Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Mirror's Edge

Mirror's Edge is certainly not a game without faults, and I can easily see how some of its problems could lead to indifference or even genuine dislike towards the game. But I found its presentation and unique take on platforming from a first person perspective to be an interesting and at times perfectly thrilling experience. I think what I really wanted was a lot of its ideas in a better considered game, but I had a lot of fun playing through it despite the very high number of times I messed up and sent its protagonist Faith to an early death.

Faith is a runner, one of several acrobatic outlaws that illegally hand deliver packages in a dystopian future where all electronic communication is constantly monitored. The plot has some twists and turns as you get embroiled in a conspiracy involving political assassinations and betrayals, although you never really get a sense of why anything is important. There's no true villain the game with clear intentions, and while you can guess why whoever's in charge of this eerily empty city wouldn't want you to be passing messages that they can't get at, you don't know what's so bad about these messages either. It's just a backdrop for the gameplay, and you feel like they're just trying to establish the setting for possible sequels, which have been hinted at but not yet confirmed. Most of the story is conveyed in game, never leaving Faith's perspective, except in the animated scenes between chapters that have been compared jokingly to the Esurance commercials, but I think they're better animated in most places and compliment the game's aesthetic well.

That aesthetic is pretty appealing, looking not much like any other first person games from this generation. The colors are all very stark, whites and yellows and blues that stand out and subtly lead you where you're supposed to be going. Enemies mostly wear all black, and anything red is something that you should be paying attention to, whether it's a ramp you can use to jump to the next building or a cop's weapon you can grab in mid-strike. The clean look both conveys the sterile futility of trying to resist the city's control and helps keep you running towards your objective instead of getting lost trying to figure out what you can jump on. Voice acting's not bad and the music is suitably new agey and pulse pounding where required. The theme song "Still Alive" isn't very new or interesting, but I can't say it isn't pleasant. Now where have I heard that title in connection to a first person game without much combat before?

The main gameplay is the parkour, running along rooftops, slipping past obstacles, making impossible jumps and slickly disposing of people in your way. The controls are nice and simple. You run faster the longer you go without being stopped, and there's a button that moves you upward like jumping or running along a wall and one that moves you downward like sliding under a barrier or dropping from a ledge. This is pretty much all you need to do any number of crazy things, and before too long you'll find yourself leaping from building to building with ease. Sometimes there's problems, as it's common to jump before you should and miss the next ledge or have more issues that you think you should pulling off a complicated maneuver. I have no idea how many times I fell to my death in the seven hours I played.

And the combat... I like the game, but this whole part of it is just bad. A significant component of my difficulties was that my computer could barely keep the frame rate playable when there were enemies in the room, making the finicky disarming mechanic even more problematic. The ability to temporarily slow time helps, but the whole thing just seems unnecessarily obtuse. The game wants you to avoid shooting people, and just take them down with your hands. It's not that Faith is incapable of defending herself, it's just that there's no good gameplay or story reason why she can't carry a gun with her. The fact that you physically can take an opponent's weapon and shoot his partners with it suggests that there's no moral issue preventing her from doing it, and having to procure a firearm every time you run into trouble is needlessly difficult. There's also no physical reason why having a gun should encumber her, because at times she has to carry a bag for the story and it doesn't affect anything. On top of all that, the shooting itself is bad and the game does introduce enemies that can pursue you on your own level instead of just shooting at you, making you wonder why you encounter the basic goons with guns so often. It really doesn't add anything to the experience, and the one real fight you have with someone like you is a lot more fun than any of the game's other combat. Despite repeated deaths, the bad, unnecessary fighting didn't hurt my enjoyment too much, but it just seems like a poorly thought out, poorly implemented component of an otherwise much more interesting game.

So yeah, the game has issues, but some of the hiccups stemmed from my own system's limitations and the game's unique strengths definitely outweighed them to me. It's not great, but if they ever do get to make a sequel and iron out some kinks, there's no reason it couldn't be.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Game Update 15: DLC Round-Up 3

We ain't gonna stop this DLC thing.

Assassin's Creed 2: Battle of Forli

Assassin's Creed 2 was a lot of fun, so I was excited when I heard they were extending its life with a couple of cheap add-ons. They were made up of content that had to be cut from the original release for time, but I was still interested in seeing those gaps get filled in. Unfortunately, both packs had a few issues that made me see why they might not have charged a ton for them. Battle of Forli adds a repeatable mission that lets you play with Da Vinci's flying machine if you want some more of that, and a little more of the story in Forli, a city that you passed through in the regular game but didn't spend much time in. I liked seeing some new details of what happened during that missing period, but ultimately the missions themselves weren't that fun. A couple were fine, but too many eschewed the normal stealthy, acrobatic gameplay for awkward, uninteresting battles between groups of soldiers. It's not that mixing it up is bad, but the game just isn't made to handle it well, and the chapter seemed pretty anticlimactic in general.

Assassin's Creed 2: Bonfire of the Vanities

Vanities cost a bit more and I was hopeful about it, since it unlocks an entire section of Florence that was missing. And it started off fine, giving you a bunch of small assassinations to take care of. Unfortunately, some of them are designed to be arbitrarily difficult with no justification for the ridiculous conditions they set, creating an uneven, sometimes frustrating experience. Most of the problems come from a few missions deciding that you can't be spotted by any guards before intercepting your target, which would be fine if there was any reason for it and if you didn't have to run away from all of the now fully aware guards in the area once you pull it off. It would also help if it was just a bit clearer about what did and what didn't get you seen. There was a more expensive version that also unlocked a few tombs that were exclusive to a special edition of the game, and they were pretty fun, though maybe not worth the five bucks. I don't really regret playing these, although they really didn't add much to the game in the end.

Heavy Rain: The Taxidermist

I don't think this is publicly available yet, but if you preordered the game like me you got a free download code for it. It's pretty much Heavy Rain in a nutshell. You're investigating a possible killer's house, and after a certain amount of time investigating the guy's extremely creepy house he shows up unexpectedly and you have to try to escape. There's a lot of different ways you can go about it, and at least five different ways it can end, some good and some bad. It's completely inessential to the main game's story, but if you had fun with it and want another little piece with the same strong presentation and tense gameplay, it's certainly worth checking out.

LittleBigPlanet: Pirates of the Caribbean Level Kit

I was lucky enough to play this for free thanks to a code from a friend. It's similar to the Metal Gear Solid pack, adding some new gameplay mechanics, pieces to make stuff with, and a set of five levels themed after something famous. I think they only cover the first two movies, which happen to be the ones I've seen, having you escape from some pirates, find a ship, and take on the Kraken. The water system certainly adds more to the game than the paint gun, and the levels are full of the stuff, letting you swim around and solve some new puzzles with some things that float and some things that don't. I'm not sure how I feel about all these premium level packs relying on other properties to sell themselves, but I can't say they aren't fun ways to extend the game's life and inspire players to create more interesting levels. Really, they could keep doing this instead of of releasing a sequel and I'd be fine with it.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Produced by Isao Takahata and directed by Hayao Miyazaki based off a manga he did, Nausicaa has a lot of talent behind it, and while I found it a bit ponderous in places, it's got a lot of great moments and ideas, and is definitely a must see for any fan of the best anime can offer. Although I realize that a few of the Miyazaki films I've missed so far are among his most mundane work in setting, what I think is his greatest strength is creating unique fantasy worlds that never feel unoriginal but are still distinctly his own, and that's definitely on display here. Of course, he had all the time he was making the manga to develop his ideas, but the vision he has is impressive and very interesting.

As can be predicted at this point, the setting and plot have a strong environmental message embedded in their DNA. It's basically a post-apocalyptic vision of Earth, where our own pollution has destroyed the planet and turned parts of it into what is called the Sea of Decay, where humans need gas masks just to survive. Various nations come to be at war, some wanting to awaken a terrible giant that helped lead to the old Earth's destruction in the first place, others wanting to find another way to restore the ecosystem. There's a mix of medieval swordplay with weapons like tanks and various flying machines, with some of the action being as strong as in any Miyazaki movie.

Nausicaa is the standard Miyazaki female protagonist, valuing life extremely highly as she ventures into the Sea of Decay to learn more about it and salvage what she can. She's the princess of the nation she belongs to, and before long she's at the center of the escalating conflict and must do anything she can to save the world. I can't say the plot is entirely unpredictable or creative, but it hits all the right notes and never stumbles too badly either. There's some pretty wild imagery and nice animation, although the 1984-quality soundtrack is a bit lacking in credibility. In the end, it's perhaps not quite a great film, but I definitely enjoyed it.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult

I feel like this movie was a little funnier than the second Naked Gun, although it again didn't stand up to the first. That was pretty obviously unlikely from the beginning though, so I mostly just tried to enjoy it for what it was, the most 1994'd 1994 movie to ever 1994 in 1994. I still feel like this style of comedy feels like it belongs in the 80s, but so much of the actual content just screams out 1994. O.J. Simpson's back, right before the whole trial thing blew up. Anna Nicole Smith is the stunt casted famous-for-little-reason hot chick who causes trouble, at the height of her good looks. The final act of the movie takes place during an Oscar telecast, and it's stuffed to the brim with people who were more famous then than they are now, like Weird Al, Vanna White, Florence Henderson, Olympia Dukakis, Elliot Gould, and Raquel Welch. A bit of it's funny in places, although it mostly seems like forced celebrity ball washing after the funnier first hour of the film. It's hard to remember the funnier bits now all of about a week later, but there's some solid jokes revolving around a prison escape and marital troubles that kept me entertained enough to keep watching. There's really a boatload of familiar faces everywhere you look, and while it's far from the pinnacle of edgy comedy, it's hard to dislike too. Not brilliant but certainly watchable if you like Leslie Nielsen.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Spice and Wolf - Season 1

One of the things that I like about anime is that even when it's not very good, there's usually at least something about the plot or setting that's unique. Spice and Wolf has the benefit of using an interesting topic that I haven't seen before, and also being very good. To describe it briefly, it's a fantasy series that focuses on medieval economics instead of swords and sorcery. The two leads are Lawrence, a young traveling merchant trying to build a fortune and Holo, a half human, half wolf incarnation of a goddess of nature that brings good harvests to a town Lawrence visits on his route. Circumstances make them friends, and Lawrence agrees to accompany her to a forest in the north if she'll pay her own way. Some people try to capture her and ruin his business, but they use a combination of wit and her powers to keep on the journey.

As I mentioned, the general backdrop of the story is old fashioned economy, and the series goes into a ton of detail on the topic, from the varying silver purity in various coins to all kinds of back room deals and schemes to capitalize on the changing values of goods. This sort of thing is what interested me in the show in the first place, and I enjoyed how much time the show spent on it. It treats the viewer intelligently, giving you the information you need and treating the mind games of being a merchant in a way that's as exciting as any battle. The main characters are both well developed and interesting too, and their companionship is one of the better relationships I've seen in an anime in a while. Of course some deeper feelings come around, though that sort of thing is handled better than it usually is. There's a nice climax to the arc of these thirteen episodes, but that's not the end of the story and I'm definitely going to be there when they bring the second season to the states.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks

I've seen a fair amount of people call Spirit Tracks better than its DS predecessor from a couple years ago, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. I finished that game a couple months ago, and while that may have caused the tiniest bit of fatigue, I don't think it was significantly inferior. Spirit Tracks does have more devious puzzles and more unique items in its assortment of equipment, though it has its share of faults as well, and I see them more as nice complements for each other in between the more significant console entries in the series instead of competitors.

The basic structure is pretty much the same. Instead of hiring a ship to bring you around the ocean, you're the newest official engineer in Hyrule, using a train to transport yourself around the world. At first I enjoyed the simple fun of conducting, choosing a path, blowing the whistle and keeping various monsters at bay. In time they managed to make it more of a slog than the boat, forcing you to return to places you just were, avoid increasingly irritating enemy trains, bring cargo from place to place, and escort various people who seem more concerned about obeying the rules of the rails than letting you get on with the game. It becomes stifling, making you wonder why you can't just hop off the train and walk somewhere that you can see instead of having to magically restore the tracks to that location with busywork. And continuing with the lack of rewarding side quests, the only solace is the dungeons. Like Hourglass, there is one central location you have to visit several times, and a bunch of more traditional dungeons you visit in between.

The central dungeon is better than the other game's, mostly because it isn't timed, plus it introduces a new kind of gameplay where Zelda can take control of a set of armor and help you get past certain obstacles. On occasion this will seem like more trouble than it's worth, though I liked the change of pace, and the way they introduce the basics of telling her where to go is one of the series' most elegant introductions in a while. I mentioned the appeal of more difficult puzzles in the dungeons, although the first three felt to me about as challenging as the ones in the first game, that is, not very much. The last couple get much more interesting, though I wouldn't say more esoteric puzzles are necessarily more ultimately satisfying, and there's only so much you can accomplish with the simplified interface of playing on a tiny screen from one angle with a touch interface. The boss fights are definitely harder and more entertaining, and while I'd probably take certain parts of this game's final area than the other's, there were bits that were frustrating too. I've seen complaints about the games explaining basic information way too much, but on the other hand it never bothers to mention certain mechanics that could end up being essential to finishing certain activities.

I felt like the story had similar appeal to Hourglass, jumping a hundred years into the future and continuing the series' current trend of actually maintaining continuity between games. The continued absence of Ganon was appreciated, and I liked that Zelda had a significant part to play for once instead of just being an erstwhile damsel in distress. For some reason these games have reminded me more of anime than others in the series, it's partly the art style but also just some elements of the plots. There's an enjoyable, simple arc to it, and it's occasionally funny as well. The game looks relatively nice, although I noticed more situations where the game would intentionally focus on something that looks wrong like a closeup of a bad texture, which was frankly odd. I liked the music quite a bit too, I had a few problems sometimes getting the sequences where you accompany someone with the flute to work, but for the most part the tunes were refreshingly unique. There were too many fixable issues with the game to say I really loved it, but I did like my time with it more often than not.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 4

Another couple weeks, another season of Star Trek. It sort of feels like work at this point, although I am enjoying it more than the original series still. The problem is more with my expectations from a series than the show itself. I'm used to the modern style of serialized storylines, whether they're integral to the show or just affecting character development in the background. Even Castle, which off the top of my head might be the most episodic thing I watch, makes it feel like some things are changing and moving forward. The Next Generation has the smallest hints of continuing stories, with the closest thing the show has to a genuine arc so far being Worf's false dishonor with the Klingons, which gets revisited a couple times including the season finale, which is once again the first part of a two part story that suggests a big change for the crew but will undoubtedly result in the status quo being restored in the season five premiere.

As usual, there's some good and bad. Wesley is finally gone, after being made a full ensign by Picard he at last went off to Starfleet Academy, only to reappear occasionally for the rest of the show. I have to say I've been disappointed by Geordi quite a bit. I was hoping for more from the host of Reading Rainbow, but for the most part he's every awkward, dorky TV character thrown into outer space, an expert at maintaining the Enterprise but hopeless at personal interaction, especially with the ladies.

It's okay though, because exactly 100 episodes in, I can say with confidence that Picard is a better captain than Kirk, and while I'll still take the original show's top three over Riker and Data, I'll also still say I prefer the main cast of The Next Generation as a whole. I could have declared the Picard preference earlier I guess, but I'm definitely sure of it now. Stewart's a way better actor than Shatner, and he's simply a more competent commander, more concerned with running the ship properly than exploring strange new vaginas. And I kind of like him more as just a dude, too. His scenes of levity are a more likable self deprecating sort than Kirk making fun of Spock because hahahahaha he's a Vulcan. I have 78 episodes to go, and I'm still trucking.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Archer - Season 1

The creators of Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo have parted ways with Adult Swim, though that doesn't mean they're done making realistically drawn, crudely animated, foul mouthed cartoons. Archer takes their typical sense of humor and brings it to FX in the form of a spy show starring the hot H. Jon Benjamin and a few other comedy veterans. Sterling Archer has some skill in espionage but his defining character traits relate more to his spoiled relationship with his mother, who runs the agency, and his James Bond-like overconfidence with the ladies. He and fellow agent Lana go on their fair share of missions through these ten episodes, though a lot of focus is on the bureaucracy and inter-office politics that take place when things are less dangerous. A lot of time is spent with the different supporting characters just talking about random stuff together, and it provides easily as much comedy as anything relating to actual spy work.

It took me some time to warm up to the show, partly because I didn't like what they were doing with Sterling's character, and partly because the jokes were often just a bit too crass. I feel like Benjamin's best work comes when he's just talking calmly, although lately and especially on this show he spends a lot of time shouting at people. Also, while it's clear the writers are pretty intelligent, it seemed like there was too much reliance on gay jokes and other stuff that really didn't have much to do with the subject matter. As it went on though, there was enough clever stuff and a few moments as hilarious as anything these guys have done that I have to give it some credit. I feel like the show still has the potential to be a lot better, and I can't wait to see where they take it with the second season.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

God of War III

Anyone who goes into God of War III expecting a lot of new ideas and changes to the series is going to be disappointed. God of War's strength has always been its spectacle and the strength of its design and production in every area, not its innovation in the video game landscape. If the first game was more consistent, I might call it the best in the series, simply because the formula was still new at the time. But because of the general nosedive it took in quality in the final act, I preferred the sequel's more even design, and since the third game follows at about the same level and is improved by the big jump in graphics and scale in some of the more important battles, I have no trouble calling it my favorite of the three.

No, it's not very original. God of War never was though, and it succeeds because of the confidence with which it takes all of its familiar elements and combines them into an entertaining whole greater than the sum of its parts. God of War III wraps up Kratos' story, at least for now, and does it with enough panache that it seems like a fitting send-off for the character and the storyline. The ending seems a bit out of place for the general tone of the series and also adds some mumbo jumbo that I didn't really expect, but in the end I didn't mind it that much. The climax of the plot features an interesting (although again, not wholly unique) interlude with a very unusual visual style that's probably worth seeing, and in general, while Kratos isn't a very sympathetic protagonist, I enjoyed the way everything escalated and seeing him unleash his rage on everything around him while the war he's raging wreaks havoc on the world. It's almost absurd how many famous gods and other Greek figures he manages to kill while only managing a few in the first two games, but I've always enjoyed the special way the series butchers the mythology, and its takes on a few personalities are pretty interesting.

For the most part, the game plays like a prettier God of War. There are some nice additions to the combat, like a grapple to pull yourself towards enemies and a few weapons besides the traditional chain blades. The first two games had other equipment that was worth screwing around with for a bit, but this is the first time I can say that they are actually about as much fun to play with. I especially liked the cestus, which is the standard powerful fist weapon except it manages to avoid feeling clunky. Tying Kratos different magic attacks to the weapons allows for some extra abilities to, and along with easier weapon switching your options in combat are more numerous than ever. Besides just killing lots of guys, the platforming and puzzle elements are as strong as ever, with some unique situations to use your different climbing skills in and mind-twisting setups as intriguing as anything in the series. There's one area that's eventual solution seems ripped out of Echochrome and the labyrinth stands up to any puzzle set piece in the series. As usual, there's a sort of circular design to the game, as you see certain obstacles long before you can actually get past them and you get the feeling that it's a living world instead of just a linear series of levels, revisiting some places without it feeling like backtracking.

The graphics make everything more enjoyable, with some amazing background vistas, really good looking characters, and very nice effects on things like blood and fire. But where the new hardware really shines is in the few situations where the game's new sense of scale really comes into play. Anyone who played the last game knows it ends with Kratos accompanying an army of titans climbing up Mount Olympus, and that's right where the third game begins, except this time it's all really happening in engine around you, as you have to fend off a gigantic enemy while riding on the back, arms and head of Gaia herself. There's nothing terribly revolutionary about the mechanics of the fight, but the fact that you're doing it in this situation and they're actually pulling it off is very impressive. There are a couple other situations where this sort of scale shows up, and it never stops being impressive. Not every moment in the game is great, with some fights going on a bit too long and the occasional unintuitive bit of design. But in general, it's a very confidently and competently made game, with great boss fights, amazingly brutal moments, solid voice acting and music, and gorgeous graphics. There's something to be said for simple spit and polish, because it can take anything good and make it better.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Scrubs - Season 9

Or Scrubs: Med School, season one, depending on if you pay attention to the actual title card. Hopefully it's the only season too, because the show's just kind of sad at this point. It's not that it's completely devoid of laughter or a few decent moments that the show is known for, it just feels like the creative spark is completely gone at this point. Most of the main cast from before is either missing or only seen in a few episodes, as they tried to breathe some life into the formula with a new group of interns. Lucy is the JD stand-in, with all of his quirky nervousness but none of his comic timing. James Franco's brother Dave plays the privileged son of some rich donor, and he's half annoying, half the actual funniest character of the season with some of the ridiculous crap that comes out of his mouth. Denise is the only intern from season 8 to return in a significant role, and she forms an interesting relationship with Drew, a hotshot slightly older intern who had some non-medicine related issues the first time he tried to be a doctor.

Donald Faison and John C. McGinley are two of the most talented cast members from the show's original run, yet they're the only ones still around the whole time this season, making you wonder what it is that's keeping them there. It might have been okay to pull this several years ago with a largely circular cast of fresh faces, but for eight years it's been Zach Braff's show, and the conclusion last year was so wonderful, that keeping it going like this just seems wrong. I can't really bring myself to care about any of these new doctors' problems, and with the show's lagging ratings it's not even like they're effectively milking the franchise. It's like a child kicking and screaming while his parents are pulling him away from a birthday party that's already over. It's a good bet that the show's done at this point, and even if it's not I probably won't watch it again anyway.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Brutal Legend

It's a bit unfortunate, because Brutal Legend could have been a really awesome game, but thanks to its reliance on strategy gameplay that no one was really asking for, it's merely a pretty good one. I haven't really played Tim Schafer's older games, but from looking at them and having played Psychonauts, it's pretty clear his strength is in creating unique and interesting settings to go with good stories, and that's the best part of Legend, too. Jack Black plays Eddie Riggs, a roadie who wishes he could live in the time when metal was alive. He means the early 70s, but by the end of the opening he's brought to a world which is basically what 14 year olds imagine when they doodle in their notebooks while listening to heavy metal, a mix of fantasy elements with anachronistic musical technology. It may or may not be in the actual past of the Earth, but that's not really important.

So you're brought to this interesting, well-considered world, filled with some good characters and an interesting beginning to the plot, with some good humor. The gameplay hasn't picked one thing to focus on yet, but you're hacking bad guys up with an ax and electrocuting them with a magic guitar, and driving some interesting vehicles. That's when they start introducing the strategy elements. You can recruit different kinds of troops and order them around... follow me, stay here, attack that location. Before long you're setting up a stage to be your main base, building merch booths to gain control of geysers of "fans" to pay for your new units and upgrades, and trying to destroy enemy bases. The game never completely abandons its other elements, giving you some fun vehicle sections and opportunities to bash a few skulls in, but the core of the challenge is in increasingly difficult strategy battles, and while I didn't really hate the individual elements I found that I was forcing myself to get through them so I could see the next part of the story.

It's not that I even hate strategy games, although I really haven't played them much in a while. But because of the game's control system, the complexity of the strategy is necessarily limited and not terribly interesting. Even with the flying ability you get pretty early, moving around to find your units and command them is more cumbersome than pointing and clicking, and because of the pains it takes to give orders to a single group I mostly just set a target and spammed the command that sends allies towards it. By the end the difficulty of the battles was outpacing my skill with the limited system and the game wasn't really throwing me any bones, so I ended up turning the difficulty down for the last couple skirmishes. I might have been able to figure something out and push through, but I didn't want to waste twenty minutes failing again to find out. The strategy gameplay was certainly a way to convey the scope of the war the story was trying to convey, I just didn't find it interesting to struggle with.

The graphics are pretty nice, with a few issues here and there but good characters that feel like a cartoon come to life and a decent scope to the environment. The voice acting is really good including the scads of metal celebrities making appearances, and the all metal soundtrack was surprisingly entertaining considering my limited appreciation for the genre. The presentation is really the game's best element, and the story and characters are why I stuck it through to the end. I know from Psychonauts that Schafer can do his thing with a game that's actually fun, so I'm hoping his next product is something a little friendlier.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Just Cause

It's a bit late to be playing this game, although I did it for a few reasons. Its sequel, which is coming out in a couple days, has a really fun demo out that got my appetite for some open world destruction up, and my free copy of Red Faction: Guerrilla still hasn't arrived yet. Over a weekend the first Just Cause was less than eight bucks on Steam, so I decided to give it a shot. It turned out to be a functional if unremarkable open world game, not great but probably worth the price I paid.

It shows its age for the most part, the huge environment that never has to load is nice, but most of what you see in it is unimpressive. It's pretty obviously from that transition period between this generation and the last one, and the shooting definitely feels like it came from an earlier era. Enemies pop in and out of cover like they're in a whack-a-mole, the driving is rudimentary and the PC port doesn't support a widescreen mode. There was something weird about the in-game cut scenes, they were rare but happened once in a while, and I couldn't tell if they were intentionally miming to each other or if some voice acting just wasn't playing. More important moments are given the CGI treatment, although the scenes look really cartoony and did little to interest me in the game's very vague plot. Some of the music when you're driving around is pretty good, although that's really the most I can say about the sound. The barely existent story would have benefited from a likable cast, but your support team always has that generic cocky tone and the main guy is one of the worst protagonists I've ever played as. He hasn't a single interesting detail to him, his voice is a boring Antonio Banderas-type thing and I think through the entire game he literally has no lines of dialogue that aren't stupid action movie tough guy quips.

The basic gameplay might have been more exciting a few years ago, but especially after its sequel's demo it's not much to write home about. Not that I'm usually writing letters to people about games I'm playing. It's got the traditional open world shooting and driving, with the additions of a "stunt position" that lets you jump on top of any vehicle, and a parachute and grappling hook to facilitate your transportation through its tropical landscape. It's not easy to get good momentum going with the parachute and the hook is only useful for hitching to moving vehicles, but the ability to jack a vehicle while it's still flying down the highway takes a lot of frustration out of the experience. The straight path through the story missions was a bit surprisingly short, packed with a variety of explosive opportunities but completable in about six hours. There's a ton of side missions you can do to help friendly factions take over territory from other gangs or the government, though the rewards for doing so aren't necessary to beat the game and they weren't really interesting enough on their own to entice me to do many of them. It's really not a very hard game, as you can take a lot of punishment before dying and even the strongest resistance isn't that difficult to circumvent. I had a bit of trouble in the last few missions because helicopters were blowing crap up all around me, but you're always one good shot with the hook away from taking it for yourself and turning the tables.

And that sort of sums up the whole game. There are a few elements that cause frustration and eye rolling, but there were few moments while I was playing where I wasn't at least mildly enjoying myself. It makes you feel pretty invincible for a guy with no real superhuman abilities, and anything bothering you isn't that difficult to find a way to turn the tables on. It's definitely the kind of game that's not great but tolerable if you don't have to spend a ton on it. Just Cause 2 on the other hand might be playable right away.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Battlefield: Bad Company 2

I've been a fan of the Battlefield series, but as an online shooter and not a single player experience. I skipped the first Bad Company, so I came into the second game's campaign knowing very little about the story and cast other than a few fairly funny videos about the main squad. That core team of four guys make up the single player's strongest element, as they make their way through a mission that has its moments, but ultimately comes off a bit clunky compared to its direct competition by choice, the Modern Warfare games. It's clear from cracks they take at Activision's series both in the game and in the promotional material that beating them is what they're going for, so I think it's fair to compare them directly. Having spent some time with the online, I think Battlefield still has the edge with multiplayer, though they haven't toppled Infinity Ward in single player design or execution just yet.

In some ways, I do prefer the slightly different pace and feel of Bad Company's combat. Instead of distinctly splitting you between forced quiet missions and all out battles with crap constantly exploding around you, it feels more organic, as you move from place to place, coming across enemies here and there, sometimes with the opportunity to pick them off quickly before it becomes an all out firefight. The shooting seems more dynamic, you aren't constantly being fired on so there's opportunities to try to take an objective from a different angle and experiment with weapons. And there's quite a few set piece moments, often involving vehicles that you're either allowed to drive yourself or being controlled for you as you have to fend off some enemy. They're clearly trying to top Modern Warfare in some places, doing things like making fun of snowmobiles during a race on quad bikes and giving you more control over the same equipment used during one of the other series' more talked about moments. Even the final moment seems to be saying "take that!", making something more climactic by having you do it while falling from an airplane.

The sad thing is it's not generally problems with the design that make it inferior to Modern Warfare, it's little issues with execution. The checkpoints aren't very good, as the most difficult sections will often take place several minutes after the last one occurred, forcing you to see the same stuff too much if you screw up once during a difficult encounter. There's also something weird about how the game handles reloading after you die, as it often seems like several seconds of action have taken place since the place where the checkpoint actually happened. Certain scripted events are forced on you and easy to bug out, like you'll go somewhere you weren't supposed to, see a soldier that you physically can't kill, and then realize he was placed there for a squad mate to take care of while you watch once you get close enough. Your team members will often just stand around instead of sticking with you, and then they'll teleport in front of you when you get to the next area. And there a few gimmicks through the campaign that only show up once, and they tend to feel sort of half baked without adding a ton to the normal shooting, which is fun enough on its own.

The story is standard fake military stuff with a bit of a sci fi twinge, as the driving force of the plot is a special weapon developed in World War II that sounds like something out of War of the Worlds and could bring untold destruction to the world in the wrong hands. It's enjoyable because of the chemistry of the game's unique main characters. The player character is sort of vanilla, but the supporting cast is quite strong and often hilarious, including random conversations that can pop up in the game when you're not fighting someone, and they're just talking about whatever comes to mind. As expected from the Battlefield franchise, the sound is possibly its strongest element, from the voice acting to the great sound effects on the weaponry to the music. Guns sound different depending on what environment you're firing them in, and the ominous tones of the super weapon in the distance when you're near it are pretty effective in placing you there. The graphics aren't as good but they're competent, although I would have liked some more visual flair to go with the destructible environments. As it is, when you blow up a part of a building it often seems like it's just falling apart. I haven't talked much about the multiplayer, though the fact that I've played it more than once should tell you something. I don't like some things such as having to unlock basic equipment for the various dumbed down classes, but the core design is still the strong, entertaining structure I remember from Battlefield 2 that rewards teamwork and playing smart. I wouldn't quite call Bad Company 2 great, but it's sure a lot of fun.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Life Stinks

Life Stinks is that rare thing - a Mel Brooks movie that isn't a parody. His first big hit, The Producers, fits this description, but he mostly made a name for himself by poking fun at various films and genres. Of course, changes of pace are always welcome, but unfortunately Life Stinks has a problem that The Producers didn't - it's not very good. There are a few good jokes sprinkled around, and both Lesley Ann Warren and Jeffrey Tambor turn in quite good supporting performances. The comedy in general is hopelessly dated though, it hardly seems like it's trying for laughs some of the time, and it's pretty hard to believe it actually came out as recently as the nineties. I don't blame Brooks for trying, and there are some bits here and there that made me feel I didn't totally waste my time, but it's pretty clear for the most part that he was reaching for the scraps of what was left of his creative output. He managed two more parodies after this that I haven't seen, though I haven't heard terribly good things. Brooks is possibly my favorite comedy director, so it's a bit sad to watch him flounder like this. And it's even harder to dislike the movie when its spirit is so positive. Bums ain't bad people! Life itself can be a wonderful thing! Yay!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Gorillaz - Plastic Beach

It's been a while since the last Gorillaz album, but Damon Albarn hasn't lost the touch. He pretty much produced this one on his own, and the project didn't start out as a Gorillaz thing, but it still fits the "band"'s sound for the most part. It's not totally similar, but the general feel is close enough to maintain the feel of the world's best fake band. Instrumentally, there's a stronger focus on orchestral elements and trip-hop/electronic sounds instead of more diverse instrumentation, and Damon doesn't sing quite as much, with quite a few guests appearing, especially in the first half, from rappers like Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, and the members of De La Soul to older singers like Lou Reed and Bobby Womack. Not every guest makes a great contribution, but enough of them hit to keep the diversity welcome.

I'd say this disc is somewhere in between the first two Gorillaz albums, maybe not in sound but in consistency. Their debut had some outstanding moments and really good songs, although parts were less interesting and sort of dull. Demon Days on the other hand, might not have quite reached the same heights in a lot of places, but is more enjoyable throughout the entire running time. Plastic Beach has a couple of clunkers, but generally matches or comes near to matching the strengths of both albums. I might call it my favorite Gorillaz release, although that opinion could easily change again. It's a bit front-loaded with awesome songs like "Rhinestone Eyes", "Stylo", and "Empire Ants", though there's good stuff in the back half too, like "Broken" and "Cloud of Unknowing". I don't really know what the future holds for this project, but I hope it involves more music before the year 2015.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

American Dad! - Season 5

Apparently American Dad!'s fifth season ended abruptly a few weeks ago without anyone telling me, but it was a solid 13 episode run, I guess. I'd much rather have a full 20+ episodes of this than The Cleveland Show, but what can you do. To be honest, Family Guy has recently retaken the title of my favorite running Seth MacFarlane show with its constantly escalating absurdity and Dad! losing its unique spark a little bit, although it's still got some life left in it. By the way, do you know how many times Seth has actually written a script for one of his shows besides a pilot? Twice, both on Family Guy, and one of them was a single segment of the viewer mail anthology. He's a funny guy, but his primary strengths are definitely his voice and his existence now as a brand. Anyway, there was some fun stuff this season, like the crazy extent of the Vietnam reenactment on a golf course in the premiere and the totally nuts episode where the rapture occurs and Stan and Francine are stuck in a post apocalyptic earth, with an ending that would put the reality of the rest of the series in question if it wasn't for a small detail. To be honest, I'm sort of getting tired of the constant cycle of Stan being the worst husband in the world, learning an important lesson, and then forgetting it by the beginning of the next episode, but it's still entertaining and manages to separate itself from Family Guy enough to be its own show.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Band of Brothers

Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks' The Pacific just started airing last night, so it seemed like a good time to revisit its counterpart in the European theater, Band of Brothers. It's a miniseries that war movies wish they could be, telling the stories of a very important company throughout their struggles without any sacrifices made in production value over its more than ten hours of running time. At times it's quite violent, though it doesn't really cross the line to gratuitous, and three of the episodes feature no combat whatsoever. A lot of the best moments just look at the friendships that formed between the troops and how they tried to cope with the constant danger they lived in, though that's not to say the battles aren't impressively done. The frantic camerawork, the well-considered but brutal situations they're fighting through, the strong visuals and amazing sound work make every fight exciting and harrowing no matter how many times you watch them. I feel like the presentation of the cast could have been a bit clearer, because names and ranks fly by at a rapid pace and even after seeing it three times I still can't match every single name with a face. For the most part you remember the main guys pretty well, and they effectively convey the "brothers" theme through the whole thing. Sometimes random troops die and that's just war, but every time someone you recognize gets killed or seriously injured it's like a dagger through the heart. I don't know how anyone can watch this and see the interviews with the surviving members and not feel immense respect for these soldiers. I hope The Pacific can successfully hit the right notes too.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Top Gear - Season 13

This season finished airing in England seven months ago, and the fourteenth has already aired there. Why do they show it here so much later? Oh well. A lack of timeliness doesn't make it less fun. These seven episodes featured plenty of the same thrills and laughs I've come to expect from the Top Gear crew, from the fake reveal of the Stig's identity to an encounter with some American stunt drivers to fake car advertisements that actually got them in trouble with the weird content laws over there. There's been some discussion of the show getting too wacky and an admission that it's probably closer to the end than the beginning, but I haven't found myself enjoying it any less. And the American version is apparently happening after all thanks to the History Channel. As much as I continue to not care about cars, I still love watching these guys play with them.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Burn Notice - Season 3

Remember when I said that for the show to grow, it would have to do something new? Yeah, well it didn't. Mike is still pulling odd jobs in Miami with his crazy girlfriend and Bruce Campbell by his side, while a main plot progresses in bursts once in a while. Once again, the season ends with a strong episode that ditches the formula for something more exciting and with a cliffhanger ending that suggests a change in what's to come next time, although I'll gladly bet that by the second episode of season four, he's pulling odd jobs in Miami with his crazy girlfriend and Bruce Campbell by his side again. There's not really anything wrong with that, it's just what keeps Burn Notice as an enjoyable but forgettable spy show instead of a potentially great one.

There's the usual train of snarky contacts and overseers who boss Mike around while also supplying him with work he doesn't care for but does anyway, and they all predictably get written out after a handful of episodes. Mike's mother's role expanded a bit this season, as she gets more involved than he'd like in a couple of their capers and starts getting actually affected by his spy work. Right now it's the closest thing the show has to actual depth, although it's not really my favorite part. I felt like there was some more overlap than there should have been in plots/techniques used, as the show thrives when it's being clever and new, though there was enough of that to keep me watching with a semi-interested glaze. Not a great program, but funny and interesting enough to keep it's place on my list.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 3

This was supposed to be the season where the show really got good... and it did, I guess. It at least seemed more consistent in having watchable episodes instead of embarrassing ones. And there are some pretty good stories in here, I'm just having trouble remembering what they are. Oh yeah, the one with Data creating an AI "daughter" was good. Seems like he's in a lot of the best episodes. The alternate reality/time travel one that brought back Yar for a little while was interesting. Worf continued to grow into a more intriguing character than just being the token alien on the crew, although some of his best moments are just using his badassness for comedy instead of actual badass things. And you have to give them credit for ending the season the way they did, in the middle of the first two-part story since the pilot, with the crew in disarray. Sure, I know it's going to be resolved by the end of the season four premiere, but it's still a brave way to do things for a show that lives on the one-plot-per-week system. I've still got more than half the series to go, but I do have to say I've been enjoying it more than the original.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Freaknik: The Musical

So this was kinda weird. It was a one hour animated special produced by T-Pain, starring him as Freaknik, an auto-tuned ghost who comes back from the dead to host a music festival in Atlanta (Freaknik used to be an actual thing. The festival, not the ghost.), and featuring a bunch of rappers and comedians playing a wide array of strange characters. Lil Jon is an old man who tells the story, Lil Wayne is some version of Jesus, Young Cash and Cee-Lo are members of a ssmall town rap group trying to make it big, and so on. Not all of the jokes land, as it spends a lot of time leaning on celebrity parody and race jokes, though it was funny enough to elicit the occasional chuckle. What I enjoyed most was the animation style (hard to believe this is the same studio that does Metalocalypse) and the musical numbers, which are generally enjoyable, catchy alt rap. The plot, beyond its unusual premise, isn't that original, but it hits all the right notes in order, and wraps itself up nicely. Not the greatest, but watchable.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Corner

Before The Wire, there was The Corner. In the 90s, David Simon and Ed Burns spent some time with real drug addicts from the slums of Baltimore and wrote a book about a particular family stuck there. It got turned into a miniseries on HBO directed by Charles S. Dutton, telling the true story more or less as it happened. It plays more or less like the drug scenes from The Wire, without the same focus on the more entertaining topics like the higher level drug dealing or investigations. It makes for a show that's more depressing and difficult to watch, and for the most part it's pretty powerful. The fact that these stories are actually real just makes it more affecting. It's not entirely mind numbing, because a few people actually do manage to straighten their lives out and at least stop using hardcore drugs, though others never manage the feat.

The six episode series ends with Dutton narrating the eventual fate of each significant character (at least up to that point in 2000), and it's sort of sobering how many of them end up dead. Fake interview segments with the different characters open and close each episode, though the final one instead interviews four of the actual survivors, getting their perspectives on what they hope the series can do for people. It's pretty sobering, eye-opening stuff, and it's just sad that things really don't seem to have changed that much in the worst parts of the country. As just a small window into what can really happen to anyone under the wrong circumstances, it's worth checking out if you don't have time for sixty hours of the best series ever, or want a little bit more.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Serious Man

The Coen brothers have been making movies for a while, though this is the first time they've really dug into their Jewish heritage. I wasn't quite sure what to expect going in, with the mostly unknown cast and not a ton of hype, but I ended up enjoying it a ton, and I'd say it's one of my five favorite films by them. I can easily see why someone wouldn't enjoy it, as it seems to feature every weird and potentially annoying technique the Coens use, and honestly I'm a bit surprised it was nominated for Best Picture over some of their more accessible stuff, although the expansion to ten nominees helps. It's quirky, it has unnecessary violence, it has dead end plot points, it ends abruptly, and it's really only funny if you get their unique sense of humor. But these are all reasons that I enjoyed it. As a longtime fan of their work, it almost felt like a reward for years of watching and appreciating their style.

An easy problem to have with the movie I guess is wondering what it's actually about. It begins with a vignette in an European village some time in the past, where a Jewish couple has an unusual encounter, and the movie doesn't make a terribly strenuous attempt to connect it to the rest of the story. It stars Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik, a physics teacher and family man in the late 60s or early 70s, and shows what is probably the worst period of his life. There's no single tumultuous event that changes everything, stuff just starts to go wrong and doesn't stop. Some problems are more mundane than others, but they all keep piling on. He has several misleading dreams that go nowhere, and as previously mentioned, the film ends right before anything truly significant actually happens, although more bad news is on the horizon. For some reason this sort of ending seems to be in vogue right now, and as much as it bothers other people, I kind of love it when done properly, and this was one of my favorite examples.

The question of the point of it still exists, and I'm not sure there is one. The Coen brothers love their allusions, and comparisons can be pretty easily drawn to various stories from the Bible (or Torah, I guess), where the wrath of god rains down on a poor soul for no real reason. Larry has something of a crisis of faith throughout the movie, turning to various rabbis for help and questioning his beliefs, in ways both obvious and hidden under tricky dialogue with double meanings. The Coen brothers' movies lately have tended to be pretty bleak even when they're being funny, and A Serious Man is no different. But it still is really funny, one of their most humorous if you're in the right mood. Characters are bizarre without being silly, and there's just the right balance of absurdity with the darker elements to keep it entertaining the whole time. It's hard to pick just one thing to highlight the comedic aspect, though I will say that Sy Ableman is definitely one of my favorite Coen characters. What an asshole.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Hurt Locker

I managed to catch a couple more Best Picture nominees before the Oscars last night. Although The Hurt Locker wasn't my favorite (and isn't even on my 2009 list because of its late 2008 release in Italy), it was the most likely candidate to keep Avatar from the top prize, so I was definitely rooting for it as the night went on. It's not that I dislike Avatar, because I enjoyed it, it's that the only reason it seemed that it was getting any sort of award attention over any of the other pretty yet uninspired huge budget action movies over the years is that James Cameron made it and it earned an absurd amount of money. The only way I can see one justifying its critical success is by valuing the difficulty and uniqueness of the process over the actual quality of the result, and in my mind The Hurt Locker is in every way that's important a superior film.

Not that it isn't without its flaws, which I guess I'll get out of the way. Despite being the sort of film that you'd figure is built on details, it makes some strange errors. It takes place in 2004, yet features soldiers playing an Xbox 360 and referring to Youtube, things that didn't come around until a year later. The only thing that I can compare in terms of portraying the war is Generation Kill, and Kill certainly seemed to capture the actual experience a lot closer. There's a difference in goal, as Kill is all about trying to show the soldiers' experience, while Hurt Locker is trying to be an exciting thriller. But while they have a similar veneer of gritty realism, there are things that happen in Locker that just seem and are ridiculous. While Kill follows an entire battalion through the early invasion period, Locker focuses on a single bomb disposal unit that apparently acts autonomously and basically does what they want, which seems wrong and accounts of real soldiers back me up. Jeremy Renner plays a leader who follows his own rules and ignores standard procedure a lot. It's a good, interesting performance, and it avoids being a cliche in the story because of how things turn out. But the simple fact is a sergeant who actually acted like that would never last close to that long in the field.

Also it's funny that one of the quotes on the movie poster compares Jeremy Renner to a young Russell Crowe. Crowe is less than seven years older than Renner.

Anyway. It was a good movie. Mostly on the strength of its sound and visuals. I complained on twitter about writer Mark Boal possibly beating Quentin Tarantino for Best Original Screenplay before it happened, and I stand by that. The script does some interesting things, but for the most part it shuffles between action setpiece and soldier downtime for two hours before its solid denouement. The movie works because those setpieces are filmed so damn well. The super slow motion, the overhead shot as Renner discovers how many buried IEDs he's actually dealing with, the entire amazing desert sniper sequence, the uncompromising nature of dealing with the body bomb... it's just filled with astounding imagery that all the technical wizardry of Avatar wishes it could match the thrill of. And the sound helps every bit as much, with every explosion and gunshot having the perfect punch. The score is really good too, suiting a war movie that doesn't really act like your normal war movie.

I already discussed Renner, who did a great job in his role, and probably deserved the nomination. His two costars Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty are solid as the rest of his squad, and together they form a believable tension between camaraderie and hostility that help the movie survive its lack of authenticity elsewhere. Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes both do well in roles that are sort of funny in the way they go away so quickly, leaving the movie in the hands of the unknowns for the most part. And Kate from Lost shows up as Renner's wife which is kind of weird but doesn't really hurt the film. I've seen some debate about whether Kathryn Bigelow would have won Best Director over her ex-husband if she wouldn't have been the first woman to receive the honor, but for me it goes back to the same question as the two movies overall, and while Cameron may have poured more of his life into his movie and invented more technologies and created more out of his own imagination, what actually showed up on screen in the two films has me leaning towards Bigelow in that department. It's a film that for me totally survived off the strength of her vision, and I'm interested in exploring a bit more of her work, although some of what I've heard about it has me less sure. Still, a good film and an acceptable Best Picture.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Station Agent

I was told to see this after hearing that HBO's adaptation of the brilliant book series A Song of Ice and Fire is officially getting a full season, because it was directed by Thomas McCarthy, who shot the pilot, and stars Peter Dinklage, who'll be playing my favorite character. McCarthy is better known as an actor, but he's done a couple films now and they've been very well received by the few people who have seen them. The Station Agent is short and light on plot, but it still manages to pack a lot of heart and humanity into its 90ish minutes. Dinklage plays a man with dwarfism who moves out into a rural part of New Jersey after his friend and the owner of the store where he works passes away and leaves him some property.

He's a quiet loner with a passion for trains and not much else, and you get a taste of his life where he's always seen as different and often mocked. Even the other main characters who come to befriend him over time seem to treat him differently because of what he is, and it's an interesting thing to watch. With the character being reserved, it isn't very obvious most of the time what he's feeling, but it still seems like you know what he's going through thanks to the subtle intelligence of the performance and the detached way he seems to view everything. The movie might have been especially poignant to me, since I was always short growing up (I still am, just not enough to be gawked at), although anyone who's ever felt out of place could probably get something out of it.

I may be making the movie sound too morose or something, but in some ways it could be called a comedy, thought a pretty naturalistic and understated one. It gets more serious in its last half hour, but in general it's simply a pleasant watch, well shot without an excess of flair and with strong performances from everyone. Patricia Clarkson got a few awards for her turn as a painter who separated from her husband after her son died, and rightly so, and Bobby Cannavale is enjoyable as the overly enthusiastic patron of a hot dog stand. The chemistry between the three friends is a unique one, as you'd probably not expect any of them to ever spend time together, but it makes for an entertaining and touching film. It's not the kind of thing I usually watch, but I liked it a lot and have even more confidence that Game of Thrones will be great.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Heavy Rain

I'm glad I managed to finish this before the massive failure of older PS3s last night. Here's hoping they fix it without too much trouble. Anyway, Heavy Rain is a different sort of video game. Its creators would have us all completely avoid the label if possible, preferring terms like "interactive drama". It's a video game though, that doesn't have to be a dirty word. It's a different sort of game than we usually play, but still a game. It's the evolution of what Quantic Dream tried a few years ago with Indigo Prophecy, what's basically an adventure game that works harder to immerse you in its story than to stump you with complicated environmental puzzles. That element is still there, as the game often sticks you as one of its four main characters in some limited environment, and lets you walk around, examining and interacting with objects in the world, with some ultimate goal in mind. Sometimes things are casual, like just walking around your house after waking up in the prologue. Other times the situation is more stressful and you have to think on your feet. It's made further complex with one character, an FBI agent who can scour crime scenes for clues using a device straight out of science fiction. The controls in these parts are a bit weird. Instead of moving with the analog stick, it merely directs the direction you're looking in, while holding a button down moves you forward. It's a bit awkward, although it didn't cause me many problems beyond sometimes having difficulty navigating when the camera switches.

The other part of the gameplay is the use of infamous quick time events. It seems wrong to refer to the more cinematic segments as "cut scenes", because they're so pervasive through the game that they seem to be the point of the experience instead of more traditional gameplay set-ups. Any complex interactions beyond walking are controlled by various actions indicated by on screen prompts, including movements with the right analog stick, pressing buttons, or holding multiple ones at once for particularly difficult or intricate actions. Sometimes they're simple, sometimes you're in great stress and doing them to stay alive. The game makes a point of letting you know that the characters are vulnerable, and capable of being killed before the end of the story. This isn't true in every dangerous situation, but often enough that you want to pay attention whenever things aren't looking good. From fighting off home invaders to escaping from the police, these sequences are always tense and thrilling in ways that games usually aren't, and while messing up the control prompts occasionally won't necessarily kill you, they will at least make things go badly in ways that usually show up later. I never became totally comfortable knowing exactly which sort of action was expected when they do things beyond simple button presses, but this didn't become a huge issue.

I've spent a lot of time just talking about how the game works, though the most important factor to the experience working is the story. And... it's not great, but not bad. In some ways it's worth playing just to see this kind of story in a game, which is very uncommon. It plays out like an eight hour suspense/mystery movie, and the fact that it doesn't completely fall apart under all that weight is something of an accomplishment. Despite the lengthiness of the plot, it doesn't feel like that time is used completely effectively. A lot of the game time is spent, especially early in the different characters' respective stories, doing things that aren't very important. Playing with your kids, wandering through your apartment at night, they help establish personalities a bit but aren't the most elegantly presented character development you'll see and take time away from what could have been more useful. I liked the main characters for the most part, but their relationships aren't developed well enough for some of the directions they take, and certain twists later on make you feel like a lot of what you're doing was wasted and that you were lied to. Most stories with big surprises do a bit of pulling the rug from under you, but in a game when you directly control these characters' actions, it seems especially disingenuous.

Like I said though, I didn't hate the story, and in a lot of ways it deserves respect just for its ambition. It's genuinely intriguing and disturbing in places, and while the fact of player interaction makes certain things weaker, it also increases the drama and impact elsewhere. It puts you in the shoes of people who sometimes have to make very tough decisions, and while I didn't have as many qualms about some things simply because I wasn't actually feeling whatever they were, it was still pretty impressive in places. I wasn't sure about Madison, the female character for a while. It seems like she's exploited pretty often just for being a woman, and some segments with her with a bit uncomfortable. If that sense of vulnerability is what they were actually going for with her, which seems likely, then it was very effective, though resorting to making you play an attractive woman in compromising situations isn't the most elegant way to do that. I'm not sure the story was as dynamic as advertised. From what I can see from my experiences and reading about what you can do, the main plot seems pretty set in stone, with only the extraneous details being highly variable. The ending is basically stitched together, sort of like Fallout 3, except with a lot more effort put into it.

I guess I should touch on how well the story is presented too. Both visually and aurally, it has successes and failures. The graphics are technically very good for the most part. Characters are pretty impressive looking, especially in some facial details, environments look great, and just the visual atmosphere is very strong throughout. There are some hiccups here and there though, and some of the issues with things like soft materials, mouth movements, and the occasionally stiff animation are all the worse when the focus is so heavy on the presentation. The voice acting has its problems, although it's only really an issue because so much of the game is talking. A lot of the actors aren't bad, some even occasionally great, but almost all of them are clearly Europeans imitating American accents, some a lot worse than others. The music though is fantastic, with the strong orchestral score being one of the game's best assets. It's haunting and moving in all the right places. Ultimately, Heavy Rain is far from perfect, but worth of praise and attention just for its ambition and how admirably close it comes to achieving it.