Month: January 2012

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The Grey (2011) Review

I’m not sure at one point in his career that Liam Neeson transitioned into a grizzled action star, but I’m glad it happened. I suppose Taken was the big movie that kicked off his ass-kicking career, but early warning signs can be traced all the way back to his heavily scarred work in the underrated 1990 faux comic book movie Darkman.

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Avenging Spider-Man #3 Review

Avenging Spider-Man #3 Review

This issue concludes the first arc of Avenging Spider-Man, bringing the team-up between Spider-Man and Red Hulk to a close. Unfortunately, this issue isn’t nearly as strong or as enjoyable as the first two, although it’s still a relatively good read. Last issue had a great cliffhanger, but what dragged this issue down was Wells’ overused dialogue with Jameson and Spider-Man. Writing their banter can be a tricky thing, because Jameson can at times be written very over-the-top, which is exactly what happened here in this issue. In small doses, it works fairly well, but this issue featured more of it than I would have liked, because it made the issue’s pacing slow to a crawl, instead of focusing on the fun action and adventure which made the first two issues so enjoyable.

With Red Hulk down, seemingly dead, Spider-Man tries to save Jameson’s life, while also trying to go back and save Red Hulk, save Mole Man, and find a way to stop the Moloid leader. The actual fight that Spider-Man ends up having with the leader of the Moloids is okay, but not the most exciting, and the manner in which the story is then resolved felt a little too easy, and almost silly. I get what Zeb Wells was going for with it, but in practice it felt contrived. Red Hulk’s struggle to get up and back into the fight was enjoyable, because it was a nice use of characterization for General Ross. What makes Red Hulk an interesting character to read these days is how writers use Ross’ history as a military man to make his time spent as Hulk more meaningful and impactful than Banner’s version of Hulk is able to effect. Whereas Green Hulk is more often than not an engine of destruction and mindless rage, seeing a smarter, more tactical version of a Hulk is a fun toy for writers to play with, as Ross gets more and more comfortable with being the superpowered Red Hulk.

The artwork by Joe Madureira continues to impress, as his style goes through some minor changes. When he first returned to comics in a big way a few years ago with Ultimates 3, his work was far leaner, and now as he does more work for Marvel Comics, we’re seeing a return in style to how some of his work looked back in the ‘90s when he shot to fame as artist on Uncanny X-Men. His portrayal of the armoured up Moloids and J. Jonah Jameson in particular help to evoke that particular style and sensibility in the artwork. That being said, his artistic portrayal of Spider-Man isn’t always the most consistent, as he goes from a larger body-type to a more lithe and tiny body-type between pages, and can make the overall reading experience a little more disjointed. The final battle between Spider-Man and the Moloid leader could have been a bit more concise and easy to follow as well.

This title overall is a nice addition to the Spider-Man line, essentially giving Spider-Man a modern version of Marvel Team-Up, smartly pairing him up with his fellow Avengers to tell stories that are set in current continuity, but don’t quite fit into the regular narrative of Amazing Spider-Man, the flagship Spider-Man book. This issue is still an okay read, although not as strong as the two issues that preceded it in the storyline. I’m looking forward to what Zeb Wells brings to the title and character in the future, as well as the potential in seeing team-ups that are new and allow for characterization between Spider-Man and characters he doesn’t usually get to play off against in a one-on-one setting.

Amazing Spider-Man #678 Review

Amazing Spider-Man #678 Review

This issue is the perfect palette-cleanser after reading Amazing Spider-Man #677, which was mediocre-at-best, starting a two-issue storyline which crossed over into Daredevil #8 for the conclusion (which, thankfully, was so good it made up for the first chapter). This issue is part one of a two-part storyline, and one which is inventive, and a great piece of science fiction writing over all. The premise is deceptively simple, and the issue starts quiet, but soon ratchets up the intensity, as the issue speeds towards its climax, and a fantastic cliffhanger.

Dan Slott is clearly having the time of his life writing Amazing Spider-Man, and it’s evident in every issue he puts together. Now that he’s the sole writer and voice on this series (save for the occasional fill-in, like last issue), he’s able to really get into Peter Parker’s head and his world, flesh out the new developments, and carve his mark into Peter Parker’s history. His introduction and use of Horizon Labs is testament to his long-term planning with the character, because not only has he given Peter Parker a great new job, and evolved his character, but he’s also making good use of the new setting and supporting cast. Spider-Man has worked at lab jobs before, but this is the first time that a writer’s really invested the time and energy in fleshing out that world, making it a big part of stories, in a natural way, and yet at the same time manage to not forget and leave behind the more memorable members of his supporting cast, who traditionally rotated around the orbit of the Daily Bugle. Horizon Labs has become a great supporting cast member, and the evolution of Peter’s cover story as being the guy supplying tech to Spider-Man is a fun new direction to take his character in, and allow him to still succeed in his work, and given a new dimension to his secret identity.

This issue is a great use of science fiction to tell a riveting story, which becomes a harrowing and suspenseful issue as Peter Parker tries to do everything he can to avert catastrophe from befalling New York City. When a routine day of checking equations on a colleague’s project suddenly spells doom within the next 24 hours, Peter must go into action as Spider-Man to ensure that the twisted, desolate future reality he saw doesn’t occur. The twist here, of course, is that Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s temporary absence from the timeline is what caused the possible future to happen, and now he must work against the clock with Grady Scraps to ensure he does everything he was supposed to do before reality was altered, to prevent catastrophe from happening. The issue is a fun romp, which becomes ever more intense and exciting as the issue races towards the climax, showing just how masterful at setting up the pacing of a comic Dan Slott is. He makes terrific use of science fiction tropes to make this story happen, giving the reader a great roller-coaster ride as a result.

Humberto Ramos is the perfect artist in Amazing Spider-Man’s current artistic rotation to handle the art chores on this story, because his art style perfectly captures the frantic energy in Slott’s script. His action beats are spot-on, and together with the script make this such a fun, suspenseful comic. There’s a lot of material in this issue, and Slott/Ramos are able to come together to tell a riveting story that doesn’t skimp on detail or storyline progression, and yet also manages to be a complete and utter page-turner.

This issue more than makes up for the last issue, with a storyline which demands the reader not put it down for a second, and instead read it all through to the climactic cliffhanger. There hasn’t been an issue since the Big Time era started that has made me wish this fervently that this book still shipped three times a month instead of just twice, because I can’t wait for the conclusion to this fantastic story.

Daredevil #8 Review

Daredevil #8 Review

This issue of Daredevil is part two of a crossover with Amazing Spider-Man #677, and it’s a helluva lot better than the first part of the storyline. The first part of the story had artwork which was inconsistent, and overall not the best that title has seen, and guest writer Mark Waid’s handle on the characters wasn’t nearly as strong as his handling of Daredevil has been in this book previously, nor as good as his prior storylines writing Spider-Man in the past. Thankfully, this issue helps erase the memory of the first part of the storyline, as Waid turns in a very enjoyable script, which makes this storyline firmly a Daredevil one, with Spider-Man merely a guest star, who helps facilitate Black Cat’s involvement. Daredevil, Black Cat and Spider-Man team-up to prove Black Cat’s innocence in a supposed theft, only to find themselves in deeper than they realize.

Intertwining Black Cat and Daredevil feels weird on some levels, because of Black Cat’s prior relationship with Spider-Man, but if you remove Spidey from the equation, it not only makes perfect sense, but fits with Murdock’s general MO. She’s a damaged woman, who’s both villain and hero, very much Marvel’s version of Catwoman, and dances between the raindrops that would make her either of those two labels. Waid’s development of this book has been masterful, as he’s set-up Murdock to be everyone’s target, but in a new and fresh way, which is the way that I would also describe his take on Daredevil in general. There’s a freshness to the storytelling, a sense of fun, as a few years ago if this story was told with Daredevil, it would feel much darker, angstier, and feel much more dire. Instead, it feels like opening up the character to new challenges and possibilities, but with a very different outlook. I hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Black Cat in this book either, because she definitely helps fill a particular void in Matt’s life, that many of his prior romances were able to fill .

Kano supplies the artwork in this issue, and it’s amazing to me how he’s been able to modify his style to fit the artistic style set forth by Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera. Despite there now being three artists who have illustrated this short-lived title, it has boasted a surprising level of artistic consistency throughout. Not only that, but the artists have pushed themselves to deliver an artistic experience that is head and shoulders above what other artists are putting out in comics today. There’s an artistic sensibility and sense of storytelling that unfortunately isn’t seen in all comic book art.

Daredevil is one of the most satisfying reads on the comic stands today, and this issue is a great example of that. It saves a crossover which started with a stumble out of the starting blocks, and delivers a great story with perfect characterization, which progresses the ongoing plotline quite nicely.

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Silent Hill Shattered Memories, An Appreciation

This is going to be a big year for Silent Hill fans. A new title Silent Hill: Downpour is on the way, Silent Hill 2 and 3 are getting a loving HD re-release, and a new movie will be hitting screens (ok, so based on the last one a new movie might not necessarily be great news, but it’s still a big year). There’s going to be a lot of Silent Hill talk clogging up the interwebs in the coming months and justifiably so.

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Zack Zero (PS3) Review 1

Zack Zero (PS3) Review

Zack Zero is a new PSN-exclusive game developed by Crocodile Entertainment, and represents the company’s first foray into game development. The game is quite colourful, and tries to be a new game which recaptures the old fun and wonder of sidescrolling platformers. Unfortunately, the game does have a good deal of faults which prevent it from being a consistently enjoyable experience, and does feel like it is the company’s first video game release.

The story in Zack Zero is tongue-in-cheek fun, harkening back to the era of the platformer that it hopes to emulate. You play as the adventurous hero Zack Zero, who lands on a planet with one goal in mind- save the love of his life, Marlene, who has been kidnapped by his archnemesis, the evil galactic villain Zurlog. Armed with a powerful battlesuit which enables Zack to use fire, ice and earth/rock attacks, he must explore the planet, infiltrate the headquarters of Zurlog, and save Marelene before it’s too late.

If that doesn’t sound like a classic old-school video game, I really don’t know what does. Unfortunately, it’s in the execution where this game starts to fall apart. There’s numerous bugs and glitches in the game which will definitely deter gamers, foremost of which is a propensity for locking up your PS3 entirely. It seems to be related to the PSN network, as if you’re signed in to PSN upon starting of the game, the game will freeze shortly after starting the game up, and you’ll have to turn your PS3 off/on as a result. Supposedly if you start-up the game signed out, and then sign in when the game prompts you to upon starting the game, this sidesteps this glitch, and then it won’t freeze. It seemed to do the trick for me, but it’s a bothersome glitch, and a glaring one at that. The downside of being online when playing the game is that the top score per level and per game from the online leaderboard continuously flashes at the top of the screen, and is a bit of a nuisance, and can be distracting. The level design is at times quite sloppy, as it’s far too easy to end up stuck at a doorway, without knowing where you were supposed to look for a lever to open it. There are numerous and plentiful checkpoints throughout the game, although they aren’t at all designated so that you know where they are. They’re helpful, because dying is far too easy in this game, not just because of enemies, but because of falls which you wouldn’t think would kill the character, but in fact do. Enemies are extremely resilient, which is only bothersome because of how weak Zack Zero is overall. There are numerous hidden treasures to keep things interesting throughout the game, and to progress it’s important to utilize the various powers and abilities that come with the different power suit modes: fire, ice and earth. It’s definitely a nice twist on the traditional platformer concept, adding an extra dimension to the gameplay, and ensuring that gamers of different kinds will play through the game in their own unique way, utilizing the power suit mode that they prefer, unless it’s required to solve a puzzle, open a doorway, etc.

Because of how easy Zack Zero can die, it at times makes the platforming elements more stressful, because you don’t want to have too high a fall, and end up dead and restarting from an unknown checkpoint. Checkpoints are helpful not only if there are many, but also if you know where they are, as there’s a sense of accomplishment and of there being a security blanket when you have one. Not knowing if you’ve necessarily hit one or not can lead to stressful gameplay.

One odd decision that Crocodile Entertainment makes, and I understand why in-story they did it, is they start the player out on the prologue level with a fully powered up power suit, with all the abilities for each of the modes, and then after the prologue it’s damaged, and you spend the rest of the game trying to level up the power suit, and along the way reacquire access to special abilities that you used in the prologue. It’s a bit cumbersome set out in this manner. Speaking of levelling up, they take a bit of the fun out of it when each level-up is pre-determined in terms of what you unlock and what. I think that Crocodile Entertainment missed out on an opportunity here, whereby the player could level up the suit as they saw fit, based on their own gamer style. Unlocking some abilities by default because they’re needed in certain levels would have been fine, as long as the player got the choice of customization, to add to the sense of accomplishment as you slowly upgrade the suit as you progress through the game. By taking out that component, there’s a loss of customization, which could have made the game a bit more interesting and distinctive.

Overall the game is a good effort from Crocodile Entertainment, which unfortunately gets bogged down at times by somewhat sloppy level design, which makes it hard for the player to intuit what to do next, as well as some unfortunate glitches that hamper gameplay. Zack Zero attempts to recapture the fun and style of old-school platformers, but unfortunately despite Crocodile Entertainment’s enthusiasm, it misses the mark somewhat and delivers a fair-to-okay gaming experience, which had the promise of being much more.

Amy (PS3) Review 1

Amy (PS3) Review

The Horror Is In The Design

Amy is one of those games full of regrets. As a critic or reviewer, there is regret at seeing something with genuine good intention and potential go completely off the rails. As a developer or publisher there is the regret of seeing all that hard work met with negative reception. And of course, as the player, there is regret if you spent money on what you were hoping to be a piece of thrilling, escapist entertainment that actually ends up feeling more like a frustrating day at work than a way to unwind at the end of the day. The year is young and yet Amy has managed to carve out an early lead as one of the worst games of 2012.

An Exercise In Excess

The story of Amy is a simple one that has obviously been developed with an eye for future instalments to flesh it out. Lana, the heroine, is escorting a mute, eight year old girl named Amy who is being pursued by some large, evil corporation intent on exploiting her as yet, unexplained special psychic abilities. So obsessed with recapturing Amy is this corporation that they somehow turn an entire city into zombies and then send in their own troops to try and recapture the girl. Lana and Amy must now try to get to the safety of a hospital while avoiding said zombies and troops. It all goes downhill from there.

The chief way to describe Amy’s fatal flaw is that Vector Cell, perhaps encouraged by the positive reception to Dark Souls and its predecessor, went back to the old school, challenging survival horror of the 90s, and ramped up everything. If Resident Evil had a challenging checkpoint system, they were going to make Amy’s merciless. If Silent Hill had a clumsy main character in combat, Amy’s protagonist Lana suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and if Resident Evil 4’s most challenging moments were escorting the President’s daughter, Amy’s entire premise is focused on escorting an even more helpless little girl. Elaborate puzzles repeat ad nauseum over six chapters, and you’ve seen everything the game is going to throw at you by chapter two. The puzzles themselves fall victim to “adventure game logic” where the solutions might have made perfect sense within the design bubble of the studio, with everyone talking amongst each other, but average players will be scratching their head as to how the solutions had any logic in the context of the real world. And then there is the deliberate, infuriating level of difficulty.

While it’s admirable that Vector Cell wanted to create a game that was challenging, they forgot that there still needs to be an element of fun involved. Amy, unlike Dark Souls does not encourage players to try again because of a sense of progression despite the brutal treatment. Instead, Amy seems to feel that if the player is angry, frustrated and genuinely not enjoying themselves anymore, then it has accomplished its job and has 1upped even Dark Souls. The biggest difference lies in the fact that Dark Souls gives players short check points, and encourages experimentation through death. You are supposed to learn something from your death, then go back, try something different and see the various approaches you can take to your situation based on your play-style and character build. Amy, being an adventure game dressed up in a horror costume, has only one solution to most problems, and does little in the way of encouraging experimentation to find that solution. The checkpoints are so far back that a sense of dread overcomes the player about making any mistake and being forced to trudge back through the series of unpleasant obstacles only try another solution that may lead to instant death. This, of course, leads to repetition which in turn leads to a complete bleeding out of any tension or fear the game tries to create as players stop being creeped out and start feeling either bored or irritated with slogging through the same fixed scares.

Despite all negatives, when you dig deep, you can see the promise this game had. For a downloadable title, the art direction is actually surprisingly good, even if it’s let down by technical problems like stuttering frame rates. Lana herself is a strong, female character that is neither a sex object, nor helpless and requiring the assistance of a man. The story hints at a certain amount of thought and depth, despite being badly executed in cut-scenes. Somewhere in this game, good ideas got lost. What we’re left with is a technical mess, and text-book example of what not to do in game design if you want players to enjoy themselves. Amy is hard. It is also frustrating, unfair, not fun, and perhaps worst of all for a survival horror game, not scary. The best horror game of this console generation, Siren: Blood Curse, can remain comfortably on its throne.

 

Sonic CD (XBOX 360) Review 1

Sonic CD (XBOX 360) Review

Growing up I never had a Sega Genesis of my own, so my experiences with Sonic the Hedgehog were gained from those times I spent at friends’ houses playing their system. The Sonic games were fun and fast-paced, simple-looking but deceptively complex. Up until a few weeks ago, I didn’t even know that this game, Sonic the Hedgehog CD (shortened to Sonic CD) had even existed. It’s not hard to reason out why, given that itw as originally released in 1993 for use with the CD peripheral add-on for the Sega Genesis, something that I personally don’t ever remember anyone I knew actually having. As I read up on the history of the game, I started to get really excited about playing the game, as it added new elements to the Sonic mythos, which would be used again when Sonic the Hedgehod 4 Episode I was released.

This game isn’t simply a port of the original, however, and that’s part of the appeal of picking this game up and giving it a spin. It’s been rebuilt from the ground up, it’s ostensibly the same game, but it’s been tinkered with considerably more than you’d see in a simple port. The game was developed from scratch, utilizing an engine called the “Retro Engine”, a creation of independent developed Christian Whitehead. By using this engine, the game was thus made open to improvements that could be implemented, with one of the biggest changes being that widescreen graphics were enabled, and physics that weren’t previously in the game could be added. Additionally, players can unlock Tails as a playable character.

The plot, for lack of a better word, will be familiar to fans of the franchise, as Sonic must go up against the evil Dr. Robotnik, who this time has put together time machines to ruin the past. So Sonic can go back and forth between the past and the future, while battling his enemy and saving his innocent victims. The game features the first appearance of Metal Sonic, who would later get expanded screentime in future Sonic games, eventually even becoming a final boss and a playable character (although obviously not in the same game).

Visually, this game is something special, given its age, as the game is eighteen years old, yet looks much better than that thanks to the Retro Engine. The ability to play the game in widescreen is much appreciated, as prior rereleases of Sonic the Hedgehog 1, 2 and 3 were presented in their original formats, eschewing current widescreen preferences. The graphics are crisper and cleaner than those seen in the original trilogy of Sonic games for the Sega Genesis, and there’s much more going on visually in each screenshot. However, this is both good and bad, because at times the game is very busy-looking, with so much going on, even though some of the elements that are on the screen aren’t actual obstacles, etc. The level designs are far more complex than in prior games in the franchise, which is both a boon and a detriment at the same time. Part of what made the original games so popular was the whole aspect of the game looking simple, but being far more complex than that, and thereby more challenging and enjoyable. With this game, however, the game at times looks very complex, and actually ends up being so. The level design is nowhere near as simple as in previous games, and your enjoyment of the new levels is going to be somewhat affected by how you enjoy the more complex level design. Whereas prior games were very straightforward in their approach, in this game there are multiple routes through each level, with the route not always being as purposeful in prior games, as there are tons of springs, etc that will bounce up and over where you may have thought you’d be going. As you get farther in the game, the gameplay can be a bit frustrating as new elements are introduced, which hamper your overall movement and make the game less about Sonic simply racing through a level. Suddenly the ground itself is buzzing with energy, and if you are on it, you are propelled upwards, and onto other moving platforms which don’t have the same kick to them. The boss battles against Dr. Robotnik are a nice touch in this game, because they aren’t simply the same as they’ve been before in past games in the franchise. In one level, instead of actually hitting Robotnik, you just want to hit all of the bubbles that surround him (underwater, naturally), and in another you don’t hit him at all, but instead run as fast as you can on a conveyor belt, as it slowly melts the bottom of the apparatus that he stands in, until he falls out, and then runs away into the next level. Plus there’s the added bonus of having the time warps that can bring you to the past, future and back, and add a whole new dimension to the gameplay. As I said, it makes the game more complex, and although I don’t think it was necessarily needed, it does make the game a slightly fuller experience.

The difficulty level can vary on if you’re trying to beat the game, or if you’re trying to beat the game, unlock all achievements/trophies, and collect all of the Time Stones. If you’re concerned with the former, the game presents the typical challenges inherent in a Sonic the Hedgehog game, but is an enjoyable platformer with a fair level of difficulty. However, if you’re hoping to do the latter, the game presents far more challenges, and will take much longer to complete to that extent. Either way, the game is a great new release, an enjoyable romp with Sonic, presented in all its beautiful, widescreen glory.

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Innovation Through Stagnation

Follow me on a brief thought exercise:

It’s 2016. You shoulder off your jetpack and head inside your gleaming, silver podhome in New New York City, Mars and plop down on your couch to play some videogames. Your choice of consoles includes the PlayStation 3, the Xbox 360 and the Nintendo Wii.

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Dance Central 2 vs. Just Dance 3 - 2012-01-23 15:19:37

Dance Central 2 vs. Just Dance 3

In the words of legendary MC Maestro Fresh Wes, “This is a throw-down, a show-down hell no, I can’t slow down. It’s gonna go!” Dancing games have come a long way since I first saw some kids stomping their feet to the beats of the pioneering Dance Dance Revolution. Long gone are the days of simply stepping on a dance pad while arrows scroll across the screen. These days if you really want to get your groove on there is no finer way than by using the Kinect motion controller.

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