Category Archives: Review

All reviews will fall under this category

Dragon Age: Round 2

When I wrote the title of this post, I went to search the blog to find the first one I wrote on Dragon Age: Origins only to find I didn’t write one (and to be reminded of how annoying the search feature in WordPress is).

So, I guess this is Dragon Age: Origins, Rounds 1 and 2.

As usual, it’s a not-review well after the game has been released, played to death by millions, had a bunch of DLC released and is being replaced with a sequel, but hey ho, what can you do.

I’ve played a few games on the PS3 now, and it’s easily earned back the cost in terms of entertainment per pound compared to say the cinema or reading, but two games really stick in my mind in terms of amount of game-play and replayability.  They are Dragon Age: Origins and Fallout 3.  My first play through DA: Origins probably took around 60 hours.  Grete played it a little bit, so probably 70 hours between us.  However, we’ve both played it through fully again now, so another 60 hours each, that’s 190 hours of play out of a single game.  And as I sit here writing this, Grete is starting a new character and playing it again.

That replayability is testimony to BioWare’s excellent writing and world building.  The game interface is sometimes annoying, the combat is sometimes a little frustrating, but those issues melt away once you get involved in the story.  Reading the codex entries, listening to the dialog, talking to your companions, actually recruiting the companions and earning the right to do their quests, and learning about the world immerse you in the story so engagingly that you want to see it again and again through a fresh pair of eyes.

I love the subtle touches with the different starting stories, and how they all weave together into the main plot.  As a dwarf, returning to Orzammar to quest there gives you a different perspective than heading there as a human or an Elf, while playing a city Elf makes the quests in the Elven alienage that more poignant.  Seeing how your actions as a starting Mage snowball into serious consequences later on is just excellent.  BioWare really do know how to write engaging and totally absorbing computer RPG’s.

The way in which your conversational choices lead to different outcomes is excellent, although you can’t help but feel the authors were limited by the complexity of offering too much choice, and like all delicious things it leaves you wanting even more.

Maybe in a few years when storage is even cheaper, processing power even greater and collective software development even better we’ll get computer based RPG’s with almost as many choices as you can imagine, but until then, BioWare offer the next best thing with Dragon Age: Origins.

2012

I’m not really a fan of disaster movies.  I would describe 2012 as traditional global-disaster movie fare.

  1. We have an estranged family (husband and wife divorced, two kids, new husband in the frame)
  2. We have a growing threat, and a plan
  3. We have a few other key story members with either existing relationships that will be stretched by the disaster or new relationships that will be formed as a result of it
  4. We then get 158 minutes of a single threaded plot, which brings these people together or forces them apart and provides heroes the chance to stand up and be counted while villains perish in fiery justice.

I spent most of the first hour doing something else as well.  Checking e-mails, browsing IMDB, playing Plants vs. Zombies.  It’s pretty predictable, as the estranged husband takes his kids on a camping trip and discovers a global conspiracy over some cataclysmic event.  However, eventually the acting and the action and the shear madness of the whole thing drags you in, and by about the one hour mark I was engaged.

The special effects are impressive, the destruction is amusing, the solution is far fetched and insane and the moments of heroic sacrifice are about as cliche as they get.  It’s not a good movie.  It’s too long for one, and it’s far too predictable for another, but it was eventually engaging.  The only two actors who seemed to have any meat on their roles were John Cusack and Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Cusack managed to bring some life to his character, Ejiofor did the best he could with some pretty slack writing.  No one else stood out, which isn’t to say they did badly, but just that the source material was so entirely bland.

Should you see 2012?  Maybe, if you fancy killing 158 minutes and can’t think of anything better to do, but don’t buy it, rent it for as little as possible.

Kick Ass

There’s something both distressing and fascinating about watching a 13 year old actress play an 11 year old kid dressed as a superhero getting beaten up.  But then, distressing and fascinating really describes pretty much the entire movie.  There are plenty of shocking things on screen in Kick Ass, although it’s the first and second deaths in the movie that carried the most weight for me, but there are plenty of laughs, some great dialogue, and plenty of comic book humour for those who enjoy it.

Kick Ass is an over-the-top comic superhero action movie.  We are presented with a young guy who turns himself into a superhero, because he can’t work out why no one has done it before, and is tired of being the victim, a father who has turned both himself and his daughter into real killer vigilantes, and an evil crime boss.  The movie doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a re-telling of many of the superhero stories we’re used to, it both pokes fun at those stories and poses questions about the consequences of the behaviours involved.  The result is a familiar plot of rescue, betrayal and redemption, but the delivery of that plot is slick, shocking and thoroughly entertaining.

It’s not without flaws, I felt it was a little long and could have done with being tighter in the middle when I was left wondering if I was enjoying it or not, but it crests that hump and shoots off into a rapid and excellent finale.

What really made the movie enjoyable for me were three things.  I loved the style and the cinematography.  The sound track was superb.  And Chloe Mortez rocked. Compared to the acting we saw in the early Harry Potter movies, from actors of a similar age, her acting is a world apart.  She rocked, she owned her scenes.  Everyone else was excellent, I loved all the characters, from Red Mist, Kick Ass himself, through to Big Daddy but Hit Girl (Chloe) really did steal this movie.

The action sequences are brutal, but there’s plenty of warning that’s how it is going to be, and I’ll be honest, it’s not easy watching an 11 (13) year old kid get their ass kicked on screen.  Nor do you escape unscathed by watching her shoot, stab and slice her way through the bad guys, I was left with an unsettling feeling of having seen something wrong.  But that isn’t a mistake, or a fault, I’m certain it’s intentional.

The ending was superb, very satisfying and dripping with cliche.  You should go see this movie, it should make money in the cinema because it’s a good film.  I loved it, despite the pacing issues.

I love you Beth Cooper

Every once in a while you can be surprised by a film.  I put I love you Beth Cooper on our LoveFilm rental list because the trailer had seemed quite amusing.  I’m so glad I did.

One the outside, this is a reasonably standard coming-of-age American highschool flick.  The main cast, a couple of newly graduated boys and a similar bunch of cheerleaders come together in amusing circumstances and learn lots about themselves, life and living.  But on the inside, it’s an always funny and often heartwarming story which is more than worth the time invested in watching it.

Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) is convinced by his best friend Rich (Jack Carpenter) to be honest during his speech at the graduation.  He extols the virtues of honest during his speech and how people should take this moment to say the things they feel so that they don’t regret not saying them later.  Taking his own advice, he (among other things) declares his love for Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere), the head cheerleader and upsets her brawny, meat-head boyfriend in the process.

What follows is a collect of fast pace set pieces full of humour, some truly cringeworthy embarrassments and some entertaining and engaging dialogue.  There are almost no surprises, although you might not guess the exact outcome (which I actually thought worked really well), but there are some true laugh out loud moments and plenty of reasons to want to keep watching.

The wet towel fight is well worth watching.

Not as gross-out as the likes of American Pie or Road Trip, and certainly funnier than some of the more recent American Pie movies, I love you Beth Cooper is something I think I could watch again and again and enjoy every time.  It reminds me of Weird Science, and deserves to be just as much a cult classic.

Gamer

I had mixed hopes for Gamer.  On the one hand, movies about computer games tend on the whole not to be very good, on the other hand it had a pretty good pedigree and some of the clips from the trailer looked promising.  The premise is simple, through the use of nano technology the human brain can be modified so that a person can be controlled remotely.  Some people will pay for the ability to control people, and those who are controlled can get paid.  The Sims made real.  Alongside that, criminals on death row are offered the chance to be controlled in live first-person-shooter style games, with the promise of surviving 30 games giving them their freedom.  The technology was developed and is sold by Ken Castle (played by Michael C. Hall) who is now a multi-billionaire.

Our grisly combat-savy hero (Gerard Butler) has survived 27 or so battles controlled by a young male gamer.  As he nears his 30th match, things take a turn south.

One could be forgiven for thinking this was a remake / reworking of The Running Man.  Certainly there are many similarities, prisoners given a chance at freedom for the entertainment of the masses, those in charge of the game being corrupt or manipulating the outcome and media interest in the whole thing.  In fact, there are plenty of comparisons to be made to the recent Death Race movie as well.  Given the plot in general isn’t that original, the movie really needed to bring something else to the table.

The pop culture references are entertaining, with the look of the Society game clearly modelled on many current real-world MMO’s, and there are a few pokes and prods at the mindsets of a certain type of game player.  The dialogue is okay, it’s no where near as cheesy as I feared, and the pace clips along pretty well.  The characters are interesting, but not very deep, and there’s a definite sense of having seen much of this film before elsewhere (the anti-establishment hackers in Johnny Mnemonic for example).  The action scenes are brutal (you’ll recognise the writers/directors from Crank and Crank 2) but give you a good sense of being inside a first-person-shooter.

The first two thirds of the movie are the strongest, sadly once our hero inevitably comes up against the bad guy, all sense of danger is lost and the story becomes almost a parody of itself.

Gamer was mostly enjoyable, and I’m glad I saw it, but I think it was a huge missed opportunity.  It could have been a classic, a solid action sci-fi movie with something serious to say about where culture is heading with on-line gaming.  But I don’t think the writers/directors quite had the balls to pull it off.  Maybe the screenplay was better and it lost something on the way to the screen, but the movie misses the mark too often.  Which is a shame, because it deserved to be and had the root of something much bigger than it turned into.

Borderlands – mini-review

I still don’t buy many games for the PS3, but after finishing up the ones we had in the house I was looking for something fun and engaging.  I saw the following quote for Borderlands and thought I’d give it a shot (no pun intended),

87 bazillion guns

I’d also read a couple of comments about it being much like Fallout 3 but with more emphasis on the first person shooter element, and since I really loved Fallout 3 I was sold.  After the obligatory patch and system update, I was up and running.  I own a PS3, so my comments reflect that platform, although the game is available on most major gaming platforms.

The Setting

The first thing that struck me about the game setting is that it’s not only similar to Fallout 3, it could be Fallout 3.  The game takes place on Pandora, an apparently post-apocalyptic world full of bandits, small outposts of humanity and strange creatures.  There’s clearly plenty of advanced technology around including robots, satellites, big satellite uplinks, transport systems, etc., but the world has basically gone to shit and is overrun by gun wielding bandits of all shapes and sizes.  The human settlements have a distinctly movie-wild-west feel and although there aren’t any cowboy hats in view you get the feeling this is the Wild West by any other name.

The world is broken up into zones or distinct maps of various sizes.  Most of them are large, open areas but there are a few underground cavernous locations and one or two extensive indoor/industrial locations.  As you progress in power the story naturally progresses you through these different places.  I felt some of them were underused with only a few quests while others were heavily packed with content.   Some major locations contain quest centres (and so, friendly NPC’s) and you return to those often to pick up new quest or hand-in completed quests, while the other areas have mostly unfriendly NPC’s and are there for you to quest in.

The artwork is pretty impressive (although somewhat repetitive), and the game has a pretty big sense of scale.  Despite the size of some locations however, they still manage to feel very claustrophobic when required which is nice.

The Characters

Since it’s a roleplaying game (with FPS elements), there are a number of classes you can choose from.  There are four main characters, each representing a single class.

  • Soldier: A mercenary style character who favours combat rifles and shotguns.
  • Siren: The only female character, a wielder of elemental powers and sub-machine guns.
  • Hunter: A scrawny individual who likes sniper rifles.
  • Berserker: A huge brick of a man, preferring exploding devices and hitting things with his fists.

Each of the characters has a little bit of back-story, and the game intro presents them to you to give you an idea what they’re about.  The characters vary based on the skills they can spend points in when they level up along with a single unique skill each of them gets.  Soldiers have a deployable auto-gun, the Siren can turn invisible, the Hunter can summon a flying pet and the Berserker can go into a rage.  The additional skills support the class in various ways.  For example, Soldiers can improve their deployed gun, can give themselves ammo regeneration, increase their resistance to bullets, etc.  I completed the game with Soldier and have messed around briefly with the others.  On the assumption that the game boils down to ‘shooting everything you can find before it kills you’, the choice of class really only affects how you kill stuff and where you spend your money.

In the multi-player game, the class choices can support each other (for example, Soldiers can heal other characters with gunfire if they spend points in the right skill).

The Game-play

Borderlands boils down to ‘complete quests to gain levels and better gear and follow the main quest to complete the story’.  Not much different to Fallout 3 in that respect, although Borderlands makes it even easier to find side quests because they pop up in central locations and a little friendly robot shouts at you when there are new quests available.

Completing quests can involve killing enemies, locating objects or people and even buying equipment.  You are rewarded with experience points (so that you can level) and cash (so you can buy new equipment).  When you gain a new level you earn a skill point which you can use to customise your character.  It’s not possible to purchase all the skills so you’re going to end up specialised in some areas.

Equipment can be bought from some locations, found on dead enemies and looted from chests.  New equipment takes the following forms,

  • Guns – there probably are 87 bazillion guns, but if you’re being cynical it’s because most of them are randomly generated and vary only in minor ways.  There are 8 classes of gun (combat rifle, repeater (automatic pistol), revolver, shotgun, sniper rifle, rocket launcher, sub-machine gun, alien weapons) and your character improves in their skill for each as they kill things with them.  Guns have varying amounts of damage, recoil, elemental damage (e.g. fire or acid), clip size, zoom, etc., etc.  Those attributes are generally randomly generated to result in the huge range of choice.  A lot of game time can be spent trying to find the ‘best’ gun in each of the categories you care about.
  • Grenades and grenade mods – grenades are carried around like ammunition, and you can equip a single grenade mod.  Grenade mods change how your grenades work and how much damage they do.  For example, turning them into proximity mines, bouncing bombs or even devices which transfer health from your enemies to you.
  • Class mods – a device which improves the effectiveness of your class skills (one equipped at a time at most).
  • Shields – again, your character can equip a single shield which provides defences against incoming damage, increases health, and other benefits.
  • Other – there are some other items in the game which I won’t go into, the above four are the ones you spend most time working out what to do with.

The quests are generally enjoyable and the mechanics usually engaging.  However, they do get repetitive.  It’s great killing 8 bandits, until you realise that just about any quest you complete needs you to kill 15-20 bandits and get into their camp to find something.  I guess it’s the nature of the FPS element, which brings me to …

The main difference between this RPG and others, is that combat is purely based on FPS tactics.  You have a gun, a cross-hair and the bad guys are shooting at you.  So you will need your regular FPS skill-set.  However, because it’s an RPG you can scale the game to your own skill level.  If you’re struggling, you can hang around an area killing stuff and getting a level or two and then retry a quest with your new found power.  I like that aspect, and when I found the quests getting too hard, I put in a bit of work and levelled and found the level at which I was more comfortable.

The Storyline

Borderlands has you chasing down a secret, hidden, mysterious vault (Fallout 3 much?) on Pandora.  You’re dumped from a bus outside a little settlement (so little it only has one person in it), which you immediately have to rescue from bandits.  Along the way you meet a robot (Claptrap) who shows you around, and are visited by a mysterious voice in your head (your guardian angel) who tells you to trust the robot.  From there, it’s all about the quests.  You start earning the trust of the locals while also trying to find out more about the vault.  As you progress through the storyline you learn small bits about the aliens who inhabited the planet and the corporations who are fighting over the vault.  However, it’s a pretty minimalist storyline to be fair, and most of the time is spent hunting down bad guys, terminating them with extreme prejudice and looting more stuff to sell.

The major quest line is pretty easy to spot and follow, although you’ll need to do the side quests to increase in power enough to achieve anything.  In many cases, the side quests are more entertaining.  The only issue is that they do get repetitive, there are only so many ways to say ‘travel to here, through these bad guys who you will need to kill, and collect something’.  I was a little disappointed with the end sequence of the game but won’t spoil it here for you.

Multi-Player

The multi-player element of Borderlands is probably pretty good.  However, I’ve never played it so I can’t comment.  You can play two-player split screen on one console, on-line, or LAN based.  It’s co-operative multi-player, I believe, with no PvP element.  Having said that, there is a duel option, so during the game you can duel your opponents.  This is outside of the main scope of the multi-player game though, in my view.

Closing Comments

Borderlands was good fun in general.  I did get a little bored a couple of times after a long session, doing very similar missions over and over, but a break from the game helped, and coming back with fresh eyes made it enjoyable again.  I loved being able to scale the game myself, I’m not a huge FPS lover and I don’t have the skills of the average 8 year old, so being able to outlevel the bad guys when required really did make the game more enjoyable.  Another feature which helped avoid the repetition was that bad guys don’t chase you for ever.  If you’ve cleared a camp, and the bad guys are back and you can’t face killing them all again – just run through.  If you survive, they give up after a while, you just need to find a place you can get to which is safe.  Some people might hate those two features, saying they make the game too easy, but they allowed me to enjoy the content, play at my own pace, and complete the game without getting too frustrated.

The boss encounters were a little underwhelming, but I guess they match most FPS bosses (scoot-and-shoot the glowing bits), the cinematic style and boss info made them worthwhile in the end.

There’s definite replay value in the game, either as one of the other classes, or the same class with different skill choices.  Once you’ve completed the game on Walkthrough 1 you can start again on Walkthrough 2 with the same character, level and equipment.  All the enemies are boosted to your level, so the little dog-like beasts you killed at level 1 are now level 33 and ready to chew your face off.  I can see myself trying to beat it a second time before even trying another class.

Borderlands held my attention for the 5 or 6 days it took to finish it, provided something like 20+ hours of game-play on one run through, and had plenty of humour to keep me amused.  Well worth the asking price, in my view (if you accept that games cost what games cost), and I’ll probably hold onto it to see if there’s any downloadable content I want to see.

Valkyria Chronicles

media_sc_lg_06I recently completed this game on the PS3 and wanted to write a short post about it.  It’s such an unusual game, and yet I enjoyed it a huge amount.  The game is a mixture of anime, first-person shooter, turn-based strategy and roleplaying game, without really being any of those things fully.  The game story unfolds through the use of animated stories about a bunch of central characters who have become involved in a war.  Various chapters open up as the story develops, and each of those chapters has a number of battles.   The stories aren’t interactive, you watch and listen.  But the characters are interesting and the plot engaging.

When you get to a battle, you take control of a squad of troops who you can equip (and you can research new equipment), and train (to improve levels and gain new abilities) and then run through the fight.  The battle itself is a mix of first-person and turn based.  You pick a character to control from a turn-like map, you then control that character directly in first-person mode, running them through the battle dodging bullets.  When you want to engage the enemy you switch to a control system that stops time and lets you aim at a single target, at which point you fire your weapon and then return to real time.  You cycle through your squad, moving them and engaging the enemy over a number of rounds to achieve your objective.  When you do, you’re rewarded with more story and more chapters.

media_sc_lg_09That’s an ugly description of a beautiful game.  The artwork is superb, the characters quirky and amusing and the game play truly engaging.  If you have a PS3 this is a must buy – and it’s been out long enough now that you should be able to pick it up quite cheaply.

The International

A thriller about the banking industry?  You’d be forgiven for assuming it would be dull and full of tedious exposition, but with minor reservations you’d be wrong.  Clive Owen plays an Interpol agent trying to track down the truth about a giant bank’s involvement in weapon sales, money laundering and other illegal activity.   He is assisted or thwarted by various individuals and organisations along the way including an American DEA, Italian police and the bank itself.

The International is long but engaging and although I wouldn’t describe it as always gripping, it does demand your attention and keep you hooked through to the end.  Not least as a result of excellent performances from Owen and the cast around him.  I was particularly engaged by Armin Mueller-Stahl’s presence on screen, understated and calm yet totally real.

The story has a few holes and you have to wonder why it takes the police so long to arrive to a gun fight in a major public place in New York, but there’s nothing there that ruined the experience for me.  I do wish more movies took more time to avoid the little niggles like this, but I wonder if any film actually manages to achieve that.  The cinematography was subtle but really supported the cast and dialog.  There aren’t many action set pieces so it wouldn’t be true to call this an action-thriller but the one major set piece is certainly thrilling.  The writers opted to avoid any twists and instead build tension through Owen’s growing frustration at the cases progression and the threat on the lives of those around him.  I give them credit for that.

The end is downbeat, but rather expected and the newspaper headline snapshots during the closing credits do justice in wrapping up a couple of questions the main ending left you with.  Overall this was a surprisingly enjoyable film which probably deserved more credit than it got from the critics.

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

First off, all my cards on the table.  I’ve read the first few books of the Potter series, I think it was the first 4.  They were okay, but I usually don’t enjoy reading about the tortured love lives of teenagers so I didn’t make it to book 5 or beyond.  I’ve seen all the movies.  My wife loves the books and the movies, so I know what happens in each book, and I knew what was going to happen in this film.

There are spoilers in this review.  You have been warned.

Continue reading Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Terminator Salvation

I’m beginning to think I’m unsophisticated, easily led, maybe even a little stupid.  I read the reviews for Terminator Salvation and they say ‘doesn’t capture the magic of the original’ or ‘haggard, nothing new’. They say that it’s a tired franchise and that it was a confusing and fractured movie.  I know cinema is an artform, and in art there are as many opinions as there are people.  Everyone reacts differently, but still, I think about the movie I saw yesterday and I wonder what other people went in expecting?

The first two Terminator movies are similar in layout, in my view, to the first two Alien movies.  Terminator is a very personal story about a single machine trying to kill a single person and anything that gets in the way.  Alien is a claustrophobic story about a single alien trying to kill the crew which eventually comes down to a single person.  Both Terminator 2 and Aliens ramp up the action and move away from the heavier horror elements.  I’ve seen reviews complaining that Terminator Salvation doesn’t capture the glory or the originality or the heart of the first movies.  Well, I hate to break it to them, but Terminator Salvation isn’t trying to do that.  It’s trying to be a modern action-based continuation of the Terminator story.  On top of that, how much heart was there really in T1 or T2?  Yes, we get the emotional bond and relationship between Sarah and Kyle in the first movie and we get a bunch of cheesy surrogate-father activity in T2 but they aren’t the mainstays of those two films.

I loved T1 and T2, I think they’re fantastic movies.  I think T3 should have been different, but it had some okay elements.  Personally, I think T4 (Terminator Salvation) is at least as good as T2.  But the rush of bad reviews make me question my own experience, maybe I missed something they saw, maybe I saw something that wasn’t really there?  I have to keep reminding myself that it’s art, and everyone experiences it differently.  I think if you go in expecting something, and  you don’t get it, then it leads to disappointment, and I think too many people went in with too many expectations.  I’m not saying I lowered my expectations, but I went in prepared to watch MCG’s film, not my idea of what it should be, or my idea of how it should play out, but what he wanted to do and the film he wanted to make.

So with that said, here’s my actual comment on the film, and there are minor spoilers.

Continue reading Terminator Salvation