Monday, May 30, 2011

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - The Magic Begins!

In 1997 in the UK, a book was published by J. K. Rowling entitled Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. When the highly popular book was brought to US shores, pages taken out of the original version were added to this new version, with the title changed to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. This is the version I read as a kid around the time a movie was being made based on it. I remember enjoying it, enough to warrant getting all the other books as they came, and enough to want to see the movie when it was released. When I saw it on screen for the first time, I really enjoyed it and how accurate it was to source material. With the upcoming release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 in theaters, I decided to watch all the other movies again in order of release. After seeing the first one once more, I really felt like a kid again. After being dropped off as a baby, a young Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is raised oppressively by the Dursleys, a family of Muggles (people who can't do magic) whom he is related to. One day at the zoo, Harry unknowingly uses magic to not only free a snake from a glass cage, but also trap his cousin Dudley (Harry Melling) inside said cage. Shortly afterwards, Harry receives a letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which his uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) destroys. This continues to the point where Harry and the Dursleys isolate themselves due to their house being flooded with letters. Despite this, on Harry's 11th birthday he is visited by Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), who tells him that he is a wizard and Hogwarts is accepting him as a student. On the train ride to the school, he meets his friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), who along with him become part of a battle against the dark wizard Lord Voldemort (Richard Bremmer) and his search for the Sorcerer's Stone, a magical artifact with the ability to potentially bring him back to full strength. The plot of this movie compared to other installments is amazingly straight-forward and easy to understand. As expected from a movie adaptation, there are some differences from the book, the most obvious of which to me was the exclusion of the minor character Peeves, a poltergeist who plays tricks on first-years at Hogwarts. However, this movie sets up a world that works just fine even with some small changes in place. On the other hand, I didn't fully understand how Harry was exactly able to defeat Voldemort, but it's best not to think about it too hard. Given how young most of the characters are, the acting is surprisingly well-done. This is especially since the child actors had little to no acting experience before appearing in this movie. The film was very well casted and it makes the story much more enjoyable. The sets also deserve special mention as it makes you feel like they're really from the book. Hogwarts, which is where most of the action takes place, looks real from the way it was handled and almost makes you want to go there if it existed.
Since this movie involves magic, it's important to have good special effects. Here, they're pulled off rather nicely with the technology available at the time. Looking back, it's easier to tell that certain things were computer generated, such as a scene where the students learn how to ride broomsticks and the character Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) has trouble and falls off. I can't really complain though, since effects have gotten better over time but the quality of them here still manages to hold up somehow. What really helps the look and feel of the movie overall is the music. John Williams delivers a great score that compliments the action and sets flawlessly, enhancing the immersion even further. Out of all of this, I only have one real complaint: When Harry is finally facing Lord Voldemort, or at least a weakened version of him, he somehow has the Stone in his pocket. The character seems to be surprised by this as well, but it's rather odd. It's explained later that those who seek the stone but don't want to use it will be able to get it, but even then it feels weird. However, I let it slide because thinking about it would ruin the experience. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a fantastic movie and an instant classic. The bright and colorful setting makes it visually appealing and it's great to see amazing performances from child actors. Seeing it again after so many years made me relive fond memories I had from seeing it as a child and I'm sure many older fans would as well. If you're a fan of the Harry Potter books or are a newcomer to the franchise, this is a definite must-have.

Kung Fu Panda 2 - A Sequel With Kick

After the success and popularity of Kung Fu Panda, Dreamworks announced a sequel. For a time, it was called Kung Fu Panda 2: The Kaboom of Doom, but only for the sake of rhyme. After they dropped that portion of the title, I was curious to see the sequel based on the ads and the fact that I enjoyed the original. After finally seeing the movie, I think Dreamworks has managed to continue keeping this franchise entertaining and keeping the feel of a true martial arts movie.

At the beginning, we learn about our new antagonist, an albino peacock named Lord Shen (Gary Oldman). After the invention of fireworks, he seeks to harness its power to fuel his own ambitions to rule over China. However, he is banished from Gongmen City after committing mass genocide to avert a soothsayer's prophecy that one day, he would be defeated by a warrior of black and white. Outraged, he vows to one day return and reign supreme. We then see Po (Jack Black), who is now living as the Dragon Warrior and working with the Furious Five to maintain safety within the Valley of Peace. While talking with Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), he is interrupted by news of a raid by wolves who seek refined metal. During the ensuing battle, he loses focus and has a memory of his childhood. When the wolves run off, Po learns of Lord Shen and his new weapon, one with the potential to threaten the existence of kung fu. Po and the Furious Five take off for Gongmen City to defeat Lord Shen, while Po tries to seek inner peace and confront the dark mysteries of his past.

The story was executed pretty well, with a good set of voice actors who really sell their roles nicely. It should be noted that out of the Furious Five, Tigress (Angelina Jolie) is more prominent, but it is justified in that she relates most to Po's situation regarding his attempt to figure out exactly who he is. Jack Black still does a good Po, and it helps when during the movie's sad moments he can get that emotion out of his character. I was actually surprised by the fact that Jean-Claude Van Damme voiced Master Croc, but he still did a good job, even if his character didn't have a big speaking part. I also found Lord Shen to be an interesting villain, if more visually because he's a bit more stereotypical than Tai Lung was in the previous installment. While the stereotype does come from a simple act of revenge, it was still fascinating to find out how far he was willing to go in order to make it reality.

Unlike other animated movies, there isn't really that much of a universal color palette. Instead, there is a blend of warm and cool colors that actually make the setting more realistic to the viewer. Different art styles are also used, such as one where everything is made of Chinese paper, but built like a puppet. Similarly, there are times, during Po's memories, where a traditionally animated art style is used to go seamlessly between the past and the present.

The CGI in the movie was absolutely perfect, looking even better than before. It was clear that a painstaking amount of detail was put into the environments, including the weather dynamics on the characters and surroundings. The unique cannon balls in this movie, a combination of a cannon ball and a firework, also display effects in motion, which just looked cool. What really sells the effects however, is the 3D used for the movie. Unlike a lot of other movies where 3D is invoked by throwing objects at the screen to varying degrees, it was used here to create a sense of depth. This was the better route to take, as the movie felt more immersive with this type of 3D and I wish more movies would use it.

As this is a martial arts movie, it was fun to see how creative some of the moves were, such as the different tag team maneuvers used by Po and the Furious Five to take down an entire army of wolves. It was also great to watch them get over the top, such as the effect of gaining inner peace as demonstrated by Shifu and later, Po. Hans Zimmer's score goes well with the onscreen action, although you may be paying more attention to the visuals than the music at that point.

Kung Fu Panda 2 was definitely more ambitious than the first, with upgraded effects and a bigger scale plot, complete with well-handled character development on Po's part and no shortage of humor when infused with the drama. I'm not sure exactly how I would compare it to the first, but I would say that it's at least just as good, if not maybe a little better. Those who saw Kung Fu Panda will enjoy this, as well as those who are curious about a Dreamworks animated film like this. As a final note, the ending is big, if maybe a little confusing, but it also sets up a possible Kung Fu Panda 3, which I would love to see from this studio in the future.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

L.A. Noire - A Case Well Worth Solving

As someone who appreciates older movies, I was intrigued by the idea of a game where you could go around as a detective in the 40's and solve various cases. This became a reality when I first heard of L.A. Noire, a game that seemed to have a lot of promise as it was from Rockstar, a company noted for creating an enjoyable experience in their games. Developed by Team Bondi, L.A. Noire was also intriguing in that they attempted to use new technologies to accurately recreate a 40's Los Angeles and give it the atmosphere of Film Noir. After a couple of delays, I still waited patiently for the release of the game, filling my time by reading up on what they were going to do for it. When I finally got my hands on it, I started playing it in all of the free time I could get. After about 18 hours of play, I can say that while the game isn't completely perfect, it was very difficult to walk away from.

The story follows Cole Phelps, a former World War II veteran who joins the ranks of the LAPD. He begins as a Patrol officer, but he shows he is worth his salt and gets to handle cases for Traffic, Homicide, Vice, and Arson. At the same time, he must unravel a web of intrigue and deceit all while discovering the true difference between cop and criminal. Just like the plot of a true Film Noir, this line is blurred to the point where he eventually discovers that there is hardly any distinction between a marine soldier and a police officer other than the uniform. I really don't wish to give anything away about the game's story since it is peppered with plot twists, but I can say that there is a fantastically written overarching story connecting all of the cases together in a very big way.

The cases themselves are well-crafted and draw elements from cases in real life, including the unsolved Black Dahlia murder among others. It was amazing to see how they could take cases from the real world and infuse them with cases created for the game or even alter the real ones in a way that perfectly fits the narrative. The cases get more difficult to solve as they go on, especially the Arson cases where it is harder to find evidence, but that is really the fun of it all. The difficulty curve is gradual enough to give you a challenge as well as a good sense of familiarity each time, which is a really good way to exercise the mind when you have to constantly put the pieces together.

Cole Phelps, like all of the major characters, is written very well and very realistically. He is a man who wants to do his job and uphold the law, but at the same time he finds out that there is a limit to what a man can do in his shoes. What helps this is the fact that his voice suits him perfectly, enforcing the illusion that he is a real human being. In fact, I could not find a single flaw in the acting for any of the characters, even the minor ones, period. The difference between this game and any other game title is that Team Bondi used a new technology that would allow them to take the actual actors and map their movements and facial expressions, using them as the model for the characters while lending their amazing voice talents to fit them.

This new technology aids the meat of the game, the interrogations. When you ask a question during an interrogation, you can confirm that what they say is the truth, doubt their statement, or call them out for lying. When you do accuse them of lying, you had better back it up with hard evidence, but fortunately you can back out of it if you feel what you have isn't sufficient enough. It is normally possible to figure them out by looking at their facial animations, and a lot of the time there are obvious tells when they are lying. It's interesting to note though that it is actually harder to determine when someone is telling the truth, since the suspect is occasionally very confident with their own lie. A lot of the time it comes down to doubting or lying anyway, so that makes it even harder to uncover the truth.

If the player is having a hard time searching for clues or interrogating people, or if they are just plain stumped, there are a few handy fail safes in place to ease the process. You can ask your partner for help to figure out where to go next and you can look at your notebook at any time you need it to help narrow your options down and keep track of all of your evidence. But the biggest gameplay mechanic is a lifeline known as Intuition Points. Using an Intuition Point, which you collect by leveling up, can be used to locate all clues in a crime scene, take away one answer in an interrogation, or see what the community picked and make a decision based on that. I tried my hardest not to use them so I could prove to myself that I had good deductive skills, but I found myself using them on occasion to figure out the correct flow of a conversation.

The setting of L.A. Noire is in 1940's Los Angeles, and as far as I can tell, it is recreated near flawlessly. The environment is rendered down to the tiniest detail so every building is unique. Only rarely did I experience popup graphics, which is a pretty good sign for an Open World game. One of the few things I noted was the fact that the set from Intolerance was in the game despite that fact that it was burned down in 1919, but I will admit that it does make for a great backdrop for some of the action that happens during one of the cases. Still, it was fun to get to see famous landmarks like the Grauman's Chinese and Egyptian theaters from back then, among other places like the Keystone movie lot and the aforementioned Intolerance set.

While this game is superb, that does not mean that it is exempt from having its own share of flaws. While 1940's L.A. is very large and there are 50 landmarks to discover, there isn't much need to memorize them, as your minimap while driving is more than enough to get you to your destination and you can just get your partner to drive you there for you to save time. There also isn't very much incentive to explore the city due to the fact that the collectibles, hidden cars and golden film reels for some of Hollywood's most famous movies, don't enhance the game in any way except to say that you have them. The controls are also done pretty well and respond great, but it can be a bit of a pain during platforming segments such as scaling the L.A. Public Library or chasing a suspect on the Intolerance set.

At the same time, playing multiple cases in a single sitting can make them look very formulaic, making it sometimes feel as if you are just going through the motions. However, this is easily remedied by playing the game in bursts of a couple cases at a time, like what I ended up doing. I also enjoyed the Street Crime that would come up on occasion, but even then there were some that I ended up not enjoying all that much. The gunfights, melee, and chase sequences were also integrated very well into the game and serve as good breaks in the drama, but it seems like there could have been a couple more of those every now and then since they don't occur too often in the main story. It is also possible to skip action sequences if you screw up too many times, which I very rarely took advantage of.

One other thing to note is that if you screw up a case, it will continue on despite this and even allow you an alternate path to the end, but you will overall beat the case no matter what. You are also graded at the end of each case and even get the option to try them again from the main menu at a later time, which gives the game a bit more replay value. However, the game doesn't alter the story if you do something differently than intended, making the game more linear than other games of the genre. This isn't really a bad thing, as it helps to enhance the atmosphere of the game being like a movie. Also, a couple of story elements seem a little rushed, mainly a sudden romance for Cole and a rather abrupt ending, although this doesn't take too much away from it overall.

While L.A. Noire does have its flaws, it's a very well polished game to the point where these don't seem to bring the game down very much, if at all. The game is methodically slow, but that helps you feel more like a real life detective in a Film Noir setting. With an exceptional story and some of the best acting I've seen in a game as of late, it's hard to not recommend other gamers to give it a shot, especially if they have played a Rockstar game before. If you haven't been interested in Film Noir before, you may very well be after playing this game.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - Indeed

File:On Stranger Tides Poster.jpg

In 2003, Disney released a movie based on the popular Disneyland attraction Pirates of the Caribbean, called Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, directed by Gore Verbinski and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. When I saw it for the first time, I found myself rather enjoying it. It had a unique story that was easy to follow, along with some perfectly-timed humor and an outstanding performance from Johnny Depp, who plays the well-known Captain Jack Sparrow. Two sequels were released following the success of the movie, Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, neither of which match the quality of the original. Due to my feelings on the third movie I was hesitent when I heard a fourth movie was being made, directed by Rob Marshall instead of Gore Verbinski. However, my interest increased when I found out elements were taken from the Tim Powers book, On Stranger Tides, which I will admit I haven't read. After seeing the movie, I will say that while it's an improvement over the third movie, it's still not as good as the first.

The film opens in London, where Jack Sparrow attempts to rescue Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally), his former first mate, from execution. Though he fails, we also learn that he is there to track down an imposter using his name, rumored to be gathering a crew to seek the Fountain of Youth. Jack is brought before King George II (Richard Griffiths), who believes Jack Sparrow to actually be seeking the Fountain and requests the Captain to guide an expedition lead by ex-pirate Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), returning from the third movie as a privateer after losing a leg and the Black Pearl ship, in hopes that they can reach the Fountain before the Spanish do. Jack escapes and manages to locate and fight his imposter, who turns out to be his former lover Angelica (Penélope Cruz) and is discovered to also be the daughter of the infamous Blackbeard, aka Edward Teach (Ian McShane). Jack is then forced to join Blackbeard's crew in a race to locate and use the Fountain of Youth before the British and Spanish get to it first.

The story of this installment was more straight-forward than the last Pirates movie, and the atmosphere felt closer to that of the first two with it's blend of action and humor. Though Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann respectively, do not appear in this movie, Johnny Depp carries most of the movie alone with his usual entertaining performance. One thing I found odd though was how supernatural the movie became. Blackbeard in the movie is depicted as having a sword that allows him to control his ship by rubbing jewels on the guard, with such actions as steering the ship when no one's on board and manipulating rope. While I know Blackbeard is taken from the book this movie was partially based on, I don't know if he can do that in the book or if it was included for the film, but either way it seemed a little weird to me.

Being a Pirates movie, On Stranger Tides has plenty of action in the well-coreographed fight scenes, backed up perfectly with a score by Hans Zimmer and Rodrigo y Gabriela. While the fights were well-done, the one at the beginning between Jack Sparrow and his imposter was a little hard to follow since half the time I couldn't tell which one was the real one, and not just because the imposter wore a perfect disguise. While I'm on this subject, it's clear that they were trying to hide the imposter's face, but sometimes you see it anyway, though not enough to tell that it's really a woman. Otherwise, the battle scenes are busy, yet easy to follow.

The effects from Industrial Light and Magic are simply stunning to look at and quite convincing. The effects of the mermaids for instance are subtle when transitioning from mythical sea creature to human female, and their scales look very realistic in these states. The lighting helps to set the mood of each scene and blends in rather well with the special effects. To bring up a negative point, there was one scene in the movie where the visuals didn't make much sense, wherein Jack Sparrow sees and touches a water droplet slwoly floating upwards, after which he discovers an entrance to a cave. Otherwise, like the installments before, this movie is visually amazing.

One thing I should bring up, however, is that the film seemed to have a mild religious subtext. Unfortunately, to explain it requires a spoiler tag. *Spoiler Alert* Once Blackbeard's crew reaches the Fountain of Youth with the required chalices and mermaid's tear, they are soon joined by and fight Barbossa's crew from Britain. During the battle, the Spanish appear and take the chalices, at which point their leader stomps on them. His justification for this is that only God can grant eternal life, not the Fountain of Youth. *End Spoiler Alert*

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is an enjoyable movie, despite some small glitches. It feels similar to the first movie in a good way and has plenty of laughs to compliment the action that takes place. If you are a Pirates fan, but not of the third movie, this one is like a breath of fresh air for the series. I would also recommend this movie to any Johnny Depp fan, especially since he takes the spotlight of this movie. On the other hand, if you are a newcomer to the Pirates franchise, I would suggest watching the other movies first, since there are things that don't make as much sense without some knowledge of them. In any case, if you do see it you should stay after the credits, since it appears to set up a Pirates of the Caribbean 5.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Kung Fu Panda - A Dreamworks Movie That Feels Like an Actual Movie

All too often, Dreamworks Animation has released movies with humor based mostly on celebrity jokes and references, as well as other things that would make a movie seem dated as time goes on. This time, however, Dreamworks managed to make a movie that not only manages to stay fresh after a couple of years, but also has a more immersive plot.

The story revolves around a Panda named Po (Jack Black), who dreams of becoming a master of Kung Fu. To this end, he idolizes five masters of this art known as the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), and Crane (David Cross), all of whom are trained by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) to protect the Valley of Peace. However, he is a villager who works with his Goose father Ping's (James Hong) noodle restaurant and believes that he may never achieve his dream. But when he hears that the temple is going to pick someone to be the Dragon Warrior, he attends, only to be locked outside. By strapping fireworks to a chair, he manages to get into the outer part of the temple, but ends up getting picked as the Dragon Warrior by the elderly tortoise Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim). Everyone, including Po himself, believes this to be a mistake, especially Shifu. At the same time, a snow leopard named Tai Lung (Ian McShane) escapes from a prison built specifically to hold him and makes his way to the Valley of Peace. Now Po must try his hardest to become the Dragon Warrior in order to protect the valley from the wrath of Tai Lung.

I was able to really get into this story, which has just the right blend of drama and comedy to keep anyone watching to see what would happen next. The action, being a kung-fu movie, is very exaggerated but entertaining. I loved the diverse camera angles used to display the over-the-top martial arts, as well as the moves themselves. At the same time, the characters in the movie look very well animated, with colors that help them stand out from each other. Their clothes look as though they came from China centuries ago, which actually suits the genre very well. The scenery also contains a bright color palette, which evokes images of early China that are seen in one's head when they think of the country.

The voice cast was also very well chosen, with Jack Black giving one of his better performances in a movie. The personalities of these characters were also very believable and diverse. It was great to watch them interact with one another, especially when the Furious Five are getting used to Po's presence around the temple. Oogway's dialogue sounds like it comes from a particularly insightful fortune cookie, but can be good lessons to take to heart.

The sound effects matched the events well, if also sounding a bit cartoony in a couple of spots, such as the sound of bowling pins when Tai Lung knocks some guards over during his prison break. The music accompanying the events is scored excellently by Hans Zimmer and John Powell and matches the mood nicely.

As a Dreamworks film, Kung Fu Panda throws you a curveball and defies all expectations, being more serious than the trailers may indicate. As a martial arts flick, it rivals many other animated movies with battle scenes in both style and humor. I would proudly recommend this movie to anyone who wants to see one of the best films Dreamworks Animation has put out in a long time, or to anyone who wants some great quality action and story. Going outside of the studio's comfort zone worked with this movie, and I hope they do it again with the upcoming Kung Fu Panda 2.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Duke Nukem: Land of the Babes - Land of Mediocrity

Continuing the string of side games in the Duke Nukem franchise made for satiating fans, n-Space was handed the reins once again for the release of Duke Nukem: Land of the Babes in the year 2000. I wasn't enthusiastic to play this game due to how dull Time to Kill was, but I gave it a try anyway. After playing, however, it seems that n-Space still couldn't get the formula right to create an enjoyable game.

According to the manual, the story goes as follows: In Earth's future, aliens have taken over the planet and have killed off every male, afterwards enslaving all of the females. The reason for this is so they can breed with them to create a hybrid race that would be more worthy to rule. However, some of the enslaved women have escaped, froming an alliance known as the Unified Babe Resistance (UBR). Soon, the UBR is strong enough to resist the aliens and gain access to the Earth Defense Force Base, where they discover the one thing that will give them hope: an old time machine. They plan to use the machine to gain the assistance of the only man known to have defeated several aliens invasions. However, an alien named Silverback has managed to figure out what the UBR is doing and has one mission: to wipe them out. Enter Duke Nukem, who is minding his own business at the Bootylicious, until he is rudely interrupted.

The opening cutscene more or less shows what was just described, but actually does a slightly better job of setting the ball in motion, accompanied very well with Push It by indsutrial metal group Static-X. While this is the fourth Duke Nukem game to involve time travel (with Duke Nukem, Time to Kill, and Zero Hour), there does seem to be more of a plot this time around than with Time to Kill. I could get into the story to a degree, but I couldn't shake the feeling that the time travel formula wasn't really original for the series anymore. It seemed more like a game built around the fact that Duke is a ladies man and nothing else.

The control scheme is lifted directly from Time to Kill, complete with all of its weaknesses. Jumping is still akward and the tank controls continue to bog down the gameplay. However, there is one new addition in the form of Auto-Aim. By holding down L1, Duke will automatically target an enemy's head, allowing for easier aim. While aiming is easier, there is nothing the enemies do to compensate for this. You could literally stand there and kill an enemy with ease, especially if you have the sniper rifle. It just seems a little more hollow than just fixing the slow aiming from before.

Duke's arsenal is also lifted straight from Time to Kill, with some minor tweaks in design. Without the unique weaponry from n-Space's previous game, it does offer a better selection of guns. However, you may find yourself running out of ammo pretty quickly, even when using the Auto-Aim function. While this does make you use more guns, it feels wrong to have to depend on that happening, and it happens frequently.

The graphics are near identical to Time to Kill, mainly because the game appears to use the same engine. This includes all of the somewhat blocky textures and see-through graphics. All of the cutscenes rendered with these graphics are a little odd to look at, but I was able to tolerate them. I can note that Duke Nukem actually looks more like Duke Nukem in this game, which was very welcome compared to his feminine model before. The enemies also look better than before and have more variety, but the AI hasn't changed very much from Time to Kill. I would say that the level design is good, but it's actually more confusing. Not just with exploration, although you get used to it, but also with the size of some of the rooms. Enemies can sometimes be too tightly packed in one spot, but they can be thinned out easily provided you're not still in the hallway or have to climb up a ladder.

Duke's dialogue, thankfully, has a bigger pool than in Time to Kill to draw from. This helped make his one-liners more humorous, as he doesn't repeat the same grating lines as often. There is also a bigger voice cast here, a lot of it casted fairly well. But there are some moments that are just annoying, like when you talk to Jane through comlink and her dialogue has a lot of uneccessary static added to it. Silverback's voice was also tolerable, but it could have helped for him to have a voice that was less obviously evil.

Once again, the game utilizes an arcade-style continue system. While I was initially annoyed by this, it didn't really get in the way, mainly because I could get through a level a little easier. But the checkpoints are still placed far apart, which can be frustrating if you die just once. I had less trouble losing continues, but there seems to be a maximum of four, which is pretty flexible if you're careful.

It is also worth noting that this game is the first in the Duke Nukem series to use a new health system known as Ego. Getting hit causes Duke to lose Ego, but it can be regained by killing enemies and collecting Ego-boosting items. This system made it easier to navigate through the levels, making the game overall less painful than Time to Kill if only because you can heal your wounds easier.

After playing a couple of rounds of the Dukematch multiplayer with my brother, we agree that it wasn't implemented very well. It is possible to have a "Diagonal" screen cut, but it's very clumsy to work with. Even when you pick the right screen cut you want, the guns are very imbalanced and the spawn points are easy to camp at since the levels are too small. I wouldn't recommend trying this mode at all, as there are much better offerings out there for local multiplayer.

Land of the Babes takes a couple steps forward, but also a couple steps back. New ways of utilizing Duke fall flat due to the overall poor design of the game. I can only recommend this game to people who are really into Duke Nukem or have had experience with an n-Space game before. There are much better TPS offerings out there, so I would suggest others to look harder.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Thor - The God of Acceptable

Since the inception of Marvel Studios, there has always been the plan to create an Avengers movie, with movies before it to establish the characters to appear in it. With Iron Man and Hulk down, the next one to get a movie was Thor. The movie seemed interesting to me not only because I plan on watching the Avengers movie, but I also gained a recent interest in Norse Mythology, which Thor is based on. After seeing this movie without any real knowledge of the Thor universe, save for the Loki comic, I can say that although I liked it, it's not a movie I would recommend in a heartbeat.

The movie begins by showing us that even though there is peace between the realms of Asgard, the land of the gods, and Jotunheim, the land of the frost giants, after Odin (Anthony Hopkins) had already fought the frost giants in the past, there is still some tension between them. This results in some frost giants attempting to steal their power source, the Casket of Ancient Winters, from within Asgard on the day Thor (Chris Hemsworth)  was to be declared King of the Gods. In retaliation, Thor and a few others, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and the Warriors Three, cross the rainbow bridge Bifrost to convince the gatekeeper Heimdall (Idris Elba) to allow use of the teleporter to go to Jotunheim. When they actually get there, Thor ends up battling the frost giants, bringing everyone else into the fray. When Odin rescues the gods, he takes away Thor's powers and banishes him to Midgard, aka Earth, to learn humility. Odin also sends Thor's hammer Mjolnir down with him, putting a spell on it so only the worthy may wield it. After a run-in with scientists Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), and Dr. Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), the movie becomes an action-packed fish out of water story that manages to break trends associated with that plot.

To elaborate, most fish out of water stories make the character in this situation an idiot in their new surroundings or are completely arrogant when being taught new customs. This is not the case for Thor. While it is admittedly odd that he accepts Earth customs with ease, it is actually refreshing to see this kind of story and see the character willing to learn more about where he is. An example of this, which is actually cited often, is a scene in a coffee shop where Thor is enjoying his coffee and declares it. As he is used to the customs of Asgard, he throws his cup on the ground and breaks it. Jane tells him that he can't do that and he just accepts it. At the same time, the coffee shop scene is a great example of the humor present within the movie. Thor surprisingly had perfect comedic timing, making me laugh more than the other Marvel Studios movies thus far.

Since Jane and Thor spend time together in the film, there is some romantic tension between them. However, this isn't elaborated very well, making for some rushed character development on Thor's part. As other reviews have pointed out, the only real moment the two have together is when Thor is explaining the Nine Realms to Jane. At the same time, Thor manages to go from jerk with a heart of gold to a kinder protector in record time, which left me with more of a sense that I missed something in the movie, not exactly the best feeling I could have had. I would elaborate on this further, but doing so would give away more of the plot than I intend.

The battle scenes in this movie also ranged from very large and busy, such as the battle with the frost giants in Jotunheim, to somewhat empty, like a later fight Thor has in New Mexico. To me, the bigger fights were a little hard to follow because of the large amount of cuts used, but this is unfortunately mostly due to the 3D glasses I was wearing. Watching the movie in 3D actually made the movie darker than it really was, taking away from the experience rather than enhancing it. At a couple of points, I lifted my pair up for a brief moment and the film was much brighter. This made me believe the battery in the glasses was dying, and now I wish I had seen it in 2D instead.

While I'm in this train of thought, I liked the visuals of the movie. All of the CG was very well rendered, from the frost giants to the Destroyer to the realms of Asgard and Jotunheim themselves. Asgard looked like it combined aspects of the Norse mythos with a sleek and well thought out futuristic vision. I like seeing alternate interpretations of mythology, and Thor plays the aspect of the gods actually being aliens better than I expected. Through the technology, I liked how they kept some parts of the mythos intact, like the rainbow bridge Bifrost having multi-colored technology lines. But again, I could not enjoy these environments in their full splendor due to my 3D glasses.

The one thing I can praise despite my problems was the acting. The roles were very well cast, like Anthony Hopkins being a better Odin than I had thought when I heard he was going to be in the role. Chris Hemsworth also brings a lot of charisma to Thor's character, at the same time making him pretty believable. I would also like to say that Natalie Portman as Jane Foster was also a good choice, as she had a better performance than her track record would lead people to believe. However, roles like the Warriors Three are hard to comment on. While I think they did a good job in the role, the characters hardly did anything in the entire movie, mostly being in the background even when they go to retrieve Thor later on.

The one thing I have heard mixed opinions on is the sequence after the end of the credits. I'm not going to say what happens, but rather than skip this segment, I would actually say to stick around for it. You may be left scratching your head, but it is overall better to see it, much like the segment at the end of Iron Man 2 that leads up to this movie. The credits aren't very long anyway, around five minutes, which is actually very short for a CG-heavy movie.

Overall, I didn't find Thor to be a very stellar movie, not as good as Iron Man, but still a fairly enjoyable one. The fight scenes may not be the best ever made, but everything is really great to look at and the acting is superb. Thor was also a laugh riot, which somewhat makes up for some of the rushed exposition in the movie. I would recommend this movie to fans of the Thor comic, people who want to see a very good alternate interpretation of Norse mythology, or people like myself who are gearing up for the eventual Avengers movie. Otherwise, I would suggest looking at more reviews of this movie when considering a viewing, or even try and hold out for Captain America. If you do decide to go, do yourself a favor and make sure you watch it in 2D, as well as watch the after credits segment.