'll eat my hat: that film was literally perfect - but it doesn't make me any less enthused about it.


Pixar - it seems - are one of the very few studios that you can count on for consistency, regardless of what medium they choose to make their films in. They have but one weak outing, and that'd be A Bug's Life, back when they were still technically finding their feet as an independant studio. Yes, Cars was relatively weak - I wrote a review of it, but failed to publish it on here... - but it still far outshines anything that Dreamworks has ever put out.

Film-wise, Fighting and Drag Me to Hell are on release here in the UK - think the latter might be my Film of the Weekend, to be quite honest. I'm a huge fan of Fight Club, so when something get's labelled as 'The Fight Club for...', I get a little wary, seeing as everything ever labelled as such has invariably turned out to be disappointing. Terminator Salvation is next week, and despite it getting generally poor reviews, Empire still awarded it four stars, which is encouraging. Then the next big release is Michael Bays Giant Hulking Robots 2, which I'm also definitely looking forward to. It'll be an anniversary of sorts, considering that Transformers is the first movie that I wrote a review for on this blog! Genius indeed.

The video games world, on the other hand, has some hugely interesting releases coming up in the next few weeks. The Sims 3 finally sees its release after a number of delays - June 3rd that'll be hitting our screens - as well as the rather enticing Red Faction: Guerilla on June 5th. If you've got a 360 or PS3 and haven't downloaded both RFG demos...what are you waiting for? The multiplayer is better than the single player, however I reckon that both packaged together will make for a rather pleasing gaming experience that may well worm its way into my regular playlist.


The multiplayer in particular is worthy of special mention - it's incredibly accessible, and the GeoMod 2.0 engine makes pitched firefights all the more interesting thanks to crumbling scenery and dynamic battlefields that are rarely the same twice! The weapons are nicely balanced - albeit some of them a bit weird, and the sledgehammer, whilst a great idea in theory, really needs nerfed, as it's far too easy to score a one hit kill with it at the moment.

That's all that's on my mind at the moment. Long post! Blimey. Have a nice one, guys!

25 May 2009

Wanted: Weapons of Fate Review

Whaddya think? 
Let's face it, if you watched the movie Wanted, chances are that there was at least one moment in it where you said to yourself 'that'd make an awesome moment in a video game'. Well, you'd be right - Wanted does lend itself to a technically proficient and thoroughly entertaining game. Unfortunately, it's completely crippled by a miniscule running time, as well as being so easy that sometimes you wonder why they didn't just make a sequel instead of a video game.

We'll get more or less the one truly bad thing about the game out the way first - yes, you can finish the game in less time than it takes to watch through the movie, that's how short it is. Even playing through it a second time for achievements/trophies adds barely any time onto the experience whatsoever - I got 46/50 achievements from the mere 7 hours I spent with the game.

There is, however, a flipside to the shortness coin - W:WoF never outstays its welcome. Just when you start to realise how inept some elements are: BAM! The game's over and you don't care any more. It does seem to be a new style of video-game development – as Peter Jackson put it: the line between movies and video-games is getting slightly blurry.

This is because this is where the game really shines - in emulating its source material. Ulf Anderson - creative director of the project – presents us with an orgy of amusingly profane one-liners, tense, bullet-curving gunfights and brutal melee takedowns. The story, too, whilst a little on the half-baked side, is still in keeping with the style of the film, and is more or less an excuse to propel Wesley Gibson from firefight to firefight in a quest to find the man who killed his mother.

Easily the best thing about the game is the gun-fighting, incorporating such original concepts as cover-use, and limited weapon slots. Despite a lack of weapons – there’s only really three to choose from – the fact that the game is so short means that they’re always fun to fire, and once you've unlocked the bullet-curving technique, the combat becomes that little bit more fun.
Activated by holding the right bumper, this causes Wesley to assume the bullet-curving position, a line extending from his weapon to his current target. You’ve then got to manipulate the trajectory of the bullet, twisting it around obstacles so that it can reach the bastard who just won’t pop out of cover. Endless fun can be have trying to rack up as many kills as possible with a single bullet – with them having the contrived but brilliant property of never losing speed as they plough through enemies. Place a bullet particularly well, and the camera will break off from Wesley, following in a bullets-eye view as it wreaks its havoc on your enemies. The range is a little limited, but again – the game’s simply too short for you to really realise this over how freaking awesome it looks and feels to pull off.

Also of note is the game's excellent take on quick-time events. No mere random addition, here they are a core part of the gameplay - taking inspiration from that scene in the movie where Wesley runs through the textile mill, blowing away baddies with military precision. The QTEs are essentially a riff on this - movement control is taken from you, and instead you have to watch as Wesley powers his way through the situation, slowing down every so often for you to pick off bad guys and incoming bullets. It’s brutally cinematic, and shows exactly how useful QTEs can be when they’re implemented correctly. You can also implement them in a more limited fashion in the normal run of things, using up adrenaline to slow down time as you bolt from cover to cover, allowing you to pick-off absent-minded enemies before they even realise someone’s shooting at them.

But the minor niggles do start to creep in even in such a short time - the movement controls simply don't feel right, almost like Wesley is walking through treacle, though fortunately this is made up for by the slick cover-swapping system I mentioned earlier. The AI is a little cheap too, relying on enemies who’re super-tough (we’re talking 4-5 headshots here) instead of presenting intelligent, adaptive opponents. It’s also almost insultingly easy, with Wesley soaking up damage like a particularly suicidal sponge – I played through it twice and only died four times total! This is perhaps a method of - as I said - blurring the line between film and game, keeping in line with Wesley's new 'super-assassin' credentials, but some challenge would be more than welcome next time.

As you've probably gathered, 'doesn't outstay its welcome' is something of a theme in this review, and that pretty much sums up the game. In a longer iteration, the lack of content coupled with the rough controls outside of the core gunplay and quick-time events would be a massive source of frustration, but in W:WoF you barely notice it as you effortlessly power through the main campaign. If you can grab it from a bargain bin or second hand for the same price as a DVD, do so – but otherwise you can leave it to its fated disappearance into the annals of history.

Ross' Rating: 70%

22 May 2009

In the Loop

Whaddya think? 
Considering that I struggled to truly get to grips with the politically-charge story, a full review is out of the question. It starts off quite slow, but a shift in gear for the second act practically tears laughs out of you. Dozens of brilliant zingers, particularly from Peter Capaldi's Malcolm Tucker, that I could probably quote for hours. Best one: 'I know you're sensitive about swearing, so let me put it this way: you're a boring old f-star-star-CUNT'. Genius! Kept from five star brilliance due to it being rather inaccessible to the politically uninitiated...

18 May 2009

Coraline

Whaddya think? 

A beautifully intricate film, full of minute detail in pretty much every scene, and that's made all the more impressive by the fact that it's a stop-motion picture. The story was an excellent piece of kids' fantasy that had just enough of an edge to not disengage the adult audience. It perhaps could’ve used a few deeper scares – it may be because I’m getting old, but I think kids have it easy with the scares these days – but beyond that, absolutely masterful.

Wheelman Review

Whaddya think? 

It does seem to have finally occured to me that up until late I’ve had a huge amount of luck selecting video games. From Far Cry 2 to Halo 3 to Call of Duty 4 to Halo Wars, for the last few years I’ve managed to only play games that I can at least get a good few hours of genuine entertainment out of. Wheelman, it would seem, is the trend bucker, because – whilst it does have some merit – this is without doubt the worst game I’ve played for a long time, both in terms of technical achievement and in fun to be had. It’s not the worst game ever – not by a long shot – but considering the pedigree of the studio developing it, they really should’ve done better.

First impressions of Wheelman are reasonably upbeat – arcade-like control of the driving is a refreshing change from the realistic driving of GTA IV and Crackdown, doing a really good job of making you feel like a really awesome driver as you rocket down the streets of virtual Madrid with the local fuzz in hot pursuit. The driving controls also incorporate a ‘vehicle melee’ system assigned to the right analogue stick. Whilst you do lose a lot of control over the camera – the only two camera commands are look behind and toggling between three different views of your vehicle – you gain the ability to viciously slam your car into opposing vehicles. The system is incorporated brilliant in terms of controls and with the little details, like time slowing down briefly as you slam into a vehicle, giving you a chance to align the steering into a more favourable position for bouncing off your enemy.

There’s also the limited ability to fire weapons, but this is heavily automated thanks to the lack of any camera control. The standard attack is your character Milo – aka Vin Diesel author-inserting himself into a game – shooting his pistol from the window. This takes a while to lock on and score a kill/hit/blown tyre, but feels realistic given the speeds that you’re likely to be travelling at. The relatively uselessness of this is mitigated somewhat by the ability to perform an Aimed Shot or Cyclone super-move, whereby time slows down and your view goes into the car to see Milo with his pistol drawn. You can then proceed to blast at enemies for as long as your Focus Gauge stays full. These moves feel awesome to pull off but also play a vital role in many of the missions, which is handy.

There’s also a neat mechanic known as Air-Jacking, which is essentially Vin Diesel pretending he’s Superman. Pressing and holding the B button brings up a red marker on the nearest civilian or enemy car. Waiting until the marker is green, then releasing the button, Milo exits the first vehicle, hops onto the second and takes control of it. It’s a ridiculous, but genuinely entertaining mechanic that can see you leap-frogging down a highway with nary a backward glance.

Unfortunately, the driving about, wrecking stuff and partaking in police chases is really the only fun to be had, as it screws almost everything else up.

Artistically, it lacks almost any merit. The story is half-baked and confusing even if you’re paying attention, and the acting ranging from hilariously over-the-top to embarrassingly phoney. Given that Vin Diesel is a decent actor and probably has the resources to secure a half-decent cast for his own video game, this is perhaps the most genuinely disappointing aspect of the game. Then there’s the fact of their dubious claim that they’re using the Unreal 3 engine. Never before has it looked so painfully ordinary, with flat scenery and – Diesel’s model aside – lifeless character models and uninteresting virtual cars.

On the technical aspects, it’s difficult to know where to begin. The physics engine is absolutely lousy, with collision detection being a huge problem. Sometimes you’ll hit something and just plough right through them as if they weren’t there, other times you’ll get clipped by a slow-moving vehicle and fly off at some bizarre angle and smack straight into a building, ending your hopes of outrunning anyone. On the odd occassion, you’ll find your car stuck in the world’s geometry, and on a couple of occasions I was forced inside the level, only to fall down to infinity.

The AI is awful as well, with them pulling the old trick of cars always managing to go as fast as you regardless of whether you’re travelling at two miles-an-hour or two-hundred. There are also frequently missions where you have to airjack cars, and this is where the AI genuinely cheats, waiting until your marker turns green before suddenly and bizarrely veering off on a physically impossible vector, destroying your chances of getting the car and most likely seeing you cascading into a wall.

The on-foot controls also feel half-arsed, almost as an add-on because the publishers were pushing for it to be ‘more like GTA’. Most weapons feel underpowered and ludicrously inaccurate, and there’s no decent cover system – only a barely-effective ducking mechanic which you’ll spend a lot of time being frustrated with. The enemies also can’t decide whether they can take twenty bullets or two, as well as alternating between pinpoint accuracy and suffering a sever case of the Stormtrooper effect.

There’s also a complete lack of detail and immersion to the thing – why is it that when I press Y, the nearest car simply stops and the person even gets out of their vehicle to help me steal it. Yes, GTA’s system of standing in front of a car to get it to stop before jacking it is a little tedious, but at least it’s realistic. Why too is it that you are allowed to kill hundreds and hundreds of policemen in their cruisers by slamming them into walls with your own car, but as soon as you shoot one of them, you get a ‘Mission Failed’ because ‘killing innocents is not what this is about'’? There’s more, but to go into any more detail would allow me to ramble for a good few pages. We’ll just tag it with the ‘Technically Inept’ medal, and move on to the conclusion:

At the end of the day, Wheelman is fine as a rental, but this is no way a game that you should spend your hard-earned money on. It has a distinct lack of polish, and any game developer who can’t spend the time and energy to get their game as good as possible genuinely don’t deserve your money. Even if you’re a fan of Vin Diesel and his various film and video game outings, it’ll be difficult for you to find anything worth keeping here. Hire, get the achievements, return.

Ross’ Rating: 55%

14 May 2009

W000000000t!

Whaddya think? 

Yay! Cinema is becoming more regular! Because Ross got his housing benfit through! And he’s going to be employed as of next week! So to celebrate, he’s going to the cinema three times in two weeks! Yay!

OTT, I know, but when you get a windfall, you’ve gotta spend a bit of it on celebrating. And I miss going to the cinema regularly, so that seemed appropriate! Anyways, we’re going to see Coraline in 3D tomorrow, which should hopefully be a magical experience in a fantastical world! Good times.

Finished The Lost and Damned. It was awesome. I’ll maybe cook up a full review, but for now, I’ll just say that it was ludicrously cinematic, from the set-piece staging to the direction of the cutscenes. Even the tweaks to the gameplay are hugely welcome, from improved motor-bike handling to a tweaked cover system, it’s essentially the game the the original GTA IV should have been. Hell…yeah.

Next up is Wheelman, which so far has its ups and downs. Good is that it’s very arcadey and quite cinematic, which lends itself to some entertaining car chases. Bad is that after TLAD showed me how a sandbox game should be done, Wheelman just feels a bit lacking in every department. Not nearly enough detail – it looks like they’ve used the Escape from Butcher Bay engine which is a) a generation old and b) not pretty whine light is shining on it. The fact that the game is set in Madrid does not flatter the engine…

But, on the plus side, it’s an achievement gold-mine. Played it for 20 minutes and got 7 achievements without even trying. Yay!

That’s it for now. I shall bid you adieu and goodbye, fair interweb surferers.

Star Trek Review

Whaddya think? 

If you ask someone what the one thing that they associate with ‘geek’, there is only a handful of things that most people will think of. ‘Video games’ is perhaps one, Star Wars another, but there is the over-whelming probability that, when confronted with the above statement, most people will say ‘Star Trek’. But unfortunately, with JJ Abrams’ self-titled debut into the Trek canon looks set to change that. What Abrams has managed to do is genuinely admirable – he’s created a Star Trek film that is actually genuinely accessible to the newcomer, and yet at the same time is steeped in Trek mythology that will please both the hardcore and the passingly interested.

Cascading the series back to the early days of James T Kirk and Spock, both of whom in this story are barely out of Starfleet Academy, the film tells the story of how Kirk came to be in command of the USS Enterprise, the iconic spaceship from the original series. Along the way they gather up various other crewmembers, and have a small altercation with a Romulan named Nero which just so happens to create a sequel-ready alternate reality whilst it’s at it.

Cynical though this sounds, it’s actually a genuinely affectionate reboot of the franchise – acknowledging the…magnitude of the established canon, whilst at the same time gently swiping it aside to forge its own path. This is mostly down to an absolutely fantastic screenplay from Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman – their story structured and polished to perfection, topped off with excellent dialogue, and a fantastic sense of pace. It also manages to shed a lot of the politicking that seems to plague sci-fi of late, ditching political tensions in favour of personal ones…as well as some rather spectacular action sequences.

Abrams is having a whale of a time in the director’s chair, it would seem - his vision of the future gorgeously over-saturated and full of wonderful detail. From the reimagined bridge of the Enterprise, to the exquisite detail on Nero’s warship Narada, there’s a level of sophistication and clarity in the vision which far outstrips any previous entry into the series, even the ‘classic’ Wrath of Kahn. If Abrams continues on this streak, he may well end up tattooed with ‘Speilberg Mk II’ on his forehead. To say that the man’s creative potential is currently limitless is something of an understatement.

Flawless special effects bring the directorial vision together, with minutae detail peppered through ever scene. From the glorious spectacle of a starship racing into combat against a clearly superior foe, to supernovae devouring planets, everything is rendered in razor-sharp high def and seamlessly integrated with the actors.

But even with all of the above in place, horrible casting can throw a spanner into the works at any turn. Thankfully, Abrams has secured a cast that is a truly worthy successor to their classic – or to use the new lingo: Prime – counterparts. Chris Pine wonderfully emulates William Shatner’s over-cooked portrayal of Kirk, managing to add a charismatic, roguish streak to the character whilst never stepping over into imitation or parody. Zachary Quinto, on the other hand, masters an impersonation that somehow bypasses the uncanny valley, his Spock a pitch perfect emulation of his Prime predecessor. Other castings are never bad, although John Cho and Simon Pegg as Sulu and Scotty respectively both seem under-used, with the latter turning up almost literally as deus ex machina.

Nevertheless, to have minor quibbles with the story not requiring lots of Scotty expertise and Sulu’s cunning is to detract from what is a highly entertaining spectacle. It also has the truly enviable achievement of shifting Star Trek directly into the mainstream – a sci-fi intellectual property this accessible must be the envy of every Joss Whedon and Ronald D Moore out there. Don’t let that put you off, though - this is a genuinely excellent start to the summer blockbuster season, an entry into the Star Trek canon that is both reverential and playful when it comes to the entries before it. Here’s to a franchise reborn.


6 May 2009

The Almighty forgives. The Lost don’t.

Whaddya think? 

Downloaded The Lost and Damned finally. 1600 MS points…but apparently you get about 15 hours of gameplay for it, so seems like a bargain to me. Should be fun testing out the motorbikes!

5 May 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine Review

Whaddya think? 

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (henceforth to be known as XOW) is a quite a difficult film to quantify. Not in what it contains and what over-arching genre it fits into – lots of Wolverine and comic-book movie respectively – but in the sense of trying to quantify what, exactly, it thinks it’s up to. It’s a film buried in questionable motive, and this prevents it from truly being satisfying.

The questionable motive in question, if you’ll pardon the overuse of the various conjugations of the word ‘question’, is that of what the goal of inserting this into the X-Men cinematic canon is. Is it to flesh out the backstory of an established character? Is it to introduce more heroes and villains into the current patheon and rogue’s gallery respectively? Is it to just be an awesome, Wolverine-centric action movie that doesn’t really contribute to the core story of the currently trilogy of X-films? The film decides ‘all of these!’ and thus ends up in the rather inevitable stasis of ‘not really any of them’.

But for the most part, this is entertaining stuff. Whilst not neatly slotting into any of the required types of movie, it still competently delivers a Wolverine movie with at least a little oomph. Gavid Hood – whilst seemingly an odd choice for director at first glance – has a decent eye for action, it would seem, and XOW treats us with some of the most spectacular action sequences that we have seen in the series. The final showdown in particular – whilst spectacularly screwing up established canon – is a bold effort to allow us to witness genuinely powerful mutants facing off with each other.

Casting for the most part is good too. Jackman, as always, delivers a layered performance as Wolverine, the man’s performance almost wasted with some occasionally flimsy dialogue. But else where there’s a decidedly creepy turn from Danny Huston as William Stryker, Huston channelling Brain Cox’s performance with a gleefully evil grin. Liev Schriber is wonderfully psychotic as Sabretooth, all aggression and snide comments, he also seems to be a favourite of the writer, getting most of the film’s great lines. There’re a couple of bum notes too – Will.I.Am (or however you spell it) would’ve been put to shame by the 50-pence fella, and the casting for some of the minor mutants, including Cyclops and Emma Frost, leaves something of a sour taste in a comic-book fan’s mouth.

But then there’s the hidden gem of the movie: Ryan Reynolds. With what little screen time he is allocated, he absolutely steals it. Tasked with the role of motor-mouthed, regenerating mercenary named Wade Wilson, he both talks and fights up a storm. It’s only downside is there’s precious little of it, and a disappointing turn of events in the movie more-or-less eliminates any chance short of serious retconning for a return of the character.

 

This, as it happens, is the movies downfall: it toys far to eagerly with what we’ve already seen. It’s something of a missed opportunity to truly flesh out the back-story of the first three films. On it’s own, it works fine – but when held up alongside the still out-standing original trilogy, it only just holds its own against the weaker third outing, and even then, it barely feels a part of it. The tone is completely different, being an odd combination of more violent and yet somehow less blood-soaked. Gone are the examinations of the mutant problem, in are action scenes and too-short mutant cameos.

This brings us back to the motives of the movie. Is it designed to launch new franchise opportunities? Cutting the Deadpool one short in this one was probably a bad idea if that’s the case. Is it designed to flesh out the back story? Well, how can it be? When it treats the established happenings as mere playthings? Does it want to be an awesome action movie? Well in that, in only partially succeeds, with energetic action sequences too often feeling tonally off.

At the end of the day, this origin story is a missed opportunity to weave itself into the current cinematic X-Men canon. It’s entertaining fare, competently executed with a decent story. You can’t really ask for more from this, the first of what is a burgeoning genre of super-hero movies: the prequel that barely fits in.