Friday, May 23, 2008

Coming Soon

To make up for my slackness, will hopefully be posting reviews for the following in the next month or so:

*Mass Effect
*Dark Sector
*Condemned 2

Plus maybe some other stuff... Brace yourselves for the excitement!

Devil May Cry 4 (Ps3/Xbox360)

Before beginning this review, I should really point out that, along with Jak & Daxter, the Devil May Cry series has been one that has completely passed me by. Until now of course.

Devil May Cry 4 is the latest in the series and the first to deviate from being entirely from the perspective of white haired, red trench coated Dante. Instead it’s mostly from the perspective of the white haired, red trench coated Nero, who appears (though still incredibly irritating) to be the less obnoxious of the two. Just about. This mirroring of the characters is reflected in the game design which, I kid you not, asks you to spend the second half playing the first half in reverse order. I’ve never seen that much repetition in a game, so found it quite shocking. Not only that, but the fixed cameras involve you being unable to really see what’s ahead, seeing as you’re running towards them for half the game.

The game itself is an action beat ‘em up in the vein of a visually fancy Golden Axe. The characters have four main commands- jump, attack, shoot and special move, and can combine them to great effect. There is something genuinely impressive about the combat system, which should be expected from Capcom The possibility to flick a demon thirty feet in the air, hold it with bullets before following yourself to face plant them into the ground surprisingly doesn’t get old. Which is good, because that’s essentially what the game is. For twelve hours. I think the best way to sum up the game play is that it’s so much fun for the most part that I got to the last level before giving up, whilst having literally no interest in any of the characters nor story.

Which leads me neatly on to discussing the story itself. God of War was a far superior yet similar title, with a great storyline. The only problem was, the story wasn’t interjected often enough. With Devil May Cry 4, you’re constantly given updates to the nonsensical attempt at a narrative, and the more they try to explain it, the worse it gets too. Basically, it revolves around a cult leader wanting to summon an army of demons to create a new world order, which is about as clichéd as it gets. Other games can do something similar and really make it exciting, but as already suggested, this one doesn't.

The characters are generally pitiful, Dante and Nero are, as already mentioned, grating as hell. Nero suffers from the problem that his motivation seems to be to rescue his girlfriend, but seeing as her involvement in the game is "look worried" before being kidnapped, it's hardly heart-wrenching emotional drama. The other characters are worse still, with the cast made up of cardboard cut-out archetypes, without any attempt to add depth. Special mentions for podium of shit-tastic writing go to the villainous, stuttering scientist and some kind of female bondage ninja. The latter is something that really bothers me in games, Lost Odyssey suffered from similar problems in designing female characters, but they detract from the computer game as a medium. Try to say that games are a new art form, and people can now shake their head while holding a copy of Devil May Cry 4, and there’s no comeback. That said, I suppose they kind of fit with the world of Devil May Cry, and in fairness, it is the gaming equivalent of a Steven Seagal movie.

There are a variety of weapons picked up throughout the game, most of which aren’t all that interesting. Apart from Pandora’s box, which is possibly the most brilliantly ridiculous weapon I’ve ever seen. Basically it turns into different guns with flicks of the controller, one second a chain-gun, the next a missile launcher, laser, gun turret etc. It’s absolutely mad, and this sort of humour could have really improved the game if it were more liberally applied, but it’s often quite po-faced. Though they tried to put some intentional jokes in, don’t get me started on Dante’s attempts at humour. Apart from making me want a suicide button, it mainly served to make his character seem like a preening arsehole. Still, even without that command at least I had the off button to end his babbling.

As with many of Capcom’s games, this fits with the general design aesthetic- lots of fun, very pretty, terrible story. On those criteria, it really does warrant a great review, but the story for this isn’t the usual “so ridiculous it’s brilliant” (Resident Evil 4), “creates a compelling world that exists beyond logic” (Lost Planet) or “great idea with hilariously bad dialogue” (Dead Rising and Resident Evil). All of those are really endearing, and actually add to the game. The story here is boring as hell, and the fact that the second half is pretty much the same as the first, just without the puzzles and played backwards, is unforgivable. In fact, if the game wrapped up at the end of the first half, I'd have possibly overlooked many of the flaws in the game, but it didn't.

Still, it’s worth a look if you just want a no brainer action adventure game, especially the first half. If you want a little more depth (but less impressive combat engines) in your experience then you may be served better by checking out either the God of War or Legacy of Kain series.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Lost Odyssey (Xbox 360)

You may have noticed my seeming disappearance from the site, and that is because in general game reviews take a lot longer to prepare than film reviews. Not just that, but I’ve been fucking slack. Recently, however, I have been entangled with in Mystwalker’s fantastically epic Lost Odyssey. Before I get into the review itself, I feel that I should qualify my experience with it. Presently, my play time of this game is 21 hours and on the third DVD of four, so bear in mind this review is not relevant to the whole game but so far it has been very consistent so unless it goes drastically wrong at the end, this should be accurate.

So, on to the game itself. In many ways, the game is the spiritual successor to the Final Fantasy series, though seeing as my experience of those was the woeful third instalment on the Nintendo DS, I feel it’s an improvement. It’s an incredibly linear game, to the extent that they may as well have just left you walking forwards constantly and given options for route changes every now and again (a la Killer 7). You can usually move three metres to the left or right of the path, but it doesn’t make too much difference. It has about as much of an impact as tilting your head while sitting in a train- you get a slightly different view, but you’re still on rails. There are no narrative choices to affect the outcome either. Literally it’s a case of moving from A to Z via the rest of the alphabet. In fact, bollocks to it, it could have just been a movie- you have that much control over the world. Which isn't so much of a problem when the world is this well developed.

But seeing as this is going to be an overwhelmingly positive review, there must be something worth playing, right?! Well yes, but that comes with the battle system and the story itself. Combat is a purely turn based affair, with each side patiently waiting to lay the smackdown on one another in a highly civilised manner, kind of how I’d imagine a Jane Austin rewrite of Fight Club. But aside from eschewing realism, it does add a lot to the game as it leaves room for a huge amount of micro management of your team and makes you think about the actions of every team member. It’s easy to do otherwise, most action games degenerate into button mashing for the average person. Or maybe just me.

It’s fun, but I’m pretty sure that the battle system could have been done in about 1980, but then again most games these days are shiny rehashes of ones from ten years ago, so it’d be harsh to single this one out. The only downside is the reliance on random encounters and a stealth section, both of which I’d hoped would fuck right off a long time ago.

The story is absolutely superb for the most part and this is why I praise Lost Odyssey so highly. It focuses on the lonely journey of skimpily dressed, immortal warrior Kaim trying to understand why he can’t remember the last thousand years. However, his luck is mixed henceforth; on the plus side he finds himself not so lonely with a further three amnesiac immortals, but on the downside also finding out that he’s pretty much lumbered with saving the world. The story is delivered through cut scenes, as well as memories re-emerging from Kaim’s past life. The cut scenes are beautifully animated (just watch the opening battle sequence) and really do help build the steampunk style world of the game. The game design and Unreal 3 powered visuals continue this quality into the gameplay, and they’ve created a very immersive experience, with a wealth of storytelling portrayed simply through looking at the architecture, fashions and creatures, something rarely done this well.

As well as these, the memories are short stories presented in text. This may seem slightly anachronistic (another flashback to the Eighties? Depeche Mode should’ve done the soundtrack) and it is, but the quality of the writing is absolutely superb for a game and really creates a sense of depth to the protagonist not often seen in virtual worlds. Unfortunately, it appears there are different writers for the back-story and the game narrative, with the memory authors seemingly more capable of avoiding cliché than the in game ones. There are some unforgivable logic jumps, but overall it’s much better than most games. Anyway, Doctor Who shows that mass audiences had no problems accepting the Deus Ex Machina.

The characters themselves are a mixed bag. The immortals are split between the close combat and magic, and bizarrely also fits with how interesting they are. The close combat characters (Kaim and the lady pirate Seth) are both finely written, and have a strange good-cop-bad-cop dynamic on conversation. The magic users are terrible though. Have you ever been to the pub and there’s someone who just refuses to say anything, or at best remains monosyllabic? Well these are their digital cousins. The character design is bizarrely kinky especially, for the QUEEN of one of the regions. It actually does detract from the game as it really serves no purpose, and frankly looks ridiculous. The mortals suffer with a similar qualitative disparity, with the mage Jansen providing a highlight. Basically he’s a hard drinking, foppish character with a penchant for sleeping around. Basically imagine Russell Brand in pixel format. There are also some children who join the party but they really only serve to be both A- annoying and B- remove any menace from the enemies.

Despite the generally good hero design, the villainous Gondora (it’s revealed early on, and hammered home for the rest of the game so don’t worry) is about as one dimensional as they come. All belly laughs and world destruction plans; he might as well just set some sharks with head mounted laser beams and be done with it.

Still with me? Good. The game is lengthy too, so you’d best be able to commit to reading text from the screen for protracted periods of time. In terms of length you’re probably looking at forty hours for the main game and god knows how many for the side quests. The side quests presented here seem to involve wandering around for hours looking for several gems/ flowers/ sandwiches/ robot turkeys, and combined with the random encounters can drag somewhat. I generally ignore these, but I know some people love this sort of thing, and it’s hard to mark a game down for extra content.

Incidentally, if you can cope with subtitles remember to play the game in Japanese with English subtitles. Not only does the story seem to make more sense (not sure why, the same applies with the movie "Akira") in its native language, but the English voice acting is genuinely terrible.

Although I’ve given mixed remarks, I really recommend Lost Odyssey and really couldn’t knock it for value. The pacing is slow, but the game is very lengthy and packed with things to do. I like the pace though, it’s the kind of thing you can sit back and relax with, rather than the hyper frenetic in your face nature of most games. It’s a wonderful experience, and one that you can find yourself very easily Lost in. Always good to finish on a new low.

Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage.

Nineteen years after Henry Jones Jr. rode off into the sunset, we find him still adventuring as he is pulled unceremoniously out of the back of a car, along with his sidekick Mac McHale (Ray Winstone) by some shady Russian types led by Xenia Onatopp. Sorry, Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) who are searching for an artifact in a certain warehouse. After escaping their clutches, Indy finds himself teaming up with Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf) to track down Professor Oxley (John Hurt), who went missing trying to find the titular skull.

Now, a lot of my criticisms are going to sound a bit fanboyish and I completely own up to this in advance. Not because I think that my love of the previous films impacts upon any ill-conceived notion of impartiality that I may have fostered (though I have none), but because I just want to address the fact that although I am nitpicking somewhat, they are still valid nits to be picked and I might as well raise the issue before anyone else does.

Within the first twenty minutes or so of watching Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I reached a point at which I realised that this film was ridiculous. Not in the same way that the other films are, i.e. fantastical, but in the sense that it throws believability completely out the window. Scratch that, it locks believability in a fridge, detonates a nuclear bomb over it and sends it flying across the desert. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, and I think that my acceptance of the ridiculousness played a major part in my enjoyment of the film; I'll say right here and now that I liked it very much. However, the Indiana Jones films have always walked a fine line between believability and suspension of belief, so when I see things like Mutt Williams, king of the apes , it's kind of difficult to ignore that and not think ''now that's stupid. I mean, really fucking stupid''.

During all the build-up to the film's release, much has been made of the fact that Lucas, Spielberg and Ford had wanted to make a new Indiana Jones film for years but Lucas hadn't thought of the right story. Something tells me that he should have kept thinking just a bit longer, as the story is utter bollocks, quite disappointing bollocks as well since it confirmed very early on a worry I had about what the plot of the film was going to be. Let's just say that though the Nazis have gone, another of Spielberg's obsessions comes into the film. I mean, it's perfectly in keeping with the period in which the film is set and everything, but it's still not a particularly good story. Even though it could be argued that story is never all that important in these films, it still helps to have something interesting to keep the momentum going, but the story is so convoluted, so vague and so downright uninteresting that it's hard not to pick faults with it, even if it is interspersed with some tremendous action sequences (more on them later).

It also doesn't help that the script isn't particularly good. I've always thought of David Koepp as a really workmanlike screenwriter and whilst he can write scenes and keep things moving, he doesn't quite have the ear for dialogue and language that Lawrence Kasdan does, so while the scenes feature the same sort of expositionary dialogue that the rest of the series has in abundance, it's just not packaged in a particularly fun way. That's not to say that it doesn't have its moments, it really does, particular the surprisingly numerous, but often subtle, references to previous films in the series and the way in which certain scenes are used to mirror how the dynamics of Indy's life has changed, e.g. Mutt smiling at having outwitted two pursuers in a motorcycle chase while Indy looks balefully on, in much the same way as Henry Jones Sr. did in The Last Crusade, and the fact that Indy at one point describes his situation as ''intolerable'' . I know some people don't like referentiality in these films, but I really like moments like these.

This, of course, impacts upon the performers and it is to their credit that most of them do well with what little they are given. Even though their parts are sorely underwritten, John Hurt and Ray Winstone do the best they can, even if the former's role isn't so much underwritten as it is repeated; he's got about 5 lines said over and over and over and over and over throughout the film. It also needs to be said that Winstone, whilst good, is so forgettable that only ten minutes after leaving the cinema I had completely forgotten what the name of his character was. Cate Blanchett is in full-on Natasha Fatale mode, complete with added double-yous and slightly broken syntax. Shia LeBeouf is very likable as Mutt and even though he doesn't get anywhere near enough lines to warrant his role in the film he delivers them with gusto and really seems to be having a ball. Something that can't be said of Harrison Ford.

Don't get me wrong, Ford isn't bad, he just doesn't seem like Indy to me. Everything about his performance feels a bit off; the swagger's not quite there, the attitude is surly rather than roguish, and in general he just seems a bit wrong. This is at least partly the fault of the script which demands Indy to be somewhat melancholic, wistful and saccharine in the first half of the film. As much as I like Harrison Ford, he's not got the range (dahhling) to carry that off and it's only when Karen Allen shows up and really gives him someone to spark off of that we see some of the old Indy come back into him.

The whole film feels a bit off, to be totally truthful. It just doesn't 'feel' like an Indiana Jones movie. There's the obvious things, like the visual style of the film, which I can understand because they wanted it to look like a 50s movie rather than the serials that inspired the original films, and it does look really quite lovely, but there are also little moments of unnecessary exposition that nagged at me throughout. Case in point, at one point Indy says that something that has been written down are directions, so another character shouts ''get a map!'' but we are shown Indy and several other characters looking at a map. I can't help but feel that little moments like this go against the furious pacing of the older films, and there were so many little moments like that that I felt I had to mention them, even if I'm the only one that is bothered by them.

Another bit difference is the CG used frequently throughout the film. I've nothing against CGI whatsoever, I certainly do love films that have lots of CGI in them and which use it well, but that is not the case here. Some of the CGI is really quite poor and detracts from the stuntwork and physical effects that were so trumpeted during the making of the film. It also just feels wrong to have a whole bunch of CGI in an Indiana Jones film; Raiders of The Lost Ark was made as an antidote to the effects-heavy films its creators had spent years making and hearkened back to a more back-to-basics approach in action film making. To have come full circle so that the series ends (possibly) with an effects-heavy installment just doesn't sit right with me. Especially when aspects of it are so badly implemented, with some scenes looking like they were taken straight out of 'The Mummy Returns'.

Comparisons to The Mummy also brings up one of my main gripes about the film; it feels not only derivative of its ancestors, but also of the films that ripped its ancestors off. The whole final half-hour or so has basically been ripped from The Mummy Returns except instead of shitty CGI pygmies you've got a slightly less shitty CGI undead alien thing . It's just a bit sad that the film makers couldn't deliver something a bit different to those films that have so heartily ransacked the tombs of their earlier creations.

But, and this is a big but, that's not what the film is trying to do. It's designed as a piece of popcorn entertainment and, even with its many, many flaws, I still enjoyed it immensely. It's overblown, it's got a nonsensical plot and all the rest but it zips along at a fair pace, has some truly great action scenes, one particular sequence involving three cars, a jungle and a game of pass the parcel is just terrific, and is just good fun. I know I've spent the entire review picking the film apart only to offer a contradictory conclusion, but that's because at the end of the day I can ignore the flaws and just enjoy the film because, hey, it's Indy.

I can't say I'm not a little disappointed, but that's because I was expecting it to be dreadful or great, so settling for pretty good is alright by me.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Iron Man

Where did he get that wonderful toy?

Billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is living the high life as the head of Stark Industries, a multi-national corporation involved in a number of industries, though their main interest is in the development and sale of weapons. Whilst on a routine visit to Afghanistan to sell his latest toy to the U.S. Army, Stark is grievously injured and captured by insurgents. With a magnet in his chest preventing shrapnel from reaching his heart, Stark pretends to build a weapon for his captors, but he has more interesting things in mind.

Blockbuster season gets underway with this, the first film to be wholly financed by Marvel's film studios, and it's a very good start to the summer. Robert Downey Jr. is great as Tony Stark and imbues the character with just the right level of charisma, naivety and arrogance, as well as a dry wit, that one would expect someone in Stark's position to have, as well as being able to convey the monumental genius that Stark possesses. Some of his scenes, certainly those involving his attempts to upgrade and improve his suit, are hilarious, suggesting that the erstwhile Chaplin hasn't lost his knack for slapstick, though these moments never feel like a distraction, just a part of the film's enjoyable, heady brew.

However, the most important thing about Downey Jr. is that he is able to carry across the guilt that Stark feels when he realises that his weapons are falling into the wrong hands. Though the film is a little fuzzier on whose hands are the 'right' hands and it is possible for the viewer to get bogged down in a moral quandary regarding how we are supposed to feel about Stark since it raises the question of a man's culpability when he is responsible for the manufacture of weapons but never really offers any resolution. I personally didn't mind this but it's hard to deny that the film wanders into areas that should probably have been avoided, even if they add a somewhat superficial complexity to proceedings.

Regardless, Downey Jr. is a great lead and, considering the film spends most of its time with him, that is very big boon in its favour.

One thing I found particularly interesting about Iron Man is that it takes the standard ingredients of the superhero film (origin story, first experimentation with powers, misconception by the powers that be that he is a menace, climactic showdown etc.) and tries to do something new with them. Director Jon Favreau's statement that the film is ''a kind of independent film-espionage thriller crossbreed; a Robert Altman-directed Superman, with shades of Tom Clancy novels, James Bond films, RoboCop, and Batman Begins'' may be overstating the case a bit, but it's not far off. Like Batman Begins, the film is all about how Tony Stark becomes Iron Man, unlike that film, however, there is no (relatively) quick and easy way for Stark to make this transformation; he doesn't have the parts lying around for him to assemble, he has to start from scratch. As such, apart from the appearance of the Mark I suit half an hour in, the film enters its second hour before we see the fabled red and yellow version. However, at no point during this build-up does the film lag; Favreau keeps the pace up all through, builds up the story and the characters, and makes the creation of the suit the central thread of the film that it needs to be.

Favreau also proves surprisingly adept at the action sequences. They don't quite match the heights of some of the superheroic acrobatics that audiences have become used to in recent years, the shadow of your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man does hang over proceedings, but they're exciting and he plays to the strengths of the character; brute strength and aerial maneuvres.

Whilst this break with tradition superhero film structure is a large part of what keeps the film interesting, it's also something of a problem for it since, once the suit is constructed, the film loses its way. Without the metaphor of Tony Stark creating a new outer self to match the new inner self he finds after his ordeal, the film finds itself struggling to make the connection with the inevitable final points of the story. It also doesn't help that the villain of the film gets a somewhat hasty creation in comparison to that of its hero, so the finale feels a bit rushed, even if the build-up to it does contain one of the film's best lines.

This could be considered a criticism of the whole film, in fact; Stark and the creation of his suit are so central that a lot of characters only get a brief look in. For example, you have Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, awful) who is only barely sketched, as well as frequent references to S.H.I.E.L.D., both of which suggest that they are elements that will have a bigger part to play at a later date. Probably the most obvious example of a character being shunted out is that of Jimmy Rhodes (Terence Howard) who is shown to be Tony Stark's best friend but doesn't really do all that much, he even has a line near the end that pretty much says, ''I'll have more to do in the sequel.''

Because ultimately that is what Iron Man is: the start of a franchise. That's not to say it's a bad start to a franchise (in case it's not clear, I really did love it and thought it was a great film) it just doesn't have the 'oomph' that you might be hoping for as the debut big screen outing for such an iconic figure.

Having said all this, I really, really liked Iron Man. It's fun, it's exciting, it tries something different with a well-established formula and it has a really terrific central performance from Robert Downey Jr. that anchors proceedings nicely. Just tune out Gwynnie and the film's over-reliance on dull rock music and enjoy the ride.