Sunday, April 29, 2012

Second Opinion - Thor

In prep for seeing the upcoming Avengers film, I have been re-watching the prequels in the order of their release: IRON MAN, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, IRON MAN 2 and most recently THOR (Previously reviewed on this blog here).

My first viewing was marred by a dark presentation in what was supposed to be one of Hollywood’s best places to see a movie: The Cinerama Dome. I don’t remember what version of 3D it was, only that the Dome must have been in a thrift mood, since they didn’t power up the projectors to full lumination; 3D requires a lot of light to be any good. Going in, Thor had been the Avengers prequel that I was the least excited about seeing and the poor presentation did not help change my mind about it.

Fast forward several months to watching this on 2D Blu-Ray at home. Sitting down to watch the film a second time, I still had my reservations, much like when I watched The Incredible Hulk for a second time two weeks ago. But I’m happy to report that Thor is better when you can actually see it.

That is not to say that it is a great film or even a great comic-book based film. But it does do a better job than I remembered filling in the gap between Iron Man 2 and Captain America. Chris Hemsworth is actually a better actor; taking a very self-centered and arrogant character and making him sympathetic is no easy task and while the transformation might have been a bit quick, by the end you do find yourself rooting for Thor. And I’ll admit I liked Natalie Portman’s character a little better the second time as well.

That said, there are some things that don’t improve when you can really see things clearly. Asgard, for one, doesn’t look the least bit like a place anyone would live in. I know it’s a fictional locale, but even then, it should look like a believable place, rather than a production designer’s conception.

And there are some muddy plot points that even the sun couldn’t make clearer. I don’t think the film really does a good job explaining what happened to Odin (Anthony Hopkins). He falls into Odinsleep, but why I’m not sure, even after a second viewing. Maybe things were just too much for him, but isn’t that what fainting’s for? It kind of makes the all-powerful Odin come across like a hot house orchid.

Also, when Thor’s friends, the Warrior’s Three and Sif, come to Earth, they have no problems finding him. I know that’s not the point of the film, but it just seemed too easy. I don’t know about you, but if I’ve never been someplace before, finding your way around can be difficult, let alone finding one person out of seven billion. Where were these guys when we were looking for Osama Bin Laden? And Thor’s gal pal Sif doesn’t seem to be the least bit jealous of his infatuation with earthling Jane Foster (Portman). Not even a whiff. She’s been hanging out with this brute all her life and she loses him to some “strange” without any emotion. Maybe things are different on Asgard.

The film Thor also introduces a new character to the Marvel movie universe, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), but if you blink you might miss him. Iron Man 2 did a better job introducing the Black Widow character, though she is not referred to as such in the film. In Thor, you see an archer with a couple lines of dialogue. I had to admit I didn’t remember him from my first viewing at all.

The point of Thor was to get from Iron Man to Captain America and introduce Thor and his villainous step-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as well as Hawkeye along the way. These things it does and it serves its purpose as a tweener film. It is a must see, if only for that. And if you do have the Blu-Ray, be sure to watch the special feature: The Consultant. It is worth the price of admission.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Devil May Cry 4 - A New Protagonist Breathes New Life

To help bring my Devil May Cry (DMC) coverage to a close, I'll now look at the most recent release in the series, Devil May Cry 4. This 2008 release is not only one of the PlayStation 3's first games and the first multi-platform Devil May Cry game, but also happens to be the first game I had ever played in the series. While I'll admit that that's an odd thing to do, it did end up getting me interested in the rest of the franchise, so I think that playing this as one of my first M-Rated games was a pretty good decision in the long run. I've beaten this game several times already between two PS3's, and I think at least once on PC, and beating it again was something that I was more than willing to do for the sake of reviewing it.

As it turns out, introducing a controllable protagonist beyond Dante can bring new gameplay possibilities and story opportunities. In this case, we have another demon hunter named Nero, a man who is a member of a religious cult who worships Sparda as a god and their savior. While he doesn't really buy into the whole thing, the sudden appearance of Dante spins his life out of control, as he and his girlfriend Kyrie get involved in something much bigger than they are. As the player controls him, not only do they get to see a well-written and well-paced tale unfold (mostly) from his end, but they get to wield powers beyond their wildest dreams.

Nero is very awesome to control. His demonic arm introduces a cool new mechanic to the table called the Devil Bringer, which has the power to close the gap between the hunter and the hunted. This fascinating mechanic not only makes it harder to go back and replay previous DMC titles, it increases the thrill of the hunt by reducing the amount of time it would have normally taken to run after an enemy knocked quite a distance away, in turn increasing the ability to keep the Style Gauge building up longer. This single mechanic made just about every second of combat with Nero exciting, especially when powered up, and the fact that it also has a combat application beyond that with individual animations for every single enemy while in either a normal or Devil Triggered state got me seeking every opportunity I could just to see what new thing it could do.

Of course, having one arm dedicated to the Devil Bringer does limit the amount of weapons that Nero can wield, but this does not prove to be a problem for a second. His gun Blue Rose, a gun engineered by him to be able to fire two shots nearly simultaneously, proves to be effective as slowing enemies down as well as continuing a mid-air juggle. The other weapon of his, the sword Red Queen, is also very effective in combat and is capable of dishing out major hurt on demons. It utilizes a special game mechanic where Nero can rev it up to put it in an Exceed state up to three times to increase its damage output and allow well-animated flames to make it even more stylish in motion, accompanied by a cool animation on the appropriate gauge. Having only three weapons really streamlines the combat and brings beautiful and artful simplicity into the franchise to make it much more enjoyable than it ever was before.

The enemies are uniquely and impressively designed and all require a specific strategy to defeat, fitting the tone of the stages perfectly and providing a good challenge that forces the player to put variety into their moves to stay alive. Thankfully the difficulty on the default setting isn't completely soul crushing and allows the player to ease better into the harder stuff. This extends to the bosses, who require a bit of skill to take down, though not completely in the realm of impossible. A couple of them however are more difficult than all the others, though it feels satisfying to eliminate them nonetheless.

While I do praise the introduction of Nero to the franchise, that doesn't mean I've forgotten about the demon hunter Dante. Switching to him about  midway through the game is both a surprise and an inevitable event, but the game proves that he hasn't stopped being awesome. His arsenal is very expansive and much more individualized, with cool weapons like Pandora, which uses a unique Disaster Gauge mechanic, and Lucifer to provide new opportunity to mix up your strategy as well as suit any play style. The Styles introduced in DMC3 return, but now use the oft-empty d-pad to switch between them on the fly, making it even easier to enjoy all of his cool abilities.

The downside to being Dante however is that the time the player spends with him is used merely to backtrack through all of Nero's levels in reverse order and fight almost all of the bosses a second time. This means that once you finally get through Mission 19 when you switch back to being Nero, you'll have fought every single boss three times already. This gets boring after a while and I couldn't help but wish that they might have used Dante's time better by expanding on the world. Wielding his powers however almost makes up for this loss, but I was still a little disappointed in the end by the lack of expansion.

I do also praise the story for being able to establish Nero and his relationship with Kyrie while also making him and the other numerous new characters appropriately likable or badass. While I might have liked to see more of the world, I am satisfied by what I did and I love how the many differing personalities clash at certain points. One particular stand-out example is when, later in the game, Dante confronts the equally hammy Agnus in a battle for supremacy before they get to the actual fisticuffs.

Level design is done very well, though Mission 19 can become an exercise in frustration thanks to the large amount of dice-rolling required to advance properly to the next fight. I liked the architecture and how it matched the setting it was in, as well as the variety in locales and how they made finding the numerous secrets actually kinda fun. The physics are good and the graphics still impress me, especially how it makes Dante's already beautiful women even better to look at, as well as the lighting and high quality voice acting. I also like the soundtrack (I even own a three-disk copy) and the electric guitars blaring during the fights in a way that pumps you up, including the themes that match the bosses and characters perfectly by highlighting something about them, be it their setting or personality.

On the technical side of things, my only major dislike is the 20-minute install required for the PS3 version, which takes up 4.7 Gigabytes on the system. While this does shorten the length of the loading screens in comparison to the 360 version, it does bog down the initial excitement that comes with wanting to play the game. It's very fortunate then that the game itself is very well worth the wait.

All in all, Devil May Cry 4 is a fantastic entry into the series and I'm very glad I played it. The balanced nature of the combat and levels, combined with some of the best music and visuals, helps Nero's story to stand out well and elevate him to a status comparable to Dante. I've already beaten it numerous times and I'd be happy to do it again. If you decide to play it yourself, you'll likely be satisfied as well, even if it's your entry point into the series like it was for me.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Iron Man 2 - Could Use More Engineering

Two years after The Incredible Hulk, the next movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) would be released, known as Iron Man 2, which also serves as a direct sequel to the original Iron Man. Since I really loved the original, I felt hyped before watching it in theaters for the first time. At the same time I also remember liking it that time, but not as much as the original. After watching it again on Blu-Ray as a build-up for The Avengers, I still feel that way now.

After the events of Iron Man, the world at large is now aware that Tony Stark is Iron Man, a hero that will protect America from danger. Not all is well however, as somewhere in Russia a man named Anton Venko (Yevgeni Lazarev) is on his deathbed, telling his son Ivan (Mickey Rourke) that it should be him in that position instead. When Anton passes on, Ivan is inspired by both the Iron Man suit and leftover blueprints to create a weapon of his own. Meanwhile, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is busy convincing the government that his technology is not a weapon as they believe, but also that he is the only one in the world capable of creating it the way he did. He is also simultaneously in danger from the miniature arc reactor that's keeping him alive, since the palladium core within is poisoning his blood and he has yet to find an effective substitute. As the movie continues, he must not only worry about keeping himself alive and keeping his tech to himself, but also a nasty revenge scheme created by Ivan Venko, who is out to destroy the Stark name.

While the story was still pretty enjoyable, it didn't feel as fresh as the first entry, sometimes almost as if it's going through the motions. Even then however, it doesn't fail to deliver something exciting to the screen. Robert Downey Jr. still gives a fantastic performance that reminds me just why he was cast in the first place. He perfectly reflects the emotions that Tony is going through, even in some of the most subtle ways, especially how he handles the fact that he might actually die. This justifies the actions he takes regarding Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who still manages to give a good performance for her part, and Lt. Colonel Rhodes (Don Cheadle). While Cheadle doesn't have the same appeal as Terrence Howard when playing Rhodey, he manages to bounce off Downey Jr. pretty well when onscreen and brings a certain personality to the character that I can't really complain that much about. S.H.I.E.L.D. also has a more prominent role here than in any other MCU film, with interesting looks at Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) most of all. Scarlett Johansson, while fun to look at in a fight or standing still, seems mostly to be there for eye candy to the audience, though I would like to see where they go with such a casting decision; I am unfamiliar with what Black Widow is like in the comics, so it'll take me a while to form my opinion of her. Nick Fury on the other hand is such an enjoyable character that I wonder when they'll make a movie out of him.

The villains are another story. This time around there are two more prominent ones in Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) and Ivan Venko. Both of them want to make Stark look bad, the former even hiring the latter to help him out, though both of them want to go to different lengths to get there. Hammer in the movie is a man struggling to keep up with Stark Industries, and what we see reflects that very well in both the body movements and level of confidence in his voice. Mickey Rourke's role as Ivan however is a bit more interesting to me. Not only does he look the part of a physicist that can only exist in comics, he plays one very well too. Ivan has a legitimate grudge against the Stark family and it's interesting to see just how bloodthirsty he can be while getting closer to his ultimate goal, even backstabbing Hammer to do it. When he's Whiplash, he shows some interesting skill with his weapons, but when he's the Crimson Dynamo, it doesn't look like he needed to do very much to fill the same role. In any case, I was satisfied with Rourke playing the main villain.

One thing I really enjoyed was the action scenes. I don't want to sound like someone who only watches this sort of movie for the action, but it seems that the mixture between action and story was more imbalanced in favor of the former. It seems that Genndy Tartakovsky storyboarded the project very well, since the well-framed action impresses on all counts. The awe-inspiring visuals are all well-paced and adrenaline-filled, but that doesn't help make every fight completely satisfying. After Whiplash and an army of drones, Crimson Dynamo's fight at the end is cool to watch, but is too short and arguably very anticlimactic. When all is said and done however, I can't wait to see how Iron Man 3 will top the sequences here.

Technology and special effects are something else to consider. While the effects were spectacular, especially on the electro-whips and Tony's scientific endeavours in the second act or so, the various armor used throughout is also fun to look at and spot every detail. I especially loved the design of Tony's suit in the last half hour of the film and how War Machine was weaponized to give a distinct but realistic sort of look. The most exciting part however would be the suitcase version of the Iron Man suit, which I can never get tired of watching unfold.

The original score was also interesting to hear due to it matching up very well with what was going on, though it is a little forgettable. Licensed music on the other hand was perfectly selected and used appropriately. The songs played by the late DJ AM during the fight at Stark's home, appropriately including Robot Rock by Daft Punk, and AC/DC's Highway to Hell at the end are all perfect matches and I enjoyed every second of them, as well as AM's mixing skills.

Following up to Iron Man is something that seems a bit hard to do and the first sequel tried admirably to reach that same standard. Unfortunately, the story isn't as fresh and doesn't hold up as well, but the unique blend of humor and character development is still present and the action doesn't fail to deliver great thrills. While everything in the film basically gets an upgrade, it seems best to see this as the second movie in a planned trilogy rather than merely a sequel in order to view it better. I would still recommend a viewing, mainly because it helps to further establish the MCU and lead properly into Thor.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Ratchet & Clank (Comic) - The Loss of 1 Dimension =/= Loss of Quality

Following up from the Future Trilogy in the Ratchet & Clank series, comics publisher Wildstorm released a six-issue miniseries, simply titled Ratchet & Clank, in the years of 2010 and 2011; this was shortly before Wildstorm was swallowed by the much larger DC Comics. Since I was not familiar with the franchise at the time, I never actually picked up any of the issues, but now that I have played the games I decided to read it through the trade paperback, published by DC. I wasn't exactly sure how easily something like Ratchet & Clank could be translated into comic book form, but surely enough it does not disappoint one bit.

After saving the fabric of time and space from Dr. Nefarious, the titular Ratchet and Clank are back on the planet Veldin, working on a hover vehicle when Captain Qwark, who is now the Galactic President, arrives to inform them that planets have mysteriously gone missing. Without any idea who the culprit is, the duo suddenly find themselves in the middle of a planet jacking of Veldin, making their escape after an attack by heavily armed robots. They soon learn, after being taken prisoner, that the man behind all this is former Galactic President Artemis Zogg. It is then up to Ratchet and Clank to not only save Veldin, along with all the other stolen planets, but also find out exactly how Zogg has been stealing worlds in the first place.

The story of this miniseries, aside from the basic premise, is very much like that of a Ratchet & Clank game, thanks to writing of T.J. Fixman. Fixman not only captures the spirit and tone of the games perfectly, but he also manages to slip in the usual style of humor as well, making for some truly hilarious moments throughout the story. That is not to say there is a lack of tension in the plot, of which there is just the right amount to not completely take over and still keep you going. The dialogue is written especially well, since I could hear the main characters' voices in my head as I was reading their lines.

Speaking of which, the characters that appear in this comic are primarily from the Future Trilogy, with a couple of surprise appearances by ones from previous games, including from before said trilogy. Though Dr. Nefarious is mentioned a few times throughout the story, he never makes any sort of appearance, although fans of Mr. Zurkon can safely rejoice.

The artwork of this comic is, to put in one word, incredible, perfectly complimenting the story and capturing the style of the games while putting a unique spin on it. Adam Archer, the interior artist for all six issues, does a fantastic job with the sequential art as well as giving the right body language to the characters onscreen for the situation at hand, especially when it comes to the facial expressions. The action scenes, which can easily take up as much as two pages, are drawn spectacularly and allow you to see something new each time you look at them without going overboard on the detail. The covers of each issue, drawn by Creaturebox, display what you can expect from each part of the comic with just the right amount of energy, and while they use a different style from Archer's, they are by themselves a sight to behold.

The Ratchet & Clank comic is something I would definitely recommend to fans of the games, especially those who have just played the Future Trilogy and want something more. While the comic can be enjoyable on its own, it makes a bit more sense once you are already familiar with, or at least have some knowledge of, the characters from the games. In any case, Adam Archer and T.J. Fixman have created a perfect Ratchet & Clank story and a video game comic that is worthy enough to have in your library.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Incredible Hulk - The Credible Hulk

The second movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be 2008's The Incredible Hulk, distributed by Universal rather than Paramount like Iron Man previously. While I wasn't sure how I had felt about this movie the first time I saw it in a theater, having not remembered too much of it due to a lack of a copy on home video, my opinion changed a bit after renting it for a second round. Though I don't think it was as good as Iron Man, an inevitable comparison anyway, it was a lot better than I had remembered it being in retrospect.

Rather than spend the entire movie focused on the Hulk's origin story, the movie makes the interesting decision to show it in the opening credits, filling us in on the specifics as the movie goes on. It's actually a good move and it allows the audience to get a full story in return, which thankfully does not really require reading the comics to understand. In this case, it details Bruce Banner's (Edward Norton) attempts to rid himself of transforming into the Hulk, a struggle filled with many dead ends and hardships, while also on the run as a government fugitive trying to get away from General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt) and Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth). On a second viewing I was able to experience more of what was going on and listen to some of the more subtle dialogue that hints heavily toward the larger MCU, though most of the movie does a pretty good job at following the separate story it has. Bruce Banner is actually an interesting character in his quest to become normal again and his relationship with Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) is handled in a way that adds depth to his character. Another interesting characterization is that of the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno). Rather than make him out to be a completely unstoppable monster, he is shown to actually have emotions beyond anger that in turn make him more three-dimensional. Thunderbolt Ross and Emil Blonsky both go through their own arcs as well, but in opposite directions; Ross starts out doing whatever it takes to get Banner but then realizes the sort of monster he created in Blonsky, and Blonsky continues lusting for power until he becomes a complete abomination.

But while I did actually enjoy the story better this time, I must admit that unless you pay full attention to the dialogue, some things might come off as plot holes, such as how Banner was discovered at the University to trigger a pivotal scene. Re-watching these parts on a Blu-Ray helped me fully understand the events, so it seems that the movie requires multiple viewings to fully understand the events. On the plus side, I did have fun trying to find references to the MCU or other information about the Hulk that I had gathered from other sources.

If there's one thing to enjoy however it would be the action scenes. The destruction caused by the Hulk is impressive to watch thanks to the well used special effects that display his coordination and strength. However he does seem more vulnerable, even though he's practically bulletproof, which does help to make the big fight against Abomination at the end really memorable and more interesting to watch. Hulk's cerebral instinct and resourcefulness in combat do help make him seem much less mindless than one may think, though it is rather annoying that the military loves to waste valuable bullets even when it is proven that they simply do not work on him. Regardless, the effects also help to display a wide array of emotions in the Hulk's face, allowing the viewer to see when there is more of Bruce Banner on the surface than the monster, especially when Betty is around. I was also amazed by the attention to detail put into animating Hulk, making him seem a bit more realistic as well, though still looking like something out of a comic book.

Other aspects that pulled through rather well were the cinematography and score. The action is framed very well while capturing the speed and power of the fights as well as the more important scenes that help establish more of the characters and events, though I couldn't help but be slightly annoyed at the use of shaky cam when following the army on the ground. Thankfully however, it is more subtly used here than in other movies and did not escalate for me beyond a minor complaint. I also found the lighting fairly balanced even in the night shots. Craig Armstrong's score helped to gel well with the events onscreen and I really have nothing to complain about there.

The Incredible Hulk isn't as good a movie as Iron Man, but on its own it's pretty enjoyable and I wouldn't mind owning a copy of it someday. An interesting story with good effects help it to stand out from other blockbusters and make it more memorable, though it isn't a flick I would be willing to watch again immediately. It is however at least worth watching again to help build up to The Avengers and see how it relates to all of the other MCU movies to date, and the scene at the very end is worth sticking around for. Those who do watch it however should keep in mind that they may need to watch it second time or more, if only for the sake of the plot.

Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time

File:Ratchet & Clank Future- A Crack in Time.jpg

And now it has come to this: the ending of the Future Trilogy in the Ratchet & Clank series, A Crack in Time, released in 2009 following Quest for Booty. Unlike the last game though, this is a full game you can get at retail and not as a download, and it should be noted that this is the first Ratchet & Clank game to have PS3 Trophy support. While it isn't the last of Ratchet & Clank, this game is definitely one of the best I've seen from the series, especially in regards to the story, and I enjoyed every moment of it.

Starting off immediately after the end of Quest for Booty, there is another scene that elaborates on the origins of Clank, calling all the way back to the the very first game in the series. At that moment, the one who had abducted Clank at the end of Tools of Destruction is revealed to be none other than Dr. Nefarious, Ratchet's enemy from Up Your Arsenal, along with his butler Lawrence. After Nefarious fails an attempt to hack into Clank's brain, and losing his trust with the Zoni, Clank escapes, but is caught by Nefarious again, where he learns about the structure they are in called the Great Clock, built in the exact center of the universe (give or take fifty feet). Later, Clank meets another robot named Sigmund, Junior Caretaker to the Clock, and learns of his destiny to manage time. Meanwhile in space, Ratchet and Qwark are busy looking for Clank, when the Lombax learns of an "exile" that may help him in his quest. When he meets the exile, it turns out to be a Lombax like him, named General Alister Azimuth, who seeks to use the Great Clock to undo the fate of the Lombax race. With Ratchet's help, Azimuth not only promises the return of Clank, but also the chance for Ratchet to see his family.

The story is overall very suspenseful and awe-inspiring, having a bit of a cinematic quality to it that helps carry the events forward. There are still quite a few laughs thrown in to prevent it from becoming too serious, but in any case there are some memorable moments from the cutscenes, including bits where the characters make a small jab at story conventions, including highly ironic revenge schemes and wavy flashback effects. There are also plenty of references made to previous games in the franchise, so they might be confusing to anyone who hasn't been keeping up with the franchise from the first installment onward. Regardless, it all felt very much like a movie. A really, really good movie at that.

Familiar control schemes and gunplay elements return in this game from later installments, making it easier to pick up and play, especially for those already initiated. Among these returning elements is the new wrench mechanic introduced in the last game, and it was still interesting in the way it was integrated. However, there are a couple of new upgrade systems; there is one for special "Constructo" weapons where you can pick up mods throughout the game to customize them to your purposes; there is also a new system for your ship, in which you can collect Zoni to give it new upgrades and abilities. There is also a new gameplay element for Clank, where in during his levels you can reverse time when you hit an object, thereby repairing it, slow down time by throwing a special grenade, or recording multiple versions of yourself in order to solve puzzles. I found some of these puzzles to be quite a challenge, and at least once I started one over again once I found a much simpler solution. However, this is the good kind of challenge where you can learn from your mistakes as opposed to the soul-crushing variety.

The music of this game is simply spectacular, with each cutscene having a film-like score that helps the cinematic feel mentioned earlier. The music of the levels is also very good to listen to, and as usual is not annoying in any way while helping build up the tone of the game. The voice acting is also just as good as ever, including the voices provided to the robot characters, and like the background music is not annoying. The acting present on the central characters is deep and can be rather emotional at times, allowing you to feel whatever they are feeling as well. On that note, the performance of Dr. Nefarious in this game served to remind me exactly why he is by far my favorite Ratchet & Clank villain to date. The graphics of this game are some of the best I've have ever seen, in fact the best so far in this series alone, with special praise going to the cutscenes that help display the characters expressions during the story (again, even the robot characters are included).

I didn't actually notice any major problems with this title, aside from there being a couple times when Ratchet would inexplicably fall off of something for no apparent reason. Besides that, I can't really say anything too negative about this game. On a side note, the difficulty setting returns here from Quest for Booty, so depending on your situation you can switch it up or down at any time.

Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time is one of the best this franchise has to offer, and the cinematic qualities it brings are stunning for a game in the modern age. While this is a game I would highly recommend, it's more enjoyable once you are more familiar with the characters presented by playing all the older (console) games. Overall the Future Trilogy is a very enjoyable aspect of the Ratchet & Clank series and is not to be passed up, most especially if you are already a fan. When I return to this series, things go two-dimensional.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Ratchet & Clank Future: Quest for Booty

As time goes forward with Ratchet & Clank, so does the Future Trilogy. Following Tools of Destruction is the middle portion, Quest for Booty, released in 2008. Interestingly, this part of the trilogy is a download through PlayStation Network, at a price point of $15. This raises the question, is it worth it?

The story of the game is very simple here, taking place shortly after its predecessor. After Clank was taken away by the Zoni, Ratchet tries to find a way to track him down so he can get him back. The Lombax eventually does, through a machine created by a known pirate named Captain Darkwater. However in order to gather the parts to activate it, he must deal with a particularly persistent pirate named Rusty Pete, who's captain he defeated last time, Captain Slag. When Rusty Pete finds a way to bring his old captain back, Ratchet is forced to stop him so he can rescue Clank.

The game overall is very short, lasting only a few hours, and as a result some things are more condensed. For instance, there is a much smaller arsenal than in previous games, and since you can get ammo regularly in crates there is an absence of any sort of vendors. There are also only a few locales this time around, consisting of a couple of islands and an armada of space pirate ships. Also, the only time you actually get to use Bolts here is when you are negotiating with a smuggler that you meet in Tools of Destruction. These are actually not negatives, but rather positives since they aid the game in working with its short length.

The level design is pretty good for a game like this, though one section got particularly annoying due to it consisting of plank walking and one pirate taking what seems like a cheap shot from afar. Regardless, it was interesting to see how it allowed you to go the whole time without Clank and still be challenging. In this case the shortness of the game is probably a good thing since in a much larger game you likely wouldn't be able to do much without your robot buddy. To compensate for this, a new game mechanic is introduced where you can crouch with your wrench as if about to throw it, then extend it to latch on to special objects in the level to manipulate them with the analog stick. I found this feature rather interesting, and I wonder if this will show up in the third part of the trilogy when I get to it.

Speaking of new features, this is also the first Ratchet & Clank game to feature a difficulty setting, contrasting with all previous games where there was no option. I'm not sure whether this is a good or bad thing, though given the nature of the game this can be seen as a way to get more mileage out of your purchase.

So is it worth the money? I would say yes, since even though it is a more condensed Ratchet & Clank experience, it still manages to hit all the points of a full-length installment. The characters are enjoyable, there is still some humor thrown into the dialogue, the gunplay is really well-done, and there is a good amount of challenge in the level design. I would recommend this game to anyone who has played Tools of Destruction, and especially to ratchet & Clank fans in general. In fact I would say it's a must-play for anoyone who wants to experience the full Future Trilogy, due to it filling in story gaps and an intriguing scene at the end, seeing the return of a rather nefarious enemy.

Asura's Wrath Episode 15.5 (DLC)

As Capcom continues to release DLC for Asura's Wrath, I shall be here to review it. In a similar vein to Episode 11.5, Episode 15.5 acts as a way to explain events between episodes within the game, this time between 15 and 16. This brief review will cover my thoughts on this offering.

This episode helps to explain Yasha's defiance of Deus in the third act of the game, before Asura gets to fight him as well. Once again the player can't directly control the character, this time Yasha, but STUDIO4°C does an amazing job animating the action in a way that resembles an anime, as the game is already like in the first place. Advancing again requires precise timing of the Quick-Time Events to fill and trigger the Burst Gauge, though it's still an enjoyable way to digest new information regarding Deus' character as well as flesh out Yasha completely. My only problem however is when the dialogue between Yasha and Olga cuts itself off and the voice acting doesn't seem to have as much heart, though every other spot gets it done right.

While the offering only lasts about 10-15 minutes, including the dedicated interlude, I still had a good time and would recommend downloading this. $2 is a bargain price for DLC in any game, especially ones that contribute to the story. If you can spare that much, this content is well worth spending it on.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Devil May Cry 3: Special Edition - Kicking Ass And Taking Names

I am now at the point in my DMC coverage where I play Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening. While I don't have the original release on hand, I did play the Special Edition, which I believe will serve the same purpose here. Following the release and criticism of Devil May Cry 2, Capcom got a mostly different creative team on board to create a prequel to original Devil May Cry. The end result is a game that will easily rid anyone of whatever taste was left over from the previous installment.

Dante is younger in this installment, having just opened his shop without a name. A man named Arkham walks in one day and presents him with an invitation from his brother Vergil in the form of a demon attack. After Dante rids the shop of the demons, destroying his establishment in the process, a tower rises up from out of the ground not too far away called Temen-ni-gru. He senses Vergil's presence on the tower, accepting it as a challenge to battle. As the story goes on, he realizes that he's in for more than he realized, with plenty of suspenseful twists and intriguing characters to shape all of the events within the tower.

I really enjoyed the story, since it helped to clearly flesh out Dante's character while defining the world as well. It helps that the characters introduced are all interesting and the events are all coherent enough that anyone can follow without having to piece everything together. I enjoyed Dante's cocky and arrogant personality, which not only delivered great funny lines, but also gave a good starting point for his overarching character development over the course of his life. Vergil also serves as an intriguing polar opposite to Dante, putting more thought into his actions and believing in a true warrior spirit that does not allow for the kind of behavior enacted by his twin. The new female character, Lady, is also a good source of character development in a way that shows how important she actually is to the plot and the growth of Dante as a person. Arkham is a mysterious man with an agenda of his own and Jester proves to be an odd yet strangely enjoyable character to watch. Overall, I found it fun to see these differing personalities breath strong life into the game through the cutscenes.

Dante's controls in this game are a bit more complicated than they were before. While the setup is similar to the second game, the purpose of the circle button is now reserved for a brand new gameplay mechanic that allows Dante to perform special moves based on what combat style the player chose. There are a total of six different styles that can be chosen, including the Trickster, Gunslinger, Swordmaster, and Royal Guard styles; Trickster allows access to more evasion abilities, Gunslinger powers up his guns, Swordmaster increases his prowess with a bladed weapon, and Royal Guard emphasizes defense above all else. While I did end up using Trickster most often in my playthrough, the multiple styles increases the replay value of the game by encouraging experimentation with different ways of clearing each mission by finding the most effective one.

The number of weapons in this game is also impressive, especially considering that each and every one handles differently. Choosing the right combination of weapons is also fun, although I did eventually settle on what I thought to be the most effective. The upgrade system for the weapons is also improved upon, as now every weapon can be augmented with brand new moves that increase their effectiveness rather than simply increasing their damage, with the guns also getting their rate of fire improved as well. Since helpful items can be bought as well, and will sometimes be required, I sometimes found myself trying to figure out exactly how I wanted to prioritize my red orb spending.

I also liked how the architecture and enemies were designed. Everything stands out from each other and there is a much better balance of color with the palette used, especially when multiple things were onscreen at once. Enemies look a little intimidating in places and they look appropriately hellish without sacrificing uniqueness. The environments, though mostly within a single tower, do a really good job of feeling different from each other and all seem to have their own personality, including one mission with an organic feel. The effects were also impressive in helping to convey a sense of power or speed as created from the appropriate source, including Dante having a blur whenever he performs the Stinger attack with his iconic Rebellion sword. At times however, when a certain level of effects and enemies are in one spot, the game will lag during a kill.

The music is another thing that sees vast improvement, with an appropriate level of heavy metal during the action and an impressive score that highlights certain scenes or missions expertly.

Two major additions to the Special Edition from the regular version are the ability to play as Vergil as well as access a rather enjoyable Bloody Palace survival mode with 9999 floors. Playing as Dante's twin presents an interesting challenge during play; since Vergil refuses to use guns, he focuses exclusively on using swords and hand-to-hand combat. The fire button makes special glowing swords materialize and fire, an ability which can be upgraded in a similar fashion to the other guns of the game. His arsenal otherwise is limited to the Yamato, Force Edge, and Beowulf weapons. While all three are fun to play with, the lack of options is thankfully almost completely remedied by having more upgrade depth than Dante's.

However, I am a little disappointed in the fact that, while fun to play as, Vergil's campaign is literally his brother's minus most of the cutscenes. Even the bosses are the same, though they recolor Vergil's coat red in an attempt to pass him off as representing Dante. It seems that since he also has a major side in the campaign separate from what's already available, there was a missed opportunity to tell more of that side. Then again, I suppose that trying this may not have turned out that well, so I'm satisfied anyway with what I have, though I'll admit that replaying every mission in the campaign gets a little tiring. Perhaps it is best that the game isn't played in a marathon with both characters.

Devil May Cry 3 is a really great return to form for the series and a fitting way of expanding upon previously established gameplay. The story and characters are all enjoyable and the graphics still surprisingly hold up from its original 2005 release (the Special Edition was released in 2006). I would whole-heartedly recommend Devil May Cry 3: Special Edition to any fan of action games, as this title represents a level of commitment on par with the original Devil May Cry to create a memorable experience worthy of anyone's time.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Iron Man - An Awesome Start

To help build up to Marvel Studios' upcoming movie The Avengers, we here at the blog will be re-watching each and every film made before it and reviewing them if they haven't been already or, if they have, they will be given a second opinion. We begin of course with the first Iron Man movie from the studio, which also happens to be their first ever independent production. Iron Man was released in 2008 to massive critical acclaim, acclaim which I myself agree with.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a playboy millionaire and prodigy that has inherited Stark Industries, a defense contractor, from his father. After showing off a new weapon called the Jericho missile to the military in Afghanistan, including his friend Colonel James Rhodes (Terrence Howard), he is captured by a terrorist group known as the Ten Rings. After having his life saved by Dr. Yinsen (Shaun Toub) thanks to an electromagnet that will prevent deadly barbs from reaching his heart, he is forced to build a Jericho out of parts from the Stark Industries weapons that they have on hand. Instead, he builds a suit that will aid in his escape, using a miniature arc reactor, which replaces the car battery powering his electromagnet, as a power source. When he escapes, he sets forth on a goal to use his company to aid his country in a way that doesn't involve weapons manufacturing, perfecting his suit as a way to accomplish this.

Personally I haven't actually read any of the Iron Man comics, but I'm glad that it isn't required reading. The story is very well written, using a near-perfect blend of action, comedy and drama that not only keeps the movie fresh throughout, but manages to keep audience interest up as well while also telling a tale that stands out perfectly well from the comic book rack. Robert Downey Jr.'s performance as Tony Stark is the highlight of the cast, coming off as an easy-going man who manages to keep a sense of humor in his character even after feeling an epiphany that fulfills his fantastic character development. Terrence Howard is also a good match for Colonel Rhodes with great precision in serving as a personality to bounce off of Tony, much like Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts in a role that shows her ability to play a love interest who isn't just a flat archetype. What gets special mention as well is Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane, whose role in the movie is played out so well that certain plot twists, which I will not divulge, are actually rather unexpected the first time around. In a nutshell, I'm glad that the characters are very three-dimensional and have a presence that contributes in all the right ways to suit an equally three-dimensional story.

Spectacular performances also give way to spectacular action sequences which easily have the power to grant viewers an adrenaline rush of excitement and awe, aided in part by the amazing CG that is so seamlessly blended in with the events that every one of these sequences has a new level of wonder and depth that few others can match. I also loved how the technology was designed, especially Stark's iconic red and yellow suit, as well as the fact that they were placed in a context that helped the whole thing feel more realistic, though also somewhat in a way that feels like a comic book come to life (in a good way).

Music was also a great aspect of the movie as well. The use of music by bands like Black Sabbath and AC/DC coupled with a well-utilized original score did wonders with setting up the tone of each scene and following through in a way that it doesn't quit, even during the end credits. It's emotional in a way that doesn't feel forced and it is also mixed perfectly with all the other sounds and dialogue.

What really make the whole experience especially worth it is a very special scene after the credits. It plants the first seeds of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a connected entity and even manages to be a great treat for those who wisely stuck around the first time.

For its first independent production, Marvel Studios managed to produce what is now one of my favorite films of all time thus far. It's great blend of story elements creates a movie that, when coupled with what is simply a visual feast, is highly memorable and enjoyable. I have no idea how many times I've seen this movie already, but each and every time I walk away satisfied and glad to have seen it. I highly recommend everyone to see it for an opportunity to see a comic book movie that is simply beyond the realm of "good".

Monday, April 2, 2012

Devil May Cry 2 - This Devil Cries In The Corner

Continuing my coverage of the DMC franchise has led me to Devil May Cry 2, the first sequel in the series, released in 2003 for the PS2. After the success of Devil May Cry, Capcom decided to make another, but this time without the input of the original director, Hideki Kamiya, or Team Little Devils. In an attempt to make a game that would respond to every criticism with the first game, as well as add new ideas to hopefully make it even better, they had instead managed to create what remains the undisputed worst game in the franchise.

The story in this installment begins with a woman named Lucia being attacked by demons while trying to obtain a mysterious item. After Dante rescues her, he follows her to Dumary Island, where he meets her mother, Matier. There he learns about a man named Arius, a corrupt businessman who wishes to gather objects called the Arcana to resurrect a great evil named Argosax, considered one of the strongest demons in all of hell. As the story goes on, I couldn't help but notice it take many cues from its predecessor, including plot twists that were probably meant to be shocking but instead left me with a rather blank expression forged from recognition on account of the first game. Granted I had already played this game before, but since I had forgotten a lot of it I should probably have been more surprised than I really was. On the other hand, not remembering a lot of this game until injecting it into my PS2 again is maybe a bad sign. In any case, the story seemed to have more meat in it than Devil May Cry, yet at the same time it was very weak and felt more anorexic with time. I really wish they could have expanded it further or been a tad more original to help it stand out.

Also disappointing are the character portrayals. Dante is no longer a wise-cracking badass, opting to be more of the stoic and silent type instead. This I felt took away from his character rather than add to it, since even though he still has his own moments of badassery here, the absence of his virtually trademark personality and one-liners left me wanting more out of him. Lucia felt like kind of an interesting addition to the universe, but her origin held me back a little from fully embracing her. There isn't really much to say about Matier, but Arius felt more like a cardboard villain due to the fact that we are given no insight into his motivations for trying to bring forth Argosax. Mundus at least had the motive of wanting to get revenge against Sparda by going after Dante, but the villain here is more generic than anything and seems to just be there to round out the basic requirements of the cast. What may not have helped for any one of these characters is the voice acting; it's great for Dante, but if Lucia or Arius talk, though it hardly ever happens, they can't seem to fully decide which accent they are using. I also couldn't help but laugh later at one particular line from our villain, which is so hammy you can't help but do so.

The graphics are, to put it bluntly, unimpressive. Environments are much bigger than before, but almost every inch of the locations looks the same, as well as more low-res, and I just couldn't dig it as much as the Gothic architecture and sometimes organic locales of Devil May Cry. While making the environments bigger is perhaps a technical feat, traversing them is a pain since it takes forever to go from Point A to Point B even if you're dodge rolling the whole way. This problem unfortunately translates to the character models, which look pretty decent unless it is an enemy. Enemy design is a variable mix of interesting, impressive, or completely uninspired, and I wish that it didn't take as many tactics to beat them as I ended up needing, which was exactly one.

Combat is another thing here that doesn't help my opinion of the game. The controls feel a little more natural by following more conventions set by other PS2 games, though admittedly it is a little difficult adjusting to it at first after what you have to go by in the original. This translates well into using square to shoot and triangle to swing your blade, but the translation gets lost in the heat of an encounter. Problems arise first of all with setting up combos due to the guns firing in bursts of three instead of perpetually, which makes setting up combos extremely difficult, not helped at all when your enemies can go down pretty quickly. The game seems to try to make up for this by spawning more for what seems like forever, making every fight more infuriating than fun. In my playthrough though I didn't need to worry about setting up complex combos because the game can actually be gotten through with only one singular all-encompassing tactic: Just pound square!

I'm not joking when I say that I literally made my way through both campaigns without swinging my sword even once, except of course to break objects for more red orbs. This also works on the bosses, where all I really needed to do was mash the fire button to death (it's faster than simply holding it) while dodging the easily avoidable attacks. The bad design is furthered by the AI, which is so idiotic that they require little to no strategy to get around, and sometimes when you're at a specific range they'll do absolutely nothing about it and essentially drop the victory in your lap, even the final boss. If you also have a pretty good Devil Trigger gauge, you could easily beat some of the weaker bosses in mere seconds, and those with more resilience will be able to repeatedly give you more Devil Trigger guaranteed. Aside from Argosax and Arius, as well as a surprise cameo from Phantom, none of the bosses are particularly memorable and seemed to just be there to fill up space and pad the length of the game.

Dante and Lucia both seem to have a distinct lack of weapons in this installment compared to the first, with only three Guns or four "Arsenal" and maybe three swords each. What's even more disappointing about the blades in particular is that they are all functionally identical. Nothing helps them stand out from each other since you need to uneventfully locate them physically in the levels, making it possible to completely miss the opportunity to try to wield something different. You can actually upgrade them, but all it does is change their damage modifier, which doesn't really help if all you need to do is upgrade the basic gun or throwing knife to make the game go by even faster.

My two biggest complaints however are the length and difficulty. I've already talked about how the fire button will help you breeze past even the Normal mode, but I haven't mentioned yet that the game is also unfortunately short. If literally all you did was do nothing but play Devil May Cry 2 one day, you'd probably beat both discs, especially from the fact that Lucia's campaign has less missions than Dante's. Since her missions are also basically Dante's but with minor variation, it just makes playing through the whole thing even less fun in the long run.

On a lesser note, I had some mixed feelings about the music. At times it sounded okay, but when heard by itself, the guitar riffs sound very muddy and incomprehensible. The rest of the score though was pretty decent.

Overall, Devil May Cry 2 is a very average game. I'll admit that it did have some interesting ideas and concepts, but they weren't fleshed out very well and the design seemed to take more steps back than ahead. Compared to the first game it's a colossal disappointment, but on its own merits it's just an average title. Only think about playing it if you really feel like your Devil May Cry experience would be incomplete without it, but otherwise this chore of a game is best skipped.