Saturday, April 30, 2011

Back to the Future: The Game - Episode 4: Double Visions

Well, it would seem that Telltale has managed to do something interesting with the episode. I am still a little disappointed with certain areas, but I have at least noticed a change in story progression. After a month-long wait for this episode, it's like getting a mixed bag more than anything.

The story for the episode is as follows. Marty McFly wakes up in a room in the dystopian Hill Valley where he is to be prepped for Citizen Plus treatment. He manages to escape, thus avoiding becoming a mindless drone, and needs to work with Doc Brown in order to stop 1931 Emmett from falling in love with Edna Strickland and see Frankenstein instead. At the same time, the DeLorean's time circuits have been malfunctioning, so Marty needs to also find a way to get it fixed so he can return to 1986 when he fixes the timeline.

I still liked the fantastic writing of this episode. However, that's really all this episode has going for it. There is no change in the graphics, save for a slightly limited animation pool leading to a point where Edna is in a conversation with an invisible Doc Brown, and the music is still great to listen to. The voice acting is still excellent, although there was one time where the sound dropped out for some reason, always on the same line of dialogue. But the puzzles are still too easy and serves to only make the game more noticably linear. Overall though, I was more engaged by the 2-hour chunk of story this time around, so I guess the episode did its job.

Continuing players will definitely need to check the episode out, as it continues the story for them. I would still like to have non-players take a purchase of the season into consideration or wait until opinions of the 5th and final episode have been put up. Telltale knows how to craft a story, but it disappoints me that that is the only thing keeping the episode engaging. I would like them to do something new with the final episode, but I'm not going to get my hopes up. It would be cool, however, if they decided to go the extra mile for the ending and play Back In Time from the movies. Small thing, I know, but at least the episode would go out with a bang.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Mortal Kombat (2011) - A Fitting and Gory Revival

As a series that began life in the arcades, Mortal Kombat is one notable for having some of the goriest combat ever seen in a video game, as well as being the series that would lead to the creation of the ESRB. I have had almost zero experience with the franchise, save for Deception and MK vs DCU. However, I do know that after playing this, Ed Boone and his team at NeatherRealm Studios have lit up a flame in me that craves more Mortal Kombat.

The character selection here is diverse, with 26 different fighters present. The list is made up of characters virtually exclusive to only the first 3 games, with iconic characters like Scorpion and Sub-Zero mixed with the likes of Kitana and Sektor. Each one has their own unique set of moves and ways to fight, which makes it certain that anyone playing will find a character that suits their own fighting style, such as Stryker for some reason finding a resonance with me. The PS3 version, the one I played, also has an exclusive in the form of Kratos, who was perfect for the game and had his moves integrated perfectly into the game, as well as his visceral way of dealing with enemies in God of War.

You would not believe the amount of detail put into Mortal Kombat, clearly coming a long way from digitized actors. The characters have been painstakingly rendered on the inside as well as the outside, so a lot of body and clothing damage can be seen as the battle goes on. In fact, there are some background events and details that would require you to take your eyes off the fight just to catch a glimpse of them. Images of combatants fighting in the background, a speeding train, or even a dragon fighting a helicopter are all beatifully rendered and provide a unique atmosphere to each and every stage. Even the new X-Ray moves that show literal bone-crushing force are rendered with impressive detail for a fighting game, although this particular spectacle can make you cringe if you have a weak stomach.

Compared to the 3D MK games that I had played, the controls here were fairly easy to pick up and use. It felt great taking individual moves and forming combos of my own, rather than having to memorize an insanely long button combination. On top of this, the controls were very tight and responsive, allowing me to fight without any trouble. The movements were also very fluid, which can lead to some pretty frantic action. It's even more frantic when you're playing the Tag Mode, which has you using two characters or working together with someone else. I also enjoyed seeing each characters' fatality in action, which shows the amount of effort the team put into giving each character their own identity.

Single Player has a wealth of gameplay modes, the longest of which is the Challenge Tower, which has a total of 300 challenges designed to test your abilities as well as give you experience with each fighter, which the Story also does a good job with. I spent a few hours on the Tower, and I'm still not done going through it, but I love it so far, even with the silly reasons that some of them even happen. There are also the 4 Test Your modes, but the big incentive for completing the different modes would be for gaining Koins for unlocking the vast amount of secrets in the Krypt, which includes concept art, alternate costumes, and Fatalities among other things. It would probably take me a few days to finally unlock everything in the Krypt, but it's a challenge worth taking.

The only real complaint I have is with the enemy AI during the Ladder challenges and Story Mode. While fights are supposed to get challenging as you advance, the enemy combatants seem to eventually have the reflexes to catch a bullet and then some. This is more noticable on higher difficulties, where it seems like just getting to the final boss is near impossible, even when I stretch my skills to the limit. I know challenge is expected, but just simply increasing their speed is something that didn't work for Street Fighter IV, and it certainly isn't a good way to go about it. It all boils down to fake difficulty in the end.

Playing Mortal Kombat has been a thrilling experience thus far, and I can't wait to play it even more in the future. I can't comment on the online modes, as PSN happened to be down while I was playing, but I will likely check that out when it comes back online. MK Veterans will be very happy with this game, as will those just getting into the series. I could reccomend it to anyone, but only if they are 17 or older. Simply put, this is the best Mortal Kombat game I have ever played, and it definitely proves that MK is here to stay for a long time.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Stubs - The Maltese Falcon

THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet with Elisha Cook, Jr. Ward Bond and Barton MacLane Directed by John Huston. Produced by Hal B. Wallis (Executive Producer) Screenplay by John Huston, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammet. Run time 100 minutes. Black and White. Crime, Film Noir, Mystery.

Okay, the second of two films starring Humphrey Bogart on my top ten list. And arguably the best of the two. Remember I said arguably. This film is closer to the roles that made Bogart famous. While he was best known as a gangster in his early career, he also played two iconic private detectives from American fiction: Philip Marlowe in THE BIG SLEEP (1946) and Samuel Spade in this film. And of the two, this is the far superior. While THE BIG SLEEP has its moments, it suffers from too much editing and reshooting and the plot gets lost somewhere along the way.

Such is not the problem with THE MALTESE FALCON. It is interesting to note that this is one of the few times a remake is better than the original. In fact, this is the third time for this story. The original THE MALTESE FALCON (1931) starred Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez and played the romance of the story almost of laughs. Remade in 1936 as SATAN MET A LADY with Bette Davis and Warren Wilson, it took the third time for Warner Brothers to get it right and to make a classic.

One of the early examples of film noir, THE MALTESE FALCON has all the elements of the “genre”. Private detective Sam Spade (Bogart) and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Gowan) are hired by Brigid O’Shaughnessy but calling herself Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor), because she is trying to get her sister back from a man named Floyd Thursby. Attracted to Brigid, married Miles, volunteers to go with her that night only to end up dead, as does the unseen Thursby. That leaves Sam and his secretary/assistant Effie (Lee Patrick) to work the case. While Sam is falling for Brigid, he also knows that she is lying to him about virtually everything. Still, he agrees to help her.

Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) shows up soon afterward, thinking Sam knows more than he does about the Maltese Falcon. Even though they don’t trust each other, Cairo hires Sam. When Sam meets up with Brigid and Cairo shows up it is obvious to Sam that Cairo and O’Shaughnessy know each other. Things get agitated when Brigid tells Cairo that the “Fat Man” is in town. So agitated that the police, Detective Tom Polhaus (Ward Bond) and Lieutenant Dundy (Barton MacLane), are called and take Cairo away for further questioning.

In the morning, when Sam goes to Cairo’s hotel, he runs into Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.) a young man he recognizes as having been following Sam earlier. Using Wilmer, Sam finally meets Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) aka The Fat Man. When Gutman starts to get evasive about the Falcon, Sam gives Gutman a deadline to be more forthcoming and then storms ours. Later, Wilmer is sent to fetch Sam and holds a gun on him. That is until they’re in the hallway outside of Gutman’s room. Then Sam overpowers Wilmer and takes his guns. “This ought to get you in good with your boss,” Sam teases.

But the meeting quickly goes south. While Gutman gives Sam a history of the Falcon and offers to cut him in on the sale, he spikes Marlowe’s drink. When Sam passes out, not only does Wilmer get some revenge by kicking him, but it turns out Cairo was also there. Gutman, Cairo and Wilmer leave. When Sam wakes up, he searches the rooms and finds circled in the newspaper the arrival time of the freighter La Paloma.

When Sam goes to the docks, he is too late and the freighter is already burning. Returning to his office, where loyal Effie is already waiting, Sam is visited by Captain Jacobi (Walter Huston) from La Paloma, who only lives long enough to deliver Sam the bird. His euphoria at getting the Falcon is short-lived when a screaming O’Shaughnessy calls and gives an address before the line goes dead. After stashing the Falcon at the bus terminal and mailing himself the claim ticket, Sam employs a loyal cab driver to take him to the address O’Shaughnessy has given him. Keeping with the Aviary-theme, it turns out to be a wild goose chase, as there is nothing at that address.

Returning to his apartment, Sam finds Brigid hiding in a nearby doorway. When he takes her inside, they find Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer waiting for him with guns drawn. Knowing that Spade has the Falcon, Gutman offers him $10.000 for it. Sam agrees, but only as long as someone is set up for the police to take the fall for the murders of Archer, Thursby, and Jacobi. While Sam is open to suggestions, he thinks Wilmer is perfect for the part. Gutman and Cairo agree, a scuffle ensues and Wilmer is knocked out. While they wait for Sam to be able to retrieve the Falcon, Sam learns the details of the backstabbing and double-crossing that Gutman, Cairo, O’Shaughnessy, and Thursby had been involved with since first finding the bird.

Still early, Sam calls Effie to bring the Falcon to him. In those days the mail was quicker. She brings the bundle and leaves. But Gutman is disappointed to find that the Falcon is a lead forgery. Taking back all but $1000 of his payment to Sam, Gutman with Cairo set out again for Istanbul to get the Falcon. Wilmer has already come to and escaped. When they’re gone, Sam calls the police and tells them to round up the group before they can leave town. Then Sam turns on Brigid. He knows that she killed Archer and he has no choice but to turn her over to the police. She thinks he’s joking, but despite his own feelings for her, he has no choice and he gives her up when Detectives Polhaus and Lieutenant Dundy arrive.

Like CASABLANCA, THE MALTESE FALCON has a great cast, including many of the same actors who appear in both films: Bogart, Greenstreet, and Lorre. The beauty of the studio system is that there was a group of talented stars and supporting players, who could be shuffled and deployed in a variety of films. Take Bogart, add in Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet and you practically have a movie already. These Bogart, Greenstreet, and Lorre would also appear together again in PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE, a film which doesn’t catch the magic of their work in CASABLANCA and FALCON.

Since I’ve already written about many of these actors in my review of CASABLANCA, let me expound about two in this film: Mary Astor and Elisha Cook Jr.

Mary Astor may be best remembered for her role as the femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, in this movie, but she had a long career in films, dating back to silent films in 1920. She would star in such films as RED DUST where she battled Jean Harlow for Clark Gable’s affections and appears in such memorable films as THE PALM BEACH STORY, ACROSS THE PACIFIC, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and her final appearance in HUSH … HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE. While her personal life may have been rocked by scandal, she did go on to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Sandra Kovak in THE GREAT LIE.

One of the great character actors, Elisha Cook, Jr. is always solid when he plays the guy in over his head. In this movie, the guns he carries are almost as big as Wilmer and he is no match for the likes of Gutman or Cairo or O’Shaughnessy and certainly not Spade. They are strong personalities that dwarf Wilmer, but these are the kind of roles that Cook plays best. In film after film, Cook plays the guy who is trying to do what is asked of him, but usually gets shot down for it; whether he’s the meek frontier settler Frank 'Stonewall' Torrey standing up to likes of the long and lean gunslinger Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) in SHANE or he’s playing George Peatty trying to hang on to his femme fatale wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) in THE KILLING. He also has memorable appearances in THE BIG SLEEP and THE PHANTOM LADY to name, but a few.

THE MALTESE FALCON was John Huston’s first film as director. While he would go on to direct such films as THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, THE AFRICAN QUEEN, MOBY DICK and THE MISFITS, this was the one that put him on the map. Not only was the new director helped by the great cast, but also by his own witty fast-moving screenplay. Some of the lines spoken in this film are some of the best ever recorded on celluloid. “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter”; “I don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble”; and “Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be” are some of my favorites.

THE MALTESE FALCON is an absorbing look at the dark side of dreams and what some people are willing to do to get what they want. It is the world where someone like Sam Spade operates. Maneuvering on both sides of the law with equal skill, Sam may not get everything he wants (money and the girl) but he makes us want to watch him again and again. Tough, clever, and witty, Spade is the quintessential movie private eye and he sets the bar high for all that follow. 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Portal 2 - Better Than The First

If you have been on the internet in the last 4 years, it is incredibly likely that you have heard of the game Portal, or have at least heard a quote or two from it. Yes, it is impossible to escape Portal, a game first packaged with Valve's The Orange Box in 2007. While the game was short, it was very enjoyable and gained a phenomenally large fan base, enough to warrant a sequel. With the follow-up, Portal 2, having been recently released, I am very happy to say that it has taken everything I have heard about the game and has exceeded every one of my expectations many times over.

I would begin by talking about the story, but saying absolutely anything about it would spoil the experience. There are some twists in the story, albeit expected, but that's not important here. What is important is that the story does a very excellent job of immersing you into the world laid out in front of you. No matter how you feel about the events, it is all but guaranteed that you will become very invested in the story, unable to turn away from the next major event, of which there are plenty. Along the way, many of these moments will be very unforgettable. I still can't believe some of them even hours after playing.

One of the new aspects of Portal 2 is the introduction of two new characters, Wheatley (Steve Merchant) and Cave Johnson (J.K. Simmons). Both of them do an excellent job at portraying their characters, with Wheatley's English accent and Cave Johnson's unending charisma married with absolutely perfect comedic timing and plenty of humorous dialogue making them very likable characters. I just couldn't get enough of these characters, and I would sometimes stick around to listen to as much of their lingering dialogue as possible before moving the plot forward. The same can be said for GLaDOS, who has some memorable dialogue, but thankfully a lot of the dialogue of the game seems less "meme-able" than before, which is great for those who got tired of hearing GLaDOS' lines repeated endlessly.

The game looks much better than the previous entry, showing us less pristine environments and showing us that time has indeed passed between the two games. It is unknown exactly how much time, but it's fairly obvious that the world has aged, complete with some plant life creeping into the chambers. I also found it breathtaking when I first saw the test chambers or parts of Aperture Science that were less cramped and instead more spacious, some even having no bottom. This was a very welcome change, letting some moments have more of an impact. At times, I would even stare at the environment for a few minutes at a time to view the painstaking amount of detail put into the game; I could even go so far as to call them beautiful.

While an environment should be good to look at, it's also good to have a soundtrack that fits. Fortunately, Portal 2 delivers in this department. While Portal didn't have much of a soundtrack, it was there and largely forgettable, save for Still Alive during the credits. The sequel, on the other hand, has a more prevalent and memorable soundtrack, with a score that matches the onscreen events beat for beat. At the same time, the new ending song Want You Gone is perhaps not as memorable as Still Alive at the moment, but I'm sure that with time you'll be singing that along with your friends during discussion.

The most important thing about an environment, however, is being able to navigate it. That is never a problem in Portal 2, with simple controls that respond perfectly without a hitch. As portals are the main source of navigation, this is very good, and the ability to zoom in on a surface for a precision portal placement is a very nice and welcome feature, since sometimes you need to hit surfaces at odd angles and it can be hard to make sure that you have done so. Since the test chambers this time around are more spacious, it is also very helpful that you can see where you have placed your portals even through walls. This also helps you confirm better what portal color you have placed where, preventing you from accidentally undoing a few minutes of effort.

Being that Portal 2 is a puzzle game, design is very important, and it appears that there was absolutely no shortage of creativity here. At first, the puzzles seem familiar, but with time they evolve into bigger and more challenging puzzles. Challenge is never a bad thing when it comes to Portal, and it's the kind that feels very rewarding for being able to figure something out. The new mechanics, such as the Excursion Funnels and Gels, also offer some great fun once you experiment within the chambers and figure out how things interact. This is especially obvious when all of the mechanics begin to interact with each other to form new mind-bending puzzles you would never even dream of. While the original Portal could be finished in as little as 2 hours or so, the sheer amount and length of the puzzles in this game will keep you busy for upwards of 8 hours, which is great because it really makes the purchase more worthwhile.

But the biggest addition by far has to be the full-fledged Co-Op mode, in which 2 people, locally or online, can solve a new diverse set of Test Chambers. The puzzles here are equally as impressive as the Single Player campaign, which sets up a lot of interesting gameplay feats when four portals are in use, such as when players need to extend a Hard Light Bridge to overcome Emancipation Grills that could kill a lot of progress. As PSN was down at the time I started playing, I cannot comment on the online functionalities of the PS3 version, but I do know that communication can be crucial when it comes to puzzle-solving in this mode. When both players are working together, the experience is much more enjoyable and fun for everyone. While this mode is shorter than Single Player, about 5 hours or so, it's really fun to play with a friend or relative in this game. I should also note that GLaDOS' dialogue is simpler here, but it's still very humorous to listen to.

While the Co-Op mode takes place after the Single Player mode, it doesn't really matter which one you play first, as both parts are very self-contained. I had a lot of expectations for this game, and they have thus far exceeded them far more than any other game I have played. If you are a fan of the original Portal or have the tiniest curiosity whether or not the sequel is any better than the original, you definitely will not be disappointed with this game. If you are a newcomer, do yourself a favor and purchase the original Portal and play through that first, as there is a story and it is helpful to see it in order. I have fallen in love with this game, and it certainly helps that even in the real world, I can't stop thinking with portals.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Duke Nukem: Zero Hour - Zero Patience

File:Duke Nukem Zero Hour box.jpg

As Duke Nukem Forever continued to reside in development hell, 3D Realms released another Duke Nukem game in order to satiate fans. This time working with developer Eurocom, they created Duke Nukem: Zero Hour (written as Zer:0 H:0ur) for the Nintendo 64 (N64). Released in 1999, it is a game said by many to be a great addition to the series. Continuing the third-person shooter (TPS) formula of Time to Kill, Zero Hour makes many improvements to create a better experience. Unfortunately, one thing is required in order to play: Patience, and lots of it.

The game begins with an unskippable cutscene explaining the plot: A Duke Nukem from the past contacts the present one, revealing he is stuck there because aliens destroyed his time machine. It is then up to Duke to travel back in time in order to save the future and prevent the aliens from screwing it up. As I do not own the manual for this game, this is all I have to go by. While it's not original for time travel to be in a Duke Nukem game (Duke Nukem 1 and Time to Kill), I would say that Duke seems to have a better incentive to time travel than in the last game.

The controls are solid and respond perfectly, but can get awkward at times, if only due to the layout of the N64 controller. By itself, however, you must move Duke using the C D-Pad while controlling the camera with the Analog Stick in the center which takes some getting used to. Also, you use the Right Shoulder Button to jump, which is fine, except that the animation to jump is a little slow, making the timing off for jumping out of water. Otherwise, the aiming is much improved over the previous Duke game, since the red icon in the center will always stay where you point it.

Like the previous game, there is plenty of variety in the weaponry, and ammo is dropped with every enemy you kill. Your weaponry changes depending on the time period, which makes plenty of sense for a time-travel game, but you will find a favorite to use in no time. You can also use a variety of items such as Medkits and Gas Masks, the latter of which is especially needed when facing certain Pig Cops. The graphics are actually nice for an N64 game at the time, a notable aspect being that the Pig Cops are this time much less portly than in the last game. Everything is rendered with clear detail, with Duke looking more noticeably masculine than in Time to Kill. When you get a view of the background scenery, the buildings contain a lot of humor alone. The sound quality is also nicely put together, with a great score and Duke seeming to have less-annoying one-liners this time around (again, compared to Time to Kill).

However, there is one big flaw I should mention with this game, so big that it can just as easily cripple the experience as the game can make it: There's no Save feature. Rather, there is one, but it's like in the first game where it can only Save after every level, meaning that you have to start over again after you die. This would be more accepting if the levels were smaller, but they are actually quite large, so you must re-do everything you ever did every single time. What makes this worse is that the game is very scripted, so you'll more often than not die after seeing something unexpected and have to re-do at least 20-30 minutes of progress at a time. Unless you have an ungodly amount of patience and willpower, you are likely to give up rather quickly.

I apologize for this, but this flaw actually caused me to give up after a few hours, without even beating the first level! Without the motivation to keep playing, I looked up the ending on YouTube to see what it was like. I will say that it's better than the last game, but I honestly don't think getting frustrated over replaying a level several times in a row is worth the effort.

Duke Nukem: Zero Hour is fun at first, but that can all change in an instant once you start dying a few times. Because I succumbed to the game's major flaw, I can't exactly say whether or not it's overall good, but I can say this: If you're a big Duke Nukem fan and/or have patience for this kind of Save system, you might get some enjoyment out of this game. However, if you are the type that gets easily frustrated with that kind of system, this probably isn't a game for you.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Duke Nukem: Time to Kill - You'd Better Have Plenty of It

After the release and success of Duke Nukem 3D in 1996, 3D Realms announced the long-delayed Duke Nukem Forever. Once development hell began for DNF, 3D Realms and n-Space developed the first of many side games for the franchise called Duke Nukem: Time to Kill for the PlayStation (PS1). Released in 1998, this was not only the first game created specifically to satiate fans until the release of DNF, but it was also the first third-person shooter (TPS) in this line of games. While this game should be able to keep one entertained for as long as it should, I can say that I am definitely not a fan.

The first thing to mention, as always, is the story of the game. It is actually important that you don't skip the cutscene that plays when you pop the game in for the first time, which I must say was put together rather excellently with great accompanyment by "The Thing I Hate" by Stabbing Westward, as the game picks up exactly where it leaves off. We see in the video that aliens, including the familiar Pig Cops, have come to take over the Earth, again, and it is up to Duke to stop them. The manual elaborates by telling us that the aliens are called the Draks and they have the goal of altering Earth's past in an attempt to erase Duke from history. While time travel isn't completely original for the series, Duke Nukem I had this for Episodes 2 and 3, it seems like an interesting concept in theory, especially since the entire game is built around this. Unfortunately, it only goes downhill from here.

When the game actually starts, there is a pretty steep learning curve for controlling Duke. It doesn't help that the game utilizes "tank controls", where moving and turning the camera are assigned to the same stick. While you would think the rest of the controls would probably make up for this, they seem to only work when they feel like it, especially Duke's movement speed and jumping. This is a real pain during later platforming segments where your control has to be very precise or you end up dying or halting your progress, which led me to using a jetpack to bypass even the smallest jumps over lava. The control is further crippled by the ratio of the speed of Duke's actions to the speed of his enemies. The speed of drawing and holstering his weapons, and even strafing, is so slow that you will more than likely take a hit or two before you can get one on the enemy.

But the aiming system itself deserves special mention, which you'll have a hard time wrestling with. The manual states that Duke can aim pretty well as long as you point him in the general direction. During gameplay, this seemed more and more like an outright lie. While it is true that Duke can aim at an enemy on his own, it only applies to what appears to be a thin line of sight in front of him. So naturally, I tried to aim manually, which is also very tedious, as enemies are much faster than the aiming speed in both normal and precision modes. However, the biggest problem I had was trying to aim at an enemy directly in front of me. To elaborate, when near an enemy, the red aiming reticle, which only appears when in a firefight by the way, will attach to the enemy like it should. But instead of staying there, the dot will sometimes bounce back and forth between your intended target and the wall behind them, leading to more lead in the wall than in an alien's chest. For this reason alone, I used the Combat Shotgun as soon as I could and never thought twice about it.

Duke is definitely no stranger to weaponry, and this game has plenty of choices, overwhelming even. There's the standard Desert Eagle, Combat Shotgun, and RPG, among others. But throw in the fact that each time period also has it's own unique weapons, like a Buffalo Rifle and Holy Hand Grenades, and your list of weaponry will cover the selection screen, which ends up with you having more weapons than you will actually use. While most of these work just fine, especially the guns, some of the weapons, like the Throwing Knives, have abyssmal control and overall aren't worth using.

The graphics of this game are pretty standard fare for that point in the PS1 era, but I found that the graphics of Duke Nukem 3D were a lot better to look at, and those were mostly rotating sprites. Duke's character model actually looks a little feminine, even with his time-accurate costumes, and the Pig Cops are more obviously portly, which can be a little jarring after watching the opening movie. However, I can't complain too much, as it is an older system, but it was still a little hard to look at at times. At the same time, the level design was done well for a TPS like this, but some moments are a little cryptic, like needing to blast open a wall to get to the first Gun in level 3 or needing to push a trash bin in level 6 to get one of the crystals for the time machine. Overall, some of the levels could have used some minor tweaks in size and design to be more interesting to play through.

On that note, the boss levels are the shortest, being basically a room. However, instead of being challenging, they can actually be taken out with total ease. You don't even have to enter the center part of the room to kill the first one and hiding in one of two pools of water is enough to kill the second, which even conveniently hovers above to let you get in a few cheap shots. These stages just didn't provide enough of a challenge to excite me, instead making me wonder if they knew how to properly design a boss room. The same can be said for the overwhelmingly difficult challenge stages. If Duke finds a Stopwatch in a level, he can be transported to an extra level at the end where killing the enemies in a room within a time limit will net you a new weapon. However, the enemies deal enough damage that it is very unlikely you will get the weapon, let alone survive with it.

The biggest aspect of a Duke Nukem game is actually the one-liners that he churns out. They are the bread and butter of his dialogue and are usually pretty hilarious. But this game is actually a little off here. While it is funny the first couple of times to hear what Duke has to say, it gets annoying when you hear him say the exact same lines repeatedly, sometimes in a row. It appears that Duke here has a limited dialogue pool, which is a shame as a bigger selection for the game to cycle through would have made it easier to tolerate.

Now, the game would be a fairly decent reccomendation, even with the control problems, if not for one simple flaw: the game utilizes an arcade-style continue system. While it is easy to get used to at first, screwing up enough can get you to focus on getting through levels flawlessly and saving continues, actually making the experience more painful given the wealth of enemies and the damage they can deal at once. Compounding this further is the fact that checkpoints seemed to be placed too far apart from each other, making for large sections that need to be redone at a time. This became more and more unbearable over time, reducing my willingness to continue playing. In fact, it got to the point where I was almost getting to an "infinite death cycle", where no matter what you do your progress is forever halted, the only solution being to restart the entire game.

I have played through a majority of the game, about three levels off from the end. But at this point, I had just about lost all will to continue playing. I decided to watch the ending on YouTube, and it turns out that a scene in the opening where Duke's motorcycle is transformed into a pink girlie bike offers a rather questionable motivation for the narrative. This just didn't make sitting through the game seem that worth it anymore, so I just relinquished all will then and there.

Duke Nukem: Time to Kill has an interesting time travel premise, but the numerous gameplay and control problems actually make it more frustrating than fun. I have read that there was some influence from Tomb Raider, but I have no experience with that line of games and thus have no comment on that. I can't really recommend this game, except to those who have played both Duke Nukem and Tomb Raider before, or are brave enough to bear the flaws and make it to the end. Otherwise, I would suggest that you look somewhere else to find a TPS worth playing.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Stubs - Casablanca

CASABLANCA (1942) Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre. Directed by Michael Curtiz, Produced by Hal Wallis, Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch. Based on the unproduced play: Everyone Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Run Time: 102. Black and White. USA, Drama/Romance

Having CASABLANCA on a top ten list is nothing new. It has been hailed by many to one of the best movies ever made. But there is no shame in jumping on the bandwagon where this movie is concerned. Set against one of the biggest events of all time, World War II, CASABLANCA plays out as a film about relationships in one small, yet important, corner of the world. After the German occupation of France, the French Sahara was considered part of Free France. But Casablanca, like Paris, was really run by the Nazis. People fled to Casablanca in hopes of getting out of town and out from under Nazi Europe. Many of the hopefuls came to Rick’s CafĂ© American, a night club run by the mysterious Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, to drink and to gamble before fleeing.

There is so much to enjoy about this movie, starting with the cast.

Humphrey Bogart, who plays Rick, is considered by many to be one of the greatest stars from the Hollywood system. His films are talked about now as much or more than other stars of the time, with perhaps the exception of Cary Grant. When is the last time anyone talked about the films of Clark Gable, with the exception of GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)? And when is the last time anyone talked about GONE WITH THE WIND except in comparison of box-office with AVATAR? Bogart had been in films since the 30’s and on the Broadway stage before that. On film, while he played a lot of gangsters like Duke Mantee in Petrified Forest (1936), Roy Earle in High Sierra (1941) and George Hally in The Roaring Twenties (1939), to name but a few. He played Dashiell Hammet’s Sam Spade in the 1941 Maltese Falcon. The list of characters goes on and on, but the one Bogart had never been asked to play before was a romantic lead.

Rick’s romantic interest is Ilsa, played by Ingrid Bergman. The Swedish-born actress was not only one of Hollywood’s leading ladies, she was also gorgeous. One look and you could see how Rick would fall in love with her. Bergman had only been making films in Hollywood since 1939, uses her European allure to great effect. The fact that she was European brings a certain authenticity to the part that an American actress could have only hoped to mimic. She conveys the turmoil of being in love with one man, but married to another. You know in the end that she has made her choice, but she doesn’t get her way.

Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid, is the third point in the romantic triangle and also the object of the Nazis. Victor is an anti-Nazi leader who, the story tells us, could help the cause by getting to America. The Nazis while they don’t have the power to arrest him in Casablanca, can at least, they think, keep him from escaping, marginalizing him. Victor is in many ways the antithesis of Rick. Straight, where Rick is shifty, Laszlo has a cause to die for. He loves Ilsa, but she is not the love of his life; the cause is.

Claude Rains portrays Captain Louis Renault, the chief of police. Not adverse to bribes and kickbacks, Rains has a pretty sweet gig going for himself. That is until events bring Major Heinrich Strasser, played by Conrad Veidt to Casablanca. And then like his home country, Renault has to kowtow to his Nazi superior.

Veidt’s career dates back to before the silent German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), in which he played the somnambulist [sleepwalker] Cesare. Veidt had fled Nazi Germany and became a British citizen, funneling part of his pay, including playing Nazis, to the war effort against them. While he had played Nazis in previous films, his part in CASABLANCA, his penultimate film, is perhaps how he is best remembered.

Sydney Greenstreet, the rotund actor, plays Signor Ferrari, the owner of the Blue Parrot, a rival nightclub, and a big man in the underworld of the city. Greenstreet was great at playing sinister characters. Something on display in other films, one of which will be reviewed later, The Maltese Falcon.

Peter Lorre, the Hungarian born actor, and another cast member from The Maltese Falcon, plays Ugarte, a criminal who has stolen transit papers from a German courier that would allow anyone to leave Casablanca. It’s finding and using these papers that become the plot of the film. Who will be the one to use these magic tickets to freedom? Lorre, who was born to play shifty, pleads for Rick to help him, but to no avail.

Rounding out the cast of characters: Carl played by S.K. Sakall, a waiter at Rick’s, who one supposes came to Casablanca to escape, but couldn’t. Yvonne, Madeleine LeBeau, a French beauty and former acquaintance of Rick’s, who’s loyalty seems to be bought for a few drinks. And Sascha, Leonid Kinskey, a Russian who has found his way to Casablanca only to end up a bartender at the night club.

Tom Dooley needs to get a special mention. He plays Sam, the one constant in Rick’s life, at least before the war. Sam is the piano player at the nightclub, the one people come to see and who Signor Ferran wants to hire away.

With a cast like this, the plot would almost seem secondary, but thankfully it is not. Ugarte steals two letters of transit from German couriers and heads to Rick for help. But Rick will only put his neck out for Rick and while he hides the passes, he lets the police arrest Ugarte. At about the same time, Ilsa and her husband arrive in Casablanca and, of course, end up at Rick’s. Now the question becomes who will use the passes to get out? Only Rick really knows for sure and maybe he doesn’t really know until the last moments out on the tarmac.

It is that uncertainty that drives the film. Ilsa means a lot to both Rick and to Victor, but the audience is kept in suspense as to whom she loves. She does what every wife should do and asks Rick for the letters of transit for her husband, even going so far as pulling a gun on him. But she loves Rick, even more than she apparently loves her husband, and too much to kill him. Now she wants only Rick to let her husband go, so that he can go on with his work and she can remain in Casablanca with him. She leaves it up to Rick to make the decisions and Rick knows best.

CASABLANCA does not reveal its outcome to the viewer until the very end and it is a powerful ending. I won’t reveal it, for those who may never have seen the film, but even knowing the end does not ruin it. The writing is so good that it is the journey through the story that is the most interesting part. This is a movie that can be watched over and over again and one that I watch every time it is on TCM. Even if the movie is half way over, half of CASABLANCA is better than most films in their entirety.

Casablanca can be purchased from the WB Shop:

Free Shipping on All Orders Over $50!