Tag Archive for 'reviews'

Heavy Rain Review: Wait, so what’s done is done?

Heavy Rain box

Those of us who live in video games have always had the luxury of a rather juvenile approach to our video game lives. Did you screw up? Go back and try it again. Do you want to be good or evil? Here are two options for you. Here’s what will happen depending on what you choose. Change your mind about which option you wanted? Well, that’s alright — just go back and try the other thing.

Heavy Rain is a gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, emotional stranglehold of a game particularly because it violates all of these things that we’ve been accustomed to in video games. But first, some advice:

Play the game on the hardest difficulty, even if you’re not super familiar with video games. Unless you’re missing more than a third of so of the prompts, you shouldn’t pick the easier route. This game is much more interesting if you make mistakes.

This game is much more interesting if you make mistakes.

Heavy RainThis was one of the easier decisions in the game.

This isn’t a game about winning. This isn’t a game about doing things the right way. This is a game about people, and people make mistakes. And, unlike in video games, they have to live with those mistakes for the rest of their lives. Unlike in video games, sometimes what is asked of people is too much for them to handle, too much for them to accomplish. And forcing yourself to accept that reality and forcing yourself to accept that, for the next eight to twelve hours of your life, you have to live with whatever just happened — that is the insanity of this game.

And, the choices you make in the game are just as human, and just as insane. The sort of thing you’re choosing to do in this game is organic and real in a way that I haven’t seen in any other game to date. This isn’t a game that gives gravitas to grand, sweeping decisions that you’re making. There are no defining moments of choice. There is no Playboy X moment in this game. This game is much dirtier and much meaner than that.

There was one point in my first playthrough where I was confronted with a quick, simple decision, and implicitly given only seconds to choose — and I was completely paralyzed trying to make this decision because I had no idea if one of the options would perhaps kill me, or if the other option would perhaps result in the failure to find my son. In fact, I spent so long trying to weigh my options that the game stopped waiting for me and just moved on. The genius of the choices in this game is in the fact that you have an investment in those decisions (emotionally for the characters, as well as personally for your own time playing the entire remainder of the game), and as a result it becomes practically as real as it is for the characters in question.

Similarly, fight scenes are about as intense as any you’ll find in any game, simply because the stakes are so incredibly high. And, with fights and intense action happening fairly often, you’ll be about as exhausted as these poor characters by the end of the game.

I’d rather stop my review here. I think that everyone should play this game once. I think that while it may not be a revolution in the way games are made or told (it is, but it’s too much of an insane effort to be replicated within pretty much any other game), it is an incredibly well-conceived and -executed experience that everyone should experience once — particularly those that spend a lot of time playing video games.

And, perhaps once is the right number of times to play this game. Going back and seeing how other decisions play out I found ruined the emotional value of the scenes. Real people, after all, don’t get to time-travel back and figure out what might have otherwise happened. That nagging feeling after the game ends that perhaps you could have made better decisions, but not being completely certain, is part of the experience. Of course, if you want to get all the trophies in the game, you’ll have no choice.

Either way, though I think everything else about the game should be inconsequential in relativity to what I’ve already described, this wouldn’t be a proper game review without considering all the other components that make this game a game.

Heavy RainThis game has perhaps the best lighting since Mirror’s Edge.

Graphically, Heavy Rain is a bit of a tour de force. Sometimes the designers blew out the lighting a bit too much, for instance in the police office, and textures start to look like the pastels from the first Counter-Strike, but for the most part the graphics in this game are both technically and artistically breathtaking. The uncanny valley is in a bit of effect here, but it’s more than counterbalanced by the beauty of the lighting in the first scene of the game, or the dust suspended in the air of the apartment you just broke into, with peeling wallpaper and a crumbling ceiling, sunlight scattering through the dirty windows. There are brief moments in this game that look better and more realistic than any other game I’ve ever played, and I’m not sure how they do it, but I suspect they put a lot of thought into light and how it diffuses. The PS3 has really been shining bright recently.

The sound in the game is also superb for the most part, with the obvious and oft-mentioned complaint about some of the voice acting. I didn’t find it as distracting as others, but it was definitely a present problem. The music gets a bit repetitive after a while, with only a couple generic calm-yet-sad leitmotifs, and a small handful of oh-god-i’m-going-to-die cues.

Perhaps the most broken part of this game is the simple act of walking. After playing the game for a few minutes, you start to understand why the game controls like a tank (you hold R2 to walk, and then use the left stick to turn), but that still doesn’t excuse the fact that the way it carries out said tank-controls is so awful. Sometimes you’ll find yourself on the cusp of an invisible, virtual corner of the game, trying to get to the other side of the corner, but because you’re a few inches off, you’ll turn around like a drunk clown several times before finally giving up, walking several feet away, and trying it again. There must have been a better solution here than tank controls. Added to the fact that the way it’s animated gives the impression that you’re dragging these people unwillingly along by a piece of string attached to their noses, and it serves in general to make something which should be fairly simple incredibly frustrating.

Again, though, I think these things are inconsequential relative to the actual merits of this game. Everyone should play it once — perhaps precisely once, perhaps at least once, but once nonetheless.

Review: Dollhouse Episode 13 — “Epitaph One”

The short version (since I am well aware that I tend to wax poetic): Epitaph One is not merely an incredible episode that would have beautifully wrapped up the series, it gives Dollhouse new purpose, and a reason to exist.

Let’s face it — Dollhouse has been inconsistent. From what I hear, creator Joss Whedon is notorious for slow starts, but I’m not sure that I buy that, given how collected and engaging Firefly was from the very start. I think that what both the writers and audience of the new show have found over the course of the first year is that it is at its best when the metaplot and the mythology of the show kick in. In the Blu-Ray commentary, Joss seems to push back on this as much as he can, asserting that it was important for the first five episodes to be incremental and largely standalone.

He also states with strong conviction that he is strongly against shows that end up entangled within their own mythology — the prime example being LOST. He’s not wrong — no matter how interested they may be, no one is going to dive into LOST at this point, just before the final season, and try to follow along. However, I feel that there are a number of intrinsic benefits to investing in that aspect of a show — it generates a feeling of progress in each episode, and it pays dividends when you have a rich history of tidbits to draw from and connect.

Firefly is the vindication of his point of view. The reason that the standalone episode format worked so well for it was that it was really more or less the point of the show: the chronicles of the daily lives of people in a world rather unlike ours, but not unapproachably so. It was fun to watch Firefly and compare their daily bellyaches to your own, or to imagine yourself in that world. The mundane (and I use that word in the best light possible) was very nearly a mission statement of the show.

Dollhouse can’t take that claim. Being set very much in our day-to-day world — no demons, no spaceships — it’s much more difficult to find excitement out of self-contained story arcs. Originally, though, the show wasn’t meant to be quite as action-oriented as it is. It was meant to be more contemplative, focusing on the moral aspects of the Dollhouse’s much-vaunted technology. It’s a somewhat hidden element of the show, since the A-plots tend to draw so much immediate attention to themselves, but hearing Joss’s commentary on the episode Man On the Street really brings it out and into focus, and it’s actually a rather deep concept of the show.

But that’s exactly the problem. With all of the aspects that it is trying to balance, Dollhouse tended to get lost in itself. Sure, it was great storytelling, but it was missing that draw, that cerebral aspect that the morality of the show sets up, and perhaps ultimately its most interesting component.

Epitaph One turns that all on its head. Yes, it’s still Dollhouse — but it’s not, really. It’s well known that it takes place a few years into the future. I won’t tell you how many. It’s shot mostly handheld and on video rather than on film — one of the biggest cost-saving elements of the episode, if I understand correctly (the episode cost half as much as the others, and its model became a big reason Dollhouse was renewed in the first place).

But the most interesting part of the episode is that while watching it, you’re no longer faced with hypotheses. There was always the consideration of what could be done with the technology should it ever slip out of Rossum’s grasp, but never being brought face-to-face with it was precisely the reason that the morality aspect of the show suffered. In Epitaph One, you’re faced with one very specific example of precisely what happens — and it’s frightening. Thus, my argument that the episode gives the show much-needed focus.

In addition, it drive the show along narratively in spades — more, almost, than in the entire rest of the first season. It feels like LOST in more than a few ways: in terms of narrative structure, writing, and mood. This is a good thing for the show, and should the next few seasons make good on the promises of this episode, we’re in for a wild ride yet. But now I’ve spent more than enough time discussing narrative — time to talk about the other things that make a show successful.

In term of acting, while Felicia Day does a great job, it is really Adair Tishler that steals the show. Completely. She was the most adorable thing ever on Heroes (back when I [anyone?] still watched it), but here she proves that her acting chops are to be feared. Watch out for this one.

And writing-wise, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen knock this one out of the park. They wrote Dr. Horrible along with Joss, if you didn’t know. I get the distinct feeling that apart from the seed of the plot and the usual edits, Joss really left the two of them to their own devices on this one, and they prove themselves more than worthy of the trust.

Oh, and the song at the end? Performed by Maurissa? Let’s just say that I bought it on Amazon and I’ve listened to it 42 times already in 2 days. It’s been a long time since I put anything on one-song repeat.

Epitaph One is fantastic. It ends on a note that would have been an absolutely beautiful way to end the series, and I challenge the writers to come up with an even better one when the time comes. But it’s really the promise it makes of the things to come that have me — for the first time ever — actively and completely excited about Dollhouse.

(Excited enough to write a blog post at 2 in the morning. Ugh.)

Top Albums of 2008: 20-16

Forgive me. I’ve been busy.

20. Why? – Alopecia

I’ve not been quite as taken with Why?’s latest album as the critics have, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good album. Definitely not something you’d want to relax to, Alopecia is a somewhat skittish, flamboyantly experimental album which further cements Why?’s position as more of an indie band that happens to incorporate a rap-like element than any sort of hip-hop group.

The most impressive part of the album isn’t necessarily the music nor the lyrics themselves, but rather how naturally the band manages to make all the capriciously assembled elements flow together, and how catchy each hook really is. While frontman Yoni Wolf laments a breakup or considers loneliness, he does so with a certain detachment from both the concept at hand as well as concept as a whole, which ties together somewhat the generally fragmented nature of the rest of the music.

All in all, Alopecia is a fantastic piece of work, but not necessarily a fantastic piece of music.

Key Tracks: These Few Presidents, Fatalist Palmistry, Twenty-Eight

19. Logistics – Reality Checkpoint

Logistics’ debut album Now More Than Ever was a somewhat bizarre release. While Matt Gresham’s musical talent was projected very obviously in the album, and it had a number of incredible tunes – most notably City Life – the album was simply too ambitious to be thoroughly good. Putting out 24 top-notch tracks, particularly your first time out, is a grueling task, and it was pretty clear that he wasn’t up to it at the time.

Reality Checkpoint is exactly that – a return to reality for the artist. At 14 tracks long, it’s a much better album as a whole, with quite a few more catchy tunes that move Liquid Funk forward in some direction or another. Sadly, there aren’t any remarkable or super-innovative tracks that really stand out, but it’s a much better series of songs in general.

Key Tracks: Reality Checkpoint, 96, Continuum

18. Pendulum – In Silico

Pendulum’s debut album Hold Your Colour was a monster hit in the Drum and Bass world. Packed with hard-hitting, catchy songs that endure to this day, the album really made a name for Pendulum a few years back. While some people complained at how commercial and uninnovative the tracks are, sometimes that’s simply not the point. When Pendulum announced a new album drop, everyone was pretty stoked.

In Silico is… different. It still sounds definitely like Pendulum, which is good, but it also isn’t precisely Drum and Bass. It’s a bizarre yet somehow delicious mix of Drum and Bass and Rock. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it hits hard, sometimes it pulls back for no apparent reason and for far too long. Sometimes it’s fresh and exciting, and sometimes you just want to turn the thing off. At the end of the day, a couple of the songs have earned airplay on the local alternative rock station here in Seattle, so perhaps it’s a good thing that Pendulum chose this direction. In my book, it remains to be seen.

Key Tracks: Showdown, Propane Nightmares, The Tempest

17. Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman – The Fabled City

Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine fame made a name for himself by creating incredible, unbelievable sounds out of his guitar using just a toggle switch, four pedals, and a judicious amount of feedback. Perhaps this is why his first political folk rock album, One Man Revolution (which made number 14 on this list last year), was so incredibly sparse. Populated only by his nylon string guitar, his voice, his harmonica, and a smattering of other light instruments only occasionally, One Man Revolution was an incredibly successful exercise in minimalism. Stripped of his usual tools, Morello was forced to innovate and be extremely creative in order to form a collection of interesting, cohesive, pointed songs.

You can guess where I’m going. Given how he already proved himself with the last album, Morello decided to throw in a few more standard elements into his songwriting. A drumbeat and electric bass now populate most songs, and the songwriting is more conventional and repetitive. The lyrics don’t make as much sense to me. Everything is just a hair more trite. That doesn’t mean that the album isn’t still fantastic – it is, after all, on this list. However, it does mean that when choosing between the two, I would rather listen to the debut.

Key Tracks: The Fabled City, The Lights Are On in Spidertown, Saint Isabelle

16. Evol Intent – Era of Diversion

Evol Intent has long been an influential player in the Drum and Bass world. Tracks such as Call to Arms and Street Knowledge were seminal in their time and still among the greatest tracks today. Evol Intent’s record label has put out incredible artists like Counterstrike and Arsenic. But until this past year, they had never really put out that much material, much less a full LP.

Era of Diversion changes that. Very much a Bush-era album, it draws a lot of themes from political anger. And anger is a very good descriptor: there is no mistaking this album as the product of anyone but Evol Intent. Most disappointing, I think, is the placement of nearly all their previous tracks in the album, meaning that the first half of the album is the only real material. Considering how long the group has been working on this LP, actively or not, it’s incredibly disheartening to see this little real product.

Key Tracks: Era Of Diversion, 8bit Bitch, Reality Check

You should go see Up right now.

What film studio has a 100% track record? Seriously, Pixar does it again and again and again, and they find a new way to delight their audiences each and every time. With the exception of a few minor complaints, Up is easily another perfect movie.

up

Pixar are always expanding their storytelling horizons. As heartwarming as Wall•E and Nemo were, there’s something new about how the story of Up is told. The first – largely dialogueless – fifteen minutes of the film are among the most poignant I’ve ever seen in a film, let alone an animated one, and convey a sort of humanity and depth that is an incredible achievement. That segment could easily have been a short film on its own merits.

And yet, somehow the movie manages to go from heart-achingly beautiful and emotional to one of the funniest I’ve seen in a long time without so much as a blink. It feels perfectly natural, when by all means it shouldn’t. Enough can’t be said about the humor and comedic timing, so I won’t try.

The movie stumbles a bit. I don’t want to give anything away, but while part of its charm is how unafraid it is to go over the top, sometimes it does go a bit far. And I thought that the climactic part of the film fell apart somewhat halfway through.

This is a pretty short review, because I don’t want to overanalyze a movie that’s simply pure fun. One final thing I will note that whereas from a technical perspective Wall•E explored and mastered cinematography, Up explores new horizons in lighting, to fantastic results.

Go see it. Go see it in 3D; they do it incredibly naturally and it’s a beautiful subtle enhancement to the film. Too bad it won’t be in 3D on Blu-Ray.

*****/5

sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

watchmen
(Except where marked, this is a spoiler-free review. Read with confidence.)

Alan Moore said somewhat famously now that he would never watch the movie adaptation of his very own Watchmen.

In retrospect, I can see why.

Not necessarily because it’s bad – in fact, it’s actually rather good. I think. More on that later. Instead, because of how incredibly well-crafted the original graphic novel is. Its pace is plodding, but that’s because more than anything Watchmen is a character study, not an action thriller. The most significant point of the entire story is the observation of six core characters and how their entirely separate – and separately, entirely valid – viewpoints on the world dictate their morality, their actions, and their ultimate fate. As such, the book’s structure alternates chapters between exploring backstories and pushing the main story forward, something which works quite well given that were one to simply explain the present-day plot of the story, it would not take terribly long at all. Every detail of the original graphic novel amplifies these discrepancies and reconciliations of viewpoints in subtle, intuitive ways – ways which take time to sink in and become a part of the mythos. In addition, the careful rate at which the novel proceeds enabled Moore to slowly immerse the reader in this world of Cold War paranoia on the brink, where everyone knows death is imminent and yet is so paralyzed by that notion that they don’t know where to begin dealing with it.

It’s in these details that the film ultimately loses. Unlike an adaptation of, say, Lord of the Rings, where many of the plot details are dispensable without loss of significant information, any adaptation of Watchmen short of a seven- to eight- hour drama is bound to lose these subtleties, the elements that made the original so precious. Personally, while watching the film, I found myself constantly second-guessing it, trying to piece together why this piece of dialogue or that bit of information was cut out in the attempt to streamline it. As such, I find myself completely unable to judge the film from an objective standpoint. I can’t tell whether or not the film is good on its own merits. Try as I might, it will always be merely a beautifully and lovingly crafted shadow of its source material, nothing more.

I can, however, offer critique. Foremost is the observation that perhaps the sheer reverence with which Snyder and Hayter treated the original source is as well its downfall. There are a million tiny character arcs in Watchmen that are haltingly and haphazardly included in the film, making it busy without substance. Some bits are included that vanish without explanation in the film – Laurie’s dislike for the entire ‘hero’ing lifestyle, for instance, or the life and death of Bubastis, which is reduced to a contextless (and therefore confusing to the uninitiated) easter egg in the film – which are neatly tied off on the comic. Other details are lavishly expanded upon while perhaps more important ones are left in the dust – there is a dream sequence which takes a whole minute or more of screen-time which could be adequately and poignantly summarized in less than fifteen seconds, leaving more time for some of these other conversations to breathe a little.

Which is another problem. In their streamlining process, a lot of things were changed, but ultimately it felt like the characters had no room to breathe. Extreme stereotypes they may be, but they are all still people, and at times this fact didn’t carry well in the film. Especially Veidt – the story of his past is just as important as the other main characters, and yet very little time is devoted to it.

Another victim of time was atmosphere. The impending doomsday and the resulting paralysis was a key element in setting a context for the original. I mentioned that it’s a character study: it’s a study of how these characters react in the face of armageddon; in the face of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. This overbearing sense of dread is critical to understanding these characters and understanding why Watchmen is such an incredible work. Whereas the book reinforces this sense by exploring the world through the eyes of a number of ordinary citizens, in particular a news vendor on the street who appears in the film for a number of seconds, the movie does it rather bluntly – with President Nixon in his war room. While I very much appreciated the Dr. Strangelove reference in the design of the war room, this blunt approach ultimately fails at its task. With the film’s approach, the fact of Armageddon is delivered to the audience; in the original, the essence of it is instead conveyed. In a sense, the lack of knowledge of what the governments were really doing throughout the novel only reinforced the Cold War paranoia which pervaded so well throughout.

And then there’s the ending. For those who don’t know, the ending of the film was changed. For the better? I do not know. The original was rather difficult to swallow, but perhaps it was this indigestibility which made it such a viable means to the end of the story. I don’t know if the new one is better or not.

Nits to pick – Spoilers be here!

One of the absolutely most poignant moments of the original to me was when Veidt, near the end, appeals to Dr. Manhattan, reduced to a mere human, his intellect useless, asking him if what he did was right. This was left out. Also, on the subject of Veidt, and due to the victimization of his origin story as I mentioned earlier, he seems simply evil at the end of the film rather than the justifiable sum of his viewpoints and convictions. There are more, these are the ones that bug me most.

End spoilers

So, ultimately, should you go see this film when it opens tomorrow? For both the fans and the uninitiated alike, yes, yes, yes. As a fan, it would be doing yourself a disservice not to see the sheer visual lavishness of how the book comes to motion. As a newcomer, perhaps it will convince you to read the novel – if nothing else because of how incredibly confused you are after watching it.

I hear it’s confusing.