Thursday, January 31, 2013

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots - This is Good, Isn't it?

Since the faraway days of 1987, the Metal Gear franchise, created by Hideo Kojima, has been able to stand the test of time as it continues to become more and more relevant to the modern gamer. The first real exposure a lot of people had came in 1998, with Metal Gear Solid, a PlayStation title that has since been regarded as a true classic of video gaming and, thanks to its text recaps of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, a true testament for the ability to tell a really gripping story with memorable scenes and characters that reverberate to the present day. The saga would not end there of course, with the arrival of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty in 2001. It introduced a new character of questionable quality as well as a host of new questions for the series that mostly revolve around either the Patriots or just what the hell was going on in that ending, while also taking the series to new heights by creating the first postmodern game. To help ease the confusion, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was given life in 2003 and took place before every other game in the series, making it chronologically the first game in the series. The story for this entry took place in the final years of the Cold War and centered around Naked Snake and his eventual rise to the rank of Big Boss. It also attempted to answer some lingering questions, bringing some incomplete closure and sense to revelations from Sons of Liberty. Each entry in the Metal Gear Solid portion of the story line has managed to keep up with the standard set by the original game, occasionally even surpassing it in terms of both gameplay and story.

This brings us to the year 2008, the release of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Hideo Kojima was once again roped into doing another Metal Gear game, despite his subtle, sometimes more blatant, hints in previous games that would indicate exactly how he felt about the idea (hint: he really doesn't want to). While another director was to handle the game, very vocally negative fan reaction, to the point of death threats, would get Konami to force Kojima into the role of co-director and influence how it would play out. The end result is a game that manages to not only bring a sense of finality to the events of the series, but also stand on its own as a masterpiece of storytelling and an example of how video games can be a form of art.

It is the year 2014, nine years after the Shadow Moses incident and five since the Big Shell incident. The world has since plunged into an economy fueled purely by war, its war zones controlled by private military groups (PMCs) fighting proxy wars for the highest bidder. Soldiers are connected to the Sons of the Patriots (SOP) network, which can grant them superior skills and abilities through the use of nanomachines, making the PMCs the pinnacle of military training and efficiency. To top it off, Liquid Ocelot, Revolver Ocelot possessed by the spirit of Liquid Snake, wishes to hijack the system for his own purposes and take over the world through military might. For this reason, Solid Snake, who is now rapidly aging and living with Otacon and Sunny Gurlukovich, is brought out of retirement by Roy Campbell to terminate Liquid once and for all. With assistance from Otacon and Sunny, Snake is dropped into the Middle East to begin his mission, where he eventually runs into a group known as the Beauty and the Beast (B&B) Unit. Witnessing their abilities firsthand, Snake quickly figures out that the mission won't be as easy as they had first assumed.

Solid Snake (aka "Old Snake") as he appears in Guns of the Patriots

If there's one thing I absolutely love about Guns of the Patriots, it would be its ability to tell a story. I know I already brought it up a couple of times in the introduction, but it bears repeating. While Snake Eater was able to answer at least a couple of questions about the series, mainly regarding the Patriots, Guns of the Patriots goes out of its way to be ambitious and answer every single lingering question that the player may have about the series overall. This includes the identity of the Patriots, why the ending of Sons of Liberty happened and what the Patriots' goals were among others that you may or may not have thought about until you heard an explanation about it. It may be mildly apparent that Hideo Kojima really wants the series to end as events unfold and the story is noticeably darker and more depressing in tonality this time around, but that doesn't prevent it from having some of the funniest and most awesome moments in the entire series, perhaps arguably  in all of gaming. There are also plenty of tear jerking moments, which are pulled off with such poignancy and grace that you not only care for the characters involved, but are genuinely sad to see any of them go.

That said, it should be noted that due to how much is put into a single story, as well as explaining away the ending of Sons of Liberty, this game has around nine hours of cut scenes. Even for a Metal Gear game, this seems like a gratuitous amount of cut scenes. Sometimes I would actually get tired from seeing particularly long strings of them, especially in the second or third act (of five), so I would actually press the PS button to pause it (thank god you can do that) and then grab a Diet Coke to keep me awake or take a quick nap and then press the PS button again to resume. It is because of the sheer length of these scenes that the game has earned the nickname "Movie Gear Solid," but after a while I actually didn't care how long they got thanks to how brilliantly executed they can be pulled off and for the fact that as it gets closer to the end game, the cut scenes actually get more and more interesting. The political commentary is still very much present, but they also go out of their way to have certain characters discuss the state of the world as well as the main theme of Sense, which is the unique sense a person has about the world around them and how it's lost when they die, such as their primary goals becoming distorted or misinterpreted over time. I enjoyed these discussions, as they fleshed out the Metal Gear universe in a more in-depth fashion and actually made them intriguing to listen to.

The Beauty and the Beast Unit (from left to right): Laughing Octopus,
Screaming Mantis, Raging Raven, Crying Wolf

Another thing that Guns of The Patriots manages to do really well is make every single (named) character memorable. This is quite a feat, considering that it manages to bring back every single character that it possibly can from each of the previous games and have them all interact in some significant way with the core cast while at the same time introducing new, equally memorable characters like Sunny Gurlucovich and Drebin. The biggest praise I can give the new batch however would go to the villains, namely the previously mentioned B&B Unit (seen above), a group of four women who have all suffered from serious trauma in their lives and eventually decided they were more useful on the battlefield, adopting metallic beast shells to become machines of war.

While I have discussed boss battles in the Metal Gear series before, I'm going to try to take a more condensed approach this time compared to my separated discussions of the Cobra Unit from Snake Eater. The reason I'd like to talk about these bosses in the first place however is because they all manage to have something about them that makes them stand out from most other game bosses.

To begin, what's remarkable about this group is that they all require a unique strategy to take down and the fights are designed in a way that actually introduces a sense of tension to the fight. They will definitely get your blood running and the gears in your mind to spin quickly as you try to figure out the next best thing to do. The first of these fights, against Laughing Octopus, is genuinely creepy, with a certain atmosphere that can actually make you jump a little as you try to locate exactly where she is within an enclosed space, all the while listening to her laughter create a haunting chill in the air. The next, Raging Raven, is more in the open, but it requires a lot of shooting and hiding as she flies around a building, protected by unmanned drones. Crying Wolf is different, in that she fills the role of the team's sniper, but with the twist that she is constantly roaming around the battlefield, making one careful of their surroundings (unless you hide under a nearby truck and turn it into a waiting game). Then there's Screaming Mantis, who has one of the most unique boss fights ever thanks to it being similar to the legendary Psycho Mantis fight. That's all I'm going to say about this, since discussing it further would take away all of the fun of this particular encounter.

Then there's the big bad, Liquid Ocelot. He is by far one of the greatest villains in all of gaming, pulling off a grand and complex scheme smoothly and constantly holding the upper hand over his enemies in a way that is well-written with a rather unexpected payoff. Both of the fights the player has against him are incredibly satisfying, the first being forged of a blend of awesome and badass and the second also containing a hint of nostalgia. With someone as unique as Ocelot, his character arc is wrapped up in a way that feels like they did the character justice.

Liquid Ocelot
At this point, I think it would be a good idea to discuss the new gameplay mechanics. The first noticeable difference is a brand new camera system, one that is closer to Snake and fully controllable by the player. While I was able to get by pretty well in Snake Eater with the older camera system, I'll admit that the new system would have made it more convenient, so I'm glad that they were able to implement it here. It's very useful for seeing around the environment, which is given much more emphasis across the incredibly detailed levels. As a result, aiming now feels a bit more fluid and precise with more guarantee of a hit. This is helped by the new shooting controls, which make firing a gun more convenient, especially in First-Person view.

The Camouflage system has also been greatly improved thanks to the new OctoCamo suit that Snake wears, which blends in with his surroundings automatically to reduce the time it takes to switch between different camo patterns. There are also a few more tweaks that make the Camo Index more interesting, including environmental factors and the addition of FaceCamo to blend in even better than mere face paint. Other additions like a "threat ring" that appears around Snake when crouching, as well as the ability to move while crouching, make it all the more satisfying to sneak past groups of enemies undetected.

OctoCamo in action

The item and weapons systems are also handled a little differently. You can only hold a certain number of each at a time, which, while annoying at first, begins to make a lot more sense when considering the sheer number of types of each of them, as well as how weight can affect Snake's running speed and how quickly he gets tired. Usually, I was able to set a certain loadout of weapons and go through the game just fine, with an occasional need to swap around. While ammo can be found in the environment, it is possible to buy more at will from the character Drebin using Drebin Points gained from finding duplicate weapons or accomplishing certain tasks. While this does make finding ammo less of an issue, I don't think this cheapens the game at all, since stealth is still a large necessity and getting caught could easily be a death sentence no matter what difficulty you're playing on. The number of guns one can use is interesting, depending on whether or not they are attempting a pacifist run like I did, but I can almost guarantee that you won't be using all of them; it's just a matter of preference. You can also couple your actions with some CQC, though I didn't end up using it that often if only due to how much I generally suck at it.

While there are many different items as well, one of the most useful is the Solid Eye that Snake is given to wear, which can read the environment for noise and enemies as well as scan them to reveal all kinds of information that may or may not be useful to you. If that wasn't enough, it also has two extra modes where it acts as Night Vision or Thermal goggles, which makes it most handy indeed. Its only disadvantage would be that it runs on batteries, which would require deactivating it for a while to recharge it. The other useful item is the, somehow very adorable, Metal Gear Mk. II, which can store some of your items (somehow) and provide access to the Codec screen. On that note, I think the Codec in Guns of the Patriots is my favorite of the series, since conversations are conducted using full video rather than static images, creating a more engaging atmosphere.

Metal Gear Mk. II
One other change to gameplay is replacing the Stamina gauge with a Psyche gauge. The Psyche gauge will decrease under stress, which is displayed underneath, and from certain attacks. The gauge also determines how quickly Snake gains his health back, but this time both gauges will automatically restore themselves as Snake's stress level goes down, which is accomplished by going away from combat into an area where he feels safe (thank you cardboard box). These are changes that I appreciated, as it made regaining health outside of Rations and Noodles less tedious to perform.

A major change to the game would definitely be the graphics. Thanks to the technology of the PS3, and the fact that Guns of the Patriots is the first game to use a 50 GB Dual Layer Blu-ray, everything looks much more improved with an incredible amount of detail. This is used to the game's advantage to help each of the unique environments stand out even more and create an experience that is much more immersive. Characters also look much more realistic, which fits the setting quite nicely, and the lighting actually contributes to such elements as how the OctoCamo operates and a true difference between day and night.

The voice acting is another aspect that I would highly praise. Everyone delivers an excellent performance, particularly David Hayter as Solid Snake and Patrick Zimmerman as Liquid Ocelot. These two in particular display incredible talent, though I don't mean to detract from the other voice actors; they help make this game one of the best casted in the entire medium. One surprise however was Fred Tatasciore, who voices the Beast forms of the B&B Unit marvelously. Also praise-worthy is the music, which is scored not unlike a really good movie and not only matches the events perfectly, but also puts a unique spin on some pieces from the previous installments. Overall it is one of the highest quality scores ever and I'd like to try and get it on CD if possible.

Before I end this review, I'd like to touch upon one final thing: continuity lockout. Simply put, whatever you do, try not to make this your first Metal Gear game, for it would be a grave error on part of the player. If you try to jump in here, you will not understand what's going on at all, for it makes so many references to previous games that only a fan that's been following the series would really get them. If this isn't going to stop you from trying to jump in, because you don't have a PS1 or PS2 in your possession, I'd like to present a couple of options (all of them will require owning a Sony handheld to play Portable Ops, though it isn't required to understand the events of Guns of the Patriots). 1) Own a PS1 and PS2 and play original copies of Metal Gear Solid 1-3 on their respective systems. 2) Play the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection for Sons of Liberty and Snake Eater and download Metal Gear Solid off PSN. 3) Skip trying to play the aforementioned games and, if you care not for spoilers, download the free Metal Gear Solid 4 Database, which contains all the information you could possibly need about the series (though it may not be totally perfect). Try and read it as in-depth as you possibly can, then play Guns of the Patriots. It's much better to have prior knowledge going in (you really can't just say "Solid Snake," "Giant robots" and "Cardboard box" and call it a day).

I'm serious. Read it.
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is, in my opinion, one of the best video games ever created. It manages to wrap up every loose end of the series, have compelling characters and scenes and even make you think about human nature. While the gameplay may not be perfect, I feel it to be the best in the series, maybe in its entire genre. Some may be turned off by the nine hours of cut scenes, but they feel very necessary for the story to work (besides, it's not like the series is a stranger to long chains of cut scenes). Fans of the series will definitely love Guns of the Patriots and the way the game is now is the perfect opportunity for those fans to begin playing if they haven't already. Newcomers may try to make this their first game, but I would strongly encourage them to follow one of my suggestions from the previous paragraph before trying to dive right in. On its own the game is a masterpiece and, so far, time has been very kind to it. It feels like a really good finale to a great series.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to try and get my hands on Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.

The Adventures of Sly Cooper (Comic)

As seen with other comic reviews on this blog, comics can be used as a way to add more depth to a video game series, while also providing a convenient way to promote the next game in a series by telling a story that takes place between games, which is the approach of many of the comics reviewed here. Some however, like The Darkness II: Confession, while acting as a transition point, are only available through a promotion like Free Comic Book Day or otherwise as a free give-away, like a hand-out at a convention (the aforementioned The Darkness comic was actually given away through both of these means). The comic I will be talking about here was released in a similar fashion, as a promotional item through the now-defunct GamePro magazine. Tying into the events of the Sly Cooper games, The Adventures of Sly Cooper is a 2-issue miniseries, with each issue published at different points, the first as a transition between Sly 1 and 2 and the second issue taking place between Sly 2 and 3. Due to their limited availability, these comics can go for high prices online, ranging in several 10's of dollars (you can probably find The Darkness II: Confession much easier and for a much lower price). With these comics being about as the games they were made to promote, the question here is not just whether they are good, but also whether they are still good after all this time.

The first issue of The Adventures of Sly Cooper tells one story, but is divided into 3 sections: "The Heart of a Thief", which revolves around Inspector Carmelita Fox trying to protect the statue "Venus de Whalo" as Sly Cooper and co. attempt to steal it; "The Cookie Connection", a flashback sequence to the Cooper Gang's very first heist (stealing cookies) back when they were in an orphanage; and "A Chase Down Memory Lane", where Sly and Carmelita partake in a flashback to when they first met each other. The last two parts are related to the first in that, after the gang steals the sculpture ("The Heart of a Thief"), Sly must stall for time until another boat arrives (they were a few minutes behind schedule, causing them to miss a boat to use in their getaway). On the way over to Carmelita, Sly reminisces back to his youth at the orphanage ("The Cookie Connection"), and once he reaches her, Sly stalls by having both him and Carmelita reminisce about their first meeting as they tell their own side of the story ("A Chase Down Memory Lane").

The framing device of a heist serves as a good way to tell each of the three stories presented so as to not make the book an anthology of three short stories, and the way is which this is presented helps add more depth to the Sly Cooper mythos without any form of non sequitur. The narrative also provides more backstory on the character of Dimitri, an important character in the then-upcoming Sly 2, in addition to adding depth to the relationship between Sly Cooper and Carmelita Fox.

The cover of the second issue.

The second issue of the comic follows from the aftermath of Sly 2, expanding on the first few minutes of the then-unreleased Sly 3 as Sly learns more about his family history and tries to get the gang back together. This story is also divided into chunks, this time 4, although only two of them have proper titles: The first section sees Sly breaking into prison in order to talk to a walrus named Big Jim McSweeney, his dad's old thieving partner; the second, "...And Then There Were Two!" sees Sly and Murray breaking into a hospital to get their injured pal Bentley out so they could pull a heist better; the third, "Good Looking from afar, but Far from Good Looking Up Close!" has Carmelita investigating a failed heist by Sly and Murray while a co-worker named Winthorp tries to admit his crush on her; finally, the Epilogue details the events of the following day, leading into the events of the first few minutes of Sly 3 as Carmelita prepares to take down Sly Cooper and drama occurs within the Cooper Gang.

This comic uses a similar sort of framing device to the first to connect the four stories together, which again works in its favor. It gives the comic a unique feel to it while also expanding on events brought up at the beginning of Sly 3. The execution provides a good narrative flow that makes it feel like a Sly Cooper story, telling a story divided into chapters like the game the comic is promoting.

The comic does not really make clear who the creative teams are for each issue, but whoever wrote these comics did a good job with the setting and characters. The dialogue feels natural for each character and I could imagine each characters' voices as I was reading, which, as I have said in other comic reviews, is a really good sign (except for Carmelita, whose voice changes as often as Dante's, so I had to try to settle for one as I was reading). The artwork is also very exceptional, perfectly matching the art style of the games and feeling very lively in places. The art feels very fluid and, like the games themselves, keeps a similar atmosphere to the series at those points and makes everything stand out like in the cut scenes (in fact, I've read that some of the comic panels actually were used for the cut scenes, which I wouldn't be surprised about since some images in the second issue look like they were ripped straight from the third game). One thing I noticed, however, is a coloring error that pops up a few times in the first issue where Sly's gloves are colored entirely yellow, as opposed to blue gloves with a yellow trim. Aside from that, while I can't pinpoint exact names, I thought the creative team (teams?) did a very excellent job (I wouldn't be surprised if it was Sucker Punch employees who worked on it).

Overall, The Adventures of Sly Cooper is the perfect advertisement for a Sly Cooper game. With some great writing and artwork, the comic not only provides more development for fans of the series, it's also a good way to entice newcomers to check it out. The comic might be hard to find now, but it's still worth taking a look. On a related note, Sanzaru Games did something similar to this comic to promote Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, which comes out next week, in the form of an animated short, first scattered across the 'net in three pieces and then brought together as one. The animation and voice acting (despite only having one voice) are truly amazing and I would highly recommend watching it.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Second Opinion - John Dies at the End

John Dies At The End (2013) Starring: Chase Williamson; Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman, Doug Jones, Daniel Roebuck. Directed by Don Coscarelli, Screenplay by Don Coscarelli. Based on the novel John Dies at the End, by David Wong. Produced by Brad Baruh, Don Coscarelli, Andy Meyers, Roman Perez. Run Time: 100 min. USA Color  Dark Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror 

Having never read David Wong’s novel, John Dies at the End, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I sat down to watch this movie. The film is funny, crude, crass, gross and interesting, though I can’t say I was able to follow everything that goes on.

The film reminded me of The Monkees' Head (1968), the made-for-TV pop group that tried to go legit. Not that there is anything remotely like Davy Jones running around in this, but that the film has a stream of consciousness flow to it. While the movie has a beginning, middle, and end, I can’t say that any of it is expected or conforms to a standard three-act plot.

The acting is good by the leads Chase Williamson (David Wong) and Rob Mayes (John Cheese), who make a likable pair of recent high school dropouts who find themselves thrust into a battle with an alternate universe. (And no I don’t think I’m giving away anything to do with the plot.) David is telling his story to news reporter Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti), who always looks like he’s slept in his clothes.

The world in which David and John reside has an unusual collection of fellow travelers: Dr. Albert Marconi (Clancy Brown), a Tony Robbins type motivational speaker; Robert Marley (Tai Bennett), a fortune-telling  Jamaican who will trade insight into your soul for a beer; Amy Sullivan (Fabianne Therese), David’s one handed love interest and assorted other friends, who play roles are either of little importance, Fred Chu (Jimmy Wong), or great importance, Justin White (Jonny Weston), depending on what moment it is in the script.

A lot of the action is clearly delusional, as our heroes have come under the spell of an alien drug called the sauce, which allows them to do things like making phone calls on bratwurst; talk to the dead and see the way to another dimension; one ruled by Korrok (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson). To discuss more would be to give away too much of the story.

The humor goes from being the truly inspired all the way down to dick jokes, the type of humor I’ve come to expect from the writer of the novel the movie is based on, David Wong. While I have not yet read this novel, I do know his work on the website.

For a low budget, the movie the special effects are just about right. They have a Dr. Who quality about them, which really fits the tone of the film. There really isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, but the movie is not about the special effects.

The film does sometimes get a little gross, which is not something I really enjoy. I will say that the gross scenes are surprisingly minimal and they never get to the make-you-squirm level. On the plus side, there is a little, perhaps gratuitous topless nudity, so I guess things even out.

The director, Don Coscarelli is perhaps best known for his film Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), in which Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) retired and living in an East Texas nursing home, teams up with JFK (Ossie Davis) to fight off a re-animated Egyptian mummy who is feeding off the souls of the elderly residents. Based on that film, it is easy to see what would have drawn him to this project. John Dies at the End shares the same sort of quirky unpredictable plot line.

If you’ve read David Wong’s book and enjoy the work of Don Coscarelli and have always dreamed of them teaming up, then you are certainly in luck with John Dies at the End. Otherwise, go know that you’re seeing a film that is not like anything else you’ve seen in a while. (I was gonna say this year, but we’re not even a month into it.) The film has its ups and downs, but in the end, I would say that it was better than I expected.

John Dies at the End - The Ultimate Cult Movie

Before I begin my review, there's something I would like you to consider: I am a huge fan of David Wong's literature. After reading both John Dies at the End and its sequel, This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously Dude, Don't Touch It, I consider him to be one of my favorite authors in general as well as my favorite literary author of all time. I love how his work in horror comedy can be both terrifying and laugh out loud funny, sometimes in the same breath, and I regularly read his articles on I enjoy his work so much that when I heard that Don Coscarelli would be making a movie adaptation, I got really excited at the prospect. As I have absolutely no experience with Coscarelli movies, I was also a little cautious about how it would turn out. I learned that he's good at making cult hits, or midnight movies, but I wasn't sure what that would mean for how he would adapt one of my favorite books.

Then I read an article about the movie in an issue of Rue Morgue that contained an interview with Coscarelli (the JDatE coverage was in fact the sole reason I bought that specific issue), a lot of which was detailing his decisions about the movie and how he decided to approach it along with David Wong's reactions to it. The more I read, the more confident I became about how this massive, addictive book could be reasonably translated to a 99 minute movie. This eventually lead to me viewing the movie today at the Nuart theater, my first ever exposure to a Don Coscarelli movie. As a fan of the original book, I ended up walking out of the screening incredibly satisfied by the end result.

The only place in L.A. that will show JDatE.
The basic premise behind John Dies at the End is that there are two paranormal detectives, David Wong (Chase Williamson) and John Cheese (Rob Mayes), who solve unusual cases around the town of [Undisclosed]. After a party, David is called up by John, who is acting much stranger than normal, and goes to his house. While there, David learns that his friend has a street drug known as Soy Sauce running through him, which is said to unlock the secrets of the universe. As he tries to help, he accidentally injects himself with a syringe containing some of the drug and finds it difficult to process what he's experiencing. From that point on, his life gets even more messed up than usual.

Understandably, some things had to be changed from the source book in order to make it work on the silver screen. From what I saw, they essentially took the first chunk of the book and fused it onto the ending, with some elements taken from the middle section to fill in the gaps. This movie is able to take whatever was in the book and spin it off into a new entity all on its own, which I feel actually helped it in the long run. Though there is a definite structure, that is to say a beginning, middle and end, it still retains the feeling from reading the book where it blends gore and laughs in a way that is unheard of in most movies today. Since I was already aware of some of the events beforehand, I couldn't help but feel giddy as I saw the movie come to life before me, even in places where it may seem inappropriate.

This doesn't mean I didn't feel the necessary emotions however. Even when I knew when something horrific was to go down, I still tried to brace myself for the actual event. I also found the framing device, wherein David is telling his story to reporter Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti), to have some genuinely twisty moments and an interesting way of portraying specific events. The plot also has some thought-provoking discussions on how the mind works and the way we perceive reality by posing questions we have probably never thought about before. For instance, how is it that your mind is able to align the events of a dream to coincide perfectly with those of the real world? It's truly fascinating how it is able to weave ideas of this sort into the plot to create a movie that not only entertains, but actually makes the viewer stop and think about something.

Chase Williamson as David Wong
Even though I really enjoyed the final cut of the film, I do acknowledge that the execution of the plot isn't entirely perfect. There are places where, after some truly insane actions, it can get a little slow, so the pacing isn't entirely consistent. Also, by cutting out entire subplots, there is at least one that feels like it wasn't entirely resolved and the third act of the movie could easily have been tied into the rest a little better, the threads not being entirely woven together right. I also feel that a couple of characters could have used a little more screen time, specifically Amy Sullivan (Fabianne Therese) and Dr. Marconi (Clancy Brown). Amy is the key to the light romantic element of the story, but she wasn't completely fleshed out and could have used a little more exposition. Marconi on the other hand is a funny character and is good with the supernatural portions, in which I think he should have been a little more involved. Now that I think about it, the movie doesn't entirely explain the events in a way that will make complete sense to those who have never read the book, instead opting to let the narrations provide commentary that will help the audience to fill in the blanks.

Of course I should also bring up just how much this film oozes with originality, especially since this came from the mind of the senior editor for Cracked. There are many monsters and supernatural phenomena in this movie, which all get the amount of exposition that is really necessary and could easily each have their own movie. From spider beings to the flying mustache of a ghost cop and even a man made entirely of meat, there is a lot that is presented that many other movies would only dare to dream up. Some of this originality is also present in the humor, which includes a visual gag of a door knob turning into male genitalia, as well as the gore. Granted there is significantly less gore than most modern horror movies, but what they do show (some in a special animated sequence) is rather unique, at least in where it comes from.

Then there's the special effects. Since this is, as Coscarelli would put it, an inexpensive movie, the special effects are actually pretty good for something made on such a small budget. Even when you can kind of tell it's fake, you can also tell that a lot of effort went into bringing the various monsters and such to life. In particular, there are a couple of moments of rather impressive stop motion that I think would probably have been the only way to bring certain things to life without depending on crappy CG. In a way, I feel that the movie was actually enhanced by the effects treatment and would probably have been worse off if it had a bigger budget for this.

Rob Mayes as John Cheese
As for the acting, I think they cast everyone really well. Though this is really the first time I've been aware of them, Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes gave really good performances that help bring their characters to life. They show real talent and their approach allowed David Wong and John Cheese to be either serious or funny when the time called for it. Paul Giamatti also played a good Arnie Blondestone, as the reporter has all the correct reactions down to a tee. Clancy Brown, which was kind of a surprise for me, also has a great presence in Marconi to the point where I feel like he really needed more screen time.

At the end of the day, John Dies at the End is a really great adaptation of an amazing novel. It manages to take the most essential elements of the book and become its own beast, with plenty of laughs to entertain even when it gets a little slower. While not perfect, I feel that this is an example of a successful transition from print to screen. Though I recommend to go see it, I want to stress that it really isn't for everyone (seriously, not everyone will like it). Fans of the book and/or Coscarelli movies will definitely get the most fun out of it, but it's reasonable for an outsider to have some reservations about it. For this reason I would consider this to be an instant cult classic, with its cult origins being handled by a cult director known for making cult movies. Even so, if you want to see something with a lot of originality that will actually get you thinking after the credits have rolled, try to go see this movie at least once. If you don't go to the theater to see this but someone you know offers to watch it with you down the road, say yes.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Stubs - Braveheart

Braveheart (1995) Starring Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan, Catherine McCormack. Directed by Mel Gibson. Produced by Mel Gibson, Alan Ladd. Jr., and Bruce Davey  Screenplay by Randall Wallace. Run Time: 177 minutes. U.S.  Color. Historical, Biography.

The fact that a film wins an Academy Award for best picture is not a guarantee that the film is great. A great film is one that has all the usual qualities: directing, acting, writing and production values that come together to create a film of quality, but also one that people will want to view over and over again. What films can be called great is very subjective. Scope, scale and running time do not necessarily make a film great, neither is box office an indicator.

As you can tell by the setup, that despite its winning best picture for 1995, I don’t consider Braveheart to be a great film. That is not to take away from the size and scope of the movie, on that scale this is a great, as in big, film.

Braveheart is long by any standard. Only a few minutes under three hours the run time is epic length for sure. But despite being billed as an action movie, the first hour seems to drag, which only seems to make the film seem longer.

Braveheart is long by any standard. And a little frustrating, too.

Historical films can be tricky. There are certain expectations the audience has with the genre. First we don’t want the film to assume we know too much about the subject so that events occur and we’re just supposed to know what they are without any explanation or exposition. Secondly, we want the historical events to be shown in a realistic and fascinating way. We didn’t come to the movies for history class, we came to be entertained.

I believe Braveheart unfortunately fails to really do a good job of teaching us the history it’s depicting. There appears to be an assumption that telling us a battlefield, say Falkirk, is supposed to spark a shared remembrance, say along the lines of Gettysburg. The history of Scotland is not something most Americans learn in school. And while the film is epic and a spectacle, it seems really thin on historical accuracy.

To begin with, the intricacies of Medieval Scottish politics is not something many of us have ever been exposed to and Braveheart could have done a better job explaining the players. I did get the overall “Nobility bad” message, but I will admit the nobility of England and of Scotland seemed to be mushed together and I’m not sure if that was true across the board and, if so, how could Scotland also have a king, Robert the Bruce?

There is little known about William Wallace, which presents a problem for the filmmakers. However, this film not only makes up historical events, but it also makes changes to history that don’t really make sense. The Battle of Stirling Bridge, a real battle, is fought in the film without the bridge. Wallace’s wife name isn’t Murron, but Marian, like in Robin Hood, but it was changed. In the film, the English noblemen claim the right of Prima Nocta, the hideous idea that the lord of the estate has first right to take the bride’s virginity on her wedding night, but that is something that never happened in England. And the list goes on and on.

While I usually don’t want to pick apart a historical film for its poetic license, this one really takes license to a new level. The relationship between William Wallace (Mel Gibson) and Princess Isabella of France (Sophia Marceau) is beautifully told. The Princess is stuck in a loveless, but politically astute marrage, with Prince Edward (Peter Hanly). When her lady in waiting relates to the Princess Wallace’s love for his wife Murron MacClannough (Catherine McCormack) and how he is revenging her death at the hands of an English sheriff, the princess is driven to tears.
William Wallace and Murron MacClannough in happier times.

The Princess and William meet when she is sent as an envoy of King Edward I (Patrick McGoohan) to negotiate with him. The heat between the two is noticeable and later explodes into a night of passion that ends with the Princess pregnant with Wallace’s son. 

All of this is beautifully told, but it’s really a load of BS. In reality, Princess Isabella was only 10 years old and still living in France when Wallace dies. So the subplot that runs throughout and which helps humanize Wallace, couldn’t have happened. That’s sort of a big error when the film is supposed to be historically based.

As is, the depiction of Edward II has a grain of truth to it, but while it was rumored he had affairs with men, he did in fact have five children with two separate wives. He’s not the effeminate Gibson portrays him to be. But while the film depicts King Edward throwing his son’s lover, Phillip (Stephen Billington), out a window, Piers Gaveston, the real person the character Phillip represents, survived into Edward II’s reign. Again dramatic effect shouldn’t trump history if you’re trying to be realistic.

I would blame a lot of this on the screenplay by Randall Wallace, since much of this misguided fleshing out lies at his feet. Just because there isn’t that much biographical information available doesn’t give you carte blanche to make things up and still pretend you’re telling someone’s real story.

There are a lot of great production values in the film. The assemblage of the armies and their pitch battles is something to behold. The outfit the Princess wears when she first meets Wallace is really exquisite and the multitude of costumes, armor and make up must have been a Herculean task to pull off. And like any widescreen film shooting a gorgeous landscape, the film looks really good.

Princess Isabella of France (Sophia Marceau) 
But there is a real reason why this film is rated R. The battles are grisly and brutal. After having watched 300 recently, these battles reminded me of them, with the stabbings, arrows flying, limbs being cut off and heads being decapitated. If I don’t see another intense battle scene for a while, that will be fine with me.

Let the bludgeoning begin.
While Braveheart is certainly an epic film, the historical inaccuracies (of which I’ve only mentioned a few) detract from the film. Part of the blame falls on the script, but should also be shared by the director (Mel Gibson) and the producers (Gibson, Alan Ladd Jr. and Bruce Davey) who jettisoned showing real events for the sake of epic entertainment disguised as telling real events.

Sometimes, you wonder why the Academy votes the way it does. In the case of this being that year’s best film, you wonder why this one got picked. The Academy can get it wrong and it appears they did in this case.

Having seen Braveheart once, I don’t anticipate a situation wherein I want to watch it again. I wouldn’t recommend this film. In fact, if you’re ginning for a film from 1995 to watch, I’d recommend Babe over this.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Batman: Arkham City (Comic)

In our endeavor to review comic book tie-ins to video games, I immediately knew exactly what I should be trying to talk about, only to unfortunately never get around to actually doing it until now: Batman. Batman is one of my favorite heroes and not only have I played both Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, but I've also been keeping up with the comics that tie into the latter (as well as reading Scott Snyder's run on Batman, a New 52 title that I highly recommend). While I had been planning to cover these comics for the longest time, I will now, beginning with this post, finally discuss my opinions of these works, including how well I feel they fit into the canon presented by the games (it's been a good while since I last played though, so more often than not it may get a free pass if it really doesn't fit and I'm unaware). So with this introduction out of the way, let's begin with the first Batman: Arkham City comic.

Although I own the individual issues of this comic, I will be reviewing it based on the hardback collection since I re-read it from that source.

Following the events of Batman: Arkham Asylum, The Joker is now back in his cell looking back on how Batman had defeated him. Even with Joker back in Arkham though, Batman's not done dealing with the substance known as Titan, as it is currently in use by a brother and sister duo, the Trasks, who were formerly under the command of Two-Face. Batman goes to Two-Face for information about the duo that could help him on this case, which leads him to the ground breaking ceremony of the new Gotham City Hall. While the dark knight is able to stop the Trasks from causing the desired death toll, Mayor Sharp announces the construction of Arkham City, which is to be Arkham Asylum on a larger scale to contain prisoners of both Arkham and Blackgate. Something seems fishy about this, so Batman decides to investigate, uncovering a much grander scheme at work.

This story, penned by Paul Dini, does a really good job at not only bridging the gap between Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, but also advancing a plot in itself. The time frame jumps forward a little between issues, but there is still a continuing plot that feels like a true Batman story, highlighting the caped crusader's detective skills in a good balance with his fighting prowess. I love how everyone is in character the whole time, no doubt helped by the fact that Dini had written the story for both Arkham games, so while reading the dialogue I could actually imagine the proper voices in my head (the video game cast in this case), even The Joker's. The story does seem written for the trade due to its rather quick pace, but this isn't such that you'd want to curse out the writer, since there is still a bit of story depth to make up for this.

Thankfully, the artwork by Carlos D'Anda, with colors by Gabe Eltaeb is simply fantastic. The style is very consistent and creates an atmosphere a little unique to Batman, which displays the sort of synergy that writers and artists should have more often. I also liked the consistent character designs and proportions for the fact that not only are they consistent with each issue, and for the most part the games, but they also feel more alive. The environments are also impressively detailed and have a certain touch that helps them feel more visually distinct; I know exactly where each character is because it feels like it was mapped out and they stayed true to it. Plus, the effects are applied well, assisting the atmospheric feeling and even complementing the characters that occupy them. Of particular note is a series of splash pages at the end of the final issue that each highlight a certain character, with each position and background seemingly crafted to bring out their unique personalities. The action is coordinated well and I can easily tell how each character is feeling in each scenario.

Cover art for Issue 1.

As for how the issues are laid out in the hardcover, the covers are actually present, which helps to break the action nicely. Personally I feel that for the way the story is written, taking the covers out would have created a terrible way to go between each issue, since time doesn't flow uninterrupted between them. Plus, there's an opportunity to show off the gorgeous cover art by D'Anda and Eltaeb, which are good at hinting at the events of each issue as well as putting emphasis on certain characters and traits.

While I'm discussing the hardcover collection, I'd like to give my thoughts on the included Arkham City Digital Chapters, which were previously collected in a special comic that came with the video game. Since each chapter is only eight pages long, there won't be much to say on them, but I'm doing it anyway. All of them have give the story credit to Paul Dini and script to Derek Fridolfs, except for the last one with complete writing credit to Fridolfs, which helps them all tie in to the game in a way that feels canon. Each story gives the spotlight to a different character, with narration by them to help the reader get into their head: "Hugo Strange" does this for Professor Hugo Strange (obviously); "Cut and Run" with The Carpenter; "Riddle Me" for The Riddler; "Guardian Angel" for Robin (Tim Drake); and "Fall of the Titan" with Bane. I think Fridolfs did a good job in writing these characters and he seems like a good man to trust with this continuity.

But while the characterization for these chapters is all consistent thanks to having a universal writer, it is the art that is different between each of them. The artists, Dustin Nguyen, Ben Herrera, Ted Naifeh, Roger Robinson and Adam Archer for chapters one through five respectively, manage to give each one a unique and appropriate atmosphere, but it is a little more in line with a quality where you can easily say "digital comic" if you look at it. That is not to say that they are bad, it's just that they aren't quite on the same level to me as D'Anda's artwork for the main series; then again, I'm pretty sure that it wasn't supposed to be. The individual styles actually help make each story feel unique and actually showcase each artist pretty well. I can easily see them doing more digital material in the future.

In the end, Batman: Arkham City is an amazing tie-in to a perfect video game. The characters are consistent, the story is suspenseful and the art is simply fantastic. The hardcover collection is also really good at holding it all together and it's nice to have some extra content as well to make the investment feel more worthwhile. If you were to try and get the entire comic right now, I would tell you to buy the hardcover, since you'll also get the digital chapters as a nice addition. Plus, there's also a gallery of concept art for the game in the back as a bonus, which is always fun to look at. The comic is admittedly more written for people who have actually played the game, but fellow Batman fans may get a kick out of it as well; only consider a purchase if you fall into either of those groups.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault

Last year, as a follow-up to Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One, as well as to celebrate 10 years of Ratchet & Clank, developer Insomniac Games released a pair of Ratchet & Clank titles, one being an HD Collection of the first three titles (which I received for Christmas and will get to eventually), the other being a brand new game called Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault (also a gift). This game was originally to share the same fate as Quest for Booty, wherein it would get a retail release in Europe and only as a PSN download in North America. However, in a strange twist of fate, the game has also received a physical release in North America, something that pleased me greatly, under the same $20 price range as the download version. It should also be noted that this game supports Sony's new Cross Buy initiative, where if you buy the PS3 version of the game, you will also get its PlayStation Vita counterpart for free (however, as of this writing, the Vita version of this game does not come out for another week, but at least I have the physical PS3 disk). Released to little fanfare and a seemingly limited physical run (when I asked my nearest GameStop about the game when it came out, they had only gotten 20 copies), is this game a worthy installment in the Ratchet & Clank series?

The story (or what little there is of it) follows the events of All 4 One, with Ratchet, Clank, and former Galactic President Qwark aboard the Starship Phoenix II. As Qwark expresses boredom over not being able to fight anything, he gets excited when Ratchet mentions a group of rouge cleaner bots. Once they are dealt with, they receive a message from a new, unknown menace that has a personal agenda against Captain Qwark. With this, the three of them spring into action. While the campaign only lasts but a few hours (what else can you expect from a $20 game?), this plot manages to string the events together as best as it can and features some great moments of hilarity and actually manages to have one or two unexpected twists thrown in. One of these twists, revealed after completing the first (of five) levels, is the identity of the villain: Stuart Zergo (voiced by the ever-entertaining Richard Steven Horvitz). (Remember him? Neither did I. He is an easily-forgotten/unfound Captain Qwark fanboy from Going Commando, the second game in the entire Ratchet & Clank franchise!) Overall, the story of this installment is thin, but enjoyable for what it's worth.

The gameplay of Full Frontal Assault is, as advertised, a return to the classic Ratchet & Clank gameplay, but with a new twist: there is now a Tower Defense type of gameplay where you must also defend a base from enemy attack, using defenses such as mines, walls, and turrets. As more advanced defenses are at your disposal, equally more powerful enemies are also sent to attack. The newer items require more Bolts to be spent, but once you get a good groove going, it becomes a lot easier to figure out how best to defend your base. At the same time, you must also infiltrate another base on the other side of the map by destroying power nodes and then rebooting your base for completion. You must also defend a set of generators within your base, using Bolts to repair damaged (but not destroyed) generators, and turrets and bombs can be set up around them. Weapons, among them the amazing Groovitron and Mr. Zurkon in later levels, are found inside special pods, which require a special minigame to open, with breakable Bolt and ammo crates scattered around the environment; ammo and Nanotech crates can be found with the weapon pods once they are opened and regenerate over time. I was a little worried about the Tower Defense mechanic at first, given what I saw of it in Assassin's Creed: Revelations, but when I actually played the campaign I thought Insomniac did a very good job with this style of gameplay, incorporating it well with the rest of the core gameplay. I also enjoyed the level design, though their layout caused me to take more time in some cases to explore everything in order to increase my arsenal and finish certain objectives.

The game also features Local Co-Op, much like in All 4 One, but unlike All 4 One, it is limited to two players instead of four. After testing this feature out with my brother, I found that it works really well (aside from it taking less time to beat a level). Weapons unlocked are shared among players and any Bolts earned are added to both players' Bolt counts, eliminating any sort of competition that was found in the previous title (this is not a bad thing to me, given the style of gameplay present here). However, this feature sadly does not work on Standard Definition TV's, due to it not supporting that resolution. I fortunately own a High Definition TV to allow this to work properly, but this really bothered me, since it singles out players who do not own an HD set. So remember: if you want to play with your friends, make sure you've been keeping up with the latest entertainment technologies.

The graphics are similar to that of All 4 One, in that they are very good. As with the new Dante in the Devil May Cry reboot, I have grown accustomed to this new art style; it keeps the cartoonish look set up by the previous games of the franchise, while retaining the light-hearted atmosphere displayed in the earlier games. Everything is bright and colorful, as is to be expected from a Ratchet & Clank game. This is accompanied by some top notch voice acting, though this is also to be expected, given that whatever few voices there are mostly comprise that of returning characters (including the Plumber's obligatory appearance) and the aforementioned Richard Horvitz. This is backed up by music that suits the atmosphere, although you would be more invested in the gameplay to pay attention to most of it; still, I liked whatever I could get out of the music.

If I have one major complaint about Full Frontal Assault, it's that the game sort of dates itself. The villain's personality seems more tailored to a more modern audience and they spout a handful of internet slang and memes at certain opportunities (though I will give Insomniac credit for doing their research on this). The phrases the bad guy spouts out are thankfully some of the more well-known ones, including "like a boss" and the common "n00b"; there's even a visual joke where using the Groovitron in the final battle allows the antagonist to dance as in the popular music video for "Gangnam Style" by K-Pop musician PSY (the ship's computer is also guilty of this, spouting the internet phrase "U mad, bro?" at one point). On top of this, there is a point where the villain hacks the Starship Phoenix II and the song "I Am Glad, 'Cause I'm Finally Returning Back Home", aka the "Trololo" song, plays over the speakers (R.I.P. Eduard Khil). While this does make the game more relevant to an audience from the modern age of the internet, I have the feeling that these references will become less relevant as time goes on if this sort of thing eventually dies down (then again, this is the internet, so I might be underestimating it here). On the other hand, while these references are more relevant to the time I am typing this, I will admit they're actually pretty funny.

For what the end product is, I would actually say to Ratchet & Clank fans to give Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault a shot. It has rather unique gameplay for a Ratchet & Clank title and the Co-Op and Tower Defense systems work really well. The plot is admittedly paper thin, but I believe the voice acting and twists help to balance out the short campaign. I hesitate to recommend this game to a newcomer since there are a couple of plot references to previous games (one of which requires you to really know your Ratchet & Clank trivia in order to be fully surprised by the identity of the bad guy), unless you don't care that much about the continuity or being somewhat confused right off the bat. While Full Frontal Assault isn't as deep as previous entries (in fact it's rather shallow by comparison), I won't hold it against Insomniac for trying something new.

Happy 10th Anniversary, Ratchet & Clank, and I hope your next 10 years are awesome.

Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook (2012) Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Anupam Kher. Directed by David O. Russell. Produced by Bruce Cohen, Donna Giguliotti. Screenplay by David O. Russell. Based on The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick. Run Time: 122 minutes. U.S. Color. Romantic Comedy

While Woody Allen made a career out of the quirky romantic comedy, Silver Linings Playbook shows that the subgenre is not solely his domain. David O. Russell is not a newcomer to quirk either. His first feature, 1994’s Spanking the Monkey, dealt with the incestuous relationship between mother and son; it don’t get much quirkier than that. But in this film he makes it much more accessible. I have never read the book that the film is taken from, but I do appreciate his writing and direction.

Silver Linings Playbook tells the story of Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), who has anger management issues and bipolar disorder. Pat has just gotten out of a mental health facility and returned home to his parent’s house. Pat is also obsessed with his wife Nikki (Brea Bee), who has a restraining order out on him.

Through mutual friends, he gets introduced to Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), the widow of a police officer who had previously drowned her sorrows by sleeping with everyone. She has recently lost her job, but she still has dreams. While their relationship gets off to a bumpy start, Pat and Tiffany eventually fall in love and that’s the story the film tells. And since it is still out in the theaters, I won’t get into any more than that.

While the main characters are unusual and the story is well told, the acting is perhaps the best part of the movie, which is really a character study about the Solitano family. While Pat and Tiffany have both been to therapy, they are far from the only “crazy” people in the film. Everyone has something they hide, including Pat’s best friend, Ronnie (John Ortiz), who feels suffocated by the demands of his job and family life, Pat’s father, Patrizio (Robert DeNiro), who has turned to bookmaking after losing his job and Pat’s therapist, Dr. Patel (Anupam Kher), who is the last person you’d expect to be at a tailgate party with war paint on his face.

The acting is strong all around. Bradley Cooper, whom I’ve found to be prettier than talented, really shows he can act. Pat is a hard character to get audiences to like. He has no filter when he speaks (and he says some very inappropriate things), he struggles to control his anger, is self-centered and obsessed with the wrong person. But before the film is over, he turns out to be a very likable guy who you root for to pull his life together.

Bradley Cooper as Pat Solitano
Jennifer Lawrence, on the other hand, has already proven herself to be an accomplished actress. She seems to have a real flair for comedy. Again, Tiffany starts out as a troubled figure, but she proves to be strong. Lawrence, who is only 22, seems to stand her own not only with Cooper, but with Robert DeNiro, one of the most accomplished actors over the last several decades. She is someone whom I will look forward to watching for the years to come as she will no doubt add to an already rich body of work.

Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany Maxwell
When I first heard about the actors playing the leading roles, I had to admit I wondered about the age difference. Cooper, 38, is 16 years older than his co-star. Sometimes big age differences between leads (not to mention onscreen love interests) can come off as odd. (Woody Allen finally came to the same conclusion for his own characters). But Cooper plays it younger and Lawrence, who will probably look much the same in fifteen years, plays it a little older and there are no problems. If this had been the old studio system days, I would think they would be paired together again.

While DeNiro seems to play any and all parts he’s offered, he still has presence and once again proves he is a great character actor. In Silver Linings Playbook, he avoids being the caricature he’s so often cast as in other comedies. Patrizio has his own issues with gambling, superstitions and OCD, but they just add depth to the character. DeNiro is more than capable of handling human foibles.

Robert DeNiro as Patriizio 

I wouldn’t have guessed it, but Jacki Weaver, who plays Patrizio’s wife, Dolores, is Australian. She comes across as a native Philadelphian to me. Weaver is probably best known in the US for her role as Janine “Smurf” Cody in Animal Kingdom (2010) for which she received every acting nomination you can think of. Her Dolores is somewhat kept in back, but you know that she has everyone else’s best interest at heart and is really the glue that holds the family together with her “crabbies” and “homemades” during the Eagles telecasts.

Jacki Weaver as Dolores

All four of the principal actors, as well as the director, writer, editors and the film itself have been singled out for Academy Awards. While the Academy’s is merely one more award, it does show the appreciation for the film by the broader industry and recognizes the talents of those involved in the film.

The other actors also give strong performances and I don’t mean to overlook their contributions to the movies. But there is one actor I wanted to point out.

Chris Tucker is perhaps the biggest surprise for me. Silver Linings is only his eleventh film in a career that goes back 18 years. Best known for co-starring with Jackie Chan in Rush Hour (1998), Rush Hour 2 (2001) and Rush Hour 3 (2007), he hasn’t been on the big screen in five years. My expectations for his turn as Danny, Pat’s friend from the asylum, were low. Danny is as close to a superfluous character as there is in Silver Linings. He pops up two or three times, only to be sent back to the hospital more than once. He brings a different slant to things in the Solitano household and helps Pat realize the feelings he has developed for Tiffany. While the movie would have still worked without the character of Danny, he manages to enrich the film. For the first time I can say I look forward to what Chris Tucker might do next. I hope it is something more like this and not Rush Hour 4

Chris Tucker in 'Silver Linings Playbook'
Chris Tucker as Danny

Silver Linings Playbook is a small picture about a not-so-typical family (or at least we’d all like to think so) trying to keep it together in modern day Philadelphia. There are no earth-shattering or history-changing events depicted here, but there is something genuine about the film. I would gladly recommend this to an age appropriate viewer and would look forward to watching this one again. Silver Linings Playbook is easily one of the best films from 2012.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater - It's Not Over Yet!

If the Metal Gear series proves anything, it's that success will generate a new installment with near certainty. Such is the case with Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, released for the PlayStation 2 in 2004, three years after the previous installment, Sons of Liberty. While Metal Gear Solid 2 moved the story further into a rather unexpected territory, to say nothing of its infamous ending, the idea behind Metal Gear Solid 3, if my research is correct, was to respond to criticism of the previous game and bring the series into a more comfortable state. To accomplish this, it takes the rather bold move of being a prequel to the entire Metal Gear franchise, utilizing a new protagonist and setting while exploring a new core theme and setting. The idea is certainly intriguing and one in which the end result displays a wonderfully brilliant execution.

In 1964, during the Cold War, a FOX agent with the code name Naked Snake is sent on a mission, dubbed the Virtuous Mission, to the Soviet Union to rescue a Soviet scientist named Sokolov who had been working on a nuclear-equipped tank known as the Shagohod, which would have enough power to turn the tide of the Cold War. With assistance from other FOX members, Snake manages to get Sokolov out of a secret base without incident, until he hits a serious snag. Just as he and Sokolov are about to make their escape, The Boss, Snake's lifelong mentor and mother figure, takes Sokolov and defects to the Soviet Union along with the fellow members of her Cobra Unit. The Boss then beats the snot out of Snake and has him plunge to his supposed death off a rope bridge. As if that wasn't enough, she had also given two Davy Crockett nuclear missile shells to Colonel Volgin, who then uses one to blow the base they were stolen from as a cover up. Two years later, Snake is sent back to the Soviet Union by the FOX unit to clear its name and prevent World War III. This new mission, dubbed Operation Snake Eater, is to take out Volgin, the Shagohod, all of Cobra Unit and The Boss. Left with little choice, as well as an opportunity to redeem himself from his previous failure, Snake sets out to complete his mission.
The Shagohod
The plot this time around is much less convoluted than Sons of Liberty, which takes an incredible burden off the player's shoulders. Placing the time frame in the final years of the Cold War provides an interesting perspective on the franchise as the player witnesses how Naked Snake eventually becomes the ever important Big Boss that influences the events of the series. Although the string of events hits familiar territory, it's in this simplicity that I found it easy to take in what was going on, which thankfully didn't sacrifice any depth or storytelling capability. The main theme is how one's identity can be affected by the time and place someone lives in as well as how politics change with the times, though it is spread out pretty well across the very twist-laden game and interwoven with a look at the motivations, backgrounds and relationships of every important character (it even explains a little bit about the Patriots, who were introduced in the previous installment). This I liked, particularly for how memorable the events become as a result.

What helps the memorability are the bosses of the game, though most of them don't necessarily contribute anything to the plot or exploration of the core theme. However, they all still manage to have an identity that is unique to themselves. While it's a little difficult to speak of them individually from the whole, this becomes easier when you consider that they are each part of a group, since they are known for being from either the Cobra Unit or one of the major players around Volgin: Colonel Volgin himself, Ocelot and The Boss.

Cobra Unit (from left to right): The Pain, The Fear, The End,
The Boss/The Joy, The Sorrow and The Fury
Thus begins my discussion of the bosses, if you'll allow it, starting with the Cobra Unit. Originally assembled to combat the Axis Powers in World War II, each member has a code name that is symbolic of the emotion that they each carry into battle. The first that you fight is The Pain (Gregg Berger), aka the "Hornet Soldier", who attacks Snake in a cave by controlling a large swarm of hornets that he can assemble in any shape and use for any purpose, including, among other things, a Tommy Gun made of hornets that fires hornets as bullets while he uses assault armor made of hornets. As he is situated on a small island of rock, it is up to Snake to swim between two points and break the armor before he can inflict any damage to The Pain. The nature of this fight clues the player in on the fact that Snake must use his surroundings to his advantage in order to avoid taking a serious hit, in this case water, which will become an increasing necessity for each Cobra Unit member.

Due to DmC Devil May Cry interrupting my play session however, I'll admit that, while they are still very good boss fights, I used a couple of shortcuts to get past two of the Cobra Unit members (specifically the next two), if only due to my impatience at the point I continued playing. I regret doing so now, but what's done is done; I'll still try to discuss why they are great bosses anyway, with the shortcut in white text.

Following The Pain is The Fear (Michael Bell), aka the "Spider Solider", who is all about instilling fear into his enemies, which he does by shooting Snake with a poison crossbow immediately before the battle begins. When the fight becomes controllable, Snake has to cure himself and then try to somehow track The Fear's movements between the trees as he fires off salvo after salvo of crossbow bolts. From my research on the bosses, it appears that he has the most ways that people have come up with for easily beating him non-lethally, although trying to take him out lethally can still be a challenge that requires great tracking and aiming skills (the way I did the fight was, in order: Cure, Fake Death Pill, Revival Pill when he looks away, Stun Grenade without alerting him, AK-47 now that lethal weapons in this small window can drain stamina instead).

The next Cobra Unit member to face however is The End (Grant Albrecht), aka the "Ancient Sniper", who is easily one of the best bosses from the entire game since now it is heavily strategy-oriented as Snake now has to track him down across three areas of a particularly large area of the jungle. Being able to find him and deal damage is rewarding in itself, its length dependent on the player's patience and nerves as he tries to kill you with tranquilizer rounds (in my impatience however, I instead decided to use the trick of putting the system clock forward enough to make him die of old age. Like Snake, I really regret not giving the old man a good fight).

As I got more engrossed in the story again, I fought The Fury (Richard Doyle), aka the "Flame Solider", a former cosmonaut who attacks Snake with pure fire. His battle takes place in a darkened set of hallways in which you must attack by sneaking around to shoot him, the mere sight of you being enough to provoke him into a full on fire fight (pun intended). This becomes a test of sneaking ability as well as the power to react quickly to run away and recover before trying to attack again. Later on is the next fight, which is against The Sorrow (David Thomas), aka the "Spirit Medium Soldier". His fight is easily the most unique in that inflicting physical damage to him isn't exactly the entire point. Explaining this however, would be a potential spoiler, but I will say that your play style may come back to bite you.

Colonel "Thunderbolt" Volgin
Two of the other bosses, Ocelot (Joshua Keaton) and Volgin (Neil Ross), are also very interesting, mainly in terms of character. Every time Snake comes face to face with Ocelot, there's always something the former has to say about the latter's gunplay, which ends up influencing the latter eventually becoming known as Revolver Ocelot of the future FOXHOUND unit. Ocelot's main boss fight emphasizes his growing love of the revolver and is interesting in that the two fight from across a small gorge. Volgin, on the other hand, is very content with fighting Snake in closed off areas, using his ability to channel electricity as a way to burn or even shoot Snake until he falls dead. Each of these fights, which emphasis reflexive ability, in the end game can get pretty intense and his character is especially fleshed out in these encounters.

All of this comes to a close however when Snake reaches the final encounter against The Boss (Lori Alan), aka The Joy aka "The Legendary Soldier". The fight against her requires Snake to take advantage of every skill he has spent the game honing in order to win. What makes this boss particularly memorable however is just how emotional it really is. As The Boss discusses the core theme of the game and her relationship with Naked Snake, the fight gains more meaning, particularly from its location, and it becomes more of a sign of just how Snake has grown throughout the entire mission. When it's all over though and the ending starts to play, the impact of her words as well as one specific moment are enough to make anyone cry from sadness, as I did.

While the gameplay remains largely the same from Sons of Liberty, it does improve upon what was introduced in that game by introducing the new Camouflage system. By changing the fatigues that Snake is wearing, the player is able to increase his Camo Index, the percentage of invisibility that he currently has depending on how he blends in with the background. Moving will momentarily drop the Camo Index and certain actions will determine how high the percentage goes, with crawling and wall hugging usually yielding the highest ones. This is a very interesting system that adds a whole new level to the stealth gameplay and I'm impressed that the game was able to pull it off well. However, I do have a couple of complaints about it. For one thing, it gets pretty annoying after a while to have to constantly go to the Survival Viewer and go through a couple of menus to switch what Snake is wearing, especially once the environments have a few different types blended into each other; in one instance I had to switch from a leaf camo to a brick camo and then an indoor camo. It is in these situations that players find a good camo shortcut that will work with most surfaces to save time (apparently people are most complacent with the Splitter face paint and Tiger Stripe uniform combination). The other thing is that, despite the immersion created by the system, the number didn't really prevent me from saving time by enacting yet another strategy: run through the environments and hope that not too many bullets hit me.

Camo Index (upper right)
Another system that's introduced is the Cure system, in which the player must heal all of Snake's wounds manually with supplies. As an extension, Snake can regenerate health, but the rate at which he does is entirely dependent on his Stamina, which can only be raised back up by eating food or saving and turning the game off for a little while. These are justified by the fact that the game takes place at the end of the Cold War and thus nanomachines haven't been invented yet in the timeline. However, like the camouflage system, you must flick through multiple screens in the Survival Viewer to heal Snake's wounds and eat the necessary food. After a while it too gets on my nerves a little, especially when I'm against someone like Volgin who hurts me practically every time he moves. Hopefully they improve upon these systems in a sequel.

One improvement is made to the ability to Stamina Kill bosses, which to say that you can defeat then non-lethally. While in Sons of Liberty this was merely an option so that the player can retain a pacifist run if they wish, Snake Eater actually rewards the player for doing so, usually in the form of a unique uniform for Snake, each with its own special ability. For example, defeating The Fear non-lethally awards the Spider Camo, which gives Snake an 80% Camo Index in most environments, but drains Stamina quickly. This actually gave me more of an incentive to do this, especially since finding Tranquilizer rounds is surprisingly easy, so I took advantage of it and stamina killed every boss (except The End) to reap the rewards.

Lastly, there's a new system known as CQC, aka Close Quarters Combat. CQC can be achieved while holding a weapon that will allow it, as indicated by the acronym being present on the scroll menu. Aside from full combat maneuvers, CQC has an advantage when sneaking up on an enemy, which can put them in a hold. While Snake has their defenses down, he can throw them to the ground, drag them as a human shield or even interrogate them for special information. CQC can even be used on some bosses, creating an opening for Snake to use whatever he wants against them. This addition was very helpful, since it expanded my tactical abilities well and generated new ideas on how to proceed through an area.

Instead of taking place in large complexes like the previous Metal Gear Solid titles, Snake Eater takes place in a very lush jungle with more varied environments. Admittedly the jungle is a very nice change of pace and puts Snake into new situations to alter the perspective of things, specifically that he is heading toward the enemy base rather than starting out in one. This helps maintain the intended feel of an early James Bond movie, in which Bond would encounter such scenery on his mission. What helps is that the environments are all impressively detailed, with the jungle in particular being rendered very realistically. It's not something you find all the time on a PS2 game and certainly not one as good looking. For this, Snake Eater does a really good job at pushing the limits of the system.

Lastly, the voice acting is top notch, with David Hayter voicing Naked Snake this time around in a performance that seems to top his Solid Snake from Sons of Liberty. The other voice actors, most of which I have listed, also do a fantastic job with really great performances that bring out the biggest traits of their characters. As for the music, Harry Gregson-Williams does it again in providing a score that matches the right tones at the right times. The oft-used Snake Eater theme song helps the Bond thing the game has going for itself, but I'll admit it was used maybe one too many times. It was interesting how it was used though, including its utilization in the part where Snake has to climb a really long ladder for about two (real time) minutes as a way to break the monotony.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is a great improvement in the series. With a simpler but gripping and emotional story, good tweaks to certain features, memorable bosses and the introduction of a new interesting mechanic, it's a game that any fan of the Metal Gear franchise, or stealth games for that matter, will really enjoy. While a couple of things become a little annoying and the camouflage system is a little subjective in its execution, this game has certainly set its mark despite this as a true PS2 classic. Now I can't wait to play the next game to see if it will finally explain exactly who the Patriots are.