Month In Review [September 2014]

In order of viewing:
1) Master and Commander: Far Side of the World [2003] – 8/10
Master and Commander: Far Side of the World [2003]

2) Dead Silence [2007] – 3/10
Dead Silence [2007]

3) Waking Life [2001] – 8/10
Waking Life [2001]

4) Apollo 13 [1995] – 7/10
Apollo 13 [1995]

5) Philadelphia [1993] – 7/10
Philadelphia [1993]

6) Tape [2001] – 7/10
Tape [2001]

7) The Untouchables [1987] – 8/10
The Untouchables [1987]

8) The Aviator [2004] – 8/10
The Aviator [2004]

Video Games Completed:
1) Batman: Arkham Asylum [Xbox 360]* – 9/10
Batman: Arkham Asylum [Xbox 360]

2) South Park: The Stick of Truth [Xbox 360] – 8/10
South Park: The Stick of Truth [Xbox 360]

3) The Walking Dead: Season Two [Xbox 360] – 9/10
The Walking Dead: Season Two [Xbox 360]

* denotes replay

TV Shows Finished:
1) Veep [Season 2] – 8/10
Veep [Season 2]

2) Archer [Season 2] – 8/10
Archer [Season 2]

Best of the Month: Aside from one misfire which I will get to in the next section, I had a great (albeit slow) month of movie watching. Although I rated most of them similarly, I have to give the edge to Waking Life as my favorite of the group. Richard Linklater’s philosophical animated film raises a lot of intriguing thoughts and questions, though I can’t pretend to understand some of its more weightier segments. Definitely one I would like to revisit at some point. For video games, the second season of The Walking Dead was just as bleak and depressing as the first one, and I loved it pretty much all the way through. It doesn’t have a character on the level of Lee from season one, but it’s still an excellent followup, and I am very curious to see where the next season goes.

Worst of the Month: I have mostly enjoyed director James Wan’s past work (particularly Saw and The Conjuring), but Dead Silence is just an awful, awful film. It has a cliché-ridden plot, laughable performances (Ryan Kwanten and Donnie Wahlberg, ladies and gentlemen) and some seriously cringe-worthy dialogue. Worst of all, there is no sense of dread anywhere. Just very disappointing.

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Video Game DLC Review: The Walking Dead: 400 Days [Xbox 360]

The Walking Dead: 400 Days

The Walking Dead: 400 Days
System: Xbox 360 [also on PS3, PC, i0S and Vita (soon)]
Genre: Point-and-click adventure
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: July-August, 2013

Meant to bridge the gap between seasons one and two of Telltale’s The Walking Dead (my pick for 2012 game of the year), 400 Days is a much-welcomed expansion that plays out like a short story anthology. Rather than focus on a couple of characters like Lee and Clementine from season one, here we are introduced to five completely different people who are all brought together in the end.

The game gives you the option of playing through their stories (all of which take place at varying points of the zombie outbreak) as you see fit, and each segment lasts about 15-20 minutes. This gives just enough time to start caring for these characters while also craving more time with them.

Each story offers up a unique situation. One involves a prison bus being attacked by zombies en route; another revolves around a car accident. The characters are a diverse group, and all of them are well-written even though their appearances are brief.

The Walking Dead: 400 Days [Xbox 360, 2013]

There is a lot crammed into these little segments, and as expected, there are a number of difficult choices to make. Once again, your stats will appear at the end of the episode, allowing you to compare your decisions with the rest of the gaming public. In fact, in terms of gameplay, there are little differences between the mechanics of this and the first season. Telltale added a couple of missable achievements, but other than that, the gameplay is pretty much the same. That’s not a bad thing.

If there are faults to 400 Days, they are stemmed in it being almost *too* short. The episode can be finished in under two hours, even when exploring every dialogue option. The epilogue feels a bit rushed as well, though it will be interesting to see how/if it ties into season two. Still, I’m happy to get any bits of The Walking Dead experience that I can, and 400 Days is a satisfying appetizer until season two arrives in the fall.

8/10

Poll Results: Favorite Video Game From 2012

It was looking like we might have an upset, but this game came roaring back at the end:

The Walking Dead

THE RESULTS:
– The Walking Dead: 5 votes
– Borderlands 2: 4 votes
– Journey: 3 votes
– Sleeping Dogs: 3 votes
– XCOM: Enemy Unknown: 2 votes
– Assassin’s Creed III: 1 vote
– Call of Duty: Black Ops II: 1 vote
– Diablo III: 1 vote
– Dishonored: 1 vote
– Far Cry 3: 1 vote
– Fez: 1 vote
– Halo 4: 1 vote
– Hitman: Absolution: 1 vote
– Mass Effect 3: 1 vote
– Max Payne 3: 1 vote
– Persona 4: The Golden: 1 vote

Sixteen (!) games received votes, which may be a new poll record. Last year was stacked with great games, but I agree with you guys: The Walking Dead stood tall above the rest. No game has ever provided the type of emotional experience for me quite like Telltale’s adventure saga.

This Week’s Poll: Despite atrocious critical reviews, the new Die Hard film topped the box office over the weekend. Rather than dwell on a series that has apparently been pushed too far, let’s focus on the highlights of its star, Bruce Willis. What two films do you consider to be the best in Bruce Willis’ filmography?

Have a great week everyone!

Top 10 Video Games From 2012

For the first time in years, I did a decent job keeping up with the latest video game releases. There were still many that I missed, but this is the first time I have been able to put together a top 10 list during January. This was a great year for video games, especially when it came to narrative-driven experiences.

Honorable Mentions:
Journey
Dyad
FIFA 13
Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Mass Effect 3
10) Mass Effect 3
This is The Dark Knight Rises of the Mass Effect trilogy, especially in terms of divisiveness. I loved it despite mixed feelings about the ending.

Trials Evolution [XBLA]
9) Trials Evolution
Pretty much the perfect sequel. Expands upon the original in every way possible.

Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]
8) Sleeping Dogs
A strong contender for my new favorite GTA-style game. Gotta love the Hong Kong setting, too.

Mark of the Ninja [Xbox 360, 2012]
7) Mark of the Ninja
This could very well be the best stealth game I have ever played. Finishing a level without being seen always feels like a huge triumph.

Max Payne 3
6) Max Payne 3
If ever there were a game that feels like an action movie, this is it. Hell, it’s better than most of Hollywood’s recent action flicks.

Hotline Miami [PC]
5) Hotline Miami
The violence is hard to stomach, but the gameplay is so addictive that I kept coming back for more. Best soundtrack of the year as well.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown
4) XCOM: Enemy Unknown
I’m usually not a big fan of strategy games, but XCOM locked me in and didn’t let go. Easy to learn, difficult to master, but always fun.

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]
3) Spec Ops: The Line
On the surface, this appears to be nothing more than a standard third-person military shooter. But then the story kicks in, and it’s impossible to get out of this descent into madness. Arguably the best narrative ever found in a shooter.

Borderlands 2 [Xbox 360]
2) Borderlands 2
The original Borderlands was one of the breakout hits of 2009, and the sequel delivers everything that worked so well in an even more refined experience. I can’t stop looting.

The Walking Dead: The Game [Xbox 360, 2012]
1) The Walking Dead
The most emotional experience I have ever come across in a video game. An unheralded art of storytelling in a medium that so badly needs strong narratives.

What I Missed: Far Cry 3, Lone Survivor, Torchlight II, Diablo III, Hitman: Absolution

What did I miss? Do you agree with these choices? If you have your own top 10, feel free to share in the comments!

Video Game Review: The Walking Dead [Xbox 360]

The Walking Dead: The Game

The Walking Dead
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3, PC, Mac OS X, iOS)
Genre: Point-and-click adventure
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: Throughout 2012

The last time I cried was at my father’s funeral five years ago.

There have been times since then where I would get choked up, particularly after some painstakingly depressing films (i.e. Grave of the Fireflies), but nothing has made the tears really start flowing. I don’t like crying, and I have a tendency to fight it even when it feels like a natural reaction. After completing The Walking Dead, once again I found myself holding back tears, albeit less successfully this time. No video game has ever come close to evoking this type of emotion in me.

It’s funny, I shouldn’t even like The Walking Dead. I tried watching the AMC TV show of the same name, and found it embarrassingly amateur. I gave up after the first season. I’m also burnt out on the whole “zombie” fad, as it reached the point of over-saturation long ago. Yet I found myself drawn to Telltale’s episodic video game series. It grabbed a hold of me and refused to let go.

The Walking Dead [Xbox 360]

My initial plan was to review each of The Walking Dead‘s five episodes individually — I wrote about numbers one and two last year — but it began to grow tedious. How could I possibly write about each episode without using spoilers? There are groundbreaking revelations within each episode, with characters coming and going at a breakneck pace.

At its core, however, two characters remain constant: Lee and Clementine.

Lee is the player-controlled protagonist who essentially “adopts” Clementine, the eight-year-old he finds alone in a treehouse during the first episode. With her parents missing, Lee becomes something of a father figure to the young girl (later episodes even give the option of introducing her as his daughter). The relationship between these two grows with every moment, and I found myself doing everything I could to protect her.

Every episode forces Lee to make crucial decisions, most of which offer two choices that essentially equate to “bad” and “worse.” After my playing sessions, I found myself questioning some of my choices. Should I have saved a different character’s life? Should I have really stolen food from that car? I tried to do everything in the interest of Clementine — in a world that has gone to hell, the only important thing was to help this little girl survive.

The Walking Dead [Xbox 360]

In reality, that’s what The Walking Dead is about: survival. It’s near impossible to trust anyone else because that is ultimately their goal as well. Everyone is looking out for their own interests, as well as their families. Relationships are often forged but remain shaky as tensions flare up.

I was emotionally drained by the end of the game. This series really puts you through the ringer, never letting up at all. It’s fantastic storytelling, and it’s unlike any other found in a video game so far. The writing is excellent, the voice acting top notch, and the characters unforgettable.

I had never felt the way I did upon completing The Walking Dead. I wasn’t sure that video games as a medium could evoke that type of reaction out of me — hell, very few movies have, and I have seen a lot of ’em. For this alone, The Walking Dead is one of the most important games to come out in 2012, and I have absolutely no reservations about calling this the Game of the Year.

10/10

Video Game Review: The Walking Dead, Episode 2: Starved for Help [PS3]

The Walking Dead, Episode 1: A New Day [PS3]

The Walking Dead, Episode 2: Starved for Help
System: Playstation 3 (also on Xbox 360, PC, Mac and iOS)
Genre: Adventure/Horror
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Price: $4.99 ($19.99 for PS3 season pass)
Release Date: June 29, 2012

I didn’t think it would happen so quickly, but I am becoming pretty damn attached to the characters in The Walking Dead episodic games. At just two hours in length per episode, the story continues to surprise with plenty of character development and gut-wrenching twists and turns. Whereas A New Day set the table for things to come, Starved for Help shows just how bleak the ongoing zombie outbreak really is.

Set three months after the first episode’s events, Lee, Clementine and the rest now find themselves running dangerously low on food and supplies. Just as they reach the end of their stash, a couple of guys show up at the motel looking to exchange food for gasoline. They claim to have a safe haven: they own a huge dairy farm that is protected by an electrified fence. They even have a cow to provide them with milk. Could this be the group’s big break?

I won’t get into plot specifics, but Telltale did an excellent job at dropping hints about what’s to come while also building the suspense. I wasn’t sure what to expect as the episode played out, but the payoff was fantastic.

The Walking Dead, Episode 2: Starved for Help [PS3]

As per the first episode, Lee is presented with six “Tough Decisions” that are crucial to the story development. The first one happens right away, and this gruesome encounter sets the tone for the rest of the game. By the end, I was ashamed of my final two choices, and I was tempted to go back through and try a different way. But alas, this is my Walking Dead experience, and I am going to see it through with my original decisions in tact.

It really says something when a game can make you feel such moments of despair and regret based on a single decision. This story continues to grow darker and darker, and I am excited to see where it goes from here. Per usual, the episode ends with a cliffhanger, as well as a preview of what’s next.

The Walking Dead, Episode 2: Starved for Help [PS3]

The point-and-click gameplay is the same as before, and it works well in the context of this episode. There are occasionally some slight hiccups when the framerate stutters a bit, but these do not hinder the experience.

Naturally, this is a must play if you have completed A New Day. This episode is even better than the last, and it has seriously raised my expectations for the rest of the series. Decisions seem even more critical now, and the story is moving along at a nice clip. If you haven’t experienced The Walking Dead yet, now is the time.

9/10

Top 5 Video Games of 2012 — So Far

Yesterday I took at a look at the best movies to come out so far this year. Today, it’s video games. Now, there are a handful that I still need to play (Fez, Sleeping Dogs, The Witcher 2) but I am doing a better job this year at keeping up with the latest titles. Here are my top five video games so far for home consoles:

Journey [PS3]

5) Journey

More of an experience than a game, but it is one I will not soon forget.

The Walking Dead, Episode 1: A New Day [PS3]

4) The Walking Dead

This episodic series just keeps getting better and better. Blows away the TV show.

Trials Evolution [XBLA]

3) Trials Evolution

The perfect example of what a sequel should be: it improves upon the original in every way.

2) Max Payne 3

This Rockstar effort is better than most modern action flicks, with an unparalleled visual presentation, to boot.

Mass Effect 3

1) Mass Effect 3

This is the Dark Knight Rises of the Mass Effect trilogy. Not the best of the series, but still pretty damn good, and a satisfying conclusion to one of gaming’s best trilogies.

Thoughts? Am I missing anything that is an absolute must play so far?

Video Game Review: The Walking Dead, Episode 1: A New Day [PS3]

The Walking Dead, Episode 1: A New Day [PS3]

The Walking Dead, Episode 1: A New Day
System: Playstation 3 (also on Xbox 360, PC, Mac and iOS)
Genre: Adventure/Horror
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Price: $4.99 ($19.99 for PS3 season pass)
Release Date: April 24, 2012

Looking to capitalize on the success of the wildly popular Walking Dead TV show and comics, Telltale Games have started their own episodic take on the series. Known for their point-and-click adventures (Back to the Future, Jurassic Park), Telltale already have two seasons planned for The Walking Dead. The first is currently going on right now, with two episodes already released. The second season will likely arrive sometime next year. At just $5 per episode, it’s hard to resist digging in, even for non-fans of the show (like myself). Even better, the first two episodes are now available for free for Playstation Plus members.

A New Day begins with the protagonist, college professor Lee Everett, handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser. The driver, an old, grizzled police officer, makes small talk with Lee, and bits of his past are slowly revealed. Clearly, he was arrested for a serious crime, but it’s unclear as to exactly what it was. Before they can reach their destination, a figure suddenly appears in the middle of the road, causing the car to lose control and violently crash off to the side. After maneuvering out of the handcuffs and noticing more grotesque figures (later learned to be zombies) heading in his direction, Lee escapes and stumbles into an abandoned house.

The Walking Dead, Episode 1: A New Day [PS3]

It is here that Lee meets Clementine, a first grader who has been hiding in her tree house, patiently waiting for her parents to come home. The two of them decide to leave together in an attempt to find safety in this suddenly apocalyptic world.

For those unfamiliar with the adventure genre, The Walking Dead’s gameplay will be a bit of a surprise. This is a game that doesn’t rely on rapid action or non-stop zombie killing. Instead, the main focus is on story progression, character choices and occasional QTE (quick time event) sequences. Lee is controlled with the left analog stick, and the right analog stick is used to select objects. When chosen, Lee can make observations, chat with others or use two items together. The control system is as easy as it gets, and even non-gamers should be able to dive right in and feel at home.

The Walking Dead, Episode 1: A New Day [PS3]

As mentioned, choices are of the utmost importance in the game, and your personal actions will modify the events found in the rest of the series. In A New Day, there are five moments that the game labels “Tough Decisions”. These are critical sequences in which Lee has to choose between two actions. One such example involves two characters being attacked by zombies. You only have time to save one of them, and it has to be quick — who do you choose? There are also decisions to make during standard dialogue exchanges, and characters will remember your replies for future reference. While the impact of these decisions is minimal in the first episode, it’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun to see how these play out over the entire season.

Telltale included a nice treat at the end of the game that shows how your choices compared to others. Interestingly enough, I sided with the majority in all of my “tough decisions” except for one.

The Walking Dead, Episode 1: A New Day [PS3]

Aesthetically, The Walking Dead looks and sounds like a low budget title, but it actually works for the concept. The cartoonish art style fits the theme, and it doesn’t hold back with plenty of gore in some especially gruesome moments. Some animations can cause the framerate to sputter a bit, but they never messed up the gameplay. The voice acting is hit-and-miss; sometimes it can be convincing, yet other times it is laughably bad. On the whole, though, the voice acting is competent enough.

A New Day is an exciting beginning to The Walking Dead series, and for $5 you’ll get about two hours of good, solid gameplay. The real fun lies in making choices, as these ultimately will matter a great deal in future installments. In the heat of the moment, what would you do? Who would you save?

8/10