Friday, May 30, 2008

Lost - Season 4

The fourth season of Lost was shortened by an agreement to draw out the end and shortened further by the inconvenience of the writer's strike (seriously, great job guys), but it was still entertaining enough to be the best one since the first, in my opinion. The last couple seasons were good, but at times didn't seem like they were going anywhere, just piling mystery on top of mystery without giving much explanation. This is the chief complaint about Lost among haters, but the difference between them and me is that they think it's impossible for everything, or even most of the loose ends, to be wrapped up satisfyingly at the conclusion of season six, while I'm still giving the creators the benefit of the doubt. Even if they are making it up as they go, they'd have to be amazingly good at it to keep it going this far without crashing and burning, so it doesn't really make a difference at this point.

Season three's finale was one of television's finest ever, and the final twist was that the flashback featuring a suicidal Jack popping pills and making an ass of himself was actually a flash-forward, a huge shift for the show. Now, instead of filling in characters' backgrounds and digging the show even deeper into its hole of secrets and twists, season four still keeps adding secrets and twists but does so while much more obviously moving towards something of a climax. The suspense was much more focused on "How do we get to this point in the future?" instead of just "What the hell is happening here?" They still flashed back at times, but we pretty much know who these characters are at this point and now we're seeing what's happening with the island. The finale wasn't as good as the last one, but it's definitely going to make the wait for the next batch of episodes difficult. The endless questions do get tiring, but I'm going to keep watching until they start answering some.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

3:10 to Yuma

Yeah, the remake. I know nothing about the original so I won't be commenting on any differences or pontificating on the pointlessness of remakes in general. Yeah, it's uncreative and a little too common now, but I don't see a problem bringing back a fifty year old Western I hadn't heard of before. I'm not sure how I feel about Westerns. The setting is one uniquely nostalgic to the United States, and it's almost like the mythology of what's a pretty young country. It's the equivalent of the middle ages in Europe. There have been lots of really great moments in Western films, but I usually find them a little boring in execution. The Searchers may be a classic, but it sure got difficult sitting through it. The genre's definitely slowed down over the last few decades, but they still come out with a new film every couple years and Deadwood was pretty popular, although the movies that were supposed to end it don't look like they're happening. 3:10 to Yuma is one of the more enjoyable examples I've seen, although I'm definitely no expert.

A big part of its success is the immense talent of its two leads, Christian Bale as the honest man who'd do anything for his family and Russell Crowe as the infamous criminal who might not be as bad as he seems. I'm definitely glad it stars them instead of the originally intended Tom Cruise and Eric Bana. The strength of Westerns to me has always been the unique style and badass sensibility you see in the dialogue and action scenes. Yuma definitely has that, with some good one-liners and shootouts. But it has more too, with a unique chemistry between the stars who should be butting heads but really aren't, and some poignant scenes. Mangold's done some decent films before and seems to know how to direct. The only disappoinment was Wash from Firefly's not-that-funny doctor character. He can do better than this. His and Luke Wilson's small parts kind of broke the suspension of disbelief, since I didn't really buy them in the time period. I think pretty much all the roles in non-contemporary films should be played by either unknowns or really good actors, otherwise it doesn't quite work. Still, it was a lot more enjoyable than what I'd expect from a two hour Western.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Nine Inch Nails - The Slip

I never listened to Nine Inch Nails much besides the obvious singles. I'm not that big into industrial but Trent Reznor seems to know what he's doing. I kind of wanted to give them a real try, I just hadn't gotten around to it. It's a little easier to give a band a shot when they give you an album for free. It started a couple months ago with Ghosts I-IV. They released the first part online for free, and it seemed kind of interesting, but the site was going really slow when I tried to download it and I didn't try again. Then they gave it another go with a more traditional album, this time completely free, and I managed to listen. It's pretty good. My mom didn't like what she heard, but I wouldn't really have expected her to.

I can't say whether this is really the formula or not, but The Slip is a nice mix of chaotic, loud noise and more melodic, atmospheric stuff. "999,999" is an ambient instrumental that leads into "1,000,000" (Get it?), introducing the harsher side of the album's sound. "Letting You" is really aggressive, almost unmusical in some ways, with a screeching chorus. "Discipline" is the single in name, and is much more pleasant than the last couple tracks. "Echoplex" is another enjoyable track with a nice chorus. The next couple songs are solid, variations on already established tones. There's a long instrumental track as the album gets more electronic and experimental near the end. The finale is a bit more traditional, and wraps up a pretty solid batch of free music. The Slip has definitely gotten me more interested in the band, and I just might be stupid enough to put down money for a physical copy of this when it gets released in a few months because I love physical copies so much. Which makes it hard to explain why I like Steam.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

MC Chris - MC Chris Is Dead

MC Chris Is Dead is Chris' most entertaining album yet. He's always been funny and had a pretty good flow, but his songs were never as consistently catchy as they are on this record. It's hard to find a bad song by him, but on earlier albums there were usually only a few tracks that were pure joy to listen to, while there are many on this. Overall, it's not significantly better than his earlier work, just a little more pleasing. His beats have always been a bit more creative than most mainstream rap I've heard, but they really stepped up for this one. Really good bass throughout, and quite a bit of computerized hooks to grab your ears. There's even some vocoder use here and there to mix it up a bit. Chris songs have rarely been describable as "cool" before, but a couple like the opening title track and a song about an incident in his youth are as bad as it gets.

A significant part of Chris' appeal to me has always been his lyrics and sense of humor. He doesn't quite reach the heights of the cleverness in some earlier songs like "Tractor Beam" and "Wiid" but he still busts out a ton of great rhymes when needed. One thing that's noticeable is the effort to clean up a bit, as noted in one of the skits, with a distinct lack of F-bombs getting dropped. But as can be heard from the opening lines of "On*", he hasn't completely ditched the dirty thoughts. He has the nerd rap label, but he's almost always limited the geekiness to occasional lyrical nods and a song or two per record, and the topics here range from favorite foods to girls to being an outcast, but not video games or anything. He's still true to his self though, with the still-hilarious skits focusing on a zombie apocalypse brought about by his death on the last album, and dropping references to things like Animal Crossing and Ender's Game. The high voice has never bothered me, and I see Chris as one of the most entertaining rappers working today.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Liveblog 12: Stretching Out Joba

The Yankees have not played well since the last liveblog. They played horribly for about a week, dropping 5 games under .500. But after A-Rod's first game back, an ugly blowout against the Orioles, the Yankees have won three straight, two blowouts of their own and one 2-1 game won on a walk-off single. They might be turning around, although it's too soon to say. The two halves of the problem are ineffective starting pitching and terrible offense. Both have looked better lately, and the Yankees are making a move to help fix the former - having Joba Chamberlain throw more pitches per appearance until he's ready to throw enough to begin starting.

This has been accompanied by the clamoring from idiots in the media to keep him in the bullpen reaching a fever pitch. It doesn't matter what anyone says to them, they see this move as A) an attempt to keep up with the Joneses (Red Sox, who just saw their second young pitcher throw a no-hitter in as many years), B) a silly change in strategy even though the Yankees have said all along that this was the plan, and C) a huge mistake because Joba is excellent in the eighth inning and we don't know what he'll do in the rotation even though that's what he did through college and most of his time in the minors, ignoring that having a lead through seven innings is harder and more important than having someone to keep it in the eighth. Joba will throw about 45 pitches today in relief of Mike Mussina, or at least that's the plan.

Top 1 - Mussina struck out Ichiro, and then gave up a couple singles, but retired the next two hitters to end the inning.

Bottom 1 - Carlos Silva, a mediocre pitcher for the Twins who had a pretty good contract year, became the latest player to get heinously overpaid by the Mariners, now playing for 11 million a year for the next four seasons. He hasn't been awful, but has a 4.83 ERA so far. He retired the first three Yankees he faced, on to the second.

Top 2 - The first batter jumps on the first pitch but flies out harmlessly. Mussina strikes out Sexson swinging on a slider outside. The quick inning finishes with Damon making a nice little catch in left.

Bottom 2 - Some people think A-Rod is just a huge compiler who doesn't get it done when it counts, but you could see how weak the lineup was without him when he was on the DL with a quad injury. He singles to left center, and then Matsui hits it farther in the same area for an automatic double. Michael Kay has been yammering on about Matsui and Ichiro (they're both Japanese!), and it's already becoming tiring here in the second inning. Giambi began the season terribly but has really been having a pretty decent year offensively, especially lately. Giambi hits it even farther to the same spot, getting it over the wall, and the Yankees lead 3-0. He should keep the mustache, it always seems to work for him. Cano, also picking up after a terrible April, hits another double to the same spot. There must be a magnet over there somewhere. Molina, who started off great but has slowed since Posada was placed on the DL, grounds it to second, moving Cano to third. Cabrera dunks a single in front of Ibanez in left, Yankees lead 4-0. Damon singles, runners on first and second. I gotta admit, this team is usually pretty boring. Either they're not hitting at all and losing, or hitting way to well and winning by boring scores like last night's 13-2. I look forward to seeing a few innings from Joba, though. Jeter flies out to right field, and Cabrera takes third base. Abreu pops up behind the plate to end the inning, with a nice lead for Mussina.

Top 3 - Betancourt slices a double down the right field line to start the third. Ichiro hits a ball well but right to Damon for an out. The next batter singles but Abreu fields it quickly and holds Betancourt at third. It's for naught as Vidro hits a three run home run, cutting the lead to just one run. Ibanez grounds out to Giambi. Beltre hits another homer to tie the game. Let's start warming Joba, shall we? Mussina has been solid this year, but he has been giving up too many dingers and after an error by Jeter in his last start, gave up a total of seven runs in just 2/3rds of an inning. He walks Reed on four pitches. David Cone in the booth keeps talking about the frustration of giving up back to back home runs, which would be relevant if Mussina had given up back to back home runs. Unfortunately, he might as well have. He strikes out Sexson again to end the inning.

Bottom 3 - ESPN froze my internet and I lost what I was saying here about the inning. A-Rod struck out, Matsui singled for his fifth hit, he's having a good year, Giambi smoked a double, they walked Cano to get to Molina who flew out, Kay's still talking about Japan, Cabrera picked up the team with an RBI single, and then Damon popped up to end it.

Top 4 - First hitter grounds out to third. Betancourt lines a curveball right at A-Rod. Suzuki grounds out to Jeter, who makes another low throw that Giambi recovers. Lots of low throws by him this year. Nice recovery by the Moose.

Bottom 4 - Jeter leads off by grounding harmlessly to first. Abreu does the same to second. A-Rod does the same to short on the first pitch. Maybe Matsui can ground out to third the next inning to complete the circuit.

Top 5 - Lopez doubles down the left-field line. Drat. Vidro grounds it to Jeter, one out. Kay says he didn't get the job done. I think it's okay after the three runs he drove in the last time up. Ibanez strikes out on an inside curve. Beltre swings at a high pitch, popping out to Cano. Mussina did enough to earn the win, but hopefully it's Joba time in the sixth.

Bottom 5 - Unfortunately, Matsui grounds out to first, ruining the pattern. Giambi pops out to third. Cano doubles past the diving first baseman, reaching base for the third time. Lopez makes a nice play at second to get Molina out, ending the inning.

Top 6 -Joba throws a few pitches before making a nice snag on a ball going over his head to get the first out of the sxith. Sexson strikes out yet again on a nice slider. Another slider to strike out Johjima. That inning used up 16 of Joba's reported allotment of 45 pitches.

Bottom 6 - Melky flies to center for the first out. The next batter grounds out. An error by Lopez allows Jeter to reach base. Abreu hits a two run homer to the opposite field. Just when I was thinking Silva had a pretty good game besides one bad inning. Kay is truly baffling me. Every source has said Joba will throw about 45 pitches today. When Kay brought it up, he said 45-5o. Okay, no big deal. I don't think they'll stretch him quite that far but whatever. Then the next inning he said 50-55. Um, I don't think so, guy. More like 45. Just now he said 50-60. What the hell? Is he even listening to himself? Rodriguez strikes out and now it's time for the seventh.

Top 7 - Betancourt singles with two strikes, and Ichiro flies out. A weak grounder to A-Rod turns into a close out at first. He walks Vidro, but Ibanez grounds it to Jeter for the third out. 40 pitches, and I would not be surprised to see someone else throw the eighth.

Bottom 7 - New pitcher Arthur Rhodes walks Matsui. Giambi singles the other way, and then Cano hits his third double of the game. Not a very good job against three lefties by the lefty specialist. 8-4 ballgame. Brandon Morrow in to face Molina. He finally comes through with a single, runners on the corners, nine runs so far. Melky hits an infield grounder and Cano gets caught on the basepaths, one out. A possible double play ball by Damon is misplayed by Beltre and the bases are loaded. Jeter flies out, but not deep enough for Molina to tag up. Abreu hits an automatic double, two more runs in, and I am very bored. This game is in hand and I think Joba's done so I will take my leave. Back in a bit to wrap it up.

Wrap-up - Kyle Farnsworth had a bad eighth inning, but the Yankees still won 12-6. Joba could have been more efficient with his pitches, but the important thing right now is moving him forward as a starter. Not the best played game ever, but a win is a win.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Sopranos - Season 2

The second season didn't feel significantly different from the first, but did plenty enough to keep the expanding cast of characters and multiple story lines interesting without ever getting out of hand. It's a very bold show, as can be seen from much of the finale centering around Tony puking and having bizarre fever dreams. Dreams were an element in the first season too, and they're always effective. They're always related to the plot, and even without that they're always compelling in a humorous or creepy way. Tony continues to deal with his mental demons while trying to run a criminal business, and all sorts of problems crop up.

Much of the season, Tony is unable to get much help since his psychiatrist refuses to see him, so it just builds up in him as he lashes out irrationally and continues to pass out. When he eventually gets back on the couch, it's different, still cathartic but he just vents more instead of really getting to the root of the issue. His nephew Chris' role gets more significant, as he has a crisis of conscience and considers taking another avenue in his work and life altogether. Tony also has to manage his opportunistic older sister who's come back home, a mob member recently released from prison who won't stay in line, and an old friend who can't stop gambling his life away. Everything seems a bit better integrated this time, and I can see why people really loved the show when it was relevant. It's not as addicting or culturally important as I think The Wire was, but it's an excellent crime story.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Last Crusade returns to the formula from the first movie, with lots of high adventure and killing of Nazis. Instead of a Chinese child, his sidekick is his dad, played by Sean Connery. They have an entertaining chemistry, Indiana being pretty rough-and-tumble and his dad getting things done without ruffling his clothes. A lot of the things they do end up being pretty corny, but that's the way of the series. This film is probably the most family friendly of the three, though it still contains some scenes with an obscene amount of vermin and surprisingly grotesque deaths. John Rhys-Davies and Indy's older college friend both reprise their roles from the first movie and make likable companions. This time, the female lead is physically attractive and actually an interesting character, so she's an improvement over her equivalent in the first two movies.

Whereas the second movie was a departure, Last Crusade really follows in the first's footsteps. The opening scene is a flashback to Indiana's youth, an improbable day in which he managed to pick up four of his notable character details. It connects with the modern day (1938) by showing him after the same artifact, and then leads to the real story, which like the first movie, happens to feature the same treasure-hunting villain who has the support of Hitler's regime. There's lots of action and humor as Indiana searches for his kidnapped dad and then the ultimate goal. There are some more great parts, like the "no ticket" scene on a gigantic zeppelin. Too much of the action is slapstick in nature, but it's still an enjoyable movie. I'm not sure what it is, but something about the whole trilogy just felt like it was missing something, though I can't say what. Still, entertaining films.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

The second film in the Indiana Jones Trilogy (soon to be a quadrilogy) seems a little out of sorts. It just has less in common with the other two movies. The first and third feature Indiana following clues, hopping around the global to exotic locales, exploring perilous tombs, fighting Nazis, and spending a bit of time as a normal professor of history. Temple of Doom has almost none of this, and this is what's appealing about the series. Not to say it's a bad movie, it has plenty of fun moments. It's just... off. He starts off in China involved in a conflict that gets completely dropped when he, his Asian sidekick Short Round, and annoying female lead Willie crash in India, leading quickly to the underground chamber where almost all of the action takes place.

The cultists Indy fights make adequate villains, and the chief is pretty solidly evil, they're just not as entertaining as Nazis. Since they don't use guns, it wouldn't be fair if he did, so every fight is a lot of barefisted slugging. That can be fun, but you like to have some variety in your confrontations. Thankfully, they made one of the series' more exciting sequences for this, a very unlikely high-speed chase on mine carts suspended by tracks over lots of molten lava. It's hard to say how they managed to build those tracks there or how the carts maintain velocity with all the rises, but it's an easy issue to ignore. There are some pretty violent moments, and this is one of the films that finally caused the creation of the PG-13 rating. None of the face-melting found in the other movies, but some scary stuff for little kids. The girl kind of really sucks a lot, but the kid is surprisingly not that bad. Ford is his usual self, and holds the movie together. Maybe the worst in the series, but still a really fun movie.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

I'd previously seen some of the more famous scenes from the Indiana Jones movies, but never actually sat down and watched one from the beginning. I figured I should really see the trilogy, even though I don't have a plan to see the new one or anything. The idea of Indiana Jones fits in quite well with George Lucas' penchant for making entertainment franchises in the style of old serials from the beginning of Hollywood. He started it with Star Wars, his take on science fiction which he admits borrowed from many earlier classic films, and the Indy movies are the same thing with adventure, going on action-packed journeys around the world without taking themselves too seriously. There's something a bit strange about them, because they're definitely aimed at families yet there's some stuff in them that I would be surprised to see in something with a similar audience today.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a fun movie, filled with iconic and memorable scenes. The whole opening sequence with the golden idol and rolling rock, then the escape to the plane, the confrontation with the swordsman, the Well of Souls, the truck chase, opening the ark. Lots of entertaining moments. Harrison Ford is a great, charismatic protagonist. The character is an interesting one, having two sides; the knowledgeable historian and reckless adventurer. There's a decent supporting cast around him. The female lead can be a bit silly sometimes, but John Rhys-Davies is a good ally, and a couple of the villains are pretty solid. Steven Spielberg admitted it was basically a B movie when he made it, and it's fine being that - it's definitely aimed to keep kids happy, but still has plenty of action and intrigue for older viewers, if you can handle some goofiness. The whole ending is really good, with a slightly shocking climax and cool, if somewhat hard to believe final shot. Pretty good movie.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Office - Season 4

Season four began with a slight shift in the series' dynamic. Jim and Pam, previously held apart by circumstances and other relationships, got together, and managed to make it through the whole season without anything terrible happening, although things don't always go perfectly. They're both funny, highly likable people who get along very well, so it's nice to have a facet of the show that doesn't make you cringe. There's plenty enough of that coming from Carell, who's still great as Michael even when you almost want to look away from the more brutally embarrassing things he does. There's an argument that his hellish relationship with Jan has gone from funny in a painful way to completely unbelievably awkward, but I still found all their interactions to be more entertaining than anything else.

The show stretched more in the season with more episodes than ever before outside the office itself. That's really where the show shines the most, but you do need some variety. There's some fun to be had running marathons, having the worst dinner party ever, and especially a night spent at the bed & breakfast on Dwight's family farm. While I still think Gareth from the BBC original was great, Dwight's become one of the best supporting characters in any sitcom I've seen. Every scene he's in is great. There are some plot developments with Ryan in his new job in New York, and Andy's increased role screwing up everything for everyone else. The season finale was hilarious throughout, but a big downer in a few ways. It did end on a good enough note though that I'm already waiting for the next batch of episodes.

Friday, May 16, 2008

My Name Is Earl - Season 3

The third season of NBC's redneck-comedy-that's-smarter-than-any-actual-redneck was much more plot-based than the first couple. To quickly recap, it's about a lowlife named Earl who decided to turn his karma around by making a list of every thing he's done wrong in his life and trying to fix them. The first two seasons had some continuity and entertaining flashbacks to his previous doings, but most episodes revolved around finding someone he'd hurt, realizing how the simple crime he committed had ended up turning their whole life upside down, and making things right in the end, learning valuable lessons on the way.

The third is different though. Earl starts off in jail, where he was put in season two's finale, finds his way into a coma, and then in a final plot dealing with Billie, the possible girl of his dreams. The list is still usually the center of focus, but there's still a lot of experimentation and changes to the formula. The show's interesting because it often has the mentality of a family comedy, always trying to teach lessons, but the humor and subject matter are quite often not child appropriate. I like Jason Lee more as the charismatic fast-talker, but he fits quite naturally as Earl. The thing is Earl makes more sense as the kind-hearted guy he's turned into than the jerk he spent most of his life as, but that might just be Lee's likability.

The whole cast is pretty spot-on. Ethan Suplee's really come into his role as Randy, Earl's simple-minded brother. He's pretty central as the season goes on, and has a lot of great moments. Crabman is still great, and there are some good guest appearances by Michael Rapaport and Alyssa Milano. I hope the fourth season is more of a return to form, but the third was an enjoyable diversion.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Sopranos - Season 1

I've seen bits and pieces of this series before, but haven't tried sitting down and really watching it before. It's definitely a slightly different experience finally watching in order something that you're already a little familiar with. I had seen a couple full episodes from this season before, but things make more sense when it's watched as intended.

The Sopranos, if you somehow don't know, revolves around Tony Soprano, who starts the show as a capo, one of several direct lieutenants to the family boss, in a mob based in New Jersey. A lot of the show is about the dealings and problems he has to deal with there, but the real focus is on him and his real family. His kids are growing up, his mother is a gigantic bitch, and he's been having panic attacks. He starts seeing a psychiatrist when they find nothing physically wrong after he passes out, and some of the best scenes take place in therapy. Even though he's a tough gangster and traditionally-minded parent, he still has his own insecurities that get dealt with pretty realistically. James Gandolfini fits the part perfectly, and is good at portraying a very complex character.

I kind of get the feeling creator David Chase wanted to make a character study and stuck on the crime stuff to keep people interested. They do a lot of their business at a strip club with plenty of gratuitous shots of the dancers, and some of his underlings, while entertaining, are almost parodies of the typical mafioso personality in movies. If that's true, I don't mind, because they do a good job of moving things along without the more personal stuff getting too heavy. As the season goes on, the two sides become more integrated and there's a good arc to the plot while keeping it open for a lot more to happen. I don't quite see why so many people declared it one of best, if not the best show ever, but it's definitely got a lot to it.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Scrubs - Season 7

It's thankful ABC's most likely picking up Scrubs for one more season, because the supposed final episode wasn't a great way to go out. Thanks to the strike (which definitely harmed shows more than it helped the writers), they only managed to make 11 episodes. Apparently the last one made wasn't considered good enough to go out on, because they took an earlier episode, one mostly taking place in a medieval fantasy and directed by star Zach Braff, and pushed it to the end. This wouldn't be too bad if it weren't for the massive continuity problems it caused. Even ignoring how earlier events were referred to as if they were more recent, the most glaring is Dr. Kelso's presence as the Chief of Medicine/fantasy bad guy even though he retired two weeks earlier in real time. It certainly didn't feel like an episode ending a show that has lasted seven years, even if the makers might not want to make a big deal about it.

Besides that whole mess-up, the season was pretty decent. The show's gotten a little sillier as the characters continue to become caricatures of themselves, with JD being the worst offender, but it's still good for multiple laughs every time. Despite the goofiness, the characters have grown. Almost everybody has a kid now, and I feel like this was gearing up to be a proper send-off season before it all got mucked up. The formula's gotten a little old, with the goofy jokes before all the different conflicts get resolved in a similar way while mopey music plays in the background, to the point where they've started making meta-jokes about it. If it does end up on ABC, it will be good to see them get a chance to tie up all of the loose ends.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

The third game in the trilogy, and flat-out one of the biggest ever.

With San Andreas, Rockstar full subscribed to the idea that bigger is better. The world is massive. It covers an entire state, containing not only three cities, each bigger than the ones in previous games, but also quite a lot of real estate in between, including forests, a desert, and many small towns. The soundtrack isn't as good as Vice City's, but still included a large variety of enjoyable music. They also improved the streaming technology, allowing you to go from anywhere outside to anywhere else without a single loading screen. It's quite an impressive feat, and really increases the scale of some of the bigger chases you can get into. There's a larger variety of vehicles you can use, including special ones like bicycles, tractors, and jetpacks, and there are many more indoor locations you can explore. The biggest gameplay change was the addition of a variety of role-playing elements, giving you full control over your character. CJ is always the same person in the story, but you can work out to make him buff or eat a lot to make him fat. There are several different clothes stores you can use to change your look (and how people react to you), and multiple girls you can befriend and date, giving you various bonuses for doing so. At the beginning, CJ is pretty bad at driving and shooting, but using the different kinds of vehicles and guns improves his performance with both.

With so much to do, the game could have gotten too big for its own good, but fortunately it didn't. It does an excellent job of balancing everything and easing you into it, keeping you focused on one major issue at a time. What was interesting was the distinct feeling and atmosphere in each of the three cities. The take off of Los Angeles is where everything starts and ends, and is full of the gangland warfare prominent during the time period. A lot of people can't get into that, but I thought they pulled it off pretty well. Taking over territory was an interesting diversion (as long as you didn't do too much of it the first time around, since all of your progress gets erased), and some of the things that happen near the end, like a riot in the city, are handled pretty well. Even if you don't like that culture, there's some more traditional Grand Theft Auto stuff in the other cities, where you tend to deal with other sorts of criminals, like a blind Yakuza in the driving-focused fake San Francisco and Italian Mafia in their version of Las Vegas, which includes a really cool, optional casino subplot.

CJ is a really well-rounded, likable character. He's not as independent as Tommy Vercetti, but he's a more sympathetic guy. The story follows him as he tries to help his family and rebuild his gang's status, while going after a pair of corrupt cops who have wronged him from the start. Some familiar faces show up, and the cinematics felt even more authentic once the developers learned they could get away with cussing. The missions are more elaborate than ever, and the game is filled with great moments, including countless spontaneous ones just screwing around with a friend in co-op. Some people complained that the RPG elements got in the way of the game, but that simply wasn't true, they almost always felt like an enjoyable addition, becoming a hassle on only a few small occasions. San Andreas was as big as it could get, but now it looks like Grand Theft Auto IV will be a more contained, tighter experience.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

The second game in the vaunted trilogy. It didn't make the same leap from 3 as 3 did from 2 or San Andreas did from it, but it was still an important addition.

After 3, some wondered where the series would go from there. Not many expected it to go back in time. 3 was basically contemporary, but you didn't get that much of a feel for the setting or main character. That was probably Vice City's biggest contribution to the series. Instead of a nameless, voiceless criminal, you played Tommy Vercetti, a person with goals and opinions. It was refreshing to play someone who could think for himself and often took matters into his own hands instead of just taking orders. Sometimes he was still doing grunt work, but he was in charge of his own fate. Along with the character, the game's radio played a huge part in placing you in the world. Instead of some generic house and pop music, there was a variety of stations playing a bunch of real music from the 80's. It set the mood about as well as it's been done in a video game. The music, along with the general aesthetic of the city and people in it went a long way. I don't have that much nostalgic attachment to that decade, being three years old when it ended, but it still made the experience more entertaining. The talk radio wasn't quite as good as 3's Chatterbox, but there were two stations and they were both good.

There were a lot of small gameplay tweaks and improvements that made the experience better. The addition of motorcycles might not sound that significant, but they were quite useful, and I still usually pick them over cars unless I know I'm going to be taking heavy damage. They're more maneuverable, allow you to fire straight ahead, and can be bailed from without injury. The only problem is that crashes can be pretty hazardous to your health, especially when you go flying over a railing and into the river, which Tommy still couldn't swim through. There were much better boats though, and helicopters and planes were a fun way to get around quickly. The variety of melee weapons instead of just the bat was cool, although it stifled the more dangerous part of your inventory quite a bit. There was more freedom progressing the story, too. You had to build up a criminal empire by taking over and improving various businesses like a club or marina, And it was cool buying up safehouses all over town. The story was more interesting than 3's, easy when your protagonist is so much deeper, and the missions featured more variety and complexity. My only problem with the gameplay was the design of the city itself. Part of the fun is always the car chases, either pursuing traitors or evading the cops, banking around tight turns and barreling down hills. There just weren't that many hills to be found. There were nice jumps sprinkled around, but it was all just a little flat in places. Still, it was a fine game that improved over 3 in almost every way.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Grand Theft Auto III

In anticipation of Grand Theft Auto IV, which I should be getting my hands on soon, I'll talk a bit about the Playstation 2 trilogy that made me love the series.

Around the Christmas of 2001, there was a bit of a rivalry brewing between the PS2 and the new Xbox. Both systems had a high-profile game coming out. The PS2 had Metal Gear Solid 2, and the Xbox had Halo. But a lesser known game came out of nowhere to far more commercial success than either, a 3D sequel to a kitschy top-down driving series. It was GTA3, and it was a lot of fun. I remember playing it for the first time and being amazed by what I could do. It was the first true open-world game of its kind. The freedom was incredible. Going anywhere in the city, getting into fights with the different gangs, uncovering street races or secret jumps, listening to the hilarious talk radio station.

Of course, what we ended up doing a lot was just causing mayhem, recklessly plowing through pedestrian traffic with a semi truck and getting as many cop cars as you could to chase you. It was a revelation when we realized the best way to rack up stars on your wanted level was to attack people on foot instead of just running them over. And of courses, you could pick up prostitutes to heal you in exchange for money, and if you so chose, kill them afterward to get it back. Money was never an issue in the game, it was just a darkly humorous way to beat the system. Unfortunately, this single aspect of a huge, often quite intelligent game was focused on by media watchdogs and overzealous parents. They warped it, trying to make the game out to be training kids to be brutal killers, with the mistreatment of women in the forefront. Never mind that the series has never once instructed you to harm a prostitute, or any other person who could be considered an innocent bystander. It just allows it, letting you make yourself into any character you wanted. The game also allows you to use an ambulance to deliver people to a hospital and rewards you for doing it well, but I guess that doesn't sell newspapers as well.

Beyond the sandbox mayhem, the game also started the series' trend towards interesting storylines set up by very professionally handled cutscenes. The main character never spoke, but you still felt sympathy for him when he was betrayed and wanted to help him set things right. Working your way up the ladder, interacting with all the different movers and shakers in the criminal underworld, and having a hand in the direction the city takes was a hell of a lot of fun. Everybody latches on to the primitive technology and unsatisfactory weapon targeting now, but it wasn't that big of a deal back then, when you had so much choice in how you took care of things. Other games let you decide between picking off foes from a distance or getting in their face and making them explode, but few let you set up a barrier beforehand and block off their escape route. It started the trend of making the last couple of missions in the game a little too difficult, when you're faced with tons of guys with automatic weapons and the bad targeting really rears its ugly head, but finally getting it done is all the more satisfying. There were too many technical flaws, but when you just consider the scope of it and what it did for gaming as a whole, Grand Theft Auto III was a masterpiece.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Iron Man

I never read any Iron Man comics, so my experience with him is limited to a few appearances in animation and his douchey role in the Civil War novel I read last summer. I was still receptive to the idea of the movie, because if anyone can make an obnoxious billionaire weapons manufacturer sympathetic and likable it's Robert Downey Jr, and you could tell from interviews that Jon Favreau wanted to do it right. While I didn't have much existing knowledge or affection for the characters, it was still a good film, one of the better comic book adaptations in recent memory. I'd place it behind a few others, but it's definitely in the upper level, easily better than the dregs like Fantastic Four.

A big part of the success is the humor. In general, the film is pretty mature and handles itself much better than those worse comic movies, but the characters themselves are quite funny. Downey is the same great comedic presence he always is, and Gwyneth Paltrow, playing his assistant, is also pretty good on some occasions. The story is pretty decent as far as primarily establishing the character and setting, which the first attempts in these comic franchises always end up doing, and the special effects are quite nice. They did as much as they could in-camera, which I always prefer if it's doable. It seems like they always try to shoehorn in a villain that has a parallel to the hero, and the movie gets quite cheesy once the villain fully emerges. The best action scene is the one where Tony does a field test on the completed Mark III armor, with the final battle being decent but a little predictable. What might be most exciting about the film for comic geeks is the tidbit after the credits, which shows Marvel, now financing their own films, working towards integrating their different characters a little bit. It's unfortunate so many of the movies they made suck, because realizing the whole universe in film effectively would be pretty damn cool.