Saturday, January 30, 2010

Mass Effect: now with less boredom!

I finished my first play-through of Mass Effect 2 and, overall, I enjoyed it. To explain why I liked it, it's probably best to compare it to the first game.

The first Mass Effect had its moments, but it was a deeply flawed RPG. It's five biggest problems, in no particular order, were:

1. Tedious resource-gathering missions (minerals, Turian insignias, etc.) that added nothing to the game.

2. Side quests that all took place in the same damn mine or prefab house.

3. The Mako, a.k.a., the worst video game vehicle ever.

4. The cumbersome item system, which gave you both too much (lots of variations on the same gear with only minor differences) and too little (only allowed to carry 150 items).

5. The computer-controlled allies often did stupid things if you did't micro-manage their tactics.

How well did Mass Effect 2 address these problems? Well...

1. The resource-gathering (done by scanning a planet rather than driving around) is actually essential because the resources are used for upgrades. On the other hand, scanning planets is tedious as hell. At the very least, you don't have to scan every planet since there's more than enough resources in the galaxy, but it still slows the gameplay to a crawl.

2. Side quest locations are much, much, much more varied in both their design and mission objectives. There are fewer quests overall, but they offer far more rewarding gameplay.

3. The Mako has been replaced by the Kodiak, a shuttle that simply drops you right next to the target location. No trying to drive over mountains.

4. The item/weapons menu is effectively gone. Characters carry whatever weapons they have a talent for, and there are only 2-3 versions of each type of weapon. Much less fussing over what to turn into omni-gel.

5. The computer-controlled allies are still pretty damn stupid, but it rarely hurts the combat experience.

So it's a big improvement, especially with regards to side quests and item management. The resource-gathering, however, needs to be either completely revamped or chucked out entirely. I want to shoot aliens and save the galaxy, not mine for iridium.

Despite my complaints, I would recommend Mass Effect 2 for any RPG/sci-fi fan.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Quickie Movie Reviews

Paranormal Activity (on DVD)
What if the idiots from the Blair Witch Project never left the house? This movie answers that question! Thankfully, the camera-work is much less nausea-inducing. It's best when watched with someone who believes in ghosts and/or jumps at every loud noise. Ultimately though, there isn't much there beyond a haunted house story told through "found footage," but it's damned impressive for an ultra low budget feature.

If you get the DVD with the alternate ending, watch that version. The theatrical ending is SILLY.

Sherlock Holmes
Screw that mystery crap, lets just make an action movie! Sherlock Holmes as buddy cop action flick works surprisingly well, thanks in no small part to Robert Downey, Jr. Who would have thought, just 5 years ago, that recidivist drug addict RDJ would be the lead in two hugely successful blockbusters? Rachel McAdams is completely miscast though.

A lot of critics have accused this film of being "Dances with Wolves" in space ... and they're right. But so what? The story may be derivative, but at least it has an actual plot and characters with comprehensible motivations (unlike Transformers or G.I.JOE), plus it looks phenomenal in 3-D. Admittedly, that's setting the bar pretty low, but sometimes good enough really is good enough.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Half-Blood Prince Spoiler Alert!

Dumbledore dies and Harry Potter is an incredibly overrated franchise.

Don't get me wrong, there are some good ideas, but they're dragged down by tedious plots and a third rate hero. The most recent film in the series, The Half-Blood Prince, is a prime example of everything wrong with the franchise. Too long, too slow, and the story doesn't have an ending so much as it just stops. I suppose Half-Blood Prince works just fine as a chapter in a longer story, but not as standalone film. And if Dumbledore dropped the aloof and mysterious act and just explained his plan at the beginning like a normal person, the film could have easily trimmed half an hour off its runtime.

And on top of that Harry still sucks. Self-centeredness is to be expected in a kid who's constantly being referred to as the Chosen One, but it would be much more tolerable if we were at least shown why Harry's so damn special. As far as I can tell, he's a reckless idiot who's constantly in over his head. And if not for Dumbledore and his dear dead parents, Harry would have been killed long ago.

I know I'm in the minority on this. I know wizard high school is the second most beloved concept in fiction after virgin vampire. But, in my opinion, Harry Potter is just one more story where the execution falls far short of the concept.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Guns, Guns, Guns!

Having spent most of my productive hours last week playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, I can confidently say that it's a great, if somewhat flawed, game.

The single-player campaign continues the storyline from Call of Duty 4, with our hero, "Soap" MacTavish, now an officer in the top secret Task Force 141. As with the previous Call of Duty games, the player controls multiple characters, including an Army Ranger and Soap's subordinate, "Roach." Without giving too much away, the fighting takes you from Afghanistan to Siberia and all the way back to Washington, D.C. Most of the levels consist of standard first-person shooting, but there are a decent number of new bells and whistles, including a snowmobile chase, breaching and clearing rooms, and calling in airstrikes from a Predator drone.

The campaign clocks in at a lean 6-7 hours, so some players may feel that they're not getting their money's worth of content. Another problem, which has been persistent throughout the Call of Duty franchise, is the rather obvious manner in which enemies are spawned whenever the player crosses an invisible barrier. Especially on higher difficulty settings, the game degenerates into a slow war of attrition as the player advances just far enough to trigger the next batch of enemies, kills them, then advances just far enough to trigger the next group, repeat ad nauseum. If Modern Warfare 2 was judged entirely on its single-player campaign, it would hardly be worth getting excited over.

But there are two more game modes besides the campaign. Special Ops is a collection of 23 short missions with varying objectives. There are more snowmobile chases, a re-imagining of the Pripyat mission from Call of Duty 4, and a mission where one player backs up another with the firepower of an AC-130. Most of the missions can be played solo, though many of the later missions will be quite hard even on lower difficulty settings. Spec Ops mode really comes into its own when played cooperatively, as two players can back each other up and revive their fallen ally.

Modern Warfare 2 also has a multiplayer mode that's essentially the same as the deservedly praised multiplayer from Call of Duty 4. Not much more needs to be said here: if you loved the Call of Duty 4 multiplayer then you'll love the multiplayer here. There are a few new features, such as new air support options, new weapons, and of course plenty of new maps.

Highly recommended.

Monday, October 26, 2009

World's Finest Crap

I originally posted this on the Hooded Utilitarian blog.

Superman/Batman: Public Enemies

When I learned that DC was releasing another animated movie, this one starring Superman and Batman, I was intrigued. When I learned it featured the triumphant return of Kevin Conroy (Batman), Tim Daly (Superman), and Clancy Brown (Lex Luthor) from the Batman and Superman animated series, I was excited. And when I learned it was based on a comic written by Jeph Loeb ... well, I was disappointed, to put it mildly.

There are some people who will claim that Jeph Loeb wasn't always a bad writer. Do not believe these people! Make no mistake, even Loeb's "good comics" weren't actually any good. But despite the fact that every comic he writes is worse than the last one, Loeb remains one of the most successful and sought after writers in the industry. Depressing as that may be, it comes as no surprise then that DC would turn one of his stories into an animated feature. Though it's strange that DC picked the opening arc of the "Superman/Batman" comic rather than one of Loeb's more famous works.

But saying Jeph Loeb is a terrible writer is like saying the sky is blue; no aesthetic judgment is actually being made. What about the animated movie itself? The animation style combines the simple line-work of previous DC cartoons with the character designs of Ed McGuinness, the artist of the "Superman/Batman" comic. The unpleasant result is that all the characters look puffy. Not in a puffy fat way, but as if they all have air pockets right on top of their muscles. They remind me of those inflatable muscle suits that people wear on Halloween.

If the animation is a little off-putting, the writing isn't any better. Superman/Batman: Public Enemies has a very simple story. Lex Luthor is President of the United States, having run successfully as an independent candidate. He's like a better looking, slightly less crazy version of Ross Perot. Things are actually going well for Luthor until a giant kryptonite meteor is spotted heading directly towards Earth (if I remember correctly, the meteor in the comic was a chunk of Krypton that brought Supergirl to Earth. No reference is made to Supergirl in the movie, which begs the question why the filmmakers decided to include this plot). Rather than swallow his pride and ask Superman for help, Luthor concocts a sure-to-fail scheme to destroy the meteor and frames Superman for murder. Batman gets involved because he's got nothing better to do, and the dynamic duo are forced to fight off both supervillains looking to collect a bounty and superheroes who blindly follow the President's orders. Quick synopsis: Awkward man-flirting between Superman and Batman, fight scene, more flirting, fight scene, Luthor goes crazy, fight scene, Luthor makes out with a morbidly obese woman, fight scene, more flirting until Lois Lane shows up and ruins the moment, the end.

While the plot is easy to follow, the movie is needlessly packed with cameos. Villains like Mongul, Grodd, Lady Shiva, and Banshee Babe (that's probably not her name, but it should be) show up out of nowhere with no introduction and are quickly dispatched. Then comes the parade of heroes, including Power Girl, Captain Atom, Black Lightning, Starfire of the Teen Titans, and the descriptively named Katana. The character selection is so utterly random it feels like they were chosen by drawing names from a hat. And at no point does the movie explain who these characters are, how their powers work, or what their relationship is to Superman or Batman. I actually have a great deal of familiarity with the DC Universe (or at least I thought I did), but I had a hard time figuring out who everyone was and an even harder time caring. Of course, most superhero comics do this sort of thing all the time, but those books are marketed to a fanboy audience that presumably has an extensive knowledge of, and affection for, Z-list characters. One would think an animated feature would at least try to appeal to a slightly broader audience.

Out of all the superhero guest stars, Power Girl is the only one who gets any significant screen time. Now, if I'm going to talk about Power Girl, let's get the obvious out of the way. Even by superheroine standards, Power Girl is famous for being well-endowed. I'm saying she has a big bust, mammoth mammaries, jumbo jugs. But there's no reason she has to be solely defined by her humongous hooters. This is 2009. Power Girl could be written as a strong, intelligent, and courageous woman who just happens to have brobdingnagian breasts. Unfortunately, Power Girl doesn't really do much here except look meek, follow other people's orders, and validate the moral superiority of our heroes. In other words, she's "The Girl" of the movie, including the obligatory moment where she's rescued by the strapping male lead. By the end of the story, the only thing remotely memorable about the character is emphasized by the hole in her costume. Like everything else in the movie, the filmmakers simply didn't put much thought into her. Power Girl only appears in the movie because she appeared in the comic.

The last point I want to make deals with age-appropriateness. Compared to the animated Wonder Woman movie, Superman/Batman is remarkably tame in its violence. There are quite a few fight scenes, but they consist of typical superhero punching and smashing. The onscreen deaths are bloodless and one of them involves a robot, and we all know that robots don't count. There's no sex either, unless you count Superman and Batman occasionally eye-fucking each other. But the filmmakers must have really wanted that edgy PG-13 rating, because they threw in some profanity. Nothing too hardcore, but Lex Luthor calls a woman a "bitch" at least once. Apparently, that's how you separate the grown-up cartoons from the silly kid stuff.

It's an odd movie. Far too much fan-service to be accessible to anyone who isn't religiously devoted to DC Comics, but the decision to make it a stand-alone story removes the continuity elements that were important to fans (like the re-introduction of Supergirl). Who is this movie for? And why this particular story? Surely there are better Superman/Batman adventures to pick from. There are probably better Jeph Loeb stories too.

In case you want a comparison to other DC animated features:
Superman: Doomsday < Superman/Batman < Wonder Woman

Saturday, October 10, 2009

I see the future, and it is in MOTION!

Spider-Woman: Agent of SWORD, Episodes 1-3

Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Alex Maleev
Spider-Woman/Jessica Drew – Nicolette Reed

In my first foray into comics blogging, I thought I’d discuss something that doesn’t even technically qualify as a comic. Paper is for Luddites, motion comics are the future, so what does the future look like?

Short answer: a really cheap cartoon with an impenetrable plot.

Long answer:
After her solo title was canceled in 1983, Jessica Drew vanished into character limbo while the Spider-Woman name got passed around to various heroines, none of whom found any lasting success. In the mid-2000s, Brian Michael Bendis pulled Drew from obscurity and placed her on his high profile revamp of the Avengers. Spider-Woman: Agent of SWORD is the first serious attempt at a Spider-Woman ongoing in more than 20 years, as well as Marvel’s first go at motion comics.

Considering that motion comics are sold through iTunes rather than the Direct Market, you’d think that Marvel would target the casual “I liked Downey, Jr. in that movie” fan. But Marvel is nothing if not predictable, and instead the story launches out of the last mega-crossover, Secret Invasion (also by Bendis). Jessica Drew was apparently kidnapped by Skrulls, a shape-shifting alien race, and replaced by the Skrull queen. So the Spider-Woman that readers had been following for the last couple of years in New Avengers was a fake. Now the real Spider-Woman is back and she’s understandably pissed. Lucky for her, Abigail Brand, director of S.W.O.R.D. (Sentient World Observation and Response Department), offers Spider-Woman a job hunting down Skrulls, thus allowing her to work out her issues and beat up illegal aliens at the same time. Spider-Woman’s first assignment takes her Madripoor, the crime capital of Asia. As these things always go, her mission quickly goes to shit and she’s on the run from HYDRA (like G.I. Joe’s Cobra, but no ninjas). And just when you think things can’t get more complicated, in episode 3 Spider-Woman is targeted by the Thunderbolts, a super-powered hit squad run by Norman Osborn, the Big Bad of Marvel’s current Dark Reign mega-crossover. In other words, it’s a story only a hardcore superhero fan could love.

Thankfully, Alex Maleev’s artwork is easier to appreciate. His penciling is fairly realistic and detailed, but he applies multiple layers of color to his work, causing every image to appear dark and washed-out. While the coloring can make certain details hard to see, it effectively establishes the mood and atmosphere of an espionage thriller.

The main attraction though of Spider-Woman: Agent of SWORD is neither the story nor the art, but the format. Each motion comic episode runs about 10 minutes, and consists of three types of visuals. The first type is a sequence of still images accompanied by dialogue and other sound. During conversation scenes, the same images are frequently re-used. The second slightly more sophisticated visual involves moving an image in the foreground while keeping the background still. The third type of visual, which is used for the vehicle chase scenes, is just low budget computer animation (which seems like cheating to me).

Many critics have accused Spider-Woman, and motion comics in general, of simply being low budget animation, and there's a pretty strong case for that. But comparing motion comics only to animation ignores their biggest flaw, namely that they sacrifice the communicative aspect of comics without replacing it with the advantages of actual animation. While it probably goes without saying, comics are a sequence of artistic panels accompanied by text. But there’s more to reading a comic than just proceeding from top-left to bottom-right. Artists can influence the pace at which the reader progresses through panels, sometimes by encouraging the reader to linger on a single panel or to move swiftly through a sequence. The layout of panels, their size, the level of detail, and the amount of text are all part of the communication between creators and readers. Motion comics take most of that away. Every “panel” is now just another background that fits the aspect ratio. And the pacing of the story is set by the motion comic producers rather than the artist and readers. Motion comics, in short, are something less than comics AND something less than animation.

Of course, motion comics do have one element that comics can never have: sound. The music and sound effects in Spider-Woman are used quite well, adding to the atmosphere of the story but generally remaining unobtrusive. The dialogue and Spider-Woman’s inner monologue are another matter. Bendis has a peculiar approach to the English language, which seems to consist mostly of repetitions, redundant statements, and pointless asides. Presumably Bendis is going for realism, but I can happily say I’ve never talked to anyone who speaks as strangely as the characters in this comic. I feel pity for the voice actors who had to read his lines and try to make them sound like something non-assholes would say. Nicolette Reed, who voices both Spider-Woman and Madame Hydra, doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with her lines, so Spider-Woman comes across as flat (and British?) while Madame Hydra quickly becomes obnoxious. But her performance seems Oscar-worthy compared to her co-stars. Particularly shameful are the “actors” who voice the Madripoor police detectives, who seem to take the Breakfast at Tiffany’s approach to portraying Asian men.

So the execution of Marvel’s first motion comic is not so good. Maybe a better example would change my opinion of the medium, but I doubt it. Still, it gave Marvel an excuse to come up with another corny character theme song. Behold, the Spider-Woman music video!

Update: the entire first episode is available for free for a limited time on Youtube. Check it out if you're interested.

Friday, October 9, 2009

In the old days, we called 'em expansion packs...

Halo 3: ODST

The fact that they called it Halo 3 colon blah rather than Halo 4 should tell you everything you need to know about the game. It's more Halo 3, with the same gameplay, weapons, vehicles, and story. The plot, drop troops in occupied New Mombasa, basically amounts to a footnote in the Halo mythology. And playing as a non-superpowered helljumper is no different than playing as a SPARTAN. Sure, you don't have shields, but your character is still pretty damn tough on normal difficulty.

It's also really, really short. To compensate, the developers included a second disk with Halo 3 multiplayer, but there are only a few new maps.

There's no way in hell this game is worth $60, but hardcore Halo fans will find more of what they enjoy.