Month: November 2011

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The Muppets (2011) Review

If ever encounter someone who hates the Muppets, chances are they shouldn’t be trusted. Something about Jim Henson’s charmingly hilarious felt creations have captured the imagination of generations of children and regressed children alike, and the original movies and TV shows still hold up in a time when (perhaps tragically) hand puppets don’t exactly qualify as the pinnacle of children’s entertainment. It’s hard to believe it’s been over 10 years since the Muppets’ last big screen outing, and I can’t help but feel a whole generation of children have missed out on the delightful shenanigans of Kermit and co. Fortunately, the gang has made a long overdo return to film and in Apatow comedy veteran Jason Segel, they found and unlikely ally. The writer/actor is clearly a lifelong fan, and turned his passion for the material into easily the finest Muppet movie since the 80s. It’s not perfect, but if you’ve been jonesing for a little Muppet action lately, this should satisfy you needs.

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Air Conflicts: Secret Wars (XBOX 360) Review 1

Air Conflicts: Secret Wars (XBOX 360) Review

Variety is generally a good thing in games. Despite popular jokes about MMOS, people generally don’t enjoy doing the same thing over and over again. However, there are also cases where you have a variety of things to do – and none of them, except one, are actually fun. Air Conflicts: Secret Wars is such a case.

The game follows the exploits of freelance flier, booze smuggler, and stereotypical girl pilot Dorothy “Deedee” Derbec, as she flies the skies of Europe during the last few years of the Second World War. That’s really all there is to say about the story; there’s political intrigue, spunky resistance fighters, stereotypical British men with moustaches, and none of it really feels like it matters. Deedee’s voice acting is downright atrocious, with a lame French accent (how she kept this despite being raised by a very-accented Englishman, I’m not sure) and all the emotional expression of a propeller. The rest of the cast are better, but inconsistent art and the annoying tendency for dialogue to temporarily remove your displays makes it less enjoyable.

The air combat, on its own, is decently fun. Shooting down planes is satisfying, and dogfights can get intense when there’s dozens of planes around. Bombs help with taking out ground targets, though they require a lot of precision to use properly, and you can generally strafe targets as well. Rockets are so difficult to use that the game provides a how-to guide on a loading screen; still, the only tactic that the I found effective was the one the enemies use, which is charging head-on in a game of aerial chicken, letting loose a rocket at the last minute. This is actually quite satisfying when you hit. There are unlockable planes, which give you better craft with more ammo for bombs and rockets, and a stat upgrade system during the campaign which seems only minimally effective, (it will be all but one star from maxed by the end, anyway).

An adrenaline meter gives you a bullet-time effect, which can be used to line up shots better. Personally, I found it wasn’t necessary most times; it often didn’t help me hit my target. Lining up shots is always a bit of a problem at higher difficulties, where you do not automatically lock onto targets; this coupled with that you seemingly need to play with tougher enemies to get manual aiming might leave some players in freefall. Bomber tail guns are entirely useless.

And Stealth. God, the stealth sections.

Imagine being told you had to fly a plane, unseen, past enemy patrols and ground targets, to deliver documents/whisky/love interests, and then fly out. Now imagine being forced to do this in large, unwieldy bombers, which are never once recommended by the game elsewhere because they are entirely terrible for anything that does not involve sky missions. Now imagine there being absolutely nothing to bomb at all, making your primary arsenal useless, and in fact being unable to shoot anything; now imagine that you need to do all this and avoid white perception circles on your radar, while a little red, pulsating bar shows you how close you are to detection. Now imagine that you instantly fail the mission in half the cases, and have to start again, and the other half have to outrun several planes using a useless tail-gun and foul language for defence.

You can skip missions. Despite several such stealth missions, I never did.

There are other aspects of the game, like the detection missions, but these are either boring as you wait for something to happen, or tedious as you get used to manually finding targets when you’re used to objectives being marked. The WW1 “flashback” missions are little more than glorified cutscenes, impossible to fail regardless of how many times you die.

Checkpoints save progress within missions, so dying isn’t too bad, except that they’re largely random as to where they happen, resulting in some missions with none at all that require you do everything again if you fail. Difficulty is inconsistent within missions; some defense objectives are nearly impossible, while some missions seem like the Luftwaffe aren’t even trying.

All of this is made even more trying by Air Conflicts’ bugs. Dialogue cuts off, although I’m not certain of that since it seems that snippets from previous cutscenes seep into later ones. Voiceovers restart randomly at the end of scenes just as the level opens. Wingmen fly through buildings that would turn you into fire and soot. Typos litter some mission briefings and in-level prompts like bullet holes in a fuselage. And yet I have no hate for these bugs, since they saved me from the most tedious levels ever. . Due to an inflight dialogue that could not be skipped, I was able to drop off a parachute-crate at the first drop when I should not have, saving me from having to drop all of them at the next and getting me out of the mission with my fat, burning bomber.

The graphics are the last thing I’ll mention, because they’re not particularly noteworthy. Planes look nice, and you can see pieces of your wings taken off as you take damage (and blood-splatters). The darkening effect caused by staring into the sun makes it hard to see your surroundings, which I’d think is intentional – I found it added a tactical quality to the game. The trees look almost 2D in battle, even though they aren’t; I watched the trailer with bloody soldiers flying everywhere after a bomb hit, something I never could see in the game because you couldn’t get a clear look at the ground.

Due to a lack of polish and slew of bugs, Air Conflicts doesn’t quite take off. Had they focused more on the dogfights and less on elaborately tedious potpourri, this might have been a fun arcade-shooter.

Immortals: Gods and Heroes Review

Immortals: Gods and Heroes Review

I can’t say that I was expecting too much from a promotional comic anthology. Particularly one that calls itself “The Epic Anthology inspired by the film”. The name roster is decently impressive, citing the various artists and writers and their work, and suggesting that this may, in fact, contain some gems.

This proved to be rather apt, with a weak and muddled first half giving way to an enjoyable second.

“Rise of the Olympians”, the first story in the “Gods” section, is orange. Everything is painted in a rich amber light, which occasionally makes details hard to read. The writing is pretty typical for a prologue – lots of exposition summarizing the general feel of the entire chapter.

“The Pride of Prometheus”, like all feel-good stories, starts off with a man gasping for help, tied to a rock with his stomach sliced open. It gets worse from there, so you can use your imaginations. The story is kind of lame – Prometheus lies to Zeus about killing humans for all of five minutes before brazenly admitting it, Zeus is openly threatening and indignant. I’m not sure why this needed to happen for them to go to war.

“Dungeon of the Damned” suffers from wildly inconsistent and weak art, and an utterly unengaging story. The gods wildly shift gears in their attitudes towards each other, casually dismissive and outright hostile one moment and friendly and chatty (and boring) the other.

“The Bow Bearer”, in turn, has art that does not suit the material. 30 Days of Night fans might crucify me, but Ben Templesmith just isn’t the right man to draw Hercules. He doesn’t look like the strongest man in Greek myth – he looks like a willowy teen trying to play the strongest man in Greek myth. The writing is decent; Ares accurately comes across as a dick, and Hercules and Cyclopses reactions are believable.

“The War of the Gods” is practically impossible to follow. Dark, hyper-detailed art obscures the action, and the combat itself isn’t that impressive – I can’t tell how Ares knocked the titan’s head off with the hammer, unless he hit it like you’d hit a ball with a pool cue. There are at least two panels where I have no idea what’s going on. The writing reads like a trailer. This is not a good thing.

“Heroes” is a much stronger collection of stories. The best of the batch is Brian Clevinger’s “The Age of Hyperion”. It’s a well-told story, if fairly archetypal, of Hyperion’s fall from grace and rise to challenge the gods. It plays off as a typical evil overlord trying to recruit his enemy, which works fine throughout. The art is simple and effective, with enough detail to properly express.

“The Law of Zeus” suffers a bit from overcapitalization, with every few words of Zeus’ monologue coming across as him yelling. The art’s not much to write on the forums about.

“The Old Man’s Warning” is an entertaining story of young Theseus’ training, and his attempts to apply that training to a group of bandits eager to ambush his mother. The combat is interesting, the dialogue isn’t bad (far lighter than the other stories), and Theseus reliably acts like a precocious youth warrior. Phil Hestor’s art is a clean-but-angular style that suits the simpler action well.

“The Origin of the Beast” is so over-the-top is works. The Minotaur looks like Nathan Explosion after training for Mr. Universe – apt, as the entire story plays out like a heavy metal song. The colours are dark but clear, there’s a lot of expressiveness in the eyes and face to best portray fear and bloodlust. The writing and story are fine, considering its portraying two utter, monstrous assholes being pretty much that. It’s far more enjoyable brutality than “The Pride of Prometheus”, and for better-considered reasons.

“The Hunt”, the last story, has little to tell. It’s almost entirely devoid of dialogue, focusing more the family’s reactions and the Minotaur’s pursuit. It feels rushed, with some nice, starkly contrasting colour. It’s like a fragment, and that hurts it.

It’s a shiny package, in which the sparkles get in your eyes and make it hard to see, but not hard enough to see when the expository dialogue is silly (or when it’s not bad).

 

Fantastic Four #600 Review

Fantastic Four #600 Review

This titanic new issue of Fantastic Four celebrates fifty years of the team, as well as their six hundredth issue (if you add together all of its various incarnations and volumes). This is one heck of a hefty book, clocking in at 100 pages, and going for nearly three times the price of a typical comic. But make no mistake, this package is most definitely worth it, as it presents 100 pages of all-new content, which is definitely rare these days, especially in anniversary issues.

Hickman writes the whole shebang, with the lead story being the most entertaining and thrilling. It has the best sense of pacing, and although I loved the entire issue’s contents, I do wish that the story had encompassed the entire issue. It was one of those stories that had everything going for it, brilliant art, and the sense that all the plot threads were coming together in one mammoth showdown. It’s everything from Hickman’s run coalescing at the same time into one gigantic, thrilling, amazingly written story. About half-way into the issue we get a flashback story – no spoilers, but it’s exceptionally well-done, fitting for the character, and doesn’t feel unnatural. The rest of the stories maintain a high level of energy, as well as a sense of foreboding, as plot elements pull together and promise one hell of a resolution.

The artwork is handled by various artists, each taking on one of the individual stories, with the work by Epting on the lead story being the standout, which is saying something given the other artists involved. Epting’s work stands out because of how he effectively conveys not just the story Hickman is attempting to tell, but how he also ratchets up the sense of pacing in the script, so that as the book unfolds you’re unable to look away from the gorgeous panels for fear of missing something important. Epting’s pages give the story a more cinematic pacing and intensity.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, WELL WORTH THE PRICE!

Flash #3 Review

Flash #3 Review

Regardless of questions I might have about the status of Wally West in the New 52, it’s impossible to deny that Flash is perhaps one of the most fascinating books to come out of the New 52, with some of the most sophisticated illustrations. Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato hit the issue out of the park as they tackle both the artwork and the story.

Because the illustrators are the ones writing the story, it adds a whole new dimension to how the story is laid out and illustrated. The opportunity also allows them freedom to experiment with the artwork, so that it helps tell the story more than in a traditional comic book. There are some sequences that are absolutely breathtaking, as Manapul pushes himself further than he has before, manipulating the visuals into telling the story in a way that is much more involved than he has been able to do previously.

This is just an amazing comic book from a visual perspective; it pushes the artistic boundaries for how a comic can be laid out visually, but it also makes you think and is a lot of fun to read. The artwork doesn’t simply rest on its laurels and tell the story in a traditional nine-panel-per-page format; it switches things up, whether it be the opening page showing how Barry sees the disaster sequence at hand, or the numerous tiny panels interspersed within the larger ones to highlight how Barry’s accelerated brain functions could grasp and comprehend the more minute details that form a much grander and greater picture. We get to see just as Barry does, thanks to these innovative artistic techniques, so that we can see just how it all comes together and how everything is more or less connected. This issue and the last revel in showing how it works, not just from a writing standpoint but from an artistic one. Having the writer as artist makes this comic a more pure expression of what the creative team intended compared to traditional creative teams, where the writer and the penciller are two separate people working on the same book, but perhaps not with the exact same concept of what the end product really looks like.

If you give this book a pass, you’re really doing yourself a disservice. Brilliant work by the creative team. Highly Recommended!

Serious Sam 3: BFE (PC) Review 2

Serious Sam 3: BFE (PC) Review

Serious Sam 3: BFE is what your grandparents think every videogame is like. Freakish enemies, blood-soaked visuals, a heavy metal soundtrack and levels filled with colourful power-ups. It is, in short, an embodiment of the stereotypes that formed around early shooters. Luckily, that’s sort of the point.

Croteam, BFE’s developers, make the kind of games that aren’t really released anymore — the kind concerned more with engaging the instinctual, reptilian brain than the thoughtful, mammalian one. BFE is, like the DOOMs and Quakes before it, all about fast reaction times, on-the-fly combat strategizing and a manic pace. After proving the validity of this formula in Croteam’s first game and, in lieu of reinvention, refining it through sequels and HD remakes, it seems inevitable that Serious Sam 3: BFE would continue on in the same vein as its predecessors. And it does.

It is a prequel to the story of the earlier games (rather than spell out the acronym in its official title, Before First Encounter is referred to as BFE) but that hardly matters. Serious Sam has never placed much emphasis on narrative; instead, the franchise is concerned with the gameplay. Aside from a current-gen facelift (the improved audio/visual fidelity is nice but not, by any means, groundbreaking) Croteam has also made a few changes to the foundation of its series with BFE.

New features include decidedly modern (gasp!) elements like sprinting, iron sight aiming, manual reloading, destructible environments and melee attacks. Diehard Sam fans, ready to cry foul at BFE’s apparent concessions to the conventions of contemporary shooters, can put their backs down. These features are intelligently implemented and make only subtle changes to the series’ basic formula. There is no downtime required between sprints, precision gunplay has as many strategic downsides as ups, deteriorating cover makes for more exciting fights and the melee attacks are simply a fun alternative to point-blank shooting. The new features blend seamlessly with old ones and help to make for excellent gameplay.

The fun of travelling through a level is only dampened when an area’s confusing layout grinds progress to a halt. After the frenzy of one of the game’s arena-style showdowns (much of the fun in Serious Sam titles comes from enduring nearly endless waves of enemies) the player will likely be turned around, forgetting where they were trying to get to before the battle started. Each level’s repetitive aesthetic (Egyptian cities, Egyptian ruins, Egyptian tunnels, Egyptian plains, etc.) compounds this so that, following the exhilaration of BFE’s run-and-gun combat, there’s almost always a frustrating requirement to hunt for the entry to the next area.

Fortunately, the sheer joy of BFE, when a given level finds the right momentum, is unparalleled. Despite the repetitive nature of each stage (players shouldn’t expect much more to the game than the challenge of facing off against increasingly difficult enemy hordes), simply shooting the large variety of guns and hanging on through an enemy encounter is really fun.

BFE’s multiplayer modes also hearken back to the kind of play that’s been all but forgotten in recent years, and do a lot to compensate for the campaign’s drawbacks. The co-op modes allow up to 16 players to enter a given session and transform the single-player mode’s more tired moments into frantic experiences. Cooperative survival modes, “beast hunts” and variations on the traditional campaign come together nicely with the head-to-head multiplayer’s line up of styles (Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and a healthy number of other types) and make good on the old school value of having more fun with others.

BFE is an extremely fun package with very minimal downsides. The real miracle is that such a derivative sequel — a sequel to games made in direct homage to other games — feels so fresh. Great gameplay, a dearth of multiplayer options and this sense of originality all make Serious Sam 3: BFE well worth playing.

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Nintendo and the Nostalgia Problem

 

One of the most powerful sensations a person can experience is nostalgia. That sickly sweet mixture of happiness and melancholy that comes from reflecting on specific moments of our past can just about knock any of us off our feet. A specific song’s melody is capable of transporting us back to the exact moment of a first kiss; the hint of a certain smell can make us feel exactly as we did as a child celebrating a holiday; evoking the memory of a videogame that captured our imaginations when we were young can make us cough up $60 without hardly a thought.

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GoldenEye 007: Reloaded (PS3) Review 1

GoldenEye 007: Reloaded (PS3) Review

When GoldenEye 64 came out in 1997, it was amazing for its time, but I have yet to see another game show its age the way that classic game does. In today’s world of modern first-person action games, the classic Nintendo 64 console just doesn’t hold up. Sure, we all remember sitting in a basement as teenagers taking on three other friends in a match of “License to Kill,” but if you’ve played it recently you may realize that, although GoldenEye 64 was awesome, it certainly can’t hold a candle to the modern crop of shooters currently on the market. Which is why I think that GoldenEye 007: Reloaded is just the update this classic title needed.

Reloaded is essentially a remake of the N64 classic, but with a massive amount of liberty taken with its design, characters, story, and gameplay. While some gamers may be disappointed with how different this version is from the original, Reloaded is crafted with reverence for the original game but not trapped by what may now be considered archaic design. As soon as you start playing, you’ll begin to notice the differences. First of all, you won’t find Pierce Brosnan anywhere in this game, despite him playing 007 in the GoldenEye film and being the star of the N64 version. Instead, Eurocom has updated the story to fit in better with the modern Bond universe; as such, you’ll be playing as Daniel Craig who lends his likeness and voice talents to the game. Long gone are the allusions to the Cold War typically found among Bond and his ilk; instead, Reloaded is set in the modern world, with terrorism being the main big bad. Most of the characters from the film and original game are there, but have undergone a complete change in appearance.

I can’t even begin to tell you how refreshing it is to play a Bond game that invokes such fond memories of its predecessor without being frustratingly hard to control. Reloaded features a control setup that I found very reminiscent of Activision’s Call of Duty series, which made it very easy to get the hang of. But unlike Call of Duty, you may not want to charge in guns a-blazing. In fact, I would recommend that you never do this while playing Reloaded. James Bond is a spy, and therefore it’s a lot easier—not to mention a lot more fun—to sneak around and take out guards silently with melee attacks or your trusty silenced Walther P99. I was actually surprised how well the level design of each stage allows for these different approaches. If you are a great shot with quick reflexes and a decently powerful weapon, you can run straight through the stage and hope to survive, but you can also take one of the cleverly designed alternate routes to flank enemy patrols and move in for that satisfying silent take down.

Reloaded has more to offer than just a decent campaign laden with callbacks to previous versions of the game; it’s also quite full-featured. In addition to the single-player campaign, you can also take your 00 skills online. Reloaded features multiplayer for up to 16 players across 13 different game modes. You can also challenge yourself with MI6 Ops mode, which is exactly like the Special Ops mode found in the Call of Duty series. It’s hardly unique, but still a nice addition.

I must confess that James Bond is one of my literary heroes and I have been a fan of Ian Fleming’s world of cloak and dagger spies since I was a teenager, so it’s no surprise that I liked Reloaded, but it’s far from a perfect game. Actually my main complaint is with some of the scripted action sequences. At first I was really into the scripted action—I like surprises. That was until I got to the final encounter with Trevelyan. The final boss fight is horrible, and was a huge let down for me. I enjoy scripted action, but only as long as it makes sense. During my final confrontation with Trevelyan I emptied magazine after magazine of bullets into the guy’s face without him so much as flinching. Why didn’t he die? Because he wasn’t supposed to die yet. Event scripting of this sort is terrible, unless its goal was to leave a bad taste in my mouth upon finishing the game (in which case I’d say it was successful).

GoldenEye 007: Reloaded started really strong and kept me engaged until the very end, which is where it crashed and burned for me. It was like a pleasant flight on a modern aircraft with all the amenities, except then when it came time to land, the pilot forgot to put the landing gear down and we skidded off the end of the runway. But just because the landing wasn’t great doesn’t mean the flight wasn’t good. Overall I would say that Reloaded is a fine addition to the James Bond lexicon of games, and that it would make a great T for Teen alternative for parents of teenage gamers who may not be comfortable buying an M rated game.

Metal Gear Solid: HD Collection (PS3) Review 3

Metal Gear Solid: HD Collection (PS3) Review

Yet Another Nostalgic Must-Own

 Bluepoint Games may not be doing the sexiest job in the games industry, but the amount of work they’re getting probably ensures that their job security is certain for a few years. This time they’ve stepped away from their cozy niche with Sony into an HD port of Konami titles; in this case, the flagship Metal Gear series. As you might expect of an HD remaster, there’s very little to say here if you’re already a fan.

Snake? SNAAAAAAAAAAKE!!

The most immediate thing fans of the series will want to know is: “Is this worth buying again if I have these games on the PS2 already?” Well, the simple answer is, if you enjoy the series enough that you think you’ll ever want to play these titles again, it’s an easy “YES.” These are the definitive versions of Sons of Liberty, Snake Eater and Peace Walker, all with a shiny new coat of high-resolution textures and 60 frames per second, except during some hectic real-time cut-scenes. The sound has also gotten a nice, meatier upgrade for modern sound systems, and proper online play has been implemented for the multi-player portions, with full trophies/achievements for each title. There’s nothing but good on the enhancement side of things, and the games have never looked or sounded better, with Snake Eater in particular looking a lot like a launch title for this generation of consoles, a testament to just how hard Kojima Productions was pushing the PS2 back in the day with that title.

The games are ordered by the chronology of the game timeline, so Snake Eater is first, followed by Peace Walker and then Sons of Liberty. Of the three, it’s probably Snake Eater that seems to have received the most love. It’s using the Subsistence version of the game, which includes the player-controlled 3

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person camera, as well as the original MSX versions of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. Peace Walker gets a careful face-lift from its PSP roots, but also benefits greatly from the much-needed addition of a right analog stick-enabled camera. Of them all, Sons of Liberty seems to have gotten the least amount of attention, aside from the inclusion of its Substance version, with extra missions and a few bonus modes.

All of these games still play as you remember, although gamers used to the almost now-mandatory controllable camera on the right analog stick may find the exclusion of it on Sons of Liberty a less-convenient experience than the other titles. Otherwise, it’s all still the same whacky Kojima mix of ambitious themes, baroque dialog and occasional post-modern pranking on the medium of games, combined with the stealth-based gameplay that this series was pivotal in defining.

There’s only one glaring flaw in this otherwise sterling collection, and that is the lack of the original Metal Gear Solid, quite noticeable in its absence when the collection itself is titled, Metal Gear Solid: HD Collection. It’s even more noticeable when you consider that the original Metal Gear 1 and 2 from 1987 and 1990 are present. Part of it likely has to do with questions of how to treat this now graphically-awkward PS1 game, and perhaps even licensing agreements between Sony and Konami, or even Konami and Nintendo, which would explain why we don’t just have a port of Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes, the GameCube remaster courtesy of Silicon Knights. Still, considering that the entire story—previous to this generation’s Metal Gear Solid 4—is here, the absence of the nucleus, Metal Gear Solid, hurts the overall integrity of the collection somewhat.

That shouldn’t stop fans of the series from getting this collection however. At $50 for five games—admittedly two are old school retro—this is some fantastic value. Anyone that is a fan of the series will find the upgrade well worth it, and giving Peace Walker a chance to stretch its legs beyond its PSP home is a great opportunity for fans that want an answer as to whether things between Big Boss and his mentor, The Boss, are really as concluded as Snake Eater made them out to be.

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The Bethesda Dilemma: PS3 Owners Are Second Class Citizens

This is a topic that I’ve written about in the past, and I was hoping that with the launch of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, it was a topic that was closed and didn’t require any further poking at. Unfortunately I was wrong, and an old wound has re-opened, which makes me wonder just how long PS3 owners should continue to tolerate the problem.

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