Sunday, January 29, 2012

Jak 3 - Concluding The Epic Legacy

Having already released Jak II in 2003, it seems like a rather quick turn-around for Naughty Dog to have released the third Jak and Daxter installment, Jak 3, only a year later in 2004. Regardless of what usually comes of a sequel pumped out so quickly, the game would also go on to join its fellow games in Sony's Greatest Hits Program. Although the campaign for the game was a bit shorter, 11 hours as opposed to 16, I still enjoyed what I had played and believe that Naughty Dog had managed to create three great games in a row.

According to the manual: One year after the events of Jak II, Haven City still finds itself in unrest as three warring factions still wrestle for control over its streets. The people of the city grow distrustful of Jak and his Dark Eco powers, pinning him as the cause of the unrest once rumor spreads of his ties with Krew and Kor. When a surprise Metal Head attack destroys the palace, Count Veger banishes him to the desert, flying by airship to make the hero fend for himself in the harsh conditions. When Jak finds out that Daxter and Pecker, Onin's trnaslator from Jak II, have joined him, the three of them begin their journey, setting off a series of events that propel them toward their ultimate destiny.

The story that follows is actually very enjoyable to watch unfold as shocking twists and revelations come to light. All of the characters, old and new, have very good characterization and have a good amount of depth to them to keep them interesting, as well as preventing them from becoming cardboard cutouts. While there are multiple plot threads that cross each other throughout the campaign, they all get resolved as they head toward a grand finale that no one could have seen coming. If there's one thing I have to say about the story overall, it would be complete and utter praise for its ability to tie up a lot of the loose ends from over the span of an entire trilogy.

In addition to normal melee attacks, the Morph Gun returns to aid Jak as his primary weapon. While it does retain the original four guns, each type can now receive two additional upgrades, ranging from ricocheting bullets and homing needles to a cluster bomb and even a nuke, leading to a total of 12 to choose from depending on how many times the player presses the appropriate button on the D-Pad. Each gun works well and is fun to use, but I found myself almost never touching the original versions, opting instead to wield the upgrades as they provided more of an advantage in a fight, thanks to the increased amount of enemies to fight off at once.

Another change in abilities occurs regarding Jak's Dark Eco powers. In this game , he gains the ability to become Light Jak, powered by Light Eco. Light Jak's powers contrast Dark Jak by being more defensive in nature and enabling more options in a mission. Both sides of Jak no longer come at a cost to upgrade, which helps with the overall pacing of the game as the powers come naturally at specific points. It is also easier to regenerate the Eco required to fuel the powers, though that doesn't save them from being almost useless outside of when they are truly required.

In terms of overall design, Jak 3 feels somewhat similar to Jak II in that it is an open world game comprised almost entirely of missions, a lot of which are very linear in nature. Thankfully there is a lot of variety within them, whether it has Daxter riding a missile or Jak performing a hacking mini-game. There are even a few rail shooter segments to help spice things up. I did notice an abundance of vehicle segments though, which introduces more advanced vehicle controls into the series. While these do work more often than not, some of the missions involving them become rather annoying due to the physics used for them. These segments can quickly get annoying after repeatedly dying thanks to this, but that's the only problem isolated here. In other missions, such as ones where you go through rings, the timer is very strict and gives you next to no room for error. Just like in Jak II, checkpoints are also placed rather infrequently a lot of the time, leading to annoying restarts upon death. However, this is balanced out by using the right weapons and powers at the right times, so this didn't happen as often as it could have.

I would also like to note the role that Precursor Orbs and Metal Head Skull Gems now play here. The orb count has been increased to 600, though they are still scattered about the world as a scavenger hunt of sorts. Collecting enough will enable you to purchase upgrades and secrets, though I never really saw a dire need to take advantage of this. Skull Gems, thanks to abilities coming naturally, are now used to unlock side missions, which I also didn't take much advantage of.

Speaking on the technical side, the game still looks rather impressive today thanks to the amount of detail it is able to achieve on the PS2. This is especially impressive, considering there's not only the city of Spargus, but also Haven City and the Desert that the game has to generate along with plenty of other creative environments. Equally impressive is the lack of load times, which are disguised rather well with no visible draw distance in the game world, considering how large the areas can get. I also praise the weather effects, with rather impressive rain interacting nicely with other surfaces. Music and voice acting are impressive as well, with character voices matching their appearance and music fitting the proper tone while also serving as an incredible score on its own.

Jak 3, despite whatever flaws it has, serves to impress on not only a technical level, but also in regards to storytelling. While it is difficult and shorter than its predecessor, it's still a thrill ride that I will never forget. Without a doubt, it deserves its place as one of the PS2's greatest platformers, as well as a game worth playing anyway.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Hot Rod - Not A Perfect 10

When I first saw advertisements for Hot Rod back in 2007, it looked funny to me, but I ended up not seeing it then. When many Blockbusters in my area were going away, I grabbed this movie remembering I wanted to see it, but I still didn't get around to actually doing so. After a tour through the Paramount archives however, my interest grew upon seeing a taco costume from the movie on display, and the idea of the scene it was used for sounded hilarious. While the movie has a lot of funny moments in it, overall I think it's just alright.

The movie follows Rod Kimble (Andy Samberg), an amateur stuntman who dreams of becoming a professional following in the footsteps of his father. Meanwhile he regularly grapples with his stepfather Frank (Ian McShane) in order to defeat him in a fight and earn his respect. After failing a public attempt to jump a swimming pool on his moped, Rod returns home to find out that Frank is ill and needs a heart transplant in order to survive. Motivated by his desire to win a fight with his stepfather, Rod, with some help from his friends, decides to raise the money needed for the transplant by performing the biggest stunt ever, one that can outdo even Evel Knievel.

The humor of this movie is downright hilarious, being made mostly of slapstick, though it does fall flat on occasion. Aside from seeing Rod fail miserably at his jumps, a particulalry funny moment is when, after a rather humorous parody of Footloose, the stuntman loses his balance and falls over a log, leading to a long sequence of him falling down a hill; this moment actually gets funnier the longer he keeps falling, in fact it takes a break for a few seconds before resuming his lengthy roll. Another memorable joke comes from the dialogue, in which Rod asks his crush Denise (Isla Fisher) who would win in a fight between a grilled cheese sandwich and a taco, which is then acted out much later in the movie when the hero has an out-of-body experience, complete with cartoonish costumes and some (fake) blood.

If I were to give an example of the film's low points in the comedy, it would be nearly every scene with Barry Pasternak (Chris Parnell), an AM radio host who hates FM radio and color TV. While the idea of someone like that is actually pretty funny on its own, Chris Parnell's humor usually takes the form of odd sex jokes, which likely contributed to the PG-13 rating, that are a little out of place with the rest of the movie's slapstick and non-sexual dialogue jokes, including a scene where his character describes a tattoo on his chest with greater detail than is necessary. Aside from times like these, the movie is consistently funny.

For a comedy movie, the acting in Hot Rod isn't too bad, with each of the main characters for the most part acting such that it only adds more silliness to the overall product. The stunts themselves aren't things to try at home, naturally, but the home-made ramps used for much of them look pretty well-constructed, though the actual performances of said stunts are made funnier by the fact that a moped is used rather than an actual motorcycle. Still, the effort put into setting these stunts up is something to appreciate.

Hot Rod isn't one of the best movies I've seen, but it is one of the funniest. The humor does go a bit low a few times in the third act, but otherwise I couldn't stop laughing. If you're in the mood for something funny to watch on a Friday night, this is your movie.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Second Opinion - Saints Row: The Third

I will admit right off the bat that I am not a big gamer, but I have been interested in Saints Row since seeing the demo at last year’s Comic Con. And I while I played it longer than may have been necessary (I enjoyed the sandbox\open world aspect of the game and still do) I have been able to complete all the missions. This is perhaps the first game I have completed since The History Channel’s Civil War and before that it was the PC version of Wolfenstein 3D (and that’s going back quite a while.)
Finishing the game was an accomplishment in both having the time to do it, but also the interest. A lot of games, as an example, the new Wolfenstein and L.A. Noire, start out as fun, but sort of bog down and I’ll admit I lose interest. Such was not the case with Saints Row: The Third. Again, a lot of that had to do with the sandbox qualities the game provides. Running around the game kicking ass is fun. And the upgrades you get through game play only add to that experience.
And it is the getting to Rank 50, and all the upgrades that go with it, that is the fun of the game. Building a gang and taking over Steelport is what the game is about, and who doesn’t like destroying a rival gang’s compound or shooting a helicopter out of the sky? There is enough variety of missions, weapons and adversaries to make the journey worth taking.
However, once I had earned infinite ammunition and was immune to gunfire, being run over or falling from buildings, some of the sandbox activities grew monotonous. Without the threat of death, there was just an endless supply of potential victims. What would make anyone send wave after wave of police and gang members up against someone who can’t die and has an endless supply of anti-aircraft weapons?
Still, I would recommend Saints Row: The Third to the casual gamer like myself.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters - It Sure Does

Continuing down the line in the Ratchet & Clank series, we go from the PS2 to the PSP with the fifth game, Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters, released in 2007. This is the first game not to be developed by Insomniac, but rather High Impact Games, and is also the game that came packaged with my PSP when I first got it. I never completed it when I first played it, and going back to it again after all this time I remember why.

Our heroes Ratchet and Clank are relaxing on the planet Pokitaru when a little girl named Luna appears, wanting to take pictures of the duo doing "heroic thtuff" for a school project. However, Luna gets kidnapped and is taken to another planet, after which the two go after her. Meanwhile, Clank discovers Captain Qwark spying on him and Ratchet at the beach, trying to jump into their next adventure. When Clank asks why he isn't spending time with his family, Qwark breaks down and is encouraged to find his biological parents (apparently he was raised by monkeys).

Starting with the positives of this game, the voice acting is still rather good like with previous installments, and the music is catchy and fits the tone of each world. There aren't that many weapons and gadgets compared to Up Your Arsenal, but there is still plenty of variety for a handheld game and they all work well. You can also upgrade your weapons by defeating enough enemies, as well as by purchasing mods to enhance their capabilities from a separate vendor. A first for this game is the ability to customize your armor, by way of collecting pieces from various armor sets to gain special abilities as well as increase the damage resistance to Ratchet.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I discovered a few issues that really began to bug me as I went forward. First off, it's a tad difficult to actually move Ratchet or Clank when playing as either of them. The analog stick is the primary form of control, but sometimes it doesn't feel like responding to the simple command of moving forward. The D-Pad is a secondary form of movement, but even then you can only move in so many different directions, so I ended up having to switch between these two countless times just so the character could move in the direction I wanted them to. On the other hand, the analog stick works perfectly fine when playing a hoverboard race or robot combat mini-game, which don't seem to to fit in to the overall scheme of things and felt almost pointless.

An even bigger problem I ran into was the camera, namely adjusting it to match where I wanted to look. Since the PSP doesn't have a second analog stick, camera controls are moved to the two shoulder buttons on the system (holding both allows you to jump higher/farther), and simply mastering it made it rather infuriating for me. This combined with the difficulty to move the player character frustrated me to the point where I had to hold myself back from exercising physical violence against the UMD. None of this is helped by the fact that regular enemies seem slightly overpowered, but that one's probably just me.

Due to the problems I have just described, I haven't actually beaten the game, but I don't plan to continue anytime soon. Aside from that, what I've managed to play of Size Matters wasn't too bad for a small package. If you can get past the problems with the basic controls, then you will have a better time than I did with this game, guaranteed.

Gears of War - The Invasion Has Begun

Soon after Christmas had ended, I decided to use money I had been saving over a few months to purchase the Gears of War Xbox 360. While the console did come with Gears of War 3, I felt it would be best to play the other games first in order to help the story. After borrowing the first game from a friend, I can now proudly introduce Gears of War as this blog's first ever Xbox 360 review. As a game developed by Epic Games in 2006, Gears of War is still enjoyable today, though I did find some things off about it.

The first thing to address is the story. If you don't read the manual or idle at the Title Screen for a few seconds, the game drops you into conflict with little to no explanation as to what led up to it. The best explanation given is that the Locust have been invading the planet Sera since an event known as Emergence Day, which led to the government using a Scorched Earth tactic on every invaded city. The continuing invasion leads in turn to the main character Marcus Fenix getting released from prison; he was in there in the first place for disobeying orders. After being taken out, he rejoins his fellow Gears soldiers in the Delta unit of COG (Coalition of Ordered Governments) to aid in wiping out the Locust threat.

And that's about it. The story is really more of a series of events tied to the invasion and what Delta Squad does about it. I didn't find myself engaged in it too much because of this, since their efforts don't really amount to much in the long run. Still, even if the plot doesn't go anywhere, it was interesting anyway and I kind of want to see what happens next in the overall storyline. The characters are also interesting to interact with, but I still couldn't find myself getting emotionally attached to them.

The gameplay mechanics on the other hand are fantastic. The emphasis on getting to cover during a firefight is aided by an excellent system that allowed me to do what I wanted with ease and allow good tactical precision. Occasionally I would stick myself to an object I wanted to navigate around, but it was more my fault than anything. I also liked the Active Reload system, where the player can double tap the reload button on a meter similarly to a sports game in an attempt to reload faster. Hitting the button at the right time will give a much faster reload time, with a perfectly timed press offering extra damage. Miss however, and your gun will jam and delay the timing more than if you didn't do anything at all. Once I got the hang of it, it made my tactics a lot faster to implement.

Encounter design is done very well too, with deaths attributed more to the fault of the player and checkpoints placed mostly in right areas. What also helps is that the overall AI is smart enough to aid Fenix without getting in the way, as well as make it somewhat satisfying to overcome. I wish I could say the same for boss encounters, which for the most part weren't very challenging due to employing simple strategies to take them down. The final boss on the other hand felt a bit too overpowered due to all of the elements in place to make sure that beating him even on Casual is extremely difficult. The only way I was able to pass was to take advantage of a glitch where he stayed in one spot the whole battle. Incidentally, this was also the only major glitch I could detect from the game.

I also enjoyed wielding the various guns in the game, especially the iconic Lancer/Chainsaw Bayonet. Getting up close and personal to dispatch Locust with that weapon was always incredibly satisfying as blood showered everywhere and onto the camera. The other weapons handle very well and act accordingly, though the Hammer of Dawn, while awesome, has an admittedly underwhelming size for a laser beam that rains down from the sky.

On the technical side of things, I loved how detailed everything was down to the guns and environments, but especially so on the living objects. Sometimes when reloading a checkpoint though, the textures can visibly take a few seconds to fully appear. Voice acting was also good, even if the occasionally humorous dialogue falls flat some of the time. The music on the other hand was fantastic to listen to, with a great score that kept me playing until the end.

Overall, Gears of War was a very enjoyable experience that helped to justify owning an Xbox 360. Even when stumbling in some places, Epic Games created a solid campaign that I hope will be improved upon in Gears of War 2. If you're playing on a 360 for the first time like me, I would give this a good recommendation. Here's to the first of hopefully many 360 reviews to come.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Last Airbender - It Had Better Be

The Last Airbender is one of those movies where I have heard so much about how bad it is, that I felt a desire to watch it anyway to see for myself. To this end I decided to rent it, knowing I would be going in without having seen the Nickelodeon cartoon it was based on, Avatar: The Last Airbender (it would be called this if James Cameron hadn't used the name Avatar). For $1 I got everything I expected and practically the worst way possible.

The plot can be summed up as M. Night Shyamalan attempting to stuff the entire first season of the show into an hour and a half (I have nothing to say because, again, I have no prior experience with the source material). By itself the movie is fantastically boring with unexciting special effects, plot elements that are shoved aside or simply come out of nowhere, uninteresting/seemingly unnecessary characters, inconsistent logic and reasoning, and acting that is almost universally on the same level as the Keanu Reeves School of Acting. Also, almost no one is able to pronounce the word "avatar" apparently. The only thing I actually liked about this film at all was getting to the end credits.

If you are not familiar with the show, skip this movie. If you are a fan of the series, definitely skip this movie. However, if your desire to see 103 minutes of bile kicks in, I would suggest doing what I did and pay $1 to rent it from a Blockbuster or something. On the bright side, you only have to pay pocket change to borrow it for a day. Now all I want to do is watch the show just to see how much better it is than this waste of film.

Stubs - Wings

WINGS (1927) Starring: Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Richard Arlen and Gary Cooper. Directed by William A. Wellman. Written by Hope Loring, Louis D. Lighton. Story by John Monk Saunders. Produced by Lucien Hubbard, Adolph Zukor, Jesse L. Lasky, B.P. Schulberg, Otto Kahn. Music by J.S. Zamecnik. Run Time: 144 minutes. Color Tinted. U.S.A. Silent, Action, Adventure, War, Romantic, Drama.

Wings was the first film to win the Academy Award (1927/1928) for Best Picture (called Best Picture, Production). But despite this claim, overtime, it seems to have fallen out of favor and almost seems to have been forgotten all together. WINGS is sometimes unfavorably compared with the other “best picture” from that first Oscar ceremony, SUNRISE (Most Artistic Quality of Production), and for a time it was even considered lost. But a print was found in the Cinémathèque Française film archive in Paris and quickly copied to safety film. This year, a restored WINGS, derived from that print, will finally get a DVD and Blu-Ray release, as part of Paramount Studio’s 100th Anniversary celebration.

As part of that release, it was shown recently in the Paramount Theater. Since it is a rare opportunity to see this film as it was meant to be seen, I wanted very much to take advantage of the opportunity. I have already gone on record for my love of SUNRISE, and I wanted this review to be about WINGS itself.

My first impression after seeing this film is that it is a great movie, not only for 1927/28 but for now. The old adage that they don’t make them like they used to is appropriate when describing this film. The aerial photography is incredible since it is so realistic. The actors were actually up in the airplanes, in some cases actually flying them, for all the dogfighting scenes. There were no such things as rear projection, blue screens, green screens or CGI. Arguably, some of the shots of flying, especially the close-ups, could have been shot on the ground, but they weren’t. When you see Buddy Rogers flying and another plane passes through the view, that is really another plane flying by. Even the crash landings, though staged, were really crashes.

Coming less than a decade after the end of World War I, WINGS may have been made as a reaction to MGM’s successful THE BIG PARADE (1925), one of the first Hollywood features made about that war. Things haven’t really changed much in Hollywood, and when one studio hits with a particular genre or subject matter, you can be sure there will be copycats or similar types of movies made. Separating it from THE BIG PARADE is the fact that WINGS is essentially a film about flyboys. And it was made at a time when America was fascinated by flying. Remember, Charles Lindberg had just crossed the Atlantic in 1927, making himself and flying big news.

Add to the mix, the IT girl, Clara Bow, who brought with her star power based on her cute and sexy public persona. She was Paramount’s biggest star and was at the height of her popularity. Earlier in the year, she had made the film she is most identified with, IT. Sadly, her career, like so many others would collapse with the coming of sound and even though THE JAZZ SINGER was already out, the transition to sound was still in the future when WINGS was made and released.

In the film, Clara plays Mary, a small town girl with a crush on the boy next door, Jack (Charles Rogers). They have a friendship, more than a romance. We see her help him put together a jalopy, which she christens the Shooting Star. But Jack’s heart belongs to Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), a city girl visiting the small town. As soon as the car is ready to drive, Jack leaves Mary and drives over to Sylvia’s so she can have the first ride. However, Sylvia’s in love with David (Richard Arlen), the son from the richest family in town. David returns Sylvia’s affections. Jack, for his part, is oblivious to Sylvia’s love for David, but he has disdain for his rival just the same.

Jack, we’re told, has always dreamed of flying and when the U.S. finally enters the war, he signs up to be a pilot in the Army’s Air Corp. Much to his chagrin, he finds himself signing up next to David. When he’s going off to war, Jack goes to Sylvia to ask for some sort of memento to take with him into battle. He finds one that she has already made for David, her photo in a locket with a personal note on the back of the photo. David walks in while Jack and Sylvia embrace. She later tells David that she couldn’t tell Jack the truth after seeing the way he looked at her. The two agree not to burst Jack’s bubble.

David, we’re led to believe has lived a sheltered life and while he loves his parents and they love him, it’s not the touchy feely kind of relationship. He feels more comfortable saying goodbye to the family dog and to the butler. Like Jack, he has a good luck charm, but rather than a photo, it is a tiny teddy bear that he used to play with as a child. We’re talking small, fit in your pocket-sized bear.

Just as Jack is leaving, Mary calls him over, hoping for a last chance for him to see she is the one for him. She gives him a photo of her, which is about as cute as they get, but she gets a handshake instead of a kiss.

Jack and David find themselves together throughout training and their eventual deployment. It is while training that Jack and David finally get into it. Jack lets his hatred for David bubble over and the two get into a fistfight. The fact that David won’t go down easily changes Jack’s mind and the two become best friends. On their deployment to Germany, they bunk for mere minutes with Cadet White (Gary Cooper).

I say mere minutes, because while they’re still unpacking, the tall and lanky White goes off to practice figure eights before eating and does not return. This brief appearance has been said to have launched Cooper’s career.

Meanwhile, back in small town U.S.A., Mary reads an ad for ambulance drivers for a volunteer women’s corp. Sylvia, apparently just waits.

Jack and David become heroes, shooting down German planes and winning citations. One of which gets them a pass to Paris on the eve of the Big Push by the Allies. Mary, who happens to be in Paris as well, hears about the recall of the troops and goes to find Jack. It is at the famous Les Folies Bergère, where Jack is not only intoxicated but smitten with another girl. Taking the advice of the washroom attendant, Mary changes into one of the dancer’s costumes in an effort to win Jack away from the woman in the bar. She only succeeds when she bubbles more than the other woman when drunken Jack shakes her. (Jack is having hallucinations and bubbles are his pink elephants.)

Mary takes Jack to a hotel room. The assumption here is that she’s trying to get him a chance to dry out before returning to the battlefield, not to seduce him. Even if that had been her purpose, Jack is too drunk to do anything but pass out. While Jack is out, Mary decides to change back into her ambulance driver’s uniform. At the same time, MPs who are tasked with rounding up pilots burst into the room and see Mary half-naked with a drunken flyboy on the bed. This situation, though innocent as it may be, in the morals of the day, is enough to get Mary kicked out of the Woman’s Corp.

It is back on the battlefield, and minutes away from going into battle that Jack reads about Mary's resignation from the Woman's Corp. When Jack states that he's surprised that Mary would quit, Lt. Walter Cameron (Roscoe Karns), another pilot, suggests she was fired for sexual misconduct. Jack takes offense at that and almost comes to blows with Walter. David hopes that means Jack's affections have switched to Mary. But Jack insists that is not the case and shows David his good luck charm, the locket that Sylvia had intended for David. Jack had kept the locket a secret up to then and when he shows it to David, the photo falls to the floor. David finds it and reads the inscription on the back, that Sylvia had written to him. Seeing no way to put the photo back without Jack seeing the inscription, David almost fights his friend to avoid him seeing it. But they are called to their planes before that happens. David, who has already stated he fears he might not return from the mission, leaves behind his teddy bear.

On their way to shoot down some German observation balloons, David runs interference with four German planes, leaving Jack to go after the balloons. While David is initially successful he is eventually shot down. Crashing behind enemy lines, he is thought to have been killed when a German patrol comes upon him and shoots when he doesn’t surrender. A German flying ace delivers the news by flying his plane into the enemy camp to deliver the news in a tube.

But David is not dead and manages to make his way to a German airfield, where he steals a plane to fly back to the Allied side. However, on his way back he runs into Jack, who sees the German plane as another way to avenge his fallen friend, and he mercilessly shoots it down. When he lands to take a souvenir, he discovers that the dying pilot is David. Jack stays with his friend until he dies.

When the war is over, Jack returns to a hero’s welcome. He is relieved that David’s parents don’t blame him for the death of their son. And finally, Jack realizes that it is Mary he loves.

While all of this may sound melodramatic it isn’t. There are obviously places where it could have gone that way, but it doesn’t. And it is not all drama either. Comic relief is supplied by El Brendel and Gunboat Smith. El Brendel, a vaudevillian comic, plays Herman Schwimpf, who gets into scuffs along the way when his intentions are misunderstood. Mostly, he gets into it with his Sergeant (Gunboat Smith). Gunboat, a former heavyweight fighter turned actor, is perhaps best known for losing to Jack Dempsey in 1917 and again in 1918. El Brendel, ironically, left Paramount the same year as this film and went back to vaudeville. He would return to films again and again in his career, first at Fox and later in shorts for Columbia Pictures.

What helps set this film apart are the visuals in it. The shots revolving around flying and dogfights are simply stunning. William Wellman, a former pilot in World War I, brought realism to the movie. As stated before the actors who could fly were actually flying the planes. In addition to onboard cameras, Wellman also used platforms and balloons to capture some incredible shots.

In addition to flying, the shots of the battlefields are likewise spectacular. The bombed out landscape, as well as the subtleties of war, are truly captured here. And perhaps it took someone who had been there to bring it to life. The immensity of the battle scenes reminded me of the Civil War footage that D.W. Griffith shot in his flawed epic BIRTH OF A NATION. The realism captured would be either now be supplemented with stock footage or created using green screens and CGI.

And the camera work is not only spectacular for the flying and battle sequences. Be sure to pay attention to such scenes as when Jack goes to show Sylvia his Shooting Star car and when we enter the Les Folies Bergère. Like SUNRISE (1927), the camera work is sophisticated and something that would be lost for a time when sound forced everyone to gather round the microphone.

While WINGS was definitely Wellman’s first major film, it would hardly be his last. He would go on to direct such classics as THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (1933). A STAR IS BORN (1937), BEAUE GESTE (1939), ROXIE HART (1942), and the OX-BOW INCIDENT (1943). Wellman, also called Wild Bill, liked to work fast, disdained actors but hated actresses more. Known for bullying his actors, he did manage to the performance he wanted from them and seven of them would receive Oscar nominations for their troubles. Wellman himself, who was not nominated for WINGS, would receive them for A STAR IS BORN, BATTLEGROUND (1949) and THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (1954). His only Oscar came for Best Writing, Original Story for A STAR IS BORN, which he shared with Robert Carson.

Like other films made in the late silent era, WINGS is a sophisticated work. There are not lots of title cards, because, by that time, audiences knew how to watch a movie. They didn’t have to see every bit of dialogue written out for them to be able to follow the movie. The film also employs sound in some very interesting ways.

To begin with, silent films were not usually totally silent. Music usually accompanied their showings. While it may have started out as a way of drowning out other noises that might interrupt your viewing pleasure (coughing, talking, etc.), Hollywood quickly realized that music could be used to enhance the film. Oftentimes, films came with suggested pieces that could be played by the theater’s piano player or organist to set the mood. For really big films, music was written for them and played by an organist or a small orchestra for truly big budget films. Such is the case of WINGS.

A score was written for the film by J.S. Zamecnik that incorporated both original music themes as well as songs, such as George Cohan’s Over There and symphonic passages. This score was arranged for both orchestra and for organ. While there were no recordings to be used for this restoration, the score has been brought back to life and Zamecnik receiving the credit that eluded him at the time.

The film score also employs sound effects that were designed to enhance the film, such as machine gun fire and planes in flight. These were also done live when the film first was shown. Though as part of the move from silent to synchronized sound it is possible that by the end of its two-year theatrical run, some of the sound effects were no longer live.

To see WINGS is to be impressed, not only with the original film but with the restoration process. There are occasionally jump cuts perhaps from a missing frame or two, but considering the film was all but lost, its resurrection is all that more impressive.

A success at the time of its release, WINGS’ return to life is a triumph.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Ratchet: Deadlocked - Challenge Mode: The Video Game

Continuing with our build-up to Sly 4 later this year, Insomniac's Ratchet & Clank series moves forward into 2005 with Ratchet: Deadlocked, released one year after Up Your Arsenal. This game not only continues to provide a multiplayer mode like last time, but also takes gameplay in a different direction than the previous games. Although this title was still received fairly well, like others I have a few problems with it.

The plot of this game is, not to put too fine a point on it, thin compared to the stories preceding Ratchet & Clank games have to offer. After the defeat of Dr. Nefarious, Ratchet, Clank, and Al are kidnapped from the Starship Phoenix after it has been reported that several galactic heroes have disappeared. It is then revealed that the three of them are being held captive by Gleeman Vox, head of DreadZone, an event in which contestants must survive a series of challenges, shown on the channel Vox (a thinly veiled jab at Fox). While Clank and Al try to figure a way out of their predicament, Ratchet must survive all of DreadZone's challenges before going up against the champion, Ace Hardlight.

Some games have a mode where you complete a series of challenges in order to improve your skills and get rewards for completing them. This game's main campaign is exactly that, complete with an in-game Leaderboard. While there is an option to play the campaign with someone else (or by yourself, in which case you play with a pair of upgrade-able robots), this doesn't change the feeling of repetitiveness as you go forward, especially since some of the challenges across the different planets are essentially the same.

No Ratchet & Clank game is complete without a variety of weapons at your disposal, however there aren't as many here as there were before. The two-ring arsenal system is kept, though it can be awkward to use this time, and the experience system is intact, allowing you to get your weapons up to Level 10. This game also introduces a system of Mods, which you can purchase to upgrade your weapons to do all sorts of things, from freezing enemies to spouting pools of lava and even turn foes into various animals. However, the excitement is stripped away once you realize you can survive the challenges using only one weapon (for me at least, it was the Magma/Vulcan Cannon with an Acid Mod).

While the character's voices are still done rather well, the dialogue leaves something to be desired when the DreadZone announcer Dallas keeps repeating the same lines over and over to the point where you can predict what he's going to say next as he's saying it (he also seems to have a thing for co-announcer Juanita apparantly). Due to the thin plot, there isn't too much room for developing the new characters, but whatever is squeezed in manages to get the game by, with some rather funny moments thrown in to keep you going. The sound isn't all bad, since the music of this game is not annoying and is still worth a listen.

As I've said in my review of Up Your Arsenal, there is a small problem I have with spending Bolts, the currency of the series. While Bolts can still be used to buy helpful weapons and upgrades, though there is a lack of a bonus from saving your last game, I still found it odd that they can still be used to merely change the aesthetic of something, this time the design and color scheme of your robot allies in the main campaign. I personally found this to be rather unnecessary, but I'm sure there's some people out there who would get a kick out of doing this.

As stated before, the Multiplayer returns here, but like the game before it, it's more fun with more than two people. I haven't tried the Online function, given that there aren't any servers anymore, but if you have this game and at least two friends, I would say to give this mode a go.

Ratchet: Deadlocked isn't a terrible game, but so far it isn't the best one I've played. Despite the flaws I've expressed here, I'm not exactly sure how to feel about it. The gameplay is solid despite its repetition, even though all it seems to have going for it in terms of story are the nods it makes to its predecessor. If you are a fan of Ratchet & Clank, or you are someone who enjoys the challenge modes found in other games, I would still say to play this game, even though it's not for everyone.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Jak II - Continuing The Legacy

After the success of 2001's Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, Naughty Dog began developing its first sequel, Jak II. Released in 2003, the game would go on to receive critical acclaim like its predecessor, as well as get added to Sony's "Greatest Hits" lineup of PS2 games. Having finished a 16+ hour campaign, Jak II definitely lives up to its fame, but is also a little off from perfect.

The tone of the game takes a complete 180 from the first game based on the opening cutscenes alone. Jak, Daxter, Samos, and Keira go through a portal generated by a Precursor Ring on a Rift Rider (both of which they found in Jak and Daxter) and end up in a technology-filled dystopia known as Haven City. They are nearly immediately separated for about two years, during which Jak has been experimented on Dark Eco in an attempt by Baron Praxis to create essentially a super soldier. Daxter comes to his friend's rescue, aiding in his dramatic escape from prison as they run into a man named Kor that tells them briefly about the citywide takeover by Praxis as well as the attempts by the Underground to restore control to its rightful owner, who happens to be a child he is protecting. Once the duo start aiding the Underground, things quickly escalate as they continue to realize just what they have gotten themselves into.

Storywise, the game unfolds like a rollercoaster as alliances are made and broken, love is tested, and numerous revelations come to light, especially a very notable one near the end that will literally leave you guessing. While the story is considerably darker than the previous entry, its execution is astoundingly brlliant thanks to its expert pacing, as well as including well-written dialogue that explains just about everything you need to know about the characters and events without going into long expository speeches. With the screen time the characters are given, it's easy to map out their relationships and motivations while still being genuinely surprised by at least one or two unexpected plot twists. At first I didn't feel too much emotional attachment, but it's hard not to be shocked when something happens to them late in the game to affect plot or character dynamics.

Speaking of characters, the very first thing anyone should note about them is that Jak can now speak. While he is fueled by revenge on Praxis, this is justified by having been tortured in experiments for two years against his will. The growly tone of his voice serves as a nice touch and adds some depth to him, allowing him for once to interact with other characters on a more equal level. In addition, new characters like Sig, Torn, Tess, Ashelin and Krew are well-written for their roles, though talking about their relationships with each other would only make this more confusing than it needs to be. The voices selected for these characters are also done well, with specific praise going to Krew's sinister British voice and Clancy Brown's voice for Baron Praxis. I also found Daxter's dialogue to be humorous at times in a way that didn't feel annoying.

In terms of overall gameplay, this is perhaps where Jak II differs the greatest from its predecessor. The Eco abilities from the previous entry are now instead integrated as ammo types for a single weapon known as the Morph Gun. Using the D-Pad to switch between ammo types is very simple to adjust to and aiming the morph gun was never a problem, with advantages for each ammo type serving to inject a nice level of tactical skill on the part of the player. Thanks to Jak's prison time, players can also collect Dark Eco to transform him into Dark Jak with the press of a button, though they must forgo using the Morph Gun for the duration. While Dark Jak does have his own advantages and is very strong in melee combat, the time it takes to recharge a single use plus a near lack of a need to use him greatly lowered my incentive to even consider using him, especially when taking into account that the Morph Gun alone is enough to get you through the game. The rest of the controls are lifted directly from Jak and Daxter, so there was also a great sense of familiarity in the game that I could immediately latch onto.

In addition to gaining a new weapon and a new power, the enemies Jak and Daxter must face are now a race known as the Metal Heads, replacing the Lurkers from The Precursor Legacy (though they still play a role in the story). This race has plenty of enemy types to keep one on their toes, adjusting strategy accordingly to deal with specific groups. Killing Metal Heads can reward you with a Metal Head Skull Gem, the new currency of sorts for the single Precursor Oracle in the game. Bringing a certain number of Skull Gems to the Oracle will reward Jak with a new ability for Dark Jak to wield, ranging from invincibility in this mode to clearing a group of enemies much faster. No matter how many abilities Dark Jak gets however, I still did not feel the need to wield his powers that often. In addition, Precursor Orbs, the currency of the previous game, plays a bit less of a role now, with a total of only 286 scattered throughout all of the game's levels. Collecting a number of them will unlock secret modes or other extras, which may or not be worth it depending on how much of a priority you place on collecting them.

While different powers and enemies already provide a good amount of variety to the game, a great deal more is applied throughout the entirety of the story. One moment you'll be platforming as usual, the next you'll be racing on a NYFE vehicle, and in another you'll be piloting a mech suit that can punch through walls. There's even an on-rails shooting section and times when you'll be shooting airborne enemies with a turret. This level of gameplay variety is something I liked since it helped the game constantly feel fresh, helped by the fact that the controls in any stage are mapped very well and respond near-flawlessly.

Overall level design is good in this game, though some annoyances do crop up. Checkpoints are placed in each mission with the frequency of Ratchet & Clank, making some of the longer ones painful to redo multiple times in succession, each death becoming more frustrating to deal with. However, the constant replaying of missions did manage to improve my efficiency in approaching them once I figured out the correct way to do it. Haven City is also designed as a sort of giant maze, which while making the environment a lot better to look at also made it sometimes difficult to travel to my destination since it was easy to take a wrong turn and waste too much time in a critical moment. Transit also takes some time whether running on foot or using a hoverboard or flying vehicle of some sort. The AI for the Krimzon Guard, controlled by Baron Praxis as the other enemy faction of the game, is also interesting. It seems that you can absolutely anything to the general populace and they won't do anything, but if you so much as tap them while not running or dodge rolling across the city streets they'll send the entire city after you, ending their search only after you're dead, you hide under a bridge long enough, or you get into an open spot and keep running away long enough, sort of like how you outrun any police force in other open world games.

The NYFE races are also a good example of a mixed bag. Since you need to get into first to advance the story, there is absolutely no margin for error thanks to the course design and enemy AI. The only way to achieve this is by exploiting every shortcut possible at every turn or abusing boost power like there's no tomorrow. Controlling a NYFE vehicle is harder in courses with lots of turns, since letting go at any point during the turns makes it harder to regain steady control again. Regardless, I felt a feeling of triumph once I managed to get through these missions.

In terms of graphics, Jak II improves greatly from its predecessor of two years prior. The atmosphere is helped greatly by the use of a darker color palette to show just how different it is in tone from the more upbeat Precursor Legacy. With the presence of the day-to-night cycle still around, I also praise the lighting on the environment as the shadows projected also change more realistically. Water and lava also operate more distinctively this time around, with physics that stick much closer to their real world counterparts. I also loved the lack of a visible load time despite how huge and intricate Haven City is, which made the experience a lot more immersive. In addition, I also praise the great score and sound design, which is done in a way to not only make the world believable, but also keep the appropriate mood throughout.

With its hairpin u-turn in both tone and style from Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, Jak II is still an impressively fun and enjoyable game. While there is more focus on variety, open world play and third-person shooter elements, the core platforming aspect is still visible in a way that keeps the experience fun and fresh, and its ramped up difficulty by comparison is still a good challenge despite its annoyance from time to time. On its own, Jak II is a game that fans of the series or PS2 owners should not pass up, as it holds a rightful place in history in more ways than one.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Darkness: Levels (Comic)

In order to increase output, this blog will be gaining video game-based comic book reviews. The reason behind this is because comic books are another way to tell more of the story of a game as well as explain things that aren't touched upon. Adaptations of games, such as the subject of this review, can also be good if done properly, especially if the concept can work for/originated from a comic book. To start things off I will be reviewing The Darkness: Levels, a 6-issue mini-series (numbered Levels 0-5) made by Top Cow to promote the video game, The Darkness, which seems like a natural step since the game was based on the similarly-named comic book. I decided the best thing to do was to read this mini-series via trade paperback after playing the game, and for the most part it's a rather good adaptation, though there are changes from the game (which itself has differences from the mythos of the base comic).

The story itself is similar in structure to the game it adapts, although some events are changed in both content and placement. For instance, a scene in the game involving Jackie chasing down Eddie Shrote, head of the NYPD, is replaced with a scene in what appears to be a strip club where Eddie escapes from a fire caused by Jackie, but is still soon followed up by another scene with Shrote in a church (which incidentally is called Cold Springs church/cemetery here instead of Trinity church/cemetery in the game). Another example involves changing the order of events, where the death of Jenny, Jackie's girlfriend, is moved to be immediately after the scene with Dutch Oven Harry in the game, and the area of her death is in her own apartment rather than another building she was kidnapped to, although in both cases The Darkness prevented its host from interfering. Despite these differences, among others, the structure is kept as Jackie going after Paulie, dying once, going after Eddie, dying again, and achieving his goal of revenge. On the bright side, characterization is kept intact and we also get a scene that develops the background character Charles Hazelgrove as well as an entire issue (Level 0) that gives more exposition to Anthony Estacado, the one who brought The Darkness into his family.

The artwork, though different between each issue, is really impressive, especially in Levels 0 and 1 where it is positively gorgeous. While each of the six artists presents a different style in each issue, there is still a lot of consistency is what everything is supposed to look like. Each style is good in their own ways, going from the painting-like qualities of Levels 0 and 1 to art more akin to the original comic in Levels 2 and 3 until becoming more gritty in Levels 4 and 5, and they all in different ways help to preserve the tone of the story at their respective points. Within the art though, a few things pop up that never appear in the game, but were probably used to appeal to readers more familiar with the comic. Jackie's Darkness armor appears a couple of times in the middle of the story, while otherwise his Darkness mode is more like in the game (I looked when I used a Darkness power while playing), and at one point he uses a two-handed gun made from The Darkness that he didn't use in that fiction. However I think the art and story changes help bring something new to the comic to help it stand out on its own from the source material(s).

The writing of The Darkness: Levels, like the artwork, is very solid. Paul Jenkins and David Wohl do a great job translating the events of the game into a comic book form, including Paul Jenkins' solo work on Level 0. Not only does the comic retain the game's dark atmosphere, it also has a sense of humor at times like the original comic. As I've said, what helps the writing is the exposition given to Charles Hazelgrove, in that we get to learn more about his character and feel for his predicament, in addition to telling more about Anthony Estacado. We also get a better understanding of the iteration of hell from the game when Jackie converses with a "German" demon on his way to a castle (replacing the part in the game where you have to look for a shell for a ginormous death cannon).

If you are a fan of either the game or comic, The Darkness: Levels is a comic for you. Not only does it transfer the game to a comic faithfully while creating its own identity, the combined work of the writing and art display the amount of care and effort put into the project to achieve the end result. If you decide to read this comic, I suggest obtaining a trade paperback, as you will also be treated to a gallery of concept art for the game, which you can also unlock in-game after collecting enough phone numbers.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Darkness - Let It Consume You

When I first heard of The Darkness as a game, I thought the idea sounded pretty cool, given the promise of being able to control the power of darkness as well as summon creatures called Darklings to do your bidding. It was later that I found out, during my first time playing, that the game was based on a still-running comic of the same name by Top Cow Productions, so I became curious of its source material, though I eventually stopped playing the game without completing it. Since then, while I haven't read very much of the comic overall, I found what I did read to be quite entertaining, though I should warn you that it's definitely not kid-friendly. With the release of The Darkness II on the horizon, I decided to come back to this game as a more experienced player, although I played on Easy because I'm not well versed in First-Person Shooters; while I enjoyed this title, there were some small issues I had with it.

Jackie Estacado is a mafia hitman for the Franchetti family, headed by "Uncle" Paulie Franchetti, who targets the hitman on his 21st birthday on account of suspected danger to the don. When this attempt fails, Jackie soon discovers an ancient force called The Darkness has awakened within him, having been passed down between generations. As Jackie figures out how to control this new power, he sets out on a mission to kill Paulie as payback for the assassination attempt. While the origin of The Darkness itself is similar to that of the comics, the approach to the story overall is the sort of thing one would expect to see in a live-action movie, which I mean in a good way.

The voice acting of this game is at the very least decent, with characters from the comic being given especially well-chosen voices and great performances (I praise Mike Patton's role as the titular Darkness). While the acting at times sounded slightly off to me, this was thankfully scarce and I liked it (the acting) for the most part. The action of the game is accompanied by some really amazing music, from a soft violin tune when it's quiet to a truly epic, evolving guitar riff during important battles. If the original music for the game was put out on CD, I would totally go out looking for it.

The basic gunplay of this title isn't too different from any other FPS at this point, but it overall manages to stand out. For instance, when Jackie holds any one-handed weapon, the system of dual-wielding kicks in and he is holding, for example, two pistols (two-handed weapons such as shotguns still operate realistically). Though you'll half the time be using your bullets to kill lights, the system of reloading is more realistic in that if you, as another example, decide to reload while your gun(s) has extra bullets left, you are ditching those spare shots in favor of a new clip. The guns themselves, particularly the pistols, are extremely accurate to where if the reticle is aiming at a light from a great distance, a single shot is enough to destroy it. Switching between your arsenal of guns is very simple and quick, making it fairly easy to switch to whatever it is you need/want at the moment.

On the subject of shooting lights, there are a multitude of Darkness powers you have at your disposal, so long as you're away from any sort of light source. These go from performing stealth kills with and manipulating a Darkness tentacle to dual-wielding guns powered by darkness and summoning a black hole to quickly take care of a large group of enemies, the last two of which I enjoyed using to where I tried to activate them at every opportunity I got. These powers run on Darkness energy, drained quicker by using them in light, which is easily replenished by devouring hearts or simply being in a dark area. Devouring hearts from enemy corpses also increases your Darkness Level, allowing you to use your powers for a much longer period of time. As mentioned previously, you also have the ability to summon an army of Darklings, creatures created from The Darkness that aid you in taking down enemies by attacking from a distance or blowing themselves up, among other things. Listening to these things talk can be hilarious, given the kinds of things they say and how they seem to almost converse with each other at times when you control a group of them. However, like The Darkness itself, these assistants are just as susceptible to light.

To increase the time you spend with this game, there is a variety of side-missions you can perform that will award you with unlockable content, including concept art, behind-the-scenes videos, and even full issues of the Top Cow comic. These are given to you through phone numbers and letters found on the ground, some of which require using The Darkness to obtain, which you redeem by using a telephone in the subways or a mailbox respectively. If you look all over every level, you can also find (fictional) phone numbers to note down and dial manually into subway phones in order to learn a rather interesting secret. In fact, you may find yourself spending about half your time alone searching high and low for these secret numbers.

During my bout of controlling the forces of pure darkness, I ran into a few odd glitches. At one point far into the game when I used a Darkness power to move a police car to use as footing, all of the lights from the vehicle remained in the same spot they were in, effectively becoming disembodied in the process. Also at least once when I used a phone number to collect an unlockable, Jackie went through the dialing motions twice, the second time during the beginning of the actual call. This next criticism is not a glitch, but while I appreciated the attention to detail in the level design, I sometimes couldn't help but think Jackie could at least walk just a little bit faster to make travelling across an area somewhat less time consuming.

The Darkness also has a function for online multiplayer, although I don't have very much to say about it. The options for a type of match merely cover the basics, so it's not exactly fresh meat. From what I could see there's surprisingly still barely any sort of community left (though it was probably thriving when the game first came out), and the one match I played suffered from huge amounts of lag before the server disconnected.

While this is an entirely new take on the tale of The Darkness, I should note it has some changes from the comic, at least from what I know from the little I've read of the overall story. I'm not going to comment on any design changes, but I can say that while in the comic Jackie's powers are only rendered moot by strong light, tension is added to the game by making his weakness any sort of light period, though he retains his creativity for getting around this. Adding to my comment on the approach feeling like a movie adaptation, the name of the don of the Franchetti family went from Frankie in the comic to Paulie in the game, though I'm not one to complain about this. Having read the very first few issues of the original comic via trade paperback, I was expecting the characters of Sonatine and the Angelus to appear, but the story does a good job of telling itself without them; thankfully though, it retains the character Butcher Joyce, who has a prominent role in the game.

Even if you are not familair with the Top Cow comic, I would suggest giving this game a try if you are of age. As you advance in the engaging campaign it becomes more and more fun to use The Darkness as you wreak havoc on those that stand in your way. It may even make you curious as to what the source material is like, as I did when first playing (from my small library I recommend the Coming of Age trade and the Four Horsemen mini-series). That said, I can't wait to see how The Darkness II improves on what this game has laid out.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy - The Beginning Of A Great One

Within the sea of modern games out there that are sequels or reboots/re-imaginings, perhaps this is the best time to look into the past for some quality entertainment. As Sly 4 is slated for release this year, this blog now has an ongoing project to review every game possible from within three of Sony's landmark franchises: Ratchet & Clank, Jak and Daxter, and Sly Cooper. Since the first one is already being taken care of, it has become my job to tackle the second. With this being my second playthrough of the game after a couple of years, my only question now is where to begin talking about Jak and Daxter.

I suppose the first thing to say would be a brief history of this title and its developer. After creating only three titles with mixed reception, Naughty Dog hit their stride when they developed the highly acclaimed Crash Bandicoot series for the PS1, which would later become some of the best selling games of all time for that system. After their acquisition by Sony, Naughty Dog made Jak and Daxter as the developer's first title for the PS2. Released in late 2001, it would go on to receive massive critical acclaim and spawn three sequels and two spin-offs. With that introduction out of the way, I now present my review of Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy for the PS2.

Before the story can begin, the player is given an explanation by Samos, the sage of Green Eco, about the concept of the Precursors as creators of all things, as well as the substance known as Eco. Following this, the story starts officially with Jak and his friend Daxter travelling to Misty Island against Samos' wishes. While there, they witness an evil plan being hatched by two people and are attacked by a Lurker while trying to leave. While Jak is able to defeat it with a bomb, Daxter accidentally falls into a vat of Dark Eco and ends up transformed into a creature called an Ottsel, a combination of an otter and a weasel. When they return to Sandover village, Samos yells at them for their disobedience, but informs Daxter that Gol Acheron, master of Dark Eco, may have the ability to change him back to his former self.

As the plot advances it seems to be rather thin, even with an rather interesting twist regarding the true identity of the villains, who seem to be made mostly of cardboard. There's even a developing romance between Jak and Keira, Samos' daughter, that seems to play out under the radar. Due to the lighthearted nature of the game though and how wonderfully it is pulled off, these things are very easily excusable. While the story may not have much meat, there are other aspects that make it interesting anyway. For example, we get to learn more about the world these characters inhabit, as well as the kind of technology that exists.

Controls are very simple and responsive, with moves that are easy to figure out with the lack of a tutorial. Since Jak's only moves are in the realm of hand-to-hand combat, experimentation in this sense is so intuitive that looking at a manual isn't even required. However, there is one small problem where the second press of the X button doesn't always seem to register, leading occasionally to some unintended loss of health. Despite this, it doesn't detract from the amount of platforming required to get through a level.

Speaking of which, the various levels of the game are crafted very well, especially since they are all interconnected in some form or another, with some events sometimes affecting what is accessible in other areas. The advantage to this level of interconnected design results in the absence of load times no matter how big the area, as everything is right there waiting to be accessed. While this may result in some formulaic structure for some games, there is fortunately a great variety in world structure and enemy types, though some of the challenges do carry over between stages. Most of the challenge familiarity however is focused within the three hub stages, mostly consisting of paying off NPCs or Oracles for Power Cells needed for advancing the game. Also, the levels seem to borrow from every type you'd expect from a platforming game, like cave, forest, ice, and lava levels. It seems to work in this game's favor though, since it creates a lot of level variety while still being fun and accessible to play.

Jak and Daxter is one of those games where collection is key to getting to the next area available. These collectibles are the aforementioned Power Cells, Precursor Orbs that are used as a sort of currency, and Scout Flies that gain you Power Cells once you've collected all seven in one area. As you can probably tell, Power Cells are the biggest key of all to going to the next hub stage, but thankfully they are fairly easy to obtain and it is not required that you have all of them at all times. This design trait helps to keep the game fun and interesting, with motivation to continue playing to collect them all.

One other key aspect of gameplay is Eco. Different types of Eco interact with the player in different ways, with Green Eco offering health, Blue Eco providing speed and ability to operate certain machinery, Red Eco giving Jak a leg up in combat, and Yellow Eco allowing him to shoot forth small energy blasts. With a system as simple as this, it's interesting how they are placed in the environment in a way that you can figure out what you're supposed to do without the game treating you like an idiot. It also helps the game retain a certain level of challenge as well, with the occasional need to try and conserve certain types that won't regenerate.

For a game released in the year 2001, making it an early PS2 title, the graphics hold up surprisingly well.  At this point in the franchise there's still an upbeat tone as evidenced by the cartoony visuals, which are very inviting, and the colors used which work very well with the lighting, especially considering the game has a full day-to-night cycle. The in-game models are very smooth, with precursor technology always dominating with a particular shade of brown. One thing I especially liked was the interactions that Daxter has with Jak's character model during movement. During jumps and runs, he fluidly moves through the air as he tries to hang onto his buddy's shoulder. I suppose the only complaint I could have about the physics is that the lava in the game seems to move and sometimes sound like water, but then again they may not have had the kind of physics engines we had later on to facilitate the proper effects.

One other thing I can praise is the overall sound design. The sound effects are all very fitting and unique, with the right choices that they aren't annoying every time they are heard. Voice acting is also superb, though one thing to note is that between the title characters, only Daxter does the talking. Thankfully, his lines are actually pretty humorous and help keep the overall tone of the game intact, although during control he sounds much like a guide fairy. In any case, he seemed to be handled pretty well in this game as the voice of the duo. Of course, that would change in later installments.

Lastly, it's important to mention that this game does provide a healthy degree of challenge. On some of the challenges it is possible to die multiple times, even the final boos, but each death is always the player's fault and only serves to provide motivation to try again. Given the nature of this game though, it's overall a fairly easy but enjoyable game.

If I could give an opinion on Jak and Daxter now, it would be that Naughty Dog was able to craft a very excellent platforming game that no one with a PS2 should miss. Taking the longevity of the game into account though, I'd say that it was a very good start for the franchise, and the ending unlocked by collecting all of the Power Cells does create an air of mystery that seems to only be solved by playing the sequel. If you want to relive the game but don't own a PS2 anymore, maybe the upcoming Jak and Daxter HD collection will suffice, as it promises to do just that.

Now I can't wait to play Jak II and continue my reviewing adventure with this series of games. Hopefully I'll enjoy is as much as, if not more than, this masterful work.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Stubs - The Bank Dick

THE BANK DICK (1940) Starring: W.C.Fields, Cora Witherspoon, Una Merkel, Evelyn Del Rio, Shemp Howard. Directed by Edward F. Cline. Written by Mahatma Kane Jeeves (W.C. Fields). Run Time: 69 minutes. Black and White. U.S. Comedy

I like to think of myself as a fan of all sorts of movie comedies. Even ones made for audiences other than myself. I love Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Bros., Laurel & Hardy, etc. One comedic star of yesteryear that I had never been exposed to, and partly by choice, was W.C. Fields. While I know of him, his persona and have seen people imitate him for years, I had never watched a W.C. Fields film all the way through nor had I really wanted to. But recently, I got around to watching THE BANK DICK, which had been featured some time back on Turner Classic Movies, a channel I love and respect, as an Essential. So who am I to avoid an essential film? But after watching THE BANK DICK, I can honestly say, I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

The story, written by Fields under a different name, is definitely designed to take advantage of the W.C. Fields character, a henpecked drunkard, who doesn’t like hard work or children. Egbert Sousé (Fields) is a man with no obvious means of support, who spends too much time at the Black Pussy Cat Café. He has a wife, two daughters and a mother-in-law who is living with him. Every morning, he leaves home, presumably on his way to the Black Pussy Cat Café, where Joe (Shemp Howard) is the bartender, and whatever happens to him there is the plot of the story.

One day, in the bar, he meets a Hollywood producer who is in town making a movie, but the director is too drunk to continue. So he hires Sousé on Sousé’s own recommendation (If only it was that easy to get a job in Hollywood). Sousé also just happens to have a story idea on him, which he passes on to the producer. However, when Sousé starts directing, the set turns into anarchy and it seems like the idea is forgotten in favor of the next bit.

Later, he is credited with catching one of two bank robbers, though in reality, he had nothing to do with it. But the publicity lands him a job as the bank dick, read that as guard, with the promise of executive advancement. On his way to work, at the Black Pussy Cat Café, he runs into a swindler with what the swindler thinks is worthless mining stock, which Sousé convinces Og Oggilby (Grady Sutton) a functionary at the bank and Sousé’s eldest daughter’s fiancée, to embezzle $500 to pay for it.

However, since this a comedy everything works out for Fields: the mining stock actually pays off, the producer sells Sousé’s story to his boss back in Hollywood, and there is also that reward money for “capturing” the first bank robber. But before he can get the money the second bank robber has returned to rob the bank again. Having stolen the mining stock, along with other money, he kidnaps Sousé. A frantic, supposedly funny, car chase ensues with the police, the producer and the bank chasing after them throughout the countryside. The second bank robber is foiled.

Suddenly wealthy, Sousé does what he does every day. He gets up from the breakfast table and goes out into the world. And once on the street, who does he see but Joe the bartender and Sousé runs to catch up to him.

At 69 minutes, THE BANK DICK seems long. While there are some laughs in the film, overall, it is not really all that funny. There are signature bits, like Field’s habit of putting his hat on things other than his head, like hooks and canes, but seeing it once is funnier than several viewings. He also repeats a trick of throwing a piece of balled up paper over his shoulder and kicking it with the bottom of his foot. (This is a bit I had seen Chaplin do many times in movies before.) And his mannerisms, like washing his fingers in the water that’s supposed to be a drunk as a chaser, is unusual, but not laugh out loud funny.

Perhaps Fields is an acquired taste. But after seeing this film, I’m not really tempted to watch others. Or maybe he’s like the Three Stooges, something you watch with the occasional lapse of brilliance, but which you outgrow over time as your tastes get more sophisticated. Since I’ve never watched him before, I can’t say that’s what happened to me. Or maybe he’s something not everyone gets. If that’s the case, then I’m in the last category.

If W.C.Fields is supposed to be a genius, then it is wasted on me.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Rayman Origins - Rayman's Great Comeback

Despite never actually beating one of his main games before, I have been a fan of Rayman for a good portion of my life. I fell in love with the idea of the limbless wonder and had pursued playing each of his games since I got my hands on Rayman 2: The Great Escape as a child. Around Rayman Raving Rabbids however, I became more disinterested as the titular rabbids hijacked the franchise and turned it into a series of mini-game collections.  This lead to my surprise and imminent joy when I had heard about Rayman Origins early last year and its return to his 2D roots. Based on various magazine articles I had read on the subject, it seemed that they would be combining new and old ideas into the project in order to deliver a new platforming experience on current generation systems. When I finally obtained this game as a Christmas present, which explains why this review is late, I felt it would be best to see immediately if everything I had hoped for out of this title would be reality. In the end, it was more than I could have ever dreamed of.

First and foremost, this game is absolutely gorgeous. Thanks to the new UbiArt Framework used to create the visuals by scanning in real art, everything ends up looking simply amazing to look at. This helps make the graphics not only very consistent, but it also makes it fun to try and spot the tiny details in the characters and backgrounds, as well as the subtle actions created by interacting with the environment, such as kicking up grass when landing on that surface. The backgrounds in particular also help to establish an interesting sense of depth for a 2D game, helping the important details stand out in either visual plane.

Besides being beautiful, the game is also a very expertly designed platformer. The controls are tight and responsive, helped by the intricate character animations being designed in a way that they don't make the game more difficult than it already is. On top of this, the level design is fantastic, with some interesting and humorous twists on old level themes to help keep things fun and exciting. I also appreciated the gameplay variety within the worlds, such as having entire sections consist of flying around on a mosquito's back. One thing to point out however is how the difficulty seems to spike within the later sections, with some of these requiring a perfect rhythmic jump timing to be able to pass through. Despite this, most of the deaths I encountered, of which there were plenty, helped me to learn where I went wrong and enable me to overcome it. It's very difficult overall, but also fair for the most part. 

What may ease some of this difficulty is the drop-in drop-out Co-op that supports up to four local players simultaneously. The ease of difficulty comes form the fact that when a player would die, a friend can smack them back into the game, although just smacking other players around in general proved to be very fun on its own as well. The biggest advantage to this though is that it makes the game more fun when working together to get through a tough section or boss fight, among of course all the aforementioned smacking.

One item of note that should be taken into consideration is how the game doesn't stop throwing new things at you. In practice, this felt not only fun, but also kept the game very refreshing as it went along even if it's not directly explained. It could be a new gameplay mechanic, powerup, costume, or level, Rayman is always doing something new. Even the introduction of water levels to the mix is exciting, especially considering how well they handled the diving controls compared to most other games out there today.

Another smaller item of praise I can give this game is the music. Every level has a different theme of music to suit the style of the game perfectly and most importantly not get annoying. In fact, I found myself returning to specific worlds or levels on occasion just to hear the background music even more.

If I could only have one real complaint with this game, it would be the emphasis on gathering Electoons. Electoons are not only scattered in cages around the world, but are also gathered by collecting enough lums in a level or speeding through as fast as possible. You need to collect a certain number of them to to go to specific areas, and this can be a little frustrating given where some of these cages are placed and what obstacles you need to overcome in order to even get to them in the first place. While I did put priority into finding them right off the bat, I have a feeling that I'll be returning to the game again in the future just to see what happens when you get all of them, a revelation I am a little afraid to find out about, if only due to the fear that it may not be worth it in the end.

As the only Rayman game I have been able to beat so far, Rayman Origins is a very solid platforming experience that shouldn't be passed up with those that have a passing or long-term interest in the character and want to see what he can do now that the Rabbids are nowhere in sight. This is definitely a title that can help him stand up now against other heavy hitters out there now and I can't wait to see more from him in the future.

Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure - This Game Literally Sells Itself

Spyro, a well-known cute purple dragon, began life in an acclaimed trilogy of games created by Insomniac for the PS1, before the developer left the character to create Ratchet & Clank. Since then, Spyro was relaunched by the hands of Vivendi Universal Games, who made several games for the character with mixed results. Now under the control of Activision, the dragon has been revitalized in a new relaunch title, made to appeal to a younger audience, which this review shall cover. Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure proves to be a rather interesting title with a unique concept, but you'd better make sure you don't burn a hole in your wallet too quickly.

The story, written by Toy Story veterans Joel Cohen and Alek Sokolow, begins in the mystical realm of Skylands, inhabited by the protective Skylanders as peace reigns under the Core of Light, created by Portal Master Eon. However an evil Portal Master under the name Kaos destroys the Core of Light through the power of darkness, ejecting the Skylanders along with it. When a Skylander reappears later, it is up to you, a new Portal Master, to use the Skylanders in order to rebuild the Core of Light and defeat Kaos. Though simple, this is effective and coherent enough to to string together the game's events.

The graphics of this game are bright and colorful, which actually works really well in the game's favor. Aside from being good visual appeal to its target audience, everything stands out perfectly well and makes things very easy to spot. The soundtrack is a delight to listen to, including some instances of very catchy and equally epic battle music during boss fights. The voice acting is done rather well for a children's game, including the voice of the villain Kaos, performed by Richard Steven Horvitz, perhaps well-known for his role as the titular character of Invader Zim. His performance is in fact very similar to Zim's, which I found made him a more entertaining bad guy to say the least.

What makes this game unique, however, is the main gimmick: Your Skylanders are represented by physical toys, which you can transport into the game through the Portal of Power. This new peripheral is a light-up base that wirelessly connects to your console, giving you the role of Portal Master within the actual game. The fascinating thing about these toys is that everything that happens to their avatars in the game (money, levels, upgrades, and experiences) is saved onto the toy itself, so you never have to worry about losing that precious data from your console. However, this is also part of an ingenious way for developer Toys for Bob and publisher Activision to continuously print money.

For starters, there are, as advertised, over 30 Skylanders figures to collect, reducing the titular Spyro to a bit player despite his name being in the title, which is appealing to someone like me who is easily attracted to gimmicks. The game itself comes with three of these toys (Spyro, Gill Grunt, and Trigger Happy); I managed to complete the game and whatever I could access using only these three toys, though I had to bring my brother in for the drop-in drop-out co-op in order to win the final boss fight. You actually need several Skylanders, at least one from each of the eight different Elements, in order to access everything the game has to offer since some sections only allow access to specific types. To put into perspective my earlier comment about burning holes in wallets: A single Skylander costs $8; a pack of three Skylanders costs $20; and an Adventure Pack, containing an extra setpiece, a Skylander, and two item figures, also costs $20 (I have nothing to say about the Adventure Packs because I don't have them at this point). This means that in addition to paying $70 for the base package, you need to spend at least $40 extra at retail in order to get the best experience, which can sound ridiculous to any older player.

On top of this, as I've stated in the title, this game takes many an opportunity to advertise these toys. For starters, part of the actual story, explained by Eon, dictates that once the Skylanders were scattered from Skylands, they shrunk in size and landed on Earth for you to find (read: spend your money on) them. To add to this, an off-hand comment made by a fairy (who unfortunately looks slightly like Chucky from Child's Play) refers to the current Skylander leaving their world and turning back into a statue (read: removing the toy from the Portal of Power to replace with another). There are even advertisements in the actual game, although these are more subtle. At points when you collect Soul Gems, which represent powers for another character, you are given the option of previewing the character its associated with (including Spyro), which is only missing a voice-over and some children to become a more blatant commercial. Adding to my previous statements on spending money, this means you have to buy the advertised character in order to actually use that power.

While spending money this way can be problematic for some people, this is actually not among my major complaints with this game. For example, although this isn't a platforming title, it seems like the type of game that would have a jump button, which it doesn't have. This often leaves some items nigh impossible to reach in higher places unless, in some cases, you give your Skylander the ability to fly. Even worse is the fact that the Portal peripheral is a tad temperamental at times. At least a few times I've had it where I was asked to place a Skylander on the Portal of Power, only for it to immediately follow up with the summoning animation, all while a figure was still placed on the Portal of Power (I've even once seen the animation flash through the symbol for every Element before coming to the correct one). These I learned to deal with as I went forward, as I eventually accepted the lack of jumping as normal.

This is more of an observation, but while I played the PS3 version of this game, it appears to have been designed with the Wii in mind. Menus are laid out as if one would have to point with the Wiimote, some commands are replacements for shaking the controller (in fact one tip against a particular enemy is "shake to escape"), and quite possibly the aforementioned lack of a jump button. Again, this isn't a complaint so much as mere observation.

Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure is a unique approach to the Spyro franchise and to gaming in general. Save for the Portal of Power at some points, everything is solidly constructed and gives a worthwhile experience to its demographic in addition to existing fans of the series. This game is a perfect gift for any child since they will quite easily have the most fun with this title. Although paying for the physical DLC can be a problem for some, I actually enjoy the unique aspect of this gimmick and I plan to invest in more figures in the future so I may complete my experience.

I apologize for this review being late, as I received it as a Christmas present.