Max Payne has had a rough time recently. His wife and infant child were murdered, he was framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and brought vengeance upon the organization responsible for it all. You’d think after all of that, Max could catch a break. If anything, his luck is only getting worse. [Read more...]
So after “accidentally” washing my old iPod nano, I had the opportunity to run out and get a shiny new iPod touch. I now have the chance to catch up on all the iOS games that I missed, and the first one I tackled was Epic Games’ and Chair Entertainments’ Infinity Blade.
I don’t think anything is quite as hard for developers as taking a beloved video game franchise and having to completely change its mechanics. 2D to 3D was an awkward enough stage, but developers constantly have to keep up with changing times. If Capcom’s Resident Evil 4 hadn’t used its famous over-the-shoulder camera and the series had stuck to its roots, I’m confident that EA’s Dead Space series would have incorporated tank controls. Developers have to go with what they know will sell, which means they have to follow trends.
In 1997, a little game developer called Sucker Punch Productions was founded. However, it wouldn’t be until September 23 of 2002 that they would create their first big hit, Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus. Two sequels later, Sucker Punch decided to take on a drastically different, and much more ambitious title; inFAMOUS. Since then; Sucker Punch has released the sequel, creatively titled inFAMOUS 2. Does the original hold up well enough that players interested in the series should pick it up first? [Read more...]
In 2007, Media Molecule gave people their first look at LittleBigPlanet, a game that showed as much promise as it did charm. Over the next year, the game was highly anticipated up until launch. People were mesmerized by it’s beautiful graphics and it’s then mind-boggling creation tools. LittleBigPlanet garnered critical acclaim, and for many was the main reason to buy a PS3. Nearly three years and one sequel later, has LittleBigPlanet withstood the test of time? [Read more...]
A fun, yet flawed murderous romp through Renaissance Italy
*Warning this review contains spoilers*
The first Assassin’s Creed was an interesting game. It essentially expanded upon the Prince of Persia franchise allowing players to jump, swing and dive in an open world. While this was amusing, the combat was flawed, as was the storyline. Assassins Creed 2 seeks to fix these issues, and while in some aspects it succeeds, in others it takes a leap of faith and unfortunately lands in the rocky abyss.
TRANSGRESSIONS AND REGRESSIONS
In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Metroid series this month, I decided now would be a great time to go back and revisit what is still chronologically the latest game in the series. For those that don’t know, Metroid Fusion is Metroid IV; originally following after Super Metroid, and now technically taking place after the events of Metroid: Other M, which explains several events referenced in Fusion that were never touched on in the original trilogy. Most importantly, it introduces Samus’ deeper relationship with the Galaxy Federation and, in particular, with her former CO, Adam Malkovich.
THE CLASSIC BAIT AND SWITCH
Rising Zan is a game where all the fun to be had in it is found in the first level. It starts off with a long introduction, making it look like a promising action game set in the Wild West, one of the few games to do so. However, the game ditches that setup very quickly. Aside from Zan’s cowboy design and a couple of levels, the game doesn’t really use the Western setting in any meaningful way. It’s all one big tease, really.
Which wouldn’t be too big of a deal, if this were about any other game. Rising Zan though, bases its whole appeal on the idea of playing a game set in the Wild West. It’s all over the boxart, and, let me stress this again, the character model and the opening scenes of this game try to completely sell the vibe. It starts off with Zan returning to his mining town after staying current with samurai techniques in Japan, where bandits have been making trouble. The player then runs through this town, casually noting that landmarks like saloons, and slashing and shooting these bandits into a bloody oblivion. This is followed up with the next level visiting another town, trying to stop a walking bomb (oddly called a detonator) from exploding. Good so far, if a bit wacky.
However, the game then throws a huge curveball by having the next level take place in a Japanese castle. From there, the game then goes on to vaguely Western settings like a moving train and a mine, before just completely giving up and going to a geisha multi-level house. There’s nothing wrong with having these levels in concept; it’s an east meets west story, after all. My issue here, though, is that the entirety of the beginning makes it sound like it’ll remain Western-themed, except Zan will have samurai-like sword skills. It doesn’t really hint that these thematic changes are going to happen.
I didn’t know cowboys dressed so flamboyantly
Moving on from that, the game plays out much like a precursor to Devil May Cry. The player can use either Zan’s gun or sword at any time, shooting enemies up into gory, bloody bits just like Dante could. Movement is much more rigid, however, and combat is not nearly as fast and frenetic. Zan has possibly one of the slowest sword swings I’ve ever seen, and the lock-on system does nothing to help him stay on target more than perhaps half of the time.
In addition, the game has a couple of additional aspects that try to deepen the combat. This includes “All Button Events” where the player literally has to mash on all of the buttons at the same time to fill up a bar within a set limit – sort of like today’s Quick Time Events. There’s also the option to activate Hustle Time, which speeds up Zan and allows him to slash away at his enemies with even more force than before, but only for a short time. While Hustle Time can be quite useful in sticky situations, the mandatory All Button Events quickly become annoying and, frankly, tiring too. They appear usually once per level, but sometimes the game likes to throw in more than that. Trust me, they’re not welcome.
Now, the audio’s pretty interesting. The game has its own rock theme called “Johnny No More”, performed by the voice actor who plays Zan. It’s pretty sweet at first, but quickly becomes annoying after the game starts to play it at the end of every level. Other than that, the soundtrack might as well not exist. The voice acting is similarly sub-par, with the sole exception of Charles Martinet (aka: the guy who voices Mario) as Zan’s Japanese sensei. Some of the enemies in this game emit the most oddest death screams I’ve ever heard. They’re little, high pitched cries that take on some variation of “Wheeeeeeeeeeee!” like they’re at a macabre amusement park of some sort. It’s truly, truly disturbing.
I wonder what real cowboys would have thought about using a sword like that…
Obviously, Rising Zan’s graphics are not the best – it’s a game on the original Playstation after all. They’re blocky, pixelated, and suffer from the usual problems like poor draw distance and clipping. However, Rising Zan has its own additional quirks to add, such as environmental tearing and weird perspective changes due to the warping of in-game objects. There were times, actually, that Zan would be behind an object, but it would look like he was standing on top of it. Other times, some environments will appear to be big when first rendered, then slowly shrink as the player approaches it more closely.
Then, there is the nonsensical quirkiness that this game loves to dish out so much: some enemies looked like possessed strawmen. Men in their boxers are being tied to posts and held hostage for Zan to free. Zan’s double jump is him, swinging his sword around his head like a helicopter. Were this a more exciting, less monotonous game, I’d be much more willing to accept these weird little things that set Zan’s design apart from its contemporaries. However, I get the distinct feeling that all of these things were added to try and make up for the other shortcomings this game had. Sadly, it just isn’t enough.
Overall, I found Rising Zan to be a disappointment. It’s not really a Western game at all, which is disappointing when it was the selling point of the whole game. Its combat is rigid and unpolished. There are plenty of perspective problems and tearing in the environments. Its cheap quirkiness tries to make up for all of this, but, as funny as it is to see a guy in his boxers tied to a pole with enemies attacking him, it can’t carry a whole game. I won’t say I completely regretted playing Rising Zan, there is a small modicum of fun to be had, but it certainly isn’t something I’m going to revisit ever again. It’s just not worth it.
Few pictures exist beyond the first level which, funny enough, is where all of the Western-themed stuff shows up
The Good: The game starts off promising, with its Western setting and all. There’s still some fun in just slicing those weak strawmen in half, too. Plus, Charles Martinet and the theme song help save the audio from being a total failure. Hustle Time’s cool, too.
The Bad: The combat is a bit slower and more rigid than needed, the odd implementation of “All Button Events,” and the abandonment of the setting that made the game so promising in the first place is disappointing.
The Ugly: Predictably, the graphics don’t hold up too well. 90% of the audio is extremely unimpressive. And, the game relies on its quirkiness way too much to hide its faults.
IT’S CERTAINLY ONE DARK NIGHT
I have a lot of respect for Rocksteady Studios. After years of having bad outings in the medium, the studio actually made a decent Batman game – for the most part. It’s a very big turn around, and what they’ve done is impressive, despite it being their second project. With this breakout game, they show a lot of growth and potential as a studio and will most certainly be creating bigger and better games in the future. They just need to fix a couple things first.
The biggest thing they get right is the whole atmosphere – the feel of the game. Playing the game, I felt like I was in Batman’s universe, not just playing a game with his name slapped onto it. It was his world. The characters are also spot on as well. Batman’s just as much a do-gooder as ever, while Joker just seems to be enjoying all of the chaos and madness. Harley Quinn acts just like I wanted to see her act, and to call Scarecrow’s persona menacing would be an understatement. Since the game’s written by Paul Dini, the guy behind Batman: The Animated Series, and is voiced by many of the same people as that series, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. They know Batman front to back.
One other aspect that this game really has a grasp of, is the use of the Bat’s numerous tools. You’ve got the Batclaw, the Batarang, and all the things you’d expect of course, but the thing is that they’re used very, very well in the game’s environment. None of them are under-utilized or shoe-horned in. They all fit perfectly within the context of the game and are essential for completing the game one hundred percent.
In the game, Bats tends to attack with his cape just as much as his fists and gadgets
I just wish that the other elements of the game were all equally as great. Especially the gameplay. A lot of it relies on the player’s ability to act stealthy and strategically. In many cases, planning ahead is vital and expert execution of these plans means the difference between success and Batman being viciously gunned down. Now this sounds intriguing, I know, but keep in mind that this is when things are going well. When things aren’t, and the player is forced to act quickly and unexpectedly…the game kinda wets itself. It gets clumsy. Controls in tight situations are nowhere near as accurate as they need to be, and this is quickly pounded into the player’s head from relatively early on.
This is thanks to the repetitive level design. The game works very hard to make all of the buildings on the island to seem natural, but the way they repeat designs for certain rooms ruins this. One type is the gigantic, wide-open room where it’s obvious that a brawl will break out at some point in the game. Then, there are the narrow hallways to offer a moments reprieve from the fighting, a breather. Another room, an especially egregious example of what I mean, is like the wide-open one, except gargoyles line the walls. In these rooms, Batman is supposed to take down the enemies – all of them usually armed with guns that kill Batman a bit faster than I liked – while not being seen. There comes a point in development, I suppose, when certain environments must designed to make the game more exciting for the player, but the attempts to string things along here are annoyingly obvious. It would have been better to let give it a more organic design, to let it breathe. Not the purposeful shoehorning that’s been done here.
Mark Hamill is in top form as the Joker, as always
These rooms made me realize rather quickly that I’m also not a fan of the stealth in this game either. If I’m playing as Batman, I don’t want to take one guy down and then just swing around on a bunch of conveniently placed wall ornaments while the AI shoots at me with dead-on accuracy until it magically looses sight of me. That’s not my idea of fun. I understand that blending in with the darkness and giving the illusion that he could be anywhere is one of the core concepts to the Bat’s character, but this game handles that aspect poorly. It feels artificial, and makes me just want to go in and just beat up some dudes – a problem, I might add, I don’t find myself having with games like Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell.
When I’m able to do that, just going in and beating dudes up head-on that is, I find myself liking the game much better. However even here, there are quirks. For example, I could never get the feel of the combat down. There’s some sort of rhythm to it that I couldn’t figure out. As a result, my combos usually ended a lot sooner than I wanted them too, or kept getting interrupted because Batman was locked into performing one move, even though I’d hitting the counter button for several seconds. Perhaps it’s because I have a tendency to queue up attacks when I don’t mean too, but that’s more of just me not getting it though, not entirely the fault of the game itself.
This game is, sadly, sans Gary Oldman
One last problem I have with the game is that it’s dark. Too dark for its own good, really. I found myself relying on the Detective Mode, where the environment is covered in a blue sheen and enemies show up as a nice reddish color, just to see. Not because I had to for an objective, but because the lighting system isn’t doing its job. Simply turning up the brightness a few notches would have fixed all of this, but I guess the team was too busy making the Joker playable in the Challenge Maps as a PS3 exclusive feature. What are those? Just rehashes of the gargoyle rooms and open-spaced rooms where huge brawls take place. They’re alright at best, but playing as the Joker can make it dreadful.
For me, Batman is two for three, with a bit of extra polish. The atmosphere is right, and the writing and acting for the game is what it needed to be. It just falters at the idea of making the player feel like the hero himself. The tools are there (literally), but the gameplay doesn’t back it up. The extra polish comes in the form of all of the little extras and side-objectives available in the game, as well as the great leveling system. This, for the most part, manages to balance out the lighting issues, but fails to smooth over the level design and gameplay.
Arkham Asylum is good; it’s a solid game. Rocksteady deserves credit for this alone. But, I was just hoping it would be even better than that. Perhaps Arkham City will be better.
Batman’s character model changes over time, which is an admittedly nice touch
The Good: Ultimately, Rocksteady gets the most important things right. The atmosphere is spot on, as is the writing and and voice acting. There are plenty of secrets to find and the RPG progression-style only enhances this. It also looks pretty good, even if it is dark.
The Bad: At least the game offers a way to brighten the world without adjusting the TV.
The Ugly: The level design really got to me; it just feels too artificial. Plus, the stealth combat isn’t as good as it could be. Reacting quickly also creates a quite a few mishaps with the controls. Putting all three of these things together, in the form of the gargoyle rooms, represents the worst that the game could throw at the player. During these segments, it’s simply not fun.
Fair warning: The following retrospective review will contain spoilers. Due to the themes and content of this film, it is advised that the easily offended do not read this retrospective review. “Happiness” was given an NC-17 rating by the MPAA when it was released in 1998, citing pervasive language and heavy sexual themes as the cause. The film was rejected from the Sundance Film Festival for being too disagreeable. The film deals with taboo topics frankly and honestly. So will this review.
Here’s the thing: I really don’t want to talk about Happiness. And honestly, I have no obligation to. But I feel that I should. I think it’s an important enough movie to kick off our Film Retrospective segment, and it’s controversial enough to warrant a good dissection. But Happiness affected me on a very emotional level, and I don’t quite know why. So let’s just jump into the abyss, shall we?
Happiness follows the Jordan sisters, Joy (Jane Adams), Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), and Trish (Cynthia Stevenson). Joy is somewhat lacking direction. She has a manageable job working a telephone sales line, and continues to struggle as a musician. Helen is somewhat full of herself. An accomplished poet, she lives in a self-proclaimed “life of irony” in New Jersey. She also gets a call from her neighbor Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an introvert with sex on his mind and a penchant for heavy breathing. Trish is somewhat oblivious. She has two kids, and is happily married to Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker), who, unbeknownst to her, is a pedophile.
Do you see why I didn’t want to talk about this? At a hefty two hour and fifteen minute running time, Happiness is easily one of the most exhausting movies I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t shy away from some very, very disturbing stuff, and its repeated interior settings make you feel claustrophobic, fast. But when all is said and done, Happiness is an oddly hopeful movie. And, as I said earlier, I don’t quite know why.
In scope, Happiness recalls films like Short Cuts, or Magnolia; but in tone, it seems more closely aligned to a sort of deranged Buñuel-ian satire. It could be called a comedy, but the laughs are sparse, and almost always uncomfortable. Writer/Director Todd Solondz keeps you masterfully on edge, and a simple line like “Would you like a sandwich?” becomes simultaneously horrific and hilarious.
In all sincerity, Jane Adams made this movie significantly easier to watch. Her performance is quiet and peaceful, and she has one of the most purely beautiful complexions I’ve ever seen. But the showstopper here is Baker, who seems deliriously committed to his role as a middle-aged therapist/father/pedophile. In fact, the most heartbreaking scene in the movie comes near the end, when Bill sits on the couch with his son Billy, and comes clean about his pedophilia.
“What did you do?” Billy asks after some needling. “I fucked them.” Bill replies, tears forming in his eyes. The scene is so affecting because it’s played without commentary on the director’s part. There’s no moralizing, just a father telling his son simply, plainly, what a horrible person he is. And the father isn’t regretful. “How was it?” The son asks. “It was… great.” Bill says. “Would you do it again?” “Yes.” Needless to say, the grueling scene ends with the both of them, broken down and sobbing on the couch.
There’s a running theme of discharge, whether it be physical (Bill’s son Billy worries that he hasn’t been able to ejaculate), or emotional (Joy’s guitar-playing and songwriting), all the characters try to find means of unloading their unhappiness. The result, strangely enough, is an honest look at the roots of happiness, and how subjective it is in the first place. For Joy, it’s her musical talents, and the prospect of finding Mr. Right. For Bill, it’s drugging and sodomizing his son’s little league teammates. And in the end, Bill heads off to jail, the sisters share an awkward conversation with their newly separated parents, and Billy spots a young sunbathing woman, and finally, erm… discharges. So there’s a happy ending after all.
The Good: An endless stream of talented actors, raw direction, and an ambitious script that lives up to its promise.
The Bad: Occasionally, although not very often, Solondz falls back on a predictable contrasting of dark subject matter with a chipper soundtrack for satirical effect.
The Ugly: And what an ugly movie it was. It should be noted that none of the father’s escapades are detailed on screen, but the build-up is predictably nauseating. For very serious moviegoers only.
Final Comments: Happiness has enough content for two movies. It’s unrelentingly bleak and at times painful to watch, but stay to the end and you’ll find that you’ve just watched a masterpiece.