Movie Project #7: Casino Royale [2006]

Due to the overwhelming success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a second round for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Casino Royale [2006]

Casino Royale [2006]
Director: Martin Campbell
Genre: Action/Adventure/Crime
Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green and Judi Dench
Runtime: 144 minutes

It seems there is always one startling revelation with these movie projects. Most people couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen Back to the Future in last year’s edition; this year, the big surprise is my lack of experience with James Bond. Somehow, despite 22 entries into the series, Mr. Bond has eluded me. I feel like I may have seen all or part of Goldeneye when I was much younger, but my memory is foggy at best. I was unsure of where to start, but the seemingly unanimous praise for the fairly recent Casino Royale sent me in that direction.

Let’s just say I want to see more of Bond.

Casino Royale marks Daniel Craig’s first appearance as 007, and the action gets started in a hurry. An early scene shows a frantic foot chase through a Madagascar construction site, including a run up some staggeringly tall ladders that gave me a case of vertigo. Seriously, it was a freakin’ thrill ride, and from that point on I was hooked.

Casino Royale [2006]

The movie follows the early days of Bond’s career as Agent 007. His first mission is to find and stop Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson), a banker who funds terrorist organizations, from winning a high-stakes poker tournament in Montenegro. In this instance, high stakes equals a $10 million buy-in. Le Chiffre is something of a poker aficionado, so this isn’t an easy task.

Along the way, Bond seduces a married man’s wife, stops a terrorist attack at the Miami International Airport, and falls in love with a stunningly beautiful (and intelligent) Treasury agent, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Oh yeah, he is also brutally tortured and has a near-death experience. All in a day’s work, right?

Casino Royale is a wild ride, and I wish I had been able to experience this intense adrenaline rush on the big screen. Daniel Craig is on top of his game here, effortlessly stepping in to play one of cinema’s biggest names, and the famous Bond women are phenomenal. I could have done without the stop-start double ending, but I liked the way it set things up for future entries. This movie is a lot of fun, and more importantly, it has me interested in seeing more from the franchise.

8/10

So, Bond fans, where do I go next? I want to see Quantum Solace despite hearing mixed reviews, but what else would you recommend?

Video Game Review: Batman: Arkham City [PS3, 2011]

Batman: Arkham City [PS3, 2011]

Batman: Arkham City
System: Playstation 3 (also on Xbox 360 and PC)
Genre: Action/Adventure/Stealth
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Release Date: October 18, 2011

It was just last month that I finally played through Batman: Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady’s breakout hit from 2009. That game totally blew me away and removed any pre-conceived notion I had about superhero titles lacking in quality. After completing Batman’s first PS3/X360 effort, I immediately picked up last year’s sequel, Arkham City.

Whereas Arkham Asylum focused primarily on a plot against the Joker, Arkham City showcases several prominent villains. After former warden Quincy Sharp is elected mayor of Gotham, his first order of business is to clean up the streets. His solution? Turn the slums of the city into a maximum security prison — its own metropolis, blocked off from everything else. Naturally, this is a terrible idea, as that means all sorts of evil masterminds are put together in one location. All hell breaks loose, and it’s Batman’s job to restore order against the likes of Hugo Strange, Two Face, the Penguin, and the Joker, among many others.

The biggest difference between the two games is Arkham City’s venture into a larger open world. The city is five times bigger than the asylum, and it allows Batman to have free reign in a massive urban environment. With the ability to use a grappling hook from building to building and rooftop to rooftop, you really feel as if you are Batman himself. The sheer freedom that the city provides is awe-inspiring, and it helps to be controlling such a badass character.

Batman: Arkham City [PS3, 2011]

The core gameplay is the same as before, a strong mix of combat, stealth and exploration. The combat system still uses the same attack/countering method that is so simple yet amazingly well-executed. Batman has some new gadgets this time around, many of which help during battles. Smoke pellets can be dropped to disorientate enemies and allow Batman to more easily escape harm’s way. A taser gun can be used to shock enemies, and it also restores power to generators. There’s even a new freezing gadget that can be used to toss ice grenades. All of these new toys are used throughout the game, often at critical points.

Stealth is largely the same as before, but the exploration aspects have drastically increased. If you couldn’t get enough of Riddler’s challenges before, you will love Arkham City even more. This time around there are a whopping 440 trophies to acquire, and all of them are scattered throughout the huge in-game world. There are also an increased amount of side missions, many of which introduce other villains not otherwise found in the main story. The Riddler himself has a side quest that has Batman stopping Saw-like puzzles to save innocent victim’s lives.

What’s great about all of these new quests is that once the main campaign is completed, everything is rolled over into a “New Game+” mode. That means that you can pick up all of the side quests you missed the first time around, but with all of Batman’s upgrades already included. I loved having this functionality, as I am the type of gamer that usually tries to finish the story first before digging into the supplementary features.

Batman: Arkham City [PS3, 2011]

Also carried over from Arkham Asylum is the expansive Challenge mode. This feature pits Batman in a series of increasingly more difficult combat sequences, with the goal being to string together awesome combos in order to achieve a high score. A new twist to this mode is the ability to tweak the settings in order to make combat even more challenging (or easier, if you are so inclined).

Yet another new addition to the game is the ability to play as an entirely different character, Catwoman. Unfortunately, she can only be used if you buy the game brand new, or if you are willing to cough up $10 extra for used copies. This is a seriously shitty move on the part of the publishers, as Catwoman was clearly already built into the game and therefore should not be considered as something akin to downloadable content. I had considered paying the $10, but from what I have heard, her campaign is very short and only lasts about an hour. That’s not worth it to me, and I am disgusted that it is not included as part of the main package.

Still, Catwoman or not, Batman: Arkham City is an incredible experience that is an absolute must play, especially for those that loved its predecessor. The dark, gritty visual style is back and better than ever, and the soundtrack feels like it could easily belong in one of Christopher Nolan’s terrific Dark Knight films. With a staggering amount of gameplay depth, this will last a LONG time. An easy contender for 2011’s Game of the Year.

9/10

Movie Project #1: Vanishing Point [1971]

Due to the overwhelming success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a second round for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Vanishing Point [1971]

Vanishing Point [1971]
Director: Richard C. Sarafian
Genre: Action/Drama
Starring: Barry Newman, Cleavon Little and Dean Jagger
Runtime: 106 minutes

I miss owning a car.

Vanishing Point has re-emphasized that point for me, and I really want to hit the open road again.

There’s something to be said about just driving through open terrain for long stretches at a time, especially when you are behind the wheel of a souped-up car. That’s the case for Kowalski (Newman) and his white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T. He has accepted an assignment that requires him to deliver the Challenger to San Francisco from Denver in one weekend. That’s not enough for Kowalski, however, and he takes a bet to get the car there in 15 hours or less (an especially difficult task for that time period).

Why the hell not? The dude can drive.

Vanishing Point [1971]

Hopped up on speed pills, Kowalski effortlessly weaves in and out of traffic, carefully dodging construction areas and evading the police. Those in the way have less than desirable results, often leading to spectacular crashes. It’s exhilarating just to watch the professional at work.

We don’t learn much about Kowalski, and he really doesn’t have much to say. A few brief flashbacks show that he is a Vietnam War veteran, a former race car driver and former police officer, but they don’t provide an extensive amount of depth. This isn’t a big deal because it’s easy to empathize with the man who is just looking to finish his job.

Vanishing Point [1971]

Despite spending most of his time driving, Kowalski manages to meet/connect with a few people along the way. Most important is Super Soul (Little), a blind radio DJ who hears of Kowalski’s high speed chase and encourages him to keep going. As any driving aficionado understands, good music is essential to enjoying the journey. Super Soul is enigmatic and delivers the audio goods on his end, with a soundtrack that has cuts from Bobby Doyle, Delaney & Bonnie and Mountain, to name a few.

It’s easy to see why Vanishing Point is considered a cult classic today. There’s the breathtaking cinematography that proudly shows off the American Southwest. There’s the white-knuckle racing and the relentless chases. There’s a killer and diverse soundtrack. Consider me the latest fan to the ever-growing Vanishing Point collective. This is a damn fun movie, and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to kick off my project.

9/10

Video Game Review: Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception [PS3, 2011]

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception [PS3, 2011]

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
System: Playstation 3
Genre: Action/Adventure/Platform
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer: Naughty Dog
Release Date: November 1, 2011

Past adventures of Nathan Drake, star of the Playstation 3’s best-selling Uncharted series, have taken him all over the world. The Amazon Rainforest, Tibet, Istanbul, Borneo, Nepal. The dude has been everywhere. With Uncharted 3, Drake can now scratch even more locations off his list, including an extended run in the Middle East.

Uncharted 3 begins with a massive bar-room brawl. Drake and his long-time pal (and mentor) Victor Sullivan (“Sully”) get caught up in a deal that quickly turns sour, forcing them to fight their way through dozens of enemies, complete with broken whiskey bottles and snapped pool sticks. This works as a tutorial of sorts, as it demonstrates the slightly modified combat system while throwing our heroes directly into action.

This is the core of Uncharted 3 — moments of intense action interspersed with cutscenes to help flesh out the story. The opening bar-room brawl is only the tip of the iceberg. This time around, the big adventure set-pieces include a dashing escape out of a rapidly burning building, frantic manuevering out of a sinking cruise ship, and an elongated trip through the stifling Rub’ al Khali Desert with no water to speak of anywhere. These exaggerated sequences are the biggest reason why most gamers have fallen in love with the series, and they do not disappoint in the trilogy’s conclusion.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception [PS3, 2011]

For those looking for a bit of back-story about Drake and Sully, you are in luck. The mysterious relationship of our favorite treasure hunters is elaborated on in a series of flashbacks, even allowing gamers to play as a teenage Drake. The overall story arc is still relatively simple, but fans of the series will be pleased with this further insight.

The Uncharted series has always featured a seamless transition between its platforming and third person shooter gameplay. Naughty Dog are known for their excellent platform skills, and Drake’s jumping from ledges to chandeliers to poles or whatever else he can grab onto is flawless in execution. The gunplay, however, remains a bit of a burden on the series.

Simply put, little has changed with the game’s combat system, so the same annoyances remain in place. The shooting system feels dated and rough around the edges, and there are a few too many set-pieces that rely heavily on long gunfights. The new addition of being able to throw back tossed grenades is a welcome one, but it does not excise the occasionally awkward shooting controls. Thankfully, the campaign is spaced out with good variety for the most part, making these moments a minor annoyance more than a burst of frustration.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception [PS3, 2011]

Unfortunately, while Uncharted 3 boasts a beefy multiplayer mode, it requires an online pass ($9.99) to use it (unless you buy the game new). Outside of the co-op missions, I never really fell in love with the online features in this series, so I cannot justify spending an extra $9.99 on something I will not get maximum value for. If you are into the multiplayer aspects, you might be better off just buying this new.

Even though Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception still suffers from minor gameplay issues, the single player campaign is still a blast to play. This is as close as you’re going to get to a *good* Indiana Jones game, complete with outrageous action scenes that will make your heart race. This also may be the best-looking game I have seen yet in this current console generation, as the attention to graphical details is impeccable. If you have been following the series, you ought to do yourself a favor and finish the trilogy. I would consider it a toss-up between Drake’s Deception and Uncharted 2 as to which is the best, and both are absolutely worth playing.

8.5/10

Video Game Review: Batman: Arkham Asylum [PS3, 2009]

Batman: Arkham Asylum [PS3, 2009]

Batman: Arkham Asylum
System: Playstation 3 (also on Xbox 360, Windows and Mac OS X)
Genre: Action/Adventure/Stealth
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Release Date: August 25, 2009

I am not a big comic book or superhero guy, but I have always had a soft spot for Batman. I remember buying Batman trading cards (based on Tim Burton’s 1989 film) when I was a kid, and I even watched the ultra campy (but fun) 1960s TV show when it aired on daytime television. After some poor movie sequels in the 90s, Christopher Nolan revitalized the character with his acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy. This success has translated to the video game world, where we have Batman: Arkham Asylum, easily one of the greatest superhero titles ever made.

Arkham Asylum is gripping from the opening moments, as Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) escorts the Joker (Mark Hamill) to the eponymous institution. The Joker is restrained by handcuffs and surrounded by armed guards, but there is still that sinking feeling that shit is about to hit the fan. Sure enough, his accomplice Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin) is there to override the security system, allowing the Joker to escape. Now it is Batman’s turn to regain control of the asylum, while also thwarting the Joker’s plan to create an army of Titans that threaten Gotham City. All in a day’s work for ol’ Bats, right?

Fans of the comic books (and TV shows and films and so on) will be pleased to see several recurring characters show up. Bane, Killer Croc and Poison Ivy are just a few villains that our caped hero runs into, and there are references to several others as well. In fact, for those who could use some refreshers on the series, there are dozens of newspaper clippings scattered around the game’s environment that can be picked up to learn about backstories for each character. Even non-fans will find it easy to get sucked into the world of Gotham.

Batman: Arkham Asylum [PS3, 2009]

Arkham Asylum’s gameplay consists of a mix of brawling combat, stealth and exploration. The combat, at first glance, seems almost elementary in execution, as just one button is used to attack. However, this “Freeflow” system is surprisingly well-crafted. Along with standard attacks, Batman has the ability to “stun” an enemy, as well as counter an opposing punch or kick. In order to string together long combos (which boost the overall score), he must flawlessly maneuver between each function, dodging enemy attacks while fighting back at the same time. High scores are eventually rewarded with XP, which can in turn be used to upgrade Batman’s gadgets. Many of these can be used in combat as well, such as the Batarang and Bat-Claw. The amount of depth that this simple brawling system has is outstanding.

The stealth aspects allow Batman to hide in the shadows and use his grappling hook to fly from pillar to pillar. Evasion is important in areas where enemies are rampant, particularly when they are carrying guns. Utilizing a healthy mix of brawling and stealth is the way to go to achieve maximum success.

For those who enjoy exploration, the game offers plenty to whet the appetite. There are countless items scattered throughout the environment, many of which give insight to the game’s backstory (as mentioned earlier). Most intriguing is the addition of a whopping 200+ riddles left behind by the Riddler. In every new area, the puzzle-obsessed villain leaves behind a riddle for Batman to figure out. Many of these are tricky and benefit greatly from the use of Batman’s impressive Detective mode. This well-designed feature highlights objects of interest and allows limited X-ray vision on anyone in sight.

Batman: Arkham Asylum [PS3, 2009]

Quite frankly, there is not a shortage of quality gameplay in Arkham Asylum. As an added bonus, there is even a separate Challenge mode that offers bite-sized levels to boost combat and stealth skills. The amount of options and replay value is staggering.

Although Arkham Asylum is now over two years old, its visuals still hold up well today. The game’s environment is very dark and gritty, not unlike Christopher Nolan’s films. This presents a sense of realism that is very welcome, and this is aided by a stellar voice acting cast. Batman, the Joker and Harley Quinn are all played by their voice actors from Batman: The Animated Series, and the other roles are filled by more-than-adequate veterans on the scene. In terms of aesthetics, everything screams high quality.

I won’t go so far as to say Arkham Asylum is the best superhero game ever made, as many have, but it is certainly up there. The gameplay is near flawless, the story is a worthy entry to the canon, and the presentation is superb. You don’t have to be a fan of the series to appreciate what this game has to offer. As a bargain bin title today, there really is no excuse to miss this.

9/10

Now, onto Arkham City, which I am VERY eager to play.

Video Game Review: Crysis 2 [Xbox 360, 2011]

Crysis 2 [Xbox 360, 2011]

Crysis 2
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: First Person Shooter
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Crytek Frankfurt
Release Date: March 22, 2011

The original Crysis gained a tough reputation due to its demanding PC hardware requirements. It was deemed to be “unplayable” on consoles, and it took four years before it was finally able to be ported over. Apparently Crytek realized that it would be better to have multi-platform releases, so the inevitable Crysis 2 was designed with consoles in mind. The new CryEngine 3 graphics system has made all of this possible, and the end results are stunning. This is one of the best-looking games on the Xbox 360.

Set three years after the original, Crysis 2 takes place in New York City, which has become a warzone thanks to both a nasty virus outbreak and an alien invasion. Yes, those Ceph bastards are back, and they are wreaking havoc on the city. The main protagonist this time is a soldier codenamed Alcatraz, who survives a brutal submarine accident upon deploying NYC. With little other options available, Alcatraz is essentially selected as the “Chosen One” and he receives the same Nanosuit that Prophet wore in the first game. From this point on, his goal is to rid the planet of those nasty aliens while also fighting off U.S. Military personnel that are hellbent on destroying the Nanosuit.

The Nanosuit is the centerpiece of the Crysis series, and it is at its best here. There is no question that Alcatraz has the holy grail of armor, and it makes him out to be a huge badass. All of the suit’s capabilities return from the first game, including cloaking and advanced defensive mechanisms, but everything is intensified. Even better is the fact that the Nanosuit can be customized and upgraded over time. As aliens are killed, their technology can be collected and used to bolster four different areas: Armor, Power, Tactical and Stealth. This essentially allows the game to be played in different ways, as an emphasis can be placed on stealth, gunplay or a mix of both.

I love that the game offers this ability, as it is a great thrill to sneak past a group of aliens and then open up and let them have it in the next area. As the game can be completed in different ways, this adds to the overall replay value.

One thing that I enjoyed from the first Crysis was that most of the game took place in a large, open world. This is not the case here in the sequel, as Crytek have opted to make this a more linear shooter. It’s not quite on the levels of Modern Warfare’s strictly on-rails gameplay, for example, but there is little to explore on the streets of New York. That’s not to say that this is a bad thing, it’s just different.

The game’s campaign has been stated to be close to ten hours, but I finished it in less than seven. I used a mix of stealth/action combat techniques, so the time length may vary depending on what style of gameplay is used. In comparison to the first game, the campaign is notably easier with a seemingly endless supply of ammunition available. I had a hard time finishing Crysis on “normal” mode, but here it was almost too simple. While Crysis 2’s campaign is certainly a lot of fun to play through, it has less “holy shit” moments than the original, and the final “boss” is a bit of a letdown. In this department, it is slightly disappointing, even though the Nanosuit is much more powerful.

Crysis 2 has an advantage in that it includes a deep multiplayer mode. This uses a leveling-up system similar to that of Modern Warfare, complete with killstreaks and custom classes, but it differentiates itself with the use of cloaking/armor abilities. Unfortunately, the online community is very, very small at the moment, so it may take some work to get a good session going. However, when that happens, the multiplayer aspect is a real treat and offers a nice alternative to other online shooters.

Crysis 2 [Xbox 360, 2011]

I would be remiss not to discuss more of the game’s visuals. This is simply one of the best looking shooters available on a home console, and it is a huge step forward from the original’s recent port (which wasn’t too shabby itself). New York City, despite being utterly war-torn, is beautiful, and much of the game is based on real locations. To really show off its graphical power, there is an obligatory level that takes place in the rain — truly a work of beauty.

While I prefer the open-world nature of the original, Crysis 2 still has a lot going for it. The mix of gameplay tactics is brilliant, the campaign is a fun ride, and the game itself is a technical marvel. I wish there were more memorable moments like its predecessor, but this is still one of the more underrated releases from 2011. Fans of FPS and action titles should definitely look into picking this up, especially as it can be found for as low as $9.99 these days.

8/10

Movie Review: Drive [2011]

Drive [2011]

Drive [2011]
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Genre: Action/Crime/Drama
Language: English
Country: USA

Hijinks Ensue, a “geek” web comic by Joel Watson, sums up Drive better than anything else I have seen:

Drive isn’t anything like the trailer, as I am sure most of you know by now. The fact that the trailer markets the film as a “Fast and the Furious” type adventure has pissed off a lot of people, even causing one Michigan woman to file a lawsuit against the film’s distributor. All of this is pretty ridiculous, but if you go into Drive with an open mind, it’s easy to see why it has received so much critical acclaim.

As more of an arthouse film than an action saga, Drive follows the man only known as Driver (Ryan Gosling), a stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver. Long story short, the dude loves to drive. He builds a soft-spoken friendship with his neighbor next door, Irene (Carey Mulligan), but just as they are starting to hit it off, her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), comes back home after getting out of jail. Things begin to spiral out of control after this, as Driver takes on a major job that changes the worlds of everyone around him.

Drive [2011]

As the above comic states, a significant portion of the movie revolves around dialogue. Sparse dialogue at that. There are moments of terrific action, including a couple of adrenaline-spiking driving scenes, but the film moves along at a much slower pace than the trailer may lead viewers to believe. I loved the pacing of the movie, especially as the dialogue was sharp and well-written despite being very minimalistic. It was refreshing to see an “action” movie that is not made up of endless explosions and cheesy one-liners.

The aforementioned bursts of violence are extreme and happen completely unexpectedly. The audience I was with gasped in horror as characters were taken down in some of the most brutal ways possible. Director Nicolas Winding Refn sure knows how to use violence to make a statement, especially given the fact that it was only used in short spurts.

Much can be said about Drive’s style as well. The opening credits use a retro pink font that harkens flashbacks to the 1980s, and the music is obviously inspired by past influences. College’s “Real Hero” is used effectively in what is a defining moment in the film.

Drive [2011]

Drive wouldn’t be as memorable without its stellar cast. Ryan Gosling, Hollywood’s darling of the moment, is simply excellent here. He is absolutely convincing as Driver, a man who seems to have a boyish charm at times but can also produce a nasty mean streak. Carey Mulligan, as his neighbor, is someone who I thought was miscast at first, but I quickly became a fan of her chemistry with Gosling. She is one of my favorite young actresses going today, and this role helped solidify this status. Other notable performers include the always fantastic Bryan Cranston as Driver’s employer, Albert Brooks as a vicious mobster (a nice diversion from some of his past roles), and Ron Perlman as a badass Jewish mobster. There’s even a blink-and-you-miss-it performance from Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks — always a treat to see her on the big screen.

As long as you don’t go into Drive expecting a generic action flick, there’s a lot to like about it. In fact, there wasn’t much I didn’t like. The patient pacing, the brilliant cast, the slick style, the great soundtrack. This may be the best movie I have seen this year, and it’s going to be hard to top it in the next couple months. If you haven’t already, go see this in the theater.

9/10

Video Game Review: Scribblenauts [DS, 2009]

Scribblenauts [DS, 2009]

Scribblenauts
System: Nintendo DS
Genre: Emergent, Puzzle, Action
Publisher: WB Games
Developer: 5th Cell
Release Date: September 15, 2009

Scribblenauts is a perfect example of a game with tremendous potential yet unsatisfying execution. This DS puzzler presents a world full of possibilities, with the only limit being your imagination.

The goal is simple: you are given an objective, and you must find a way to complete this by writing in words, which then appear on screen in their physical forms. Let’s say, theoretically, that the “starite” (the item you need to get to) is on the other side of a lake. You can get there in a number of ways, of course. You could write in “boat” and take that across to the other side. You could get a pair of wings and fly over, or you could get a snorkel and swim across. This is a very basic example, but you get the idea.

Scribblenauts [DS, 2009]

There are a whopping 200+ stages in the game, evenly split up into “puzzle” and “action” stages. Puzzle stages require something to be solved, whereas action levels are more versed in side-scrolling platforming gameplay. Stages are ranked on a four-star difficulty system, so you have a good idea of how challenging a certain level will be. If that’s not enough, there is even an option to create your own level, or just mess around in a sandbox area and try out different words to see what they do. It’s incredible that 5th Cell managed to fit all of this into a DS cartridge, especially considering there are more than 10,000 words in its dictionary.

On the technical side of things, there is no doubt that Scribblenauts is impressive. Unfortunately, there are major issues that severely hamper gameplay. The biggest problem rests squarely on the control system. The main character, Maxwell, is a bitch to move around. You control him by tapping the stylus on screen, but he is very lackadaisical in his movements. I couldn’t even tell you how many times I tried to get him to move to a certain platform, only for him to fall off over and over again. It’s also difficult to pick up items and/or interact with them sometimes. There are moments where the “item taps” will register as an empty space, often creating situations where Maxwell falls to his death. This is all beyond frustrating, and it could have been fixed with a simple solution: just let the character be moved with the D-Pad! As it stands, the game only uses the D-Pad to move the camera from side-to-side. Everything else uses the stylus, which just doesn’t work as it should. Very disappointing.

Scribblenauts [DS, 2009]

There are also problems with the game’s vocabulary. While the sheer amount of words available is staggering, most of the puzzles can be solved with the same basic items. I found myself using the same words over and over again: jetpack, wings, cord. While the game begs for gamers to be creative, why would I want to take the time to type out something infinitely more complex, especially when the game rewards you for finishing a stage quickly? Simple, tried-and-true techniques seem to work best here.

Also, every word available comes in a one-size-fits-all package. There is no way to get a longer rope or a larger blanket. You have to work around the size that the game gives you. This causes seemingly logical solutions to not work at all, even when they should theoretically.

It’s a shame that Scribblenauts was released with so many inherent flaws. The concept is, frankly, brilliant, and it evokes powerful feelings to have the ability to write anything you want and have it appear on screen. There’s still a decent and playable game underneath, but I can’t help but feel that this game could have truly been something special. There is a sequel now available that claims to have improved controls, but I’m not sure I will bother with that one. As it stands, Scribblenauts is a technical marvel but a mediocre game.

6/10

Movie Project #9: Akira [1988]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Akira [1988]

Akira [1988]
Directors: Katsuhiro Ohtomo
Genre: Anime/Action/Fantasy
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan

When it comes to anime, I have no problem admitting that I am very much a novice. I have seen a few Studio Ghibli films, and a handful of random TV show episodes here and there (mostly Ranma ½ and InuYasha), but never fully explored the genre. One movie that I have heard come up time and time again whenever anime is mentioned is the 1988 film, Akira.

Based on the massive eponymous manga series, Akira is a cyberpunk-themed sci-fi film set in dystopian Neo-Tokyo. The story revolves around Tetsuo, a motorcycle gang member who develops powerful psychic powers. He’s not alone in having these abilities; he comes to find out that there are multiple youths who have unique powers, including Akira, the child who caused Tokyo’s destruction 31 years ago. However, Tetsuo soon becomes megalomaniacal and begins to threaten the city in his own way. His buddy and fellow gang member, Kaneda, sets out to stop the potential devastation, all while getting caught up in the middle of a battle with the city’s oppressive government. Naturally, there is a lot of violence and crazy shit happening throughout.

Akira [1988]

As someone unfamiliar with the original manga, I couldn’t help but get lost during the movie. The story moves along at a fast clip, and I had no idea what was happening at times. I had no interest in the main characters, and couldn’t empathize with Tetsuo, even as he was fighting back against the evil government. From what I have heard, it really helps to have read the original material before watching the movie, and I certainly got that feeling myself.

The animation, while obviously dated, still looks cool and I thought it was a strong suit for the movie. I dug the cyberpunk feel, as the visuals do an excellent job portraying a gritty city that is still feeling the effects of its previous destruction. For a 20+ year old film, Akira still looks sharp.

I feel like I may need to watch Akira again to appreciate it more, but I am also wondering if I am just not a fan of this style of anime. I liked the visuals and the environment they portrayed, but I felt hopeless as the story began to spiral out of control.

Akira fans, what am I missing here?

Video Game Review: Deus Ex: Human Revolution [Playstation 3, 2011]

Deus Ex: Human Revolution [Playstation 3, 2011]

Deus Ex: Human Revolution
System: Playstation 3 (also available on Xbox 360, PC, and Mac)
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Release Date: August 23, 2011

Talk about a mashup of genres.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution has elements of stealth games, first person shooters, sci-fi thrillers, RPGs, and tactical espionage. It is a smart and cerebral adventure, one full of conspiracies, twists and turns. Quite frankly, this is one of the most mentally stimulating titles to come out on this current generation of video game systems.

A prequel to the original highly-regarded 2000 PC title, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is set in a dystopian futuristic Detroit. To be exact, the year is 2027, and a major class divide is running rampant. On one side, there are the “Naturals”, normal humans who are against any sort of genetic body modifications. On the other side are “Augs”, humans who are augmented with mechanical implants that push the boundaries of human ability.

Caught in the middle of the escalating war between the two sides is Adam Jensen, a gruff-talking security expert for Sarif Industries, one of the largest augmentation companies in the country. After a rival company attacks Sarif’s headquarters and begins torching the place, Adam becomes gravely injured and is near death before being taken in and, unwillingly, given augmentations. These modifications save his life, and when he gets back to full strength, his boss sends him out to find those who attacked the company. What Adam uncovers goes far beyond his wildest expectations.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution [Playstation 3, 2011]

As a cyberpunk-themed story, Human Revolution is incredibly well written and always intriguing. While the main quests add up to a lengthy adventure, the side quests help flesh out the story more and are oftentimes just as enthralling. Typical playthroughs will last for 20+ hours, even if optional missions are ignored.

There is just so much to see and do in the game, and it helps that the environments are so fascinating. Futuristic Detroit is dark, grimy and full of seedy characters. The city is big enough that it is possible to find new things while just wandering around, but it is scaled to the point where it’s easy to walk from point A to point B without there being lengthy gaps between action. It’s amazing how well-crafted the game’s settings are.

Perhaps the most crucial aspect (and possibly biggest selling point) of Human Revolution is the fact that you can play it any way you want to. While the game prides itself on its stealth capabilities, you don’t have to sneak around. You can go in guns-a-blazin’ and shoot up everyone you see if that’s how you would rather play the game. Adam’s augmentation system allows you to build up his capabilities to suit your style, and upgrades can be earned by gaining experience and finding relevant items scattered throughout the city. While Adam starts off with fairly meager augmentations, he will be spectacularly built up by the end of the game, provided you allow him to be.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution [Playstation 3, 2011]

In my first playthrough, I opted to do a hybrid of stealth and action gameplay. Both styles were a blast to mess around with, and it was easy to switch between the two. Sneaking around was perhaps most fun, which is a bit of a surprise to me since I usually prefer intense action sequences. There’s something to be said about crawling to a side of the room, staying in cover, waiting for an enemy to turn away, then taking him down with a quick knockout punch, all while surrounding enemies are oblivious. I also loved exploring areas to find ventilation shafts, which in turn would take me to previously inaccessible areas.

Exploration is a large part of the game, especially if you want to really dig into the story. Scattered throughout the environment are eBooks, “personal secretary” notes, and private emails, all of which add to the overall story when read. Considering the sheer amount of detail that went into the plot, it’s worth finding as much as you can (especially when you stumble upon some of the many humorous Easter Eggs).

Deus Ex: Human Revolution [Playstation 3, 2011]

One of the most efficient ways of obtaining information is via hacking. This is done through a mini-game that is confusing at first, but easy to get the hang of after a few tries. Basically the idea is to navigate through a series of nodes in order to reach the end target while trying to get it done as fast as possible in order to avoid setting off alarms. This is exciting in its own way, as it is always a race against the clock. As a bonus, there are hacking augmentations that can be used to make things a bit easier if you are having problems.

Flaws are few and far in between. The most glaring issue is one that will only affect those wishing to play the entire game without killing anyone — a handful of boss fights interrupt the game’s flow and can cause great difficulty for those armed with nothing more than a tranquilizer gun and some health packs. I found these battles to be a challenging change of pace for my style of gameplay, but this can certainly be a problem for those going all ninja-like.

Also, while enemy AI is generally rather sharp, there are occasions where adversaries get hung up in certain areas, allowing themselves to be casually picked off one by one. These moments are not that common, however, and do not hinder the overall combat experience.

Visually, Human Revolution succeeds in delivering a gritty and unique cyberpunk-style environment. Character models are well-designed, and animations are generally pretty solid outside of occasional awkward clipping (such as when attempting to drag bodies to another location). The aural experience is nothing short of phenomenal. The game’s soundtrack is hauntingly beautiful, a perfect fit for game’s setting. The voice acting is of the utmost quality, with Adam Jensen’s surly Clint Eastwood/Keanu Reeves imitation leading the way.

In short, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is one of the better single-player experiences you will find today. Sci-fi aficionados will love the story, shooter fans will dig the impressive amount of weapons and slick combat action, and RPG lovers will enjoy crafting Jensen in their own image. There really is something for everyone here, although the game’s slow pace may take some getting used to. Kudos, Square Enix, for delivering such a deep adventure that makes the player really feel like THEY are in control.

9/10