Video Game Review: Hotline Miami [PC]

Hotline Miami [PC]

Hotline Miami
System: PC
Genre: 2D top-down action
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: Dennaton Games
Release Date: October 23, 2012

Hotline Miami is one of the most violent games I have played all year. It’s also the most addicting.

Heavily inspired by Nicolas Winding Refn’s brilliant 2011 film, Drive, the game places you in the role of an animal mask-wearing hitman dubbed “Jacket.” At the beginning of each chapter, Jacket receives an anonymous phone call in which he is told to “pick up the laundry” or something similar — essentially code for “go to this location and massacre everyone there.”

Every location is stacked with enemies that will kill you with one hit. It takes some serious trial-and-error to develop a successful strategy for making it through each level. As such, Hotline Miami feels most like a puzzle game. You can’t just go in guns-a-blazin’ and expect to win. Every level requires meticulous thinking and quick reactions, because not everything will go as planned.

Hotline Miami [PC]

Before each chapter, Jacket is given the option to select a new animal mask. Each mask has its own perk (i.e. increased ammo, one shot doesn’t kill, etc.), and using the right one is crucial to succeed. There are a number of weapons in each level, most of which can be picked up after killing an enemy. Guns are a popular choice, obviously best for long-range targets, but there are a number of melee weapons (i.e. baseball bats, machetes) that can be used for up-close brawls.

Deaths in this game aren’t pretty. Enemies fall down in a pool of their own blood, with body parts often flying aross the room. Hotline Miami doesn’t glorify violence, however — it makes you question just what the hell you’re doing. After successfully wiping out everyone in a chapter, the game forces Jacket to walk back through every area, observing the carnage he has created. It feels like a punishment for following through with these anonymous jobs. Who is calling in these requests, and why is Jacket accepting them?

At times, the violence can get to be too much, and I found myself needing to take a break much more often than usual. Chapters are quick, intense affairs, and they require extreme precision. It’s a physically and mentally demanding experience, but the well-refined gameplay kept me coming back for more.

Hotline Miami [PC]

It also helps that Hotline Miami is undeniably stylish. The top-down view shows off its gorgeously retro pixelated graphics, and the 80s setting lends way to some sizzling neon colors. The soundtrack is also a perfect fit for the on-screen action, and the music is very, very similar to that found in Drive (whose soundtrack I included in my top 25 albums of 2011). Seriously, the music is amazing, and the intense gameplay really feeds off the frenetic energy the tunes provide. In an awesome moment of generosity, the soundtrack can even be listened to in its entirety online.

There has been a lot of buzz surrounding Hotline Miami, and all of it has been deserved. Quite frankly, there isn’t another game like this.

9/10

 

Movie Review: Django Unchained [2012]

Django Unchained [2012]

Django Unchained [2012]
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Genre: Action/Drama/Western
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson
Running Time: 165 minutes

Django Unchained is an homage to many genres — the Spaghetti Western, Blaxploitation, revenge flicks — but at its core it is a Quentin Tarantino film. And no one makes movies like QT.

Set in 1858, three years before the Civil War, the film tells the story of a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) — the “D” is silent. While being transported across the vast state of Texas with a group of other slaves, Django becomes a free man after they run into Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter. Schultz hires Django to aid him in finding and identifying the Brittle brothers, a trio of wanted fugitives. Their partnership works out rather well, and they end up working together throughout the winter, raking in good money by collecting bounties.

Django Unchained [2012]

We learn that Django had been sold away from his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), shortly before meeting Dr. Schultz. After their successful season of bounty hunting, the two men discover that Broomhilda is now the property of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a very wealthy businessman known for his brutal “Candie Land” plantation. With a target now in sight, the unlikely duo head to Mississippi to bring her back alive.

If you are familiar with Tarantino at all, you will have a good idea of what to expect here. Violence is plentiful, the soundtrack is eclectic, and there are winks/homages to countless other films (even Franco Nero, the star of the 1966 film, Django, has a small role here). The man has no fear when it comes to directing, and he does things his own way. Want to include a bass-heavy Rick Ross song while Django walks across the screen? Sure, why the hell not? Some may question the use of modern rap during an 1850s film, but somehow it works surprisingly well. Tarantino’s soundtracks have always been favorites of mine, and Django Unchained does not disappoint in this regard.

Django Unchained [2012]

Of course, there has been a great amount of controversy with the film, most of which stems from its gratuitous usage of the “n-word” (most notably from Spike Lee, who refuses to even watch it). At times, it is uncomfortable watching all of these white actors rattling off racial slurs, but we must remember that this was what it was like during that time period. This isn’t a light subject matter, and quite frankly it would have been a mistake to stray away from this language.

It’s somewhat ironic that in a film named Django Unchained about a character named Django, that the actor portraying him has been receiving the fewest accolades. That’s unfortunate because Jamie Foxx really does a stellar job here. Django comes a long way during the film, and much of the character’s growth can be attributed to Foxx. Of course, it’s easy to be overshadowed when the rest of the cast is as good as it is. Christoph Waltz is the perfect complement to Django’s fiery character, and the two actors play off each other quite well.

Django Unchained [2012]

Leonardo DiCaprio is just as fantastic as the brutal, yet oddly charismatic, plantation owner. It is Samuel L. Jackson, however, who steals every scene he is in as Candie’s loyal head slave, Stephen. Jackson stated that he wanted to make Stephen the most hated black character in the history of cinema, and he makes a damn good case for that title. And, of course, because this is a Tarantino flick, there are a ridiculous amount of noteworthy cameos, with everyone from Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins, James Parks, Jonah Hill and even QT himself making an appearance.

Even with its lengthy running time (nearly three hours!), Django Unchained never fails to entertain. Once again, Quentin Tarantino has proven to be a master at recreating history as only he can.

9/10

Movie Review: Lincoln [2012]

Lincoln [2012]

Lincoln [2012]
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin (book)
Genre: Biography/Drama
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones and John Hawkes
Running Time: 150 minutes

Steven Spielberg is back, folks.

After a decade full of less-than-impressive efforts, Spielberg’s Lincoln delivers the goods. It doesn’t hurt to have one of the most stellar casts in recent memory, but there’s still quite a bit of substance in this historical biopic.

Lincoln [2012]

Rather than serve as a biography of Abraham Lincoln’s entire life, the film focuses on the President’s push to pass the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, an act which would formally abolish slavery in the entire country. Naturally, with a nation already divided due to the Civil War, passing this amendment is no easy feat. The Democrats are almost entirely against the idea of abolishing slavery, and the prospects of getting the 20 extra votes needed are dire. Yet Lincoln is a stubborn, but passionate, man who will not give up until his mission is complete, even against the wishes of his advisors.

This is such a critical moment in our nation’s history, and it’s remarkable to see this played out on screen. A tremendous amount of detail went into recreating this time period, with extra emphasis on the faithfully reconstructed costume design. The casting is also near perfection. Daniel Day-Lewis, of course, has been on the receiving end of constant praise for his portrayal of Lincoln, and he deserves every accolade thrown his way. Soft-spoken, intelligent and charismatic, Day-Lewis embodies the 16th President in a way that makes it incredibly clear why he was so beloved. In a career loaded with memorable performances, this may very well be his best, and it would be shocking if he didn’t win the Oscar.

Lincoln [2012]

The rest of the cast is stacked, to put it mildly. Just take a look at some of the names involved: Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earl Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, Lee Pace, Jared Harris. This is basically character actor heaven. Field and Jones have both earned Oscar nods for their performances as Mary Todd Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens, respectively, and rightfully so. The trio of Hawkes, Spader and Nelson are especially entertaining as a group of chief negotiators who will go to any means necessary to sway/bribe the Democratic voters.

Lincoln isn’t a perfect film — Spielberg still has a habit of spelling things out for us (i.e. Mary Todd and others writing down notes such as “8 votes to win” just in case we didn’t know) — but it is a wholly engrossing one. With a heavy reliance on dialogue, the acting needs to be top-notch, and in this regard the film does not disappoint at all. Lincoln will likely clean up at the Oscars this year, and for once I will have little to complain about.

9/10

Video Game Review: Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

Spec Ops: The Line
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Yager Development / Darkside Game Studios
Release Date: June 26, 2012

Let’s get the inevitable comparisons out of the way. Spec Ops: The Line owes a lot to Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, and Francis Ford Coppola’s war film, Apocalypse Now, and quite frankly it almost certainly would not exist without either of these.

At its core, Spec Ops is a third-person shooter with the standard cover-based gameplay found often in its genre. Levels generally consist of killing a bunch of enemies, moving to a new area, and then killing some more. However, it’s what happens between these moments of gunfire that separates this from the rest. Morality often comes into play, and the choices are never easy.

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

You play as Captain Mike Walker (voiced by Nolan North, aka Nathan Drake from Uncharted), who is sent to Dubai on a reconnaissance mission along with two squadmates. Six months earlier, a cataclysmic sandstorm destroyed the wealthy UAE city, and the ensuing chaos has left the area a veritable no-man’s-land. After discovering a looped radio signal from a U.S. Army Colonel, Walker and his two partners are covertly sent to determine the status of Konrad and anyone else they may come across. Essentially, it’s a get in and get out mission. If only it were that simple.

It doesn’t take long for Walker to decide that they need to *rescue* Konrad, and not just learn his location. This decision leads his team into an onslaught of violence, as they run into a resistance far greater than they could have expected. Along the way, horrifiyng moments present themselves, leaving you as a player to make increasingly more difficult moral decisions. One early choice has you deciding whether to save a handful of innocent civilians or to gamble on saving the life of an agent with precious intel you could really use. There is no right answer here, only “wrong” and “less wrong.”

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

There are a number of unforgettable moments during the campaign, all of which tie in with the “war is hell” theme. Other games have showed the atrocities of war, but not like Spec Ops. It’s quite fascinating to watch Walker and his squadmates change over the course of the game. During the early stages, they are joking around and acting like stereotypical soldiers. By the end of the game, they are at each other’s throats, constantly bickering back and forth.

Their mental and physical deterioration becomes even more glaring in the form of the “execution” option. After damaging an enemy enough, they will sometimes fall to the ground and squirm, desperately trying to do something in the last seconds of their lives. Walker has the option of executing them and putting them out of their misery. As the game progresses, Walker’s executions become increasingly violent, as he continues to become more and more desensitized to the brutality of war.

On these terms, Spec Ops offers a lot of depth. This isn’t just some mindless shooter, as its awful TV commercial suggests. This is about a squad’s descent into madness, and it serves as a sort of deconstruction of the entire shooter genre. By the end of the game, you as a player will feel like you have been to hell and back, which is exactly what this is trying to do.

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

Spec Ops relies heavily on its themes, and without its polished narrative, it could easily get lost in the shuffle as another third-person shooter. There are noticeable flaws — the controls could be tightened up, the AI is questionable at times, the campaign is relatively short and the multiplayer mode feels tacked-on and unnecessary — but I am more willing to forgive these issues since it felt like I was playing something meaningful. As gamers, we don’t get treated to narratives like this very often, and this is a game that people will be talking about for years. Hell, it has already inspired one game critic to write a lengthy critique of the campaign, something unheard of in the industry.

If you’re willing to overlook some gameplay limitations, Spec Ops: The Line comes with a very high recommendation. This is one of the most mentally challenging games I have played all year, and it is one with more layers than anyone could have expected.

9/10

Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey [2012]

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey [2012]

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey [2012]
Director: Peter Jackson
Genre: Fantasy
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage
Running Time: 169 minutes

Right from the start, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was destined to divide its audiences. Peter Jackson’s decisions to not only film at 48 frames-per-second — double the normal rate — but to also split J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved novel into three full-length films were unabashedly controversial. As someone with fond recollections of reading The Hobbit in my youth, I met these announcements with large sighs and lowered expectations. Was it really necessary to stretch a 200-page novel into three epic films? Quite frankly, no, it wasn’t, but this move didn’t become the disaster it easily could have been.

After a bit of an expendable prologue documenting the demolition of a dwarf kingdom by the immense dragon, Smaug, the story begins as expected. Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is sitting alone on his eleventy-first birthday, writing out the details of his crazy un-hobbitlike adventure some 60 years prior. We are then sent to follow along on this “unexpected journey,” as young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is granted with a surprise appearance by famed wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen). Soon thirteen dwarves, led by the proud Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), are at Bilbo’s door ready to embark on a quest to take back their homeland. Per Gandalf’s recommendation, they have sought out Bilbo to fulfill their need for a “burglar.” After much deliberation, Bilbo eventually concedes to leave his hobbit hole, and so the real story begins.

Along the way, the crew runs into trolls, orcs, goblins and gigantic mountain creatures. There’s far more action than expected based on the source material, and one or two of the chase/battle scenes could have been omitted with little consequence. In fact, more content in general could have been removed entirely.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey [2012]

As expected by stretching out a relatively short novel into three long films, Peter Jackson has dipped deeper into the Middle Earth lore, including a handful of characters seldom mentioned or not found at all in the book. Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) has a noteworthy role despite only being mentioned in passing in The Fellowship of the Ring. The Orc chieftain, Azog, also has an expanded role, predominantly to give the film its own central antagonist. This is not a faithful adaptation of the book by any means, which can be both a positive or negative depending on one’s viewpoint. Those wanting to see Tolkien’s words brought to life without any changes will be disappointed, but those who enjoy spending as much time in Middle Earth as possible will surely get a kick out of this.

For me, I’m somewhere in the middle. Certainly a few scenes could have been excluded in order to make a more compact, arguably greater film, but damn if I didn’t get sucked into this fantasy world. This is a beautifully realized vision with well-designed characters and environments, and the special effects are amazing. The difference between the CGI used in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy is mind-boggling — this is especially notable during the film’s centerpiece, the much-loved riddle scene between Bilbo and Gollum. Although he looked great before, Gollum really comes to life here, with his wild-eyes and spastic movements. Once again, Andy Serkis delivers an incredible performance.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey [2012]

Now, most people will know right away whether they want to see The Hobbit or not, but the big question here is: should I see it with the high frame rate? Yes, yes you should. I had little interest in this new gimmick, but was persuaded to indulge by some friends. I’m glad I did. Seeing the film in 3D at 48 frames-per-second (not to mention with the fantastic Dolby ATMOS sound system) was an experience unlike any other I have had in a theater, and it is absolutely worth checking out if only for the sheer novelty of it all. The general consensus has largely been a “love it or hate it” type deal, and I’m surprised that I fall in the former camp. It takes some time to get used to the quicker movements and video game-like visuals, but the high frame rate makes the 3D much more bearable.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey isn’t a perfect film, but I respect Peter Jackson for trying something new while undoubtedly pleasing countless fans begging for more Tolkien. Despite its excess length, I greatly enjoyed my time in the theater. Anyone even remotely curious in the film should seek it out, preferably with the higher frame rate.

8/10

Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook [2012]

Silver Linings Playbook [2012]

Silver Linings Playbook [2012]
Director: David O. Russell
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver and Chris Tucker
Running Time: 122 minutes

Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy by definition, but it is presented in a way that most in the genre are not.

Bradley Cooper (in a surprisingly subdued performance) stars as Pat Solitano, a former high school teacher diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After an eight month stay in a mental hospital, Pat is released into the care of his parents, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver). The only thing on Pat’s mind is a desire to reconcile his failed marriage with his ex-wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), who now has a restraining order against him due to a previous violent outburst.

Silver Linings Playbook [2012]

While having dinner at a friend’s house, Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman who is going through a very rough patch as well (her husband just passed away in Iraq). They begin a peculiar relationship in which Pat attempts to communicate to Nikki through Tiffany. She agrees to help him if he will enter a dance competition with her, something she never got to do with her late husband. This shaky agreement works as a sort of therapy for both of them, as both seem to come to grips with their respective mental illnesses at the same time.

Familiar conventions of the romantic comedy genre eventually arise, particularly in the film’s final act, but the journey to this point is anything but conventional. Director David O. Russell’s inclusion of mental illness as an integral part of the storyline is a bit of a ballsy move, but he manages to portray both characters and their traits in a sensitive light.

Silver Linings Playbook [2012]

The chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence is electric, with both turning in what may very well be the best performances of their careers. It’s shocking that Lawrence is just 22 years old — she has the presence of a seasoned veteran in this. Perhaps most exciting is seeing Robert De Niro return to relevance with one of his greatest roles in years. His take as the OCD diehard Eagles fan shows glimpses of just how Pat Jr. began struggling with his own mental issues. Chris Tucker even has a small role that is worthy of a mention, largely because he is not as obnoxious as usual.

Silver Linings Playbook deserves credit for bringing something new to a tired genre, and even though it falls back on familiar tropes, it’s still a strong effort with a likable set of characters.

8/10

Movie Review: Flight [2012]

Flight [2012]

Flight [2012]
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Genre: Drama
Starring: Denzel Washington, Tamara Tunie, John Goodman, Kelly Reilly, Melissa Leo, Don Cheadle
Running Time: 138 minutes

Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is an alcoholic and a drug abuser. He sleeps with prostitutes, has a dysfunctional relationship with his ex-wife and son, and parties far more often than he should. He’s also a commercial airlines pilot, and a damn good one at that.

One morning, still drunk after a boozy night with a flight attendant, Whitaker snorts a few lines of cocaine and then heads to the airport, ready to pilot a flight to Atlanta. Despite some concerns from his co-pilot, Whip appears no worse for the wear as he takes control and guides the plane through some rough turbulence during takeoff. Problems arise near the end of the flight when the plane’s hydraulics give out, causing it to take a steep dive in what is certain to be a horrific crash. Only thanks to some quick thinking from Whip, in which he seems to be acting purely on instinct, does the inevitable plane crash manage to happen with minimal casualties. It’s an astonishing feat, and an impressive scene to boot.

Flight [2012]

Whip should be labeled a hero after this, right? After all, he saved nearly a hundred lives due to his swift actions, and most pilots wouldn’t even fathom trying what he did. If only it were that simple.

As they do for every aviation incident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) performs an investigation of the crash and quickly finds out that Whitaker was under the influence of alcohol and cocaine while flying the plane. Now, instead of being hailed for his heroic efforts, Whip is looking at the very serious charges of intoxicated manslaughter, as well as a huge legal case. Could Whip have acted the way he did if he hadn’t been high/drunk at the time? Would all of those lives have been saved? Ultimately, it’s a moot point.

Flight [2012]

What’s interesting is that after the crash, Whip has all sorts of people trying to help him out, yet he keeps going back to the bottle. At the hospital while recovering from his injuries, he befriends Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a woman recovering from a drug overdose. She stands as something of the opposite of Whip — someone willing to go to AA meetings and attempt to change her life. The airplane’s pilot union, represented by Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), delivers him an attorney (Don Cheadle) to help drop the criminal charges, including all traces of the toxicology reports. With all this support, why won’t Whitaker get help?

That’s the power of addiction. Director Robert Zemeckis nails this issue with devastating effectiveness, even if he sometimes goes about it in rather obvious ways. A bit more subtlety would have been welcome, especially during one laughably on-the-nose scene where Kelly enters her apartment to shoot heroin as the Red Hot Chili Peppers song “Under the Bridge” plays. Still, Whip’s descent from hero to rock bottom is masterful, undeniably aided by a stellar performance from Denzel Washington. This is Denzel’s best work in years, and he deserves the accolades he has been receiving. It’s also great to see John Goodman step in and deliver much-needed comic relief in a couple scenes as Whip’s longtime hippie friend/dealer, Harling Mays.

When Flight is brought up in conversation, most will mention Denzel’s excellent work, and perhaps the intensity of the airplane crash, but the bottom line is that this is one of the most compelling looks at addiction in recent years.

8/10

Movie Review: Life of Pi [2012]

Life of Pi

Life of Pi [2012]
Director: Ang Lee
Genre: Adventure/Drama
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan and Adil Hussain
Running Time: 127 minutes

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a lot of things — beautiful, visually impressive, ambitious, and ultimately, shallow.

The film tells the story of Pi Patel and his unbelievable life, as presented by a middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan) to a writer looking for new material. Pi recounts his days as a child, when he would humorously take in bits from several religions to create his own vision. His parents owned a zoo in India, and all was well until his father decided to sell everything and move to Canada. On the ensuing voyage, a nasty storm destroys the ship, sending humans and the wild animals onboard flying violently into the middle of the ocean. The teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) finds himself separated from everyone else, somehow ending up alone on a boat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Life of Pi [2012]

This is the segment of the film that most will recognize beforehand. Yes, Pi is stranded in the Pacific Ocean with a tiger, and yes, this represents a good chunk of the film. My initial concerns, having not read the novel that this is based on, were that this would be a wild fantasy in which the tiger is made to be a cuddly feline rather than the dangerous predator it really is. Thankfully, that is not the case here, as Pi is very much afraid of Richard Parker, and the tiger is ill-concerned with befriending a human.

The problem here is that there is little suspense during this segment. During the beginning of the film, we are shown the middle-aged Pi as he sits down to talk to the writer. There is nary a scratch on him, or any evidence that he had survived a traumatic experience like this shipwreck. As such, we know right away that he will survive this endeavor, and the tiger feels much less threatening as a result. This lack of impact is especially noticeable once the ending hits, when a revelation suddenly threatens to make the film all for naught. The climax also laughably spells out Pi’s final statement a second time for the audience, just in case it wasn’t clear the first time around.

Life of Pi [2012]

Early in the film, the middle-aged Pi boldly states that his story will make the writer believe in God, thereby making us (the audience) do the same. While Pi’s story raises some interesting questions regarding faith and the structure of beliefs, he is greatly overstating his tale. Those expecting a groundbreaking revelation would be better served looking elsewhere.

Even though Life of Pi falls short of its lofty ambitions, it’s impossible not to bask in its sheer beauty. This is one visually stunning film, aided immensely by some of the best CGI that I have ever seen. The tiger fits in seamlessly on board, and the young Sharma plays off of it perfectly. The shipwreck scene is loud, boisterous and frightening — especially when seen in 3D. I would be shocked if this doesn’t get an Oscar nod for Best Visual Effects (and Best Cinematography, for that matter).

It’s a shame that there isn’t a more meaningful story underneath Life of Pi‘s alluring outer shell. Ang Lee deserves credit for bringing this novel to life with a vision like only he can, but a weak conclusion dampens what is already an anticlimactic adventure.

6/10

Video Game Review: FIFA 13 [Xbox 360]

FIFA 13 [Xbox 360]

FIFA 13
System: Xbox 360 (also on pretty much every other current system)
Genre: Sports (Soccer)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Canada
Release Date: September 25, 2012

I don’t often buy sports games the year they are released, but I couldn’t pass up getting FIFA 13 this year. A lot has changed since the last version I played, FIFA 11, and what we have now is one of the most complete sports experiences I have ever seen.

Upon firing up the game, the options are nearly overwhelming. Just take a look at the different modes offered: Games of the Week, Ultimate Team, Seasons, Career, Be a Pro, Pro Club Seasons, Skill Games, Online. To the unaware, it would be difficult to even begin to think about where to start.

FIFA 13 [Xbox 360] -- Ultimate Team

I began my FIFA 13 playing career with the Ultimate Team mode. I had dabbled with this before, but never gave it the time of day it deserved. In this mode, you are given packs of cards in which you receive different players, attributes and other options. By playing and winning matches, you earn points that can be used to purchase more packs of cards, with the ultimate goal being to continually improve and upgrade your team. Cards can also be purchased, sold and traded in the online marketplace, allowing you to target certain players if desired. It’s an addictive little feature, and EA has undoubtedly made a great deal of money off of it by allowing impatient gamers to purchase more points with real money as well.

After spending a good amount of time with Ultimate Team, I moved onto “Be a Pro” and created a virtual version of myself. Soccer was always my weakest sport to play in real life, but I fit right in on the cyber confines of FIFA. As a young striker, I joined the celebrated club of Bayern Munich (an ode to my German heritage), but they had little room for me until I worked on polishing my skills. I accepted a transfer to the Scottish Premier League, becoming a starting forward for Dundee United. It didn’t take long for me to begin to establish myself, scoring my first ever hat trick in my second match, and quickly building up my attributes thanks to strong performances on my end. Unfortunately, a couple of injuries derailed my promising start (thanks to me abusing the “sprint” button, apparently), and the team struggled to play well without me. After finishing the season, which was mostly successful on an individual level despite the injuries, I decided to try out another mode: Seasons.

FIFA 13 [Xbox 360] -- Gameplay

I found Seasons to be the most challenging and addictive mode yet. In this, you pick a team and embark on a series of head-to-head matches against other gamers online. Every “season” has 10 matches, and you are required to earn a certain amount of points (three for a win, one for a draw) in order to move up to the next division level. If you fail to reach this goal, you will be relegated back down to the level below you. It’s a very competitive mode, and I found myself outclassed often by others online. After tightening down the settings to only match up against teams of the same star rating as my own, I began to achieve a bit more success, eventually moving up to the next division. A series of devastating defeats sent me right back down to relegation status, however, and I had to work my way back up. While frustrating at times, the level of competition in this mode is fierce, and it’s a great way to improve your own game.

FIFA 13 [Xbox 360]

The Skill Games feature is a welcome addition, as these drills serve as in-game tutorials of sorts, helping improve passing, shooting and dribbling skills. Best yet, they can be completed during the load screens for offline games. I can’t think of another game that offers such useful loading screens.

Between all of these different modes, I have spent a lot of time with FIFA 13, and I have absolutely had a blast with it. There are some minor issues here and there — occasionally my passes went to the wrong player, and I ran into a handful of laggy games online — but this is still an incredible soccer/football title that offers a seemingly endless amount of replay value. For fans of the sport, buying this is a complete no-brainer.

9/10

Movie Review: Skyfall [2012]

Skyfall [2012]

Skyfall [2012]
Director: Sam Mendes
Genre: Action/Adventure/Crime
Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris
Running Time: 143 minutes

I feel as if every Skyfall review should come with a preface stating the writer’s level of James Bond fandom. I am a novice to the series, a “rook” if you will, as I have only seen a grand total of three Bond films — the very first two with Sean Connery (Dr. No and From Russia With Love) and Daniel Craig’s first outing (Casino Royale). I enjoyed all to some degree, but I wouldn’t quite call myself a fan — yet. With Skyfall, I feel myself being drawn back into the universe, one that seems more exciting now than ever.

In this dark and rather bleak entry in the series, Bond is not quite as invincible as one might expect. Played to perfection by Craig, 007 is now old, broken down and even vulnerable. When MI6’s headquarters are blown up by the despicable villain, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), the British agency and its head, M (Judi Dench), are forced to rely on the rickety frame of Mr. Bond to save the day.

Silva presents a great challenge for them, as he always seems one step ahead with every move he makes. He is an excellent villain — he has superior hacking skills, a seemingly endless group of goons at his disposal, and he has an entire bombed-out island all to himself. Javier Bardem, mildly ludicrous blonde hair and all, excels in the role, making for a dangerously strong adversary despite his physical deformities.

Skyfall [2012]

When it comes to Bond films, I am always most fascinated by the exotic locations, and Skyfall does not disappoint. From the thrilling opening car chase scene through the streets of Turkey to a brutal hand-to-hand combat sequence in a Shanghai skyscraper, there is no shortage of eye candy. The Shanghai scene, in particular, is visually stunning with its black silhouettes and flashing blue lights. A later visit to the gorgeous Scottish countryside also shows off the talents of cinematographer Roger Deakins (who also worked with director Sam Mendes on Jarhead and Revolutionary Road).

The action set-pieces are flashy and loud, and for the most part this is a white-knuckled ride that rarely lets up. Since this is the 50th anniversary of Bond, there are nods and homages to every single film in the series. As a newcomer to the series, I obviously missed many of these, but I got a kick out of hearing the audience cheer in delight when some of the more obvious throwbacks were shown. Diehard Bond fans — most of whom likely saw this opening weekend — will certainly appreciate these tributes, subtle or otherwise.

Skyfall [2012]

In many ways, Skyfall is similar to The Dark Knight Rises. Both films are centered around a hero who has seen better days, one who has hit rock bottom and has to work his way back up to help save the day. Both delve a bit into their backstories; in Skyfall, we learn a little about Bond’s origin, something that I greatly appreciated. There’s even a wink at the end of both films in which a familiar character is revealed in an ode to the future. It’s an interesting thought — Skyfall simply wouldn’t be the same if it were not for The Dark Knight trilogy.

The bottom line here is that Skyfall is one of this year’s best action films, and being a Bond fan is not a prerequisite in really enjoying this. There are a few moments that could have probably been omitted — and surely a few of the groan-worthy one-liners could have been improved — but I can’t recall many trips to the theater this year that were quite as exciting. Count me in for the next one, Mr. Bond.

8/10