Sunday, January 30, 2011

Dead Space 2

After my journey aboard the USG Ishimura, I began to wonder what the adventure would be like aboard the Sprawl. I got my copy of this game in the mail recently and spent as much time as I could playing it. Having just completed the game, I can say that my memories of this game will be there for a good while, as it does not let you forget what you have seen.

This game picks up after the first, with Isaac on the Sprawl for questioning about the events on the Ishimura. Thinks quickly turn sour as a Necromorph outbreak occurs on the station, leaving Isaac as one of the few remaining survivors. At this point, it is Isaac's goal to find a way off the Sprawl with the aid of other survivors. What he experiences while trying to complete this goal is a series of twists that come out of nowhere and are genuinely unexpected. The characters know what they want, and the story is written well enough that you know how far they are all willing to go to obtain it. Whether they want to help Isaac or recover him for their own purposes, everyone wants him for a reason, whether or not it seems right. It is also rather fascinating to learn more about the Church of Unitology and just what kind of people make it up, as well as their crazed obsession with the Marker.

Isaac Clarke has always been known as the silent hero of the first game, save for the occasional grunt or heavy breath, but it seems that he has finally found his voice. As soon as I heard him speak for the first time, I fell in love with it. Not only does he sound good with this new voice, but developer Visceral Games really knew how to use it. Letting him speak allows the interactions between him and other survivors to be more dynamic and dramatic, giving us an inside look at his own sense of morality.

The gameplay remains the same. You still need to dismember your enemies if you want them them to die faster, but there are a few minor tweaks. For one thing, killing your enemies does not automatically guarantee you an item. Instead, they occupy a physical location within their body. Dismembering them in the right spot will automatically kill the enemy and then eject the item, but for most instances you may need to get right up to the corpse and stomp them in the right place to get it. While this makes you think better about where to dismember specific enemy types, it can be slightly problematic since corpses will disappear after a while and hitting a pregnant necromorph in the stomach is still a bad idea. That doesn't mean I didn't like this feature though, as I was able to figure out where the items were on particular enemies and then use that knowledge to line up a much quicker kill.

On top of this, there are a few new enemy types on the Sprawl, as expected of a sequel. One type that has been covered in previews is called the Puker. The Puker is able to hurl a ball of, well, puke onto Isaac. If the ball hits him, he is temporarily slowed down, which can be disasterous if he is surrounded by multiple enemies. A particluar type I believe I need to bring up are the Stalkers. Stalkers will hide behind any obstacle in the environment, occasionally poking their heads out. When they are ready to strike, they will suddenly rush and tackle you out of nowhere, then go back into hiding. Needless to say, this makes them difficult to take them down, but a perfectly timed reaction to their movements will allow you to dismember with ease. Children are also a hassle. They attack in groups and can overrun you if you're not careful, so lining up shots with the Line Gun seemed to be the best way to disable a group.

While there are new enemy types to worry about, the biggest enemy in the game might be Isaac's own mind. After the events of the first game, Isaac became mentally unstable and continues to hallucinate visions of his girlfriend Nicole, thanks to his connection with the Marker. These hallucinations range from environmental changes to almost an entire enemy encounter. As these visions continue, it allows the player to explore exactly what kind of a person Isaac is, which adds a lot more depth to his character.

I must say that the Sprawl is much bigger than the Ishimura. The environments are no longer as cramped as before, but that doesn't make it any less creepy. As this is a station with entire families living their lives, it becomes very unsettling when you go through a darkly lit room and you can imagine how innocent and colorful it used to be. It is especially creepy when you see a once innocent image turn into a violent bloodbath, in the case of the children's area of the station, which I consider the creepiest area in the entire game. Housing corridors are filled with the screams of the innocent and an auditorium, complete with decoration for a children's play, becomes the setting for a rather jumpy surprise. Even the Ishimura makes a return in the game, complete with all of the cramped corridors from before. In fact, it might be easier to get through this section of the game, as most of the areas are lifted right from the original game. It was nice at this point to have some familiarity with the environment, even if it was dark.

But even the environment can still have its own tricks up its sleeve. It is now possible to trigger unstable pressure if you shoot in the right spots, setting up a sequence where you must quickly shoot down the airlock door to prevent from dying in the vacuum of space, which was an experience all on its own. Those moments really test your reactive abilities, which can actually become annoying if you are too close when the window opens up. Even in the sections where you don't immediately die, your air supply is still limited, but you no longer have to worry about carrying a few air cans around, which frees up some much needed inventory space. Zero-G segments make a return from the first game, but you can now move around freely in space, rather than jump between surfaces. This felt a lot more natural and fluid, and really made the segments easier to like.

While the environments are dark and gloomy, there is at least more color than aboard the Ishimura, which makes for a lot more level variety. The environment does contain foreboding architecture, but it can actually lead to many false alarms. While you can still try to predict where a Necromorph will show up, you will only be right a fraction of the time. Where you think they will appear, they won't, and vice-versa, and this aspect of enemy encounters makes the setting appropriately frightening and can really get your blood pumping, especially on higher difficulties. The rooms and corridors are all impressively detailed, and you may catch yourself looking around to see the work that went into it. Even the silence of space is accurate, both in sound and beauty. Once I saw Saturn for the first time, I found myself trying to look at it again and again.

My time with Dead Space 2 was a very interesting one, filled with uneasyness and moments of accomplishment. Storywise, I was able to really get into it, with a lot of twists and moments that I honestly didn't expect to happen, including an ending that sets up the possibility of a Dead Space 3. I can honestly say that this was one of the scariest things I have ever laid my eyes on, if only by the fact that it was creepy enough that it turned into fright and provided a lot of nightmare fuel. Whether I remember it for its scares or its twists, I will remember this game for a good while. Despite this, I can reccomend it to those who are prepared for an actually exciting journey. It is not an experience to miss, and one that will see comparison for a long time.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Tropic Thunder

I remember seeing the ads for Tropic Thunder and thinking it would be pretty funny. I really wanted to see it, but I guess I wasn't yet old enough, seeing as it was rated R. As the years went by, I started to remember wanting to see the movie, especially after watching The Pick of Destiny. Having finally seen this movie, I can say that it was a lot better than I had expected, with witty comedy and a great cast to boot.

The movie is mainly about a group of actors attempting to make a Vietnam War film based on a book called Tropic Thunder, written by John "Four Leaf" Tayback (Nick Nolte). After news that the movie is a month behind schedule after only five days of shooting(!), the Director, Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), decides to drop them in the middle of a jungle in an attempt to save the movie. After Damien's unexpected death, the actors must continue playing their roles, surviving on their acting skills alone. Eventually, the actors part ways with Speedman after finding out he was leading them astray, which eventually causes him to get captured by heroin manufacturers. The rest of the actors stumble upon this and must use their own skills to save him.

Before the movie begins, however, the viewer gets to see a series of fake trailers and ads related to the actors, displaying what they normally do. The rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) uses an ad to push an energy drink called Booty Sweat and a bar called Bust-A-Nut; Actor Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) stars in the movie "Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown," the sixth in the "Scorcher" action film series about the end of the world; Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is in a movie called "The Fatties: Fart 2," which serves as a parody of Eddie Murphy's "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps" in that he plays every role and the film features toilet humor; and Multi-Academy Award Winner, and method actor, Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) stars in a film called "Satan's Alley" with Tobey McGuire in the vein of "Brokeback Mountain." For "Tropic Thunder," the actors are joined by newcomer Kevin Sandunsky (Jay Baruchel), who seems to be the only character who prepared for his role, even being the only one who read the book or the movie script. Of course, the personalities of each character clash when they are in the jungle, which serves as the main engine of humor in the film, and it is very well written and timed.

The humor is further enhanced by the flaws that these characters have, which makes for great humor, such as an instance near the beginning of the movie when they are filming a high octane section of the movie-within-a-movie. In the "crying scene," Speedman is supposed to cry in-character, but is thrown off by how hard Lazarus is doing so. While the movie is still rolling, Speedman asks the Director about doing another take of it, despite the fact that military jets were about two minutes away to launch a $4 Million explosion. In the end, they screw up the shot, Lazarus proposes a rewrite and uses the bathroom, and the explosion goes off anyway, scorching the tree line behind the actors.

While the movie provides a lot of good laughs, it does have its own times when the subject matter is serious, such as the "Full Retard" speech given by Kirk Lazarus to Tugg Speedman. After the "Scorcher" franchise, Speedman tried to star in more serious roles like "Simple Jack," a "movie about a mentally disabled farmhand who can talk to animals," which was a box-office flop. Lazarus tells Speedman that his character bombed because he went "Full Retard" and didn't have his character act more mildly challenged, citing Tom Hanks in "Forrest Gump" and Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man" as examples. This moment was well played and cements how much of a parody the movie is.

The action and special effects were impressive, especially after finding out how they did the explosions for the movie. For example, they only had one shot at blowing up a bridge near the end of the movie. The action scenes could also have their own laughs, such as how Portnoy manages to take out two guards with drugs while the actors attempt to rescue a captured Speedman. The film also manages to provide interesting character twists in a use of the "girl back home" speech you commonly hear in war movies.

Tropic Thunder is a movie that is well thought out with a lot of knowledge about how Hollywood Movies tend to work, taking that and turning it into a merciless and enjoyable parody. The more you know about specific actors and movies, the better this movie gets, enhancing its own humor with what the viewer knows about real life. I found this movie to be great fun, and I believe that anyone who has seen this movie can tell you that as well. This is a comedy well worth watching, no matter how much or how little you know about Hollywood. I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny

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During a recent trip to a record store, I discovered a Tenacious D single, The Pick of Destiny. Coincidentally, when I visited a different one soon after, I found the album, The Pick of Destiny, which said single belonged to. This was my first time listening to Tenacious D, but when I listened to it, I liked it. It was actually a quite humurous recording, and it showed off Jack Black's guitar playing quite nicely (if you have not heard Tenacious D yet, I suggest you keep it from younger listeners, as there is cursing abound). I was also aware that the album belonged to a movie of the same name, so I figured I might as well watch the movie to round out the experience. One rental later, I can say one thing: it was enjoyable, but didn't exactly live up to my expectations.

Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny stars the members of Tenacious D, Jack Black and Kyle Gass. If you're a fan of Jack Black, you may remember him from the movie School of Rock. The movie begins by showcasing the "origin" of Tenacious D and how they met. Jack Black, called JB and Jables throughout the film, meets Kyle Gass, also called KG and Kage in the movie, and wants to be a better guitar player. After looking at various magazine covers, the two realize that all the guitarists featured use a similar, strange looking pick. While visiting a guitar store, they are told that it is, in fact, the Pick of Destiny, forged from Satan's tooth, and that whoever wields it will become the world's greatest guitarist (citing Van Halen as an example). Tenacious D then sets off in search of the legendary pick, in order to win an Open Mic competition, and hilarity ensues.

I am aware that a show about Tenacious D aired before this movie came out, but since I have not seen it, this movie was my first exposure to the fictional history of the band. The movie was actually easy to follow, delivered in a steady pace. The movie did a good job of presenting itself as a comedy, though it did become more of a stoner film at one point, which I will talk about later. The mythology surrounding the titular pick was actually kind of interesting, which makes using a replica pick a bit more empowering.

The characters of Jack Black and Kyle Gass seem more like charicatures, though they actually have deep qualities of their own. In the beginning, JB is briefly shown to have a bad relationship with his father, which actually contributes somewhat to certain parts of the movie, and shows that he is a bit insecure because of it. When this doesn't appear in the movie, he is more of a man of action, and is more serious about his goal to obtain the Pick of Destiny. KG at first seems like more of a mentor to JB when he's introduced, but during the first act, this falls apart and reveals that he's actually poor, relying on others for money. He also has more of laid-back type of personality, and isn't so serious at first about getting said pick. Jack Black's performance was a bit hammy, especially compared to Kyle Gass', though this actually made the film a bit funnier.

On the humor side, this movie was really funny at times, however, I didn't really find it as funny as I thought it would be, since a lot of the humor was very lowbrow for being rated R. Aside from that, I actually got a good laugh out of it every so often. One of the better examples would be a scene where JB becomes high in a forest and believes that he's related to a sasquatch, which in hindsight also seems to reveal more about his lack of a father figure.

While this movie had its moments, the thing I liked the most about it was the music. I recognized the songs after hearing them from the album first, but some of them are much better, and often funnier, with the visual accompaniment. Of particular note is the song "Classico," where JB improvises words to go along with Kage's guitar playing, and especially "Beelzeboss (The Final Showdown)," which was just as epic watching as it was listening to.

Overall, it was an enjoyable movie, but I'm not sure I would exactly own it if I wanted to see it again. In my opinion, it's good for a quick rental if you're in the mood for something different. If you're a big Jack Black fan, especially one of Tenacious D, and wish to complete your collection, I would definitely recommend this movie to you. Otherwise, I suggest you rent this movie first before you decide whether or not to own it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

LittleBigPlanet 2

The original LittleBigPlanet, developed by Media Molecule, touted the phrase "Play. Create. Share." and really delivered on that promise. Despite the somtimes lacking story mode, the game's creation tools allowed users to publish well over 3 Million levels into the world, and that's quite an accomplishment. However, despite what could be done with those tools, creativity could still be somewhat limited. Still, it was a very addicting title for the PS3.

Enter LittleBigPlanet 2, which improves over the original game in every conceivable way, with more of an emphasis on Create. The tools used in this mode are much better refined than in the first game, eliminating much of the complexity required to make a good level, yet also providing a much greater array of tools at your disposal. In fact, there were so many that I couldn't finish building a level because another idea would continuously spring to life in my head right in the middle.

Thanks to the advancements made in the Create mode, it is possible to create games from multiple genres, meaning you are no longer stuck with just platforming. One particular tool that makes this possible is the new Controllinator, which allows you to control objects remotely by letting you map the control scheme on a circuit board. Object modifiers are also present that can allow you to alter specific aspects (gravity, friction, bounce, etc.) or set things in motion without the complexity required in the first game. For example, the Gyroscope will orient an object a specific way depending on where it (the Gyroscope) is pointing. You can also set up Sackbots (NPCs with programmable behaviors and actions) to inject variety to your levels, such as adding rescue missions or recruiting an army. In fact, it is even possible to link levels together and create your own cinematic cutscenes.

A bit of my time was spent in Story Mode, which I can say has been greatly improved since last time. The pacing is better, there is more of an existing plot, and the new voice acting isn't half bad. The levels are brilliantly designed and even have a variety of genres, from platforming, to 2D shooter, to vertical scrollers. There is an occasional hiccup in the gameplay here and there, but is very easy to overlook them in favor of getting through the level and marveling at the sheer magnitude of the game.

This game impressed me even more than the original LittleBigPlanet, cementing Media Molecule as the masters of user-created content. Once you get the right inspiration, the world is your oyster, and the rising amount of user levels is a sight to behold. This game is an ever-changing experience, an experience I can almost guarantee you will enjoy.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dead Space

My experience with Dead Space has come much later than most others. However, it seems that an upcoming sequel to Visceral Game's hottest IP has given me the best of opportunities to play this game to keep the memories fresher in my head as a lead-in. And trust me, these memories will stay fresh for a good while after this experience.

The story follows the Engineer Isaac Clarke onboard the USG Ishimura as he and his crewmates, Hammond and Kendra, investigate the lack of contact between Earth and the shuttle. On the way over, however, his ship is struck by an unknown object and forces his crew to land inside the Ishimura. What happens next quickly goes from a simple investigation to tragedy as Isaac is attacked by an alien species known as the Necromorphs. His exploration of the shuttle leads him down a darkly twisting path as he attempts to unravel a greater mystery beyond what he can comprehend at the time. This, combined with the mysterious presence of his girlfriend Nicole, make for one of the most terrifying experiences ever put in a video game.

As an engineer, Isaac's weapons are mostly repurposed mining tools, such as the iconic Plasma Cutter. This is your default weapon, and it will quickly become your new best friend. Other weapons include the Line Gun, which fires a wide horizontal beam, the Ripper, which fires saw blades, a Flamethrower, and a few others. These weapons also feature a Secondary Firing Mode that can come in handy, such as switching the orientation of the Plasma Cutter's beam or firing mines from the Line Gun. However, Isaac's RIG Suit only has so much room for the necessities, including ammo, health and air packs, and stasis modules. On top of this, you can only carry up to four weapons, so it is essential to make sure that you are carrying the weapons you think will be the most effective on your journey.

The gunplay is not focused on blind shooting, but rather strategic dismemberment. While unlearning the headshot, which will only make the Necromorphs attack in a blind rage, you will need to figure out the more effective places to dismember an enemy for them to actually die. For instance, one enemy type can sprout three tentacles to fire projectiles. Shooting them off will quickly kill this type of enemy, as well as a similar type that is spawned from a Necromorph imprisoned on the walls. The most common enemies can be killed by shooting off their arms or legs, but the more dangerous ones have specific places where shooting them will do more harm than good, such as the not so happy outcome of shooting a pregnant Necromorph in the stomach. Isaac is aided by the ability to slow down enemies with Stasis, allowing you to shoot with more precision or even skillfully get rid of a specific enemy type. While shooting, you will also need to avoid Gravity Panels introduced later in the game, which will kill you if you don't tread with caution.

The gameplay also enhances the experience by featuring no HUD whatsoever. Isaac's health is represented on the spine of his suit and the amount of ammo you have remaining is displayed above each gun. You can also bring up a menu from your suit to display your inventory, map, or information you have collected via text or audio. However, you can still be attacked while accessing the menu, so you need to watch when you do it. I liked this feature, as any kind of bar or indicator on the borders of the screen would keep you less focused on the action at hand.

You can also find Power Nodes in the environment or buy them from the store to upgrade your weapons or suit at workbenches. Once you commit a node to a circuit onscreen, you cannot move or remove it. In addition, nodes can also unlock doors to storage rooms, so it is very important to figure out how you want to use your nodes. Schematics of weapons, pack sizes, and RIG levels can be found as well, so it is important to keep track of them until you find another store. In addition, you can bring up a navigation beam on the ground to find your next destination. This is good for figuring out exactly where you need to go so you don't get lost. I will admit that I depended on this beam a lot, but only in the darkest of places.

Speaking of dark places, the corridors of the Ishimura are cramped and darkly lit, making it all the more shocking when a Necromorph decides to pop out of nowhere and attack you. There are also some Zero-G segments where you can be attacked by a Necromorph from virtually anywhere, as well as some moments where you will have to advance through the vacuum of space, where there is almost no sound at all, making sudden encounters more frigthening. The game also features very foreboding architecture in the Ishimura's air ducts. Necromorphs spawn out of these periodically, which could sometimes make the times you are attacked predictable. However, when you are low on health or ammo, or both, you'll become more wary of the encounters in your frantic search for supplies, as well as more grateful for the bounty your enemies may drop. The atmosphere of the game is only enhanced by the perfectly executed score, although the musical cues can also give away an attack on you.

My time on the Ishimura was one of the more frightening experiences I had ever come across on a disk. While I only have minor issues with this game, I feel that Visceral managed to achieve their goal of creating the scariest game ever made. I would normally steer away from horror games, but I found myself enjoying this game as I continued to play it. I loved how the setting was well designed and supplemented by appropriate music, and the twist ending left me with questions that I'm waiting to find the answers for in the sequel. I can confidently recommend this to any fan of horror games or shooter veterans willing to push their willpower to the limit. Otherwise, this is a game worth checking out if you have any sort of interest in it.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

DJ Hero 2: A Great Music Game Made Even Better

In 2009, Rhythm games went through an oversaturation, with an abundance of Guitar Hero and Rock Band games being released left and right throughout the year. This, in fact, got to the point where Guitar Hero: Van Halen was being offered for free when you bought Guitar Hero 5 for a limited time. Needless to say, gamers were getting tired of seeing so many games in this genre. However, within this dark time came DJ Hero: A game where you don't play official songs, but rather mixes of different songs put together, using a new turntable controller. Hardly anyone bought it, but it's concept lit the genre's darkest hour. And now, FreeStyle Games has released a sequel, entitled DJ Hero 2, which not only continues the concept of the original, but is vastly improved over it.

To start, the controller remains the same, so you don't need to break out more money for a new plastic turntable. This time, however, you can also obtain a bundle of two turntables and a microphone for those who want the full experience. And with the turntable now a separate peripheral, you are no longer forced to buy a bundle if you want to play either entry.

In-game, the biggest improvement is the gameplay. In DJ Hero, the gamplay consists of pressing 3 different-colored buttons, with the added ability to crossfade, scratch, and freestyle. Whereas freestyling was limited in the original to adding select samples with the red button, in DJ Hero 2, you can now freestyle scratches, crossfades, and samples, which now come from within the actual song. This, and the fact that freestyles are integrated into your overall score, makes the game more immersive and makes you feel almost like an actual DJ. The original game also had Guitar/DJ mixes, where you can play special mixes with someone who has a guitar peripheral. These types of mixes were removed for the sequel, which I believe to be a good move, since it allows the DJ Hero series to have its own identity.

The mixes of the game are nicely done, which I must say are actually better than the ones in the original. Among the artists you can mix to are deadmau5, The Chemical Brothers, and Lady Gaga, with some mixes mixed by professional DJs such as DJ Shadow, Tiesto, and The Scratch Perverts, among others. Some of the artists involved with the game actually make appearances in the game, along with characters from the first game, who I must say are much easier to look at this time around. Some players may wonder why there isn't a Create-A-Mix/Character like in Guitar Hero, but I think that would detract from the experience this game provides.

Overall, DJ Hero 2 is one of the best Rhythm games out there, and fans of the genre should pick this one up. If you are a fan of guitar-based games but are looking for something new and fresh, I would highly recommend this game. Once you start playing, you may have a hard time stopping.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Bejeweled 3: A Gem That Shines Brighter Than Ever

Bejeweled is a puzzle game with a simple concept: Continuously match 3 or more like gems to clear them from a field. It's easy to understand, but it can get challenging and very addicting. It was this that made the game from a simple internet game to one that you can play almost anywhere. It soon became one of PopCap's most popular titles, spawning a sequel, Bejeweled 2, and two spin-offs, Bejeweled Twist and Bejeweled Blitz. Recently, PopCap released the series' true second sequel, Bejeweled 3, and it is no less addicting or challenging.

Bejeweled 3 has 8 different modes, some of which are new to the series and put interesting twists on the gameplay. To start, there's Classic, which is like playing the original game, and ends when you can't make any more matches. Zen is a carry-over from Bejeweled 2 and Twist, with some options added to give the player a sense of relaxation. Lightning is also a carry-over of Blitz Mode from Bejeweled Twist, but now you can increase your time by matching certain gems together with regular ones. Fans of Bejeweled Blitz should feel comfortable with this version.

The two new options I enjoyed the most were Butterflies and Diamond Mine. In Butterflies, you must match Butterfly Gems with other like gems before they inch to the top of the screen, where a Spider eats them and ends the game. In Diamond Mine, the player has to match gems in order to dig underground to collect gold and other treasures. They must do so until they dig to a white line to reach the next level before the time runs out. Once you know what you're doing, these modes can become very frantic, which I liked, and I found them to be an enjoyable, challenging experience.

The new Ice Storm mode is one where you have to clear gems in order to destroy pillars of ice before they reach the top of the screen. The size and frequency of the pillars differ as the game advances, and once they reach the top, you have to act fast to destroy them or the game is over. The other new mode is Poker, where you swap gems to create matching hands of cards, which give you more points the better they are. At times, a skull will appear on one of the options, and you must create a higher hand in order to get rid of it. If you create the type of hand the skull is on, the outcome of the game is determined by a coin toss. While these two modes are interesting, I personally got bored with them after a while because they didn't really keep me excited, but you can have your own opinion.

The last new mode is Quest, where you must complete certain objectives in order to recover artifacts. This can be used as a way to get a preview of the various new modes of the main game, to see what tickles your fancy. The objectives can become very challenging on their own, leading to many close calls. Once you know how the challenges work, you can beat it in a short amount of time, but it is still an enjoyable and satisfying mode to play.

Another part of the game is the ability to earn Badges and swap gems while another set of gems falls into the screen. These were introduced in Bejeweled Blitz, but are no less great additions to the game. Badges are earned when you complete certain tasks, which anyone who enjoys getting achievements while playing will enjoy. The aforementioned new modes of play take the new swapping ability to their advantage, keeping them fresh and addicting.

Bejeweled 3 is a game that I would highly recommend to fans of casual games, especially of the Bejeweled series. Some Hardcore gamers might be turned off by the idea of something as simple as matching gems, but I feel they would be missing out on something spectacular. If you have even the slightest interest in this game, I suggest you try it out.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

God of War: Ghost of Sparta

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Let me start by saying that I am a huge fan of the God of War games. Every game thus far has been satisfying to play and, despite whatever flaws each game may have, even minor ones, the series has managed to remain as epic as ever. Naturally, due to my love of the franchise, I was really excited to hear about the latest installment, God of War: Ghost of Sparta, for the PSP. After playing, I can tell you that this is by far one of the best PSP games yet.

This game's story takes place between the original God of War and it's sequel, more specifically before the events of the mobile game, God of War: Betrayal. Kratos, the new God of War, is still haunted by the visions of his past, as seen at the end of the first game. Because of these memories, he decides it's time to explore his past, thinking of his long lost brother Deimos. In his journey, he makes it his goal to find out what happened to him. As you advance in the story, you come across some new Greek mythological figures and Deities. These include, but are not limited to, Thanatos, the God of Death; and King Midas.

There are also some new powers and weapons you gain to aid you in your quest, such as the ability to set your Blades of Athena on fire with Thera's Bane for more power in your attacks. Fortunately, this new power comes with it's own Fire Meter, placed underneath the Health and Magic Meters. This way, you can use it whenever you feel like it without having to worry about draining your Magic, which includes the ability to shoot lightning with the Eye of Atlantis, generate voids with the Scourge of Erinys, and freeze enemies with the Horn of Boreas. In addition to these powers, you also obtain a new weapon, the Arms of Sparta, which allows you to defend against large attacks and throw spears at distant enemies.

On the visual side, the look of ancient Greece feels like a real expansion on the game's world, using an amazing contrast of warm and cool colors to keep you interested. The architecture keeps with the Greek aesthetic rather nicely, making every location believable upon sight with the amount of detail they were able to put in. The cut-scenes are equally beautiful to observe, with a sort of quality that actually comes somewhere close to the PS3. These aspects are complemented perfectly by a soundtrack that only adds even more epicness to the events on-screen, using a familiar-sounding choir that doesn't seem to get old.

The gameplay for this installment, like the visuals, was also handled really well. Those that have played previous entries should be familiar with how it works, with a few tweaks taken from God of War III, such as having to look all around the screen during Quick-Time Events.

The only main concern I ran into while playing, however, was the shoulder buttons. Since there are only two at your disposal and only one analog stick, it carries over the mapping from the previous handheld entry, Chains of Olympus, in that you have to press both buttons at the same time in order to dodge. Half the time I did this, I ended up draining my Fire Meter whenever I didn't time it right. Aside from that, I felt everything was mapped perfectly to the system.

This game is a real must-have for any God of War fan. It is amazing, in many areas, that the PSP is capable of what Ghost of Sparta presents. Like every entry before it, Ghost of Sparta pushes the limits of its system to the highest, even surpassing Chains of Olympus, making for a mind-blowing experience.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock

Before I start, let me say that I am a fan of Guitar Hero. After blowing countless hours on Guitar Hero III, I have purchased almost every other Guitar Hero game in existence, finding more flaws than successes as time went on. 2009's oversaturation of the Rhythm Game genre certainly did not help this case. However, the more I heard about Warriors of Rock, I found my interest actually rise in the game. With my anticipations of the game at their pique thanks to the preview videos of the setlist, I finally started playing the game on its release date. Was the anticipation and build-up worth it? Well, I think it was, for the most part.

What I can say about this game is that outside of Quickplay +, which I'll explain shortly, the game is Guitar Hero on steroids. The game has gone back to its Guitar-based roots and injected a score of over-the-top elements into the recognizable gameplay. Characters, old and new, can now use their own unique power-ups and transform into their own "Warrior" forms, including Johnny Napalm as a Punk Rock version of Nightcrawler from X-Men, Axel Steel becoming a Mummy, and new character Austin Tejas turning into the Headless Horseman. On top of that, the plotline involves having to slay The Beast with your mighty axe a la BrĂ¼tal Legend to release the Demigod of Rock, complete with narrations by Gene Simmons of KISS fame.

As for the aforementioned power-ups, these are specific to each character and can really inflate your star levels. These include Axel Steel's ability to generate Ankhs to rescue you from failure, Judy Nail's ability to overflow the Rock Meter for extra stars, and Pandora's ability to generate a x6 Star Power Multiplier, among others. These powers are used during the Quest Mode, which now has you going through setlists specific to each character, as opposed to picking one character and plowing through one big setlist. Later in the game, you will need to combine these power-ups in order to take down the final boss by dividing the characters into two teams of four. Once Quest Mode is complete, you gain access to Dominate Quest. Here, you can play through Quest Mode again, but this time with access to all 8 powers at once, but now you must get all 40 stars possible from every song in order to "Dominate" each setlist. The powers from Quest are also transferred to Quickplay +. I personally didn't mind the powers too much, since I knew I would push myself harder outside of Quest.

But what would Guitar Hero be without the Setlist? The songs this time around were very balanced and diverse during Quest, as each character had their own Genre. For example, Johnny Napalm and his Punk Rock block at CBGBs, new character Echo Tesla and her Industrial setlist, and Judy Nails with more classic Pop songs. In the middle of the game, you get to play through a marathon of Rush's epic 2112, something I hadn't heard before but greatly appreciated afterwards. The setlist for the battle against The Beast at the end is a showdown of three Megadeth songs, including one written specifically for the game, which was a massive difficulty spike from what the game has you playing before. This spike was so large, I ended up having to lower the difficulty a peg just to get past the second song (I raised it back up for the last song). After this, you unlock a bonus tier of Metal songs, which I personally enjoyed maybe half of. The rest seemed tedious at first or even maintaining the massive difficulty spike I had mentioned. Still, I loved the setlist and found myself constantly going back to it on both Quest and Quickplay +.

Quickplay +, which I had brought up earlier, contains enough potential for earning stars that this game might as well be its own galaxy. You can play through the setlist of the game, including some songs which you have to unlock, with challenges specific to each song, or you can play the songs with power-ups taken from Quest and mix-and-match them like Call of Duty's Perk system to find a combination that will give you the most stars or maximize your score. The challenges, however, were more generic, even by the standards of the challenges, for DLC or songs imported from previous games, including Guitar Hero: Metallica. The stars that you earn in this mode add to a pool of stars for the purpose of "leveling up" to obtain more in-game goodies. Some of these unlockables, such as small art galleries of characters and new instruments and gameplay modifiers, were rather interesting to see in action.

A quick note on the graphics. They are very much improved over the last few entries in the series and run a lot smoother, even compared to the Rock Band franchise. If you aren't distracted by the oncoming notes, you will see some very beautifully detailed and life-like environments and characters, including CBGBs and even entire setpieces based on Rush's 2112. Most on-disc songs have their own animations that the characters go through, which is really impressive, especially on something like Bohemian Rhapsody.

While the game can get pretty ridiculous, I found myself getting caught up in it and enjoyed shredding through it. It was a lot more enjoyable to me compared to the last few entries, if only because I liked the return to having more guitar-centric songs. Whatever your taste in music might be, I would love to tell you to buy this game, but I would instead direct you to the setlist preview videos so you get a taste of what you are in for. After all, your mileage may vary with this game based on your own personal tastes. Still, I say it's not a bad idea to give this title a shot, even if you just rent it over the weekend. If you like it after that approach, do not hesitate to buy it; you might miss playing it.

Monday, January 3, 2011

True Grit: Coen Brothers + Adaptation = Entertaining Western

I will admit that this is the first movie by the Coen Brothers that I have ever seen and that I have not read the original 1968 novel the movie was based on, and that I have not seen the original 1969 adaptation starring John Wayne. With that in mind, I had mixed feelings about this film from the ads and hearing about the elements usually associated with Coen Brothers movies. However, I decided to give it a chance after seeing the performance of Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy. While watching the movie, I began to enjoy this film beyond my original expectations. What I can honestly say is that the Coen Brothers managed to make an entertaining Western movie that embodies a lot of what a Western is.

The film's main character, 14-year-old Maddie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), is seeking revenge against Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father. She wishes to accomplish this by hiring U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). She convinces him to let her go with him after managing to hire Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). What follows is common with Westerns in that the movie is them giving chase to Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), not actually encountering him until the last half-hour of the movie. The character interactions follow common themes of separation and working together later for the sake of Maddie.

As a character, Maddie is very headstrong and mature for her age, boldly commenting on the behavior and mannerisms of others as well as threatening to "bring in her lawyer" should she not be able to do what she feels she needs to do. Throughout the movie, she continues to act this way towards Cogburn and LaBoeuf, but grows to depend on them as the film reaches its climax. This growth made her character more tolerable to me, especially during the ending. Cogburn is your typical lazy drunkard, but tries to display confidence in his abilities despite having only one good eye. LaBoeuf is the opposite, serving as a deadpan snarker to balance out how hammy Cogburn is. Both of them are acted out very well by both Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, who also play off the contrasting personalities very well and often very humorously. One scene where this occurs is one where Cogburn attempts to show that he can still shoot well with one eye, by throwing corn bread in the air and shooting it, which prompts LaBoeuf to join in and throw him off.

I have no idea what happens in the book, but I believe that the movie was very well executed in terms of story. It  had the serious and sometimes edgy atmosphere that I had expected, enhanced by the choice of filming locations in New Mexico and Texas. However, the movie was surprisingly also very funny at times. Reviews of the movie made it sound devoid of this, but I found that it was far from it. The verbal humor, mostly from Cogburn's lazy attitude towards things, comes complete with a droplet of visual and slapstick humor. This balanced the story to me, strategically preventing the movie from becoming as serious as it might have otherwise been. I feel I should say that the ending is darker than you might expect compared to the rest of the movie.

*Spoiler Alert*
True to form, or what I can gather, this movie has a couple gory scenes that the Coen Brothers are known for using in their films. This includes a scene where a man in a cabin has his fingers cut off and the man who did this immediately getting shot in the head by Cogburn. The scene is soon followed by one where Cogburn goes through LaBoeuf’s bloody mouth, with most of the shots focusing on the mouth. The dialogue during this scene certainly didn't help relieve the sickening feeling I had while watching. For me, this was made up for by the occasional gun battles prominent in other Westerns, which gave me a slight adrenaline rush from the sudden burst of action, especially the final battle Cogburn has on horseback against four other men near the end of the movie.
*End Spoiler Alert*

True Grit was a movie that had exceeded my previous expectations, surprising me in the right ways to keep me interested and wondering how the eventual encounter with Tom Chaney would go. Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon gave performances that were very entertaining and helped the spirit of the movie. It didn't make me too eager to see more Coen Brothers, but it kept me entertained for a good two hours. If you are looking for a great modern Western or are simply a big fan of the Coen Brothers' work, I can recommend you this movie.

TRON: Evolution - System Error

Being a fan of the original Tron movie, I was really excited to hear the announcement of Tron: Legacy, and that Daft Punk, one of my favorite artists, was making the soundtrack. As this was going on, I also heard about the game, Tron: Evolution, billed as taking place between both movies. I wasn't too sure about playing it, with the reputation of movie-licensed games, but I decided to give it a shot anyway. After playing it, I think I can safely say that while it was somewhat enjoyable, a few things could've used some work.

As stated, the story takes place between both movies, specifically after Tron: Betrayal, the comic book prequel the Tron: Legacy. Kevin Flynn has discovered a race of programs, called ISOs (Isomorphic Algorithms), which no one programmed. Though Flynn believes they are integral to the Grid, Clu, an avatar he created to watch over things in his absence, has doubts about this. The player takes control of a program created by Flynn, a Monitor called Anon, in order to help him investigate the murder of an ISO named Jalen, believed to have been caused by Clu.

The main story of the game helps to explain some key points that occur during the second film, such as why Clu despises ISOs. At some points, it even takes place during scenes near the end of the comic and during the second film's flashback sequences. I won't give any spoilers, but overall, it felt like it for the most part fit in with the Tron universe.

The graphics were actually pretty good for a movie-based game. However some parts of the scenery felt a little repetitive and could've used a little more variety. The aesthetic, however, was enough to distract me from this, as the look of the Grid impresses me every time I see it. Despite the slight repetitiveness, the game still drew me into the world it created.

The sound of the game is also amazing. The music, composed by Sonic Mayhem, Cris Velasco, and Kevin Manthei, was done rather well, and hopefully I can obtain the vinyl for it. For fans of Daft Punk and Tron: Legacy, a couple of their songs from said movie, The Grid and Derezzed, appear in the game, the former in the main menu and the latter appropriately in the End of Line Club. The voice acting was also done well, with Quorra and Tron voiced by their respective actors from the second film. Jeff Bridges does not voice Kevin Flynn or Clu in the game, though Fred Tatasciore offers a great sound-alike.

The gameplay, on the other hand, was decent, but had problems of its own. To begin with, your weapon in the game is an Identity Disk (referred to in-game as a Light Disk), which comes in four different varieties: the Heavy Disk, which offers more power during a ground slam; the Bomb Disk, which creates a blast and damages nearby enemies when thrown; the Stasis Disk, which slows down enemies when hit; and the Corruption Disk, which corrupts enemies and makes their health loss your gain. The effects of these disks, switched at will with the D-Pad, come into play when the Triangle/Y button is used with a shoulder button. You have to use certain disks at certain times to damage certain enemies, but when you're not forced to use one, you will find a favorite in no time.

There are 3 different control schemes: On-Foot, Light Cycle, and Light Tank. The On-Foot controls, used for most of the game, are pretty tight and fairly easy to use. The Light Cycle controls are done well, but it can actually become hard to steer at times. The Light Tank, however, is a bit difficult to handle, as much of its actions depend on the direction of the in-game camera. This game is also Playstation Move compatible, but I am unable to comment about it, as it is unclear when you are able to use it and how.

My main complaint about the controls is the in-game camera. This camera is a free-roaming one, but the way it works leads to problems during play. The X-Axis is inverted while the Y-Axis is not, and the only way to alter the camera is to invert the Y-Axis. This leads to frustration in that it often does not point in the direction you want it to and it tends to zoom in on your character a bit too closely.

On a lighter note, the game features a straight-forward Level-Up system. You collect EXP by killing enemies, which increases your Level, or Version. When you gain a new Version, you also gain Memory that can be redeemed for Upgrades for Anon at certain points. This also can apply to Online play, as some Upgrades can aid your teammates in battle.

Overall, this game isn't exactly that great, but its decent for a movie game. I'm not sure exactly who to recommend it to, but for sure I believe any hardcore Tron fan will enjoy it. The best way I can say to experience this game is to play it after watching one or both movies, using the Collector's Edition Tron controller. If you purchase the Collector's Edition of the game and don't like it, you will at least get a kick-awesome Light Cycle replica by Sideshow Collectibles, complete with display case.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Tangled: Disney With A Hint of Dreamworks

When I had heard about this film, I had an interest in it, but I was turned off by the Dreamworks-esque advertising. When I heard mainly positive reviews, however, I decided that this was a movie I needed to see. I still went in the theater with little expectations, but after actually watching the movie, I can say that I found myself enjoying it.

The story of the movie took the mold of the classic German fairytale and added elements from classic Disney, including detailed settings, a tragic backstory, muscial numbers, and a rather interesting cast of characters. However, the movie followed conventions of Disney Princess movies closely enough that I could spot a lot of the film's events coming at least twenty minutes to even an hour before they actually occured. Even with the predictable elements though, it still managed to provide a few good tear jerker moments that actually made me cry a little.

On another note, the visuals were more lifelike and fluid than a lot of previous Disney movies and kept me watching. The character of Rapunzel followed a lot of common Disney Princess conventions, but worked in the films' favor. The character of Flynn Rider, a wanted thief, is the main love interest and also serves as a guide for Rapunzel outside the castle. When his acrobatic ability is shown at the beginning during a break-in, I couldn't help but think of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, another Disney film. He was well thought out, even if he followed the cliche of caring more for the girl rather than a stolen object. As for the songs in the movie, they were ok to listen to, but they weren't really catchy or memorable.

*Spoiler Alert*
Despite being a Disney film, there was one scene, and everything related to it, that felt like Dreamworks. By that, I mean it felt odd, anachronistic, and out of place. During a bar scene, a musical number begins and we see the dreams of many of the thugs in the bar, ranging from being a mime or a concert pianist to collecting ceramic unicorns. The anachronistic bit comes from mentioning Mozart in a lyric. That would mean that Mozart and other great composers exist in their world despite the film's setting suggesting a time before Mozart's music or even mime-based entertainment would even be invented. These characters occur later, but still with the feeling of being out of place in the world Disney set up.

Also, Rapunzel has the ability to heal people with her hair. This is something I can believe can happen in that world because an explanation for this is given at the beginning. However, near the end of the movie, she was able to bring Flynn Rider back to life with healing tears. It is never explained as to how she can do that, nor is it ever mentioned again.
*End Spoiler Alert*

So despite the forgettable songs, a predictable plot, and the anachronistic Dreamworks elements, Tangled is still very reminiscent of classic Disney films. Considering it is self-touted as Disney's 50th Animated Movie, it is a movie I would reccomend anyone to go see if they are looking for a quick and entertaining animated adventure.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Back to the Future: The Game - Episode 1: It's About Time

On December 22, 2010, Telltale Games released Back to the Future: The Game as part of a licensing deal with Universal. While I had some interest in the game, I felt it would be a better idea to see the films it was based on first. After doing so, I purchased this game and played through Episode 1, entitled, It's About Time. After completing it within a couple hours, which is pretty short for an episodic Point-and-Click game, I can say that Telltale has a good grasp on how to handle the license. It definitely helps that the original creators have some involvement in keeping it like the movies.

This game takes place in 1986, following the third movie, beginning with a scene reminiscent of the first movie. This turns out to be a dream which Marty McFly wakes up from. He then heads over to Doc Brown's house and tries to stop his possessions from being sold in a government auction, as he has been missing for a few months. However, the DeLorean shows up and Marty uses it to go back to 1931, where Doc Brown is in jail after commiting arson on a speakeasy. However, he would be shot to death on the courthouse steps by Kid Tannen the following day. The rest of the plot involves Marty having to enlist the aid of 1931, teenage, Doc Brown to bust him out and prevent his death.

During the game, fans of the franchise will come across many references to the films, such as mentions and sightings of books by Jules Verne and Marty having to use the name of a fictional character as a pseudonym, including a Clint Eastwood character as a choice. There is also continual use of the mythology gags throughout the series, such as Strickland's "slacker" catchphrase and a Tannen always getting covered in manure through encountering Marty. These provide great fanservice for the game, as well as a good source of humor.

The story was written and executed just like it really was another film in the franchise. This is aided by a great voice cast, including Cristopher Lloyd as Doc Brown and a good substitute Marty McFly in AJ LoCascio, who has almost as much energy in the role as Michael J. Fox. Telltale's composer, Jared Emerson-Johnson, wrote music that complements the events at hand. It also helps that they were able to use some of the music from Back to the Future.

The graphics of this game were also very stylized, giving it the feel of an animated series. This isn't really a bad thing, as I got used to them fairly quickly. However, I did encounter a graphical glitch once where the flames from a rocket-powered drill, after blowing up, were suspended by themselves on the sidewalk. At the same time, the game was also choppy when I first started playing it, but it smoothed itself out about five or ten minutes into the game. Other than that, there weren't any problems.

The gameplay was pretty easy to pick up, as it is a Point-and-Click Adventure Game. Still, the interface was very simple to use and the puzzles were pretty straight-forward, but I will admit that I used the Hint button a couple of times. Players who have also retained knowledge of the movies will have an easier time with a lot of the puzzles that require exploitation of such knowledge, including a puzzle where you need to get Marty's Grandfather, Arthur McFly's, hat back from Kid Tannen by distracting him with a "look over there."

As one who purchased the full season off Telltale's store for $25, I can say that so far it has been worth the money. The simple gameplay and fantastic story kept me playing and wanting to see what would happen next. The game ends in a standard cliffhanger, but it is one I can't wait to see get resolved in the coming months. This game is a great purchase so far, but I would reccomend it more to existing fans, as they would get more enjoyment out of this.