Archive for March, 2011

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Game Review: Darkspore Beta Release

Summary Judgement:  Darkspore delivers on its promise of monster vs monster combat.  But is there anything more to it?

Developed by: Maxis

PC Exclusive

If you logon to Steam between now and Sunday, you will find that Electronic Arts and Maxis are giving away a beta release of their new game, Darkspore. After spending six hours with this game, I find myself wishing that more companies would promote their titles this way.  Whatever else I have to say about this title, I’m impressed with Maxis and EA for having the balls to give away a working version of their game, even if it will auto delete on April 2.

Darkspore is the spiritual successor to Maxis’ sleeper hit Spore. For those unaware, Spore found its glory in offering gamers the ability to design a species from scratch.  Players would take their species from protoplasm to space faring civilization, designing its physical form, evolutionary foibles and social traits.  As an artistic tool, Spore remains an outstanding game.  As something meant to be played by a serious gamer, I found it to be great in concept, but ultimately mundane in its execution.  Bearing that in mind, I approached Darkspore, a game that will draw inevitable comparisons to Blizzard’s Diablo series, with a little scepticism.  I mean, Maxis is trying to make an inroad into in a genre where the gold standard is set so high that few can hope to keep pace.  From what I’ve seen so far, the release version had better be a lot more substantial if it wants to have any sort of lasting legacy.

The back-story and concept are mostly unique to 3rd person hack and slash games.  As one of the last surviving members of an ancient and enigmatic race, it is up to the player to use their army of genetic heroes to wipe out the Darkspore scourge.  While I have only unlocked about a dozen genetic heroes, the diversity therein is impressive.  One of my warriors looks and fights like a Protoss Zealot.  My most recently unlocked minion plays more like a scaled down BattleMech.  While you won’t hear me complaining about the scope of characters available for play, the fact that each one only boasts a mere three unique abilities is a little underwhelming.  There’s no tech tree for improving powers, nor is there a levelling system for the heroes beyond kitting them with better loot to improve their overall rating.  This might seem like a minor objection until it is put in the context of Darkspore’s campaign.

Despite regular and consistent mission preamble from a shipboard AI, every sortie against the Darkspore breaks down into three main objectives.

1 – Find three obelisks that will give you extra loot.

2 – Kill all Darkspore.

3 – Kill the big bad Darkspore at the end of the level.

Make sure to rinse and repeat for best results.

After ten missions of “follow the yellow brick road” level design, the game gets a little repetitive.  I found myself holding down the left mouse button for hours on end as my character walked in a certain direction, slashing or shooting anything that came its way.  Since the Darkspore ooze power-ups for health and special abilities, I seldom felt the panic of impending death.  Even if I did end up swarmed by critters, I could easily beam in a different hero – you get to bring three on each mission – and continue the slaughter without much thought.  Other than occasionally pressing 1 through 5 on my keyboard to chain a few special powers, there’s nothing really remarkable about the gameplay.  Granted it’s not awful, it’s simply boring, repetitive and uninspired.

One concept that helps redeem this otherwise plodding game is its looting system.  At the end of each level Darkspore awards you with a number of medals.  To make the most of these medals a player needs to complete the three aforementioned objectives, in addition to not having any team members die during a mission.  The game then offers a choice: cash in the medals for some loot, or risk it all for better loot on the next level, assuming all the heroes live to tell their story in the gene hero locker room.  Should one of the heroes perish, so too does the opportunity for special loot.  As tense as that may sound, it isn’t really that big of a deal.  The Darkspore drop so much loot during a mission that missing out on one epic drop won’t really matter in the long run.

In between missions, Darkspore, isn’t much different than Diablo. Within the safety of their starship, players can trade DNA collected during their missions for hero upgrades.  The one catch to this is that DNA isn’t solely currency, it also regulates a player’s ability to kit their hero with weapons, armour and equipment.  For example, I spent most of my DNA on an a mega plasma laser of unspeakable doom.  Because I depleted my reserves, I couldn’t equip the gun on my hero until after I completed another mission.  A minor annoyance but a mistake I, or any other gamer with an IQ higher than that of a Cocker Spaniel, wouldn’t make twice.

The thing that seems most disappointing about Darkspore is that it has apparently given up the very thing that made Spore a unique entry into the game market: the character creation.  Sure, I can customize my heroes with horns, tentacles, shields and orbs (which being the sophisticated gamer that I am, immediately turned into dicks and balls) but why can’t I make my own monster from scratch?  If I could go through the game with a DIY Hydralisk, Voltron and a giant one-legged hopping cock monster then I might actually drop some money on Darkspore when the time comes.  But if the powers that be at Maxis have decided that character customization ends at putting dongs and bollocks on lava monsters, then why bother shelling out for a watered down Diablo clone?

Darkspore seems like a game at the crossroads.  There’s no denying that the game has a rich looting system and potentially endless hero customization.  I’m also going to give a nod of respect to the designers for putting one hundred playable characters into the game.  However, the weak game play and god-awful level design is likely to find appeal only among toddlers and the mentally infirm.  Honestly, I’ve made more complicated environments in Minecraft.  Without major changes, I don’t see why anybody should spend real money on a game that boils down to pointing a mouse at anything that moves and occasionally bumping into some obelisks.

Overall Score based on what the Beta has offered: – 1


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Book Review: Nexus: Ascension

Summary Judgement:  Nexus: Ascension deftly weaves post-apocalyptic storytelling with space opera to produce a unique novel that explores the depths of tragedy and the limits of hope.

Written by: Robert Boyczuk

Published by: Chizine Publications

Robert Boyczuk offers a supremely intriguing story in Nexus: Ascension. Set in a far-flung corner of the galaxy where human life exists on multiple planets, the novel charts the fate of the starship Ea. The Ea’s crew, upon returning to their home planet of Bh’Haret from a thirty-year trade mission, emerge from stasis to find a strange network of satellites orbiting their world.  Blocking all transmission in and about Bh’Haret, the satellites scream two words, over and over, into the void “plague hazard”.  Low on food and fuel, the Ea’s crew land on Bh’Haret only to find cities pockmarked with radioactive craters and human life seemingly extinguished.  And did I mention that all this happens within the first thirty pages?  To say that Nexus: Ascension has a convincing hook is to understate the robust narrative that Boyczuk generates with his words.

Nexus: Ascension is no simple story of survival.  Indeed, that is one of the strengths inherent to Boyczuk’s style.  He constantly plays with preconceptions that readers might be bringing to the table.  Each time the plot approaches a cliché of the post-apocalyptic genre it changes pace just enough to keep a reader on their toes.  While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the book plays in plot twists, it is keenly aware of the need to be unexpected when treading down the familiar literary path of planetary catastrophe.  Allow me to illustrate the point: Nexus: Ascension isn’t content to merely have its characters lament the loss of their world while they get on with the business of survival.  Rather, the book unrepentantly explores loss as a psychosis so strong that its characters are constantly courting insanity.  On its own, that idea might not seem overtly avant-garde.   Yet, maintaining a believable malleability in the characters’ sanity without reducing them to blithering idiots, cannibals or other tropes of madness is quite a feat.  Arguably, the novel’s tableau of coping skills, which quite naturally put me in a place to ask what I would do in a similar situation, is one of its most accessible qualities.

Much to my surprise, the novel’s tendency to explore the mental state of its characters in no way slows the pace of the book.  One of the ways Boyczuk ensures the tempo of his novel is in resisting the tendency to provide detailed exposition.  Equal measures of sharp dialogue and rich environments drive the plot rather than merely elaborating on it.  Indeed, as the story transitions from survival narrative to space opera, I appreciated that the writer focused on the events at hand rather than the pointless details of fusion engines, laser pistols and other such sundry sci-fi gizmos.  This shouldn’t suggest that the book deserves being labelled as soft sci-fi.  All events within the book unfold according to the rules of physics as we currently understand them.  Thus, avoiding excessive details therein assumes a level of sophistication from the audience in addition to grounding the text in the human condition.

Despite the aforementioned strengths, the character development within the book isn’t quite perfect.  There are a couple of religious kooks within the book that serve no real purpose, not withstanding their occasional prognostications of doom.  Additionally, there are times when it seems that some of the main characters, in particular Ea’s captain, Sav, are a little shallow.  However, the more I read into the book, the more I came to recognize that this shallowness was not a failure on the author’s part.  Rather, these occasional moments of character hollowness were a reflection on the fact that the book’s characters find themselves constantly reinventing who they are to suit the moment in which they live.  In retrospect, this is an interesting way of exploring self-identity when everything that defines a person and their place within a society has been destroyed.  While a very bold gambit for subtextual exploration, it is one I fear that some readers may misinterpret.

Further criticisms of Nexus: Ascension are few and far between.  As the story develops, the focus splits from one inclusive plot line to two separate threads.  The segment wherein my favourite character dwells ended a bit more abruptly than I would have liked.  Of course, a complaint such as that speaks more to Boyczuk’s ability to draw me into the story than it does any fault in the writing.  Also, the characters’ relationship toward cybernetics is as thought provoking as it is frustrating.  While it all makes sense within the context of the story, I felt a desire for a greater understanding of the relationship between the cybernetic “facilitators” and their role within Bh’Haret’s nation states.  Again, it’s another criticism that speaks more to how the book tapped into my fascination with post-humanism than any failing in the narrative.

As a study in human emotion and a first rate space opera, Robert Boyczuk’s Nexus: Ascension is so unique that it defies easy comparison.  It is also a bold story in that it dares to have individual characters honestly grapple with the end of their world.  Short of the sheer physical exhaustion that comes with reading late into the night, it was almost impossible to find a reason to put this book down.

Overall Score: +3.0


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Shaftoe’s Rants: Self-Promotion/Game Review: Shadow Era

Here’s a piece of shameless self-promotion.  Back in early February, the good people at mombo.com approached me to write a guest blog for their website.  For those of you who have never heard of Mombo, they use Twitter to aggregate movie reviews.  The idea is so clever that I wish I came up with it on my own.  Honestly, they’re not paying me to say that.  The way I see it, having an engine that quantifies the opinions of the movie watching hordes probably makes for a hell of a market research pitch.  At any rate, I was humbled and surprised when I got a message asking me if I would be interested in writing a post for them.

So long as my words dealt with movies or social media, I was free to write about whatever I wanted.  After weeks of racking my brain, crumpling up paper and some frustration drinking, I finally came up with a topic that held water.  Rather than reproduce it here, I’m going to post a link and hope that you folk will be kind enough to go read my words on Mombo.

Come on, Shaftoe, you make people come here just to send them elsewhere?  You’ve got to give them more than that.  How about a little rage for the boys and girls at home?

Okay voice in my head that manifests itself through italic text, I think I can muster up a little pre-weekend rage.

GAME REVIEW – SHADOW ERA

Platform: iOS

Developed by: Kyle Poole

Cost: Free to download, likely micropay built into the game

Upon release, Kotaku touted Shadow Era as the first collectable card battle game for Apple’s iDevices.  Having spent more than a few dollars in my life on card games (Magic the Gathering, Warhammer 40k and a brief Yu-Gi-Oh phase), it seemed natural to invest some time in Mr. Poole’s offering.  I promptly fired up the game only to have it crash before I started my first battle.  Six more attempts to make the game work resulted in six more crashes.  Even deleting and reinstalling the app failed to yield the desired results.  Moments before leaving a 1-star review in the app store, I noticed a little note at the bottom of the game’s info page.

““A bug in this game may cause it to crash on iPhone 3G and other older devices.   We were not able to fix this bug before releasing the game.”

Guess who is a dinosaur with his older device?  A brief glimmer of hope came in the form of a promise to release an update to the game that would make it work with the iPhone 3G.  Rather than rage at Kyle Poole for releasing a broken application, I decided to wait this one out.  Every day I checked my apps for updates.  Today, my patience was rewarded – or so I thought.

Without reading all the fine print, I installed the update for Shadow Era. This time the game crashed without even being decent enough to load the main screen.  And just like last time, I only found the problem when I deleted, reinstalled and bothered to read the updated game information.

““This update requires iOS 4 or higher.”

What the hell, Kyle?  Just what sort of twisted game are you playing?  Since you wrote an app for the iOS, I assumed that you understood a little bit about it.  Namely that iOS 4 runs like crap on iPhone 3G.  iOS 4 ran so slowly on my iPhone 3G that I downgraded back to 3.1.3 without a moment of regret.  In my books, promising a 3G compliant version of the game only to update it so that it needs iOS 4 is a douche move.  I know that next month when I get my iPhone 4, I’ll likely still end up playing and reviewing Shadow Era. However, I’m going to punish the game for all of its discrimination against older devices.  Rather than starting its review score at a neutral 0, I’ll start it off at -2.  Why levy such a steep penalty? For the simple reason that horseshit like this only furthers the Fordist culture of planned obsolescence that drives Apple’s business model.  And don’t talk to me about android phones; I’ll stay well away from that Balkanized market thank you very much.

Overall Score: Pending, outlook not good.


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Movie Review: Paul

Summary Judgement:  Well, it’s better than Run, Fatboy, Run but it’s a long way from Shawn of the Dead or Hot Fuzz.

Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogan, Jason Bateman and Kristen Wiig

Written by: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost

Directed by: Greg Mottola

What to say about Paul…it’s funny.  Yes, that is a good start.  There are moments when the movie feels like a nostalgia piece for the last twenty-five years of blockbuster science fiction cinema.  Unfortunately, there are just as many instances where Paul seems to pander to a demographic that is so young that there’s no way they would get half the references coming their way.  Although it achieved its mission of making me laugh, it’s unlikely that Paul is going to garner the kind of longevity or cult following attributed to other Pegg/Frost projects.

The plot of Paul is rather straight forward; a little grey alien named Paul (Seth Rogan’s voice) crosses paths with two British nerds on a UFO road trip.  Tim and Mike Graeme and Clive (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) are, at first, reluctant to help the alien escape from a seemingly obsessed FBI Agent named Zoil (Jason Bateman).  Inevitably, they decide to help Paul get to the rendezvous point with his mother ship.  Along the way the trio picks up a bible-thumper named Ruth (Kristen Wiig).  To cease her insufferable evangelizing, Paul exposes Ruth to the collective knowledge of his civilization, thus proving wrong all religion.  Funny as it may be to watch Wiig’s character embrace hedonism and expressive swearing, no amount of fart jokes can cover up the fact that her character is window dressing for a movie that would otherwise be three heterosexual white men in a Winnebago.

While Jason Bateman and Seth Rogan ranged from fair to good in their performances, I have a problem with Simon Pegg’s and Nick Frost’s showing.  In short, Pegg and Frost weren’t sufficiently British.  Sure they had accents and “Aren’t we British” jokes – one of which was a not so subtle nod to Hot Fuzz – but beyond that, they were just boring North Americans.  I’m not suggesting that they turn themselves into cliché burdened British caricatures who pull over the Winnebago for high tea and BBC Radio.  However, when our heroes are asked if they’ve heard of Benny Hill and the answer is no, I find it hard to sustain my disbelief.  Do you really expect me to believe that two middle aged British men have never heard of Benny Hill?  I’ve spent time in the UK and there is always Benny Hill on some channel during the day.  Perhaps it would have been too on the nose to make the British people even more alien in America than the actual alien.  Or maybe there were revisions to the script a la Episodes wherein things that were “Too British” were amended for a general audience.  Regardless, neither Pegg nor Frost seemed to put forward performances that are commensurate with their established abilities.

There’s also a fairly significant question of creativity within this movie.  As protagonists, Graeme and Clive are two British super nerds, one of whom lives with his mother.  At some point in the writing process, either Pegg or Frost must have turned to the other and said, “You know, we did this twelve years ago on Spaced.” Is there an assumption that North Americans haven’t seen Spaced so it’s okay to borrow the characters?  Try as I might to treat this movie as its own thing, I can’t help but raise a sceptical eyebrow at what seems like creative laziness that puts Tim Bisley and Mike Watt on a road trip sans Daisy and Brian.

This problem of creativity becomes all the more acute as so many of Paul’s motifs are borrowed from other sources.  When the movie gets referential, it is consistently cheeky, rather than clever.  Sure, it is cool to hear the band at a cowboy bar playing the cantina theme from A New Hope but the gimmick ends there.  With other references to Aliens, Star Trek, Star Wars and Close Encounters used on a similarly shallow level, I’m left to wonder what the movie is trying to do.  As I giggle at Nick Frost cursing in Klingon, is the movie feting my aged geekdom or just pointing and laughing at the kooks, esoterics and “old” folk in the audience who catch each of the movie’s references?  I honestly couldn’t tell.  While I like to think that the movie isn’t a giant piss take at my expense, there’s such an abundance of cheekiness and so little material that approaches satire that it is hard to divine what is happening.

Despite its flaws, Paul did make me laugh; the one-off gags, physical comedy and toilet humour are well timed and smoothly delivered.  Despite my chuckles during the initial screening, I strongly suspect that Paul wouldn’t make me laugh a second, third or fifteenth time in the fashion of Spaced, Hot Fuzz or Shawn of the Dead. For want of Edgar Wright as a director or Jessica Stevenson-Hynes as a writer, the magic just isn’t there.  While I know comparing an actor/writer’s current work to their previous achievements is a little unfair, it seems necessary in this case.  The similarities between Paul and some of the seminal work that launched Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as actors and writers are too frequent and too poignant to ignore.  Paul is, at best, a slightly above average comedy with a very short half-life.

Overall Score: +1.5


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Shaftoe’s Rants: The Sultan of Starcraft

The Short Version:  I may not be the best tactician on Battle.Net, but after last night I think I’m at least one of the funniest.

The Long Version:  I’ve had a few on again-off again relationships in my life.  The most significant of those trysts is with Starcraft. For more than a decade, Starcraft has been there for me in one form or another.  Sometimes it makes me feel good about myself.  Other times the game is as humbling and ball breaking as one of Andrew Johnston’s graduate seminars.  Beyond the desire to test myself against the world, I don’t know what really keeps me coming back.  Fortunately for this rant, I don’t think the je ne c’est quoi of Starcraft matters.

While waiting for the 1 AM showing of The Ricky Gervais Show, I decided that I needed a little carnage.  I clicked the ‘Find Match”  button and waited to see what sort of cream puff Battle.Net would throw against me.  I know I’m not the best Starcraft 2 competitor, but lately I’ve been leaps and bounds better than my opponents. When the load screen told me that I was up against a player called, “TheSituation”, I knew that losing this battle was not an option.

The details of the match are largely irrelevant and likely boring for anybody who isn’t a RTS nerd.  Sufficed to say, “TheSituation” took the Zap Brannigan approach to command; he threw wave after wave of his own men against me.  Like the good killbot that I am, I butchered wave after wave of his troops before finally making an outright assault on his base.

In Chess, a player tips their king as ceremonious show of honourable surrender.  In Starcraft, a player falls upon their sword with two letters: gg – short hand good game.  While it wasn’t a smart game for “TheSituation” he did try hard.  As a show of respect, I returned his gg with one of my own.  Of course, it didn’t end there.

Full of sushi and scotch, I felt a little proud of myself.  As I razed his buildings, my troops mostly acting under their own volition, “TheSituation” voiced some incredulity regarding my win.  At that moment, I had a choice: explain my tactics or get clever.  I opted for the latter as you can see in the picture below. (Click the picture to enlarge)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Okay so maybe it wasn’t the most “out of the box” burn I could have laid upon him, but come on, how do you have your Battle.Net name as “TheSituation” and not grow a thick skin towards Jersey Shore jokes?  Was it a bit of unnecessary salt in his wound?  Without a doubt.  If I could do it all over again, would I do anything different?  No fucking way.  Happy weekend everybody.  I’m going to see Paul tonight; hopefully it can wash that foul Battle LA taste out of my mouth.


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Game Review: Cardboard Box Assembler

Summary Judgement:  A shining example of a browser-based video game that is innovate, fun and actually free.

Designed by: Fernando Ramallo and Miguel Ángel Perez Martínez

Music by: Mattias Häggström Gerdt

Cardboard Box Assembler is a brilliant concept for a browser-based video game.  Contrary to what the title implies, CBA is primarily a three dimensional puzzler, except for one bonus level when you get to play Cardboard Box Assembler: The Arcade Game. However, that game within the game could just as easily be called, Don’t Touch the Poop.  At this point, you might be thinking that I’m not making much sense.  Likely, that is because CBA, for all its puzzling glory, tells the story of an insane assembly line worker named Melvin.  So let’s review, CBA is a 3D puzzler wherein the gameplay is actually a blue collar factory worker tripping balls.  I dare you to tell me that doesn’t sound awesome.

Truth be told, the last time I had this much fun with a puzzle game I was playing Portal.  CBA’s objective is quite simple.  Navigate Melvin around the outside of a three-dimensional cube so that he can collect gems, find keys and open the gateway to the next cube.  The trick is that as Melvin moves from one face of the cube to the next, gravity and spatial orientation shift accordingly.  While the concept seems simple, keeping Melvin oriented in the right direction becomes more and more of a challenge as you progress through the game.  This outstanding gameplay mechanic speaks volumes about the designers’ ability to come up with an unconventional puzzle.  After completing each level or “trip” (as in bad drug trip) you are rewarded with a little cut scene that further charts Melvin’s flight to crazy town.

No review of CBA would be complete without discussing the game’s opening credits.  Odd as it may seem to talk about credits in browser-based game, they drew me in just as much as the gameplay itself.  Mattias Gerdt’s outstanding soundtrack paired with an oddly captivating visual style to put me in a place where I didn’t simply want to play the game, I needed to play the game.  Or it could just be that it reminded me of Cowboy Bebop and anything therein strikes as cool to me.

Cardboard Box Assembler is a perfect example of how to make a game for the internet.  In addition to being as fun as it is original, the game is actually free.  I don’t have to buy credits, pirate gold or premium ingredients to get the most out of CBA. Assuming they toss in a few new puzzles and find a way to ratchet up the insanity, I would gladly toss a few dollars to Ramallo and Martínez if/when they release a downloadable version of the game.

Overall Score: +3.0

Click here to partake in the awesome.


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Movie Review: Battle Los Angeles

Summary Judgement:  This movie works in failure like Picasso worked in paint.

Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez and Bridget Moynahan

Written by: Christopher Bertolini

Directed by: Jonathan Liebesman

I don’t know what is going on with science fiction movies lately.  First, we have to endure the gong show that was Skyline. Now, Battle Los Angeles plods across the screen, offending common sense and setting back the genre so much that I think Independence Day just qualified for a retroactive Oscar.  But what really kills me is that this movie still seems to be finding apologists.  I, however, refuse to grant this movie any quarter.  To do so would drive us further into a world where even the most average sci-fi flick seems good in comparison to the plethora of flotsam and jetsam permeating popular culture.  No sir, the line must be drawn here.

Battle LA has all the intelligence and sophistication of a group of thirteen year olds playing Halo. Of course, that might be over selling things a bit as I have taught many a thirteen year old who would turn their nose up at this movie.  The plot, what little there is, deals with a platoon of cliché addled United States Marines and their poorly designed mission to help evacuate the west coast of California in the face of an alien invasion.  Naturally, they throw out that plan and instead save the world.  From start to finish, there’s a lot of running, more than I would expect from a modern infantry unit, a lot of shooting at things you can’t really see, minutes upon minutes of shaky cam and lots of people getting killed.  Indeed, if you go see this movie don’t get too attached to any of the characters because a lot of them are going to die.

Despite this “scintillating” plot, the movie doesn’t work.  Why?  For the simple reason that Battle LA is firmly grounded in stupidity.  In the context of this review, I’ve broken the stupidity into two categories, narrative stupidity and genre/cinematic stupidity.   Let’s start with an examination of the latter.

Since Battle LA deals almost exclusively with members of the Marine Corps, it is as much a war movie as it is a sci-fi story.  As a war story, Battle LA is content to splash ankle deep in the tropes established by other, more successful, movies.  The most obvious and poorly executed gambit therein is the use of a grizzled sergeant and a newbie lieutenant.  Unless Bertolini and Liebseman are working under the assumption that nobody in the audience has seen Platoon, everybody knows how the dynamic between Sgt. Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) and Lt. Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) is going to play out.  As a sci-fi movie, Battle LA takes a page right out of Star Trek’s playbook.  Presumably, to establish mood and demonstrate the dire reality of the situation, Battle LA’s cup runneth over with dead jarheads.  Unfortunately, the whirlwind nature of the story prevents me from establishing any sort of empathy with these characters.  The death of a grunt in this movie comes with all the apathy of watching my marines die in a game of Starcraft. Bad camera work rounds out the genre stupidity for this movie.  For years now, I’ve tried to figure out the allure of the shaky cam.  I know the arguments about heightened reality and putting the viewer in the story, but I still think they are weak sauce excuses to use blurred images and distant shots as a means to get around low production budgets while maintaining the pretence of building atmosphere.

While all of these dreadful tropes played out before my eyes, my ears were treated to a soundtrack that sounded a little too similar to that of Black Hawk Down. Strangely enough, I could have swore that I heard all of the movie’s sound effects in Transformers. Yet to understand the truly pointless nature of this movie we must turn to the premise itself.

Without stupidity acting as narrative mortar, the movie would collapse under the weight of its own idiocy.  The trailers for Battle LA tell us that Earth is being invaded for its resources, primarily water.  Let’s take a moment to consider that idea; a space faring civilization, most likely from another solar system, is invading Earth for its water.  While the hydrogen in water is useful as a fuel for nuclear fusion, it is also the most abundant element in the universe.  Logic would suggest they could find hydrogen without invading our planet.  Clearly, these invaders are both lazy and stupid.  Rather than building a hydrogen ramscoop, the aliens invade in the most resource intensive method imaginable, deploying troops into urban areas.

So rather than take out our satellites, EMP us from orbit and then drop a few rocks on our cities at terminal velocity, they invade with ground forces?  What sort of morons give up a position in orbit to engage in urban warfare?  Why not fight a land war in Asia while you’re doing stupid things?  Furthermore, if they are only after Earth’s resources, then why bother fighting us at all?  Why not drop a genetic virus on the planet that will kill all the humans.  Surely a species that has the capacity to graft weapons on to their limbs has sufficient mastery over genetics to figure out what will kill humans en masse.

Inevitably, I expect somebody will read this review and say, “Adam, if they did anything that you suggested, there wouldn’t be a movie.”  To which I say, when the only thing that holds a movie together is utter and complete stupidity, it doesn’t deserve to be made.  Even as a ‘turn my brain off’ action movie, I could not bring myself to ignore such giant plot holes.  I’ll even go so far as to reject allegations that this movie is a recruiting tool for the Marine Corps.  Honestly, there’s no way real Marines are as ignorant of tactical doctrine as the troopers we see in this movie.  Thus, it’s unlikely that a showcase of bad soldiering will fill recruitment quotas.  The only thing that felt Marine-ish about this fiasco is the fact that the enlisted men are primarily black and latino.

Other than illustrating Michael Moore’s point about racial minorities in the American military, there’s really nothing good to say about this movie.  The script is idiotic.  The acting is sub-par; epic speeches to rally the troops wouldn’t motivate me to have a bowel movement, let alone fight aliens.  Its special effects are far from special; in fact, they are mostly blurry.  Battle LA makes so many other bad movies look good that I just don’t know what to think about the world anymore.  Maybe The Time Traveller’s Wife wasn’t that bad after all.  Hell, I could probably sit through Battlefield Earth after watching this movie and come up with something positive to say.

Because I don’t think big budget movie making can get much worse, I’m actually going to do it…

Overall Score: -5: the worst possible score I can give.


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Geek News: March 15 2011

Today in geek news: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost promote their upcoming movie in the most awesome way imaginable, THQ’s Homefront gives us another reason to be afraid and Toronto based writer JM Frey is giving away a preview of her book, one sentence at a time.

I’m not ashamed to admit that if I ever meet Simon Pegg, I will probably go fanboy in about eight to fifteen seconds.  As both a writer and an actor, the man is just fantastic.  Granted Run, Fatboy, Run might not have been his finest hour.  However, all is forgiven after watching Simon Pegg and Nick Frost “Swede” this scene from Star Wars: A New Hope. Sure, it is promotional fodder for the upcoming buddy comedy/r-rated version of Alf, Paul, but the Pythonesque feel to this scene is unmistakable.

 

As if to answer the gaming community’s cries for yet another entry in the catalogue of first person shooters set in the current era, THQ and KAOS Studios’ Homefront debuts on PC, XBOX 360 and PS3 today.  Although the game is set in the near future, its combat mechanics and elements of the story seem rooted in established gaming and cinematic canon. (That’s my polite way of saying that the game seems as original as remaking Red Dawn with the North Koreans as the bad guys only before plopping the whole thing into the Modern Warfare 2 game engine).  To the developers credit, the pre-launch media on their website offers a very creative yet reasonably plausible back story to the game.  Let’s hope that the American resistance has a better catch phrase than “Wolverines”.

 

 

Turning to literary matters, Toronto based author JM Frey is promoting her upcoming novel, Triptych, via social media.  Until the book’s launch on April 9th, Frey will be posting one sentence per day on Twitter.  Those interested in checking out this preview can follow her at @scifrey or using the #triptych_preview hashtag.  Details about the book, as well as a plan to make it #1 on Amazon on April 11th, can be found on the author’s facebook page.  Perhaps with a bit of bribery grovelling on my part, I can get JM to come on the podcast and talk about her book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That, meta-humans and normals alike, is your geek news for March 15, 2011.  Force be with you and beware the ides of March.


6

Short Story Review: Full Moon Hill

Summary Judgement:  With very few words, Full Moon Hill offers an airtight story that is as bio-politically disturbing as it is utterly compelling.

Written by: Matt Moore

Photo by: AP/Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic

This story has left absolutely no doubt in my mind that Matt Moore is a master of mood.  Full Moon Hill immediately establishes a literary space that is grim, driven by greed and powered by self-serving men.  The characters in this story show such a striking disregard for individual life that it evokes memories of OCP’s appropriation of Alex Murphy’s body in Robocop.  I dare say that is no small feat for seven hundred words of story.

Although Full Moon Hill can be classified as science fiction, there is no escaping the story’s macabre and supernatural elements.  At the same time, the story suffers from none of the weaknesses endemic to any of those genres.  In short, the narrative is absolutely airtight.  Without giving anything away, I can say that the story plays with a contemporary issue that many of us would rather ignore.  Using this issue proves brilliant on two points.  On the one hand, the story works in an area where Western civilization’s track record is utterly underwhelming.  Our collective inability to address this issue goes so far as to put readers in a place where they are invited to empathize with the questionable deeds of the central characters.  Rest assured, there will be people who see the idea presented in this story as common sense, rather than miscarriage of human decency.  For my time, that is powerful writing.

Were it not for the strength of Matt Moore’s language, there’s no way the story could convey so much in so few words.  The narrative’s prevailing tone pairs a sales pitch with dispassionate dialogue to eliminate the need for exposition or back story.  Although the details are a little sub-textual, the story gives readers everything they need to understand the characters’ motivations as well as what will likely unfold after the story finishes.

Ultimately, Full Moon Hill is the kind of tale that sets a benchmark between a good story and great literature.  A good story leaves me with a few talking points and nothing that merits serious complaint.  A great work of fiction keeps going in my mind long after I’ve finished with the text.  I anticipate that Full Moon Hill will be rattling around in my brain for quite some time.  Why not give it a read and see if it can take up residence in your cranium?

The full text of Full Moon Hill can be found at Lightning Flash Magazine.

Overall Score: +4


0

Movie Review: Heavy Rain – the unofficial cut

Summary Judgement:  Does Heavy Rain work as a feature length film?  Yes with an if; no with a but.

Published by: Quantic Dream

Edited as an unofficial movie by: René Jacob

Starring the voice of: Pascal Langdale, Leon Ockenden, Jacqui Ainsley and Sam Douglas

Years ago, Kaz Harai proudly announced that the Playstaiton 3 would retail for $599.99.  In doing so he brought my Sony brand loyalty into question.  A couple years later, my little sister’s boyfriend told me that Sony was yanking the backwards compatibility on the PS3.  The next day, I went out and bought an Xbox 360.  Fast forward about a year and a half and my buddy Jovahn won’t shut up about a game called Heavy Rain. I wished he and his wife happy gaming, resigned to the knowledge that I wouldn’t get a chance to experience Sony’s “very grown-up” interactive movie.  All that changed when Mr. Jacob released his feature length edit of Heavy Rain.  Finally, a chance for us Microsoft slaves to get in on the action.

To the question at hand: does an edited and abridged version of Heavy Rain work as a movie?  Well, sort of, but not very well.  The story, which is a noir-ish fusion of Saw – back when Saw was original and not an ante-upping spoof of itself – and Seven, isn’t really anything groundbreaking.  As a movie, Heavy Rain’s story centers on Ethan Mars (Pascal Langdale).  Ethan is a bit of a broken man and his life only gets worse when one of his sons is kidnapped by a serial killer called “The Origami Killer”.  Like all good crime stories, Heavy Rain has an FBI profiler (Leon Ockenden), a private detective (Sam Douglas), idiot cops and some more-than-meets-the-eye eye-candy (Jacqui Ainsley).  Since the Origami Killer’s victims are found drowned in rain water, the police calculate that Ethan’s son has four days, or six inches of precipitation, before he is dead.  As a movie, the set-up is a little derivative, but it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen.

While watching the movie on Youtube can’t compare to the experience of seeing it on a HD television, there’s no missing the cinematic quality to Heavy Rain’s opening credits.  The moody soundtrack works perfectly with slow camera pans, a bleak cityscape and the eerie look of indifference on the faces of digital actors.  Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t maintain this artistic feel.  While the cinematic quality settles into an ebb and flow that occasionally allows me to forget that I am watching a video game, it is not consistent throughout the entire movie.   It’s not a huge problem, but it is something I noticed more than once.

My real problem with the game/movie is its god-awful voice acting.  For a story set in America, there are way too many Gallic accents.  I know, Quantic Dream is a French company.  But at the risk of sounding boorish, I don’t care.  Don’t set the story in America if you can’t find voice actors to suit the location.  The voice acting reaches its second lowest point with Ethan’s sons.  I suspect that they actually hauled children into the studio to record their lines.  If Zone of the Enders taught us anything, it is that you should never ever use children to voice children.

The greatest offense to the ears comes from the voice actors attempting to do accents.  One character’s Scottish brogue evoked memories of Paul Rudd’s reggae leprechaun voice.  Stretched out over twelve hours, the bad voice acting may not feel so acute.  Condensed into just under three hours, Heavy Rain left me longing for French dialogue with English subtitles.  Considering the Noir mood of the game, editing the movie in French might have been a more stylistically effective choice.

From a plot perspective, the biggest problem with Heavy Rain as a movie is that it is utterly predictable.  Again, I can’t say if this is endemic to the game or a symptom of Mr. Jacob’s editing.  All I know is that nothing about this story really surprised me.  The narrative only managed to catch me off guard when it was wholly divorced from reality or logic.  Even as the Origami Killer is revealed I found myself thinking that a C-list episode of Castle offers a better motivated antagonist.  Despite its apparent strengths as a video game, it’s hard to call a long, predictable and utterly unsatisfying story an excellent entertainment investment.

Perhaps turning Heavy Rain into a feature length movie should remind us of the old adage, “Getting there is half the fun.”  If it takes twelve hours to play through Heavy Rain should we really expect it to work at one quarter of the length?  Even after three hours of movie, I didn’t feel any attachment to the story’s characters.  I could care less about Ethan’s kid, the Origami killer, or awkward elbowy mostly clothed sex scenes.  Perhaps I need the empathy that comes through controlling a character to care about them within this context.  Setting aside the bad voice acting and trope burdened story, I can’t help but feel that the essential thing that would make me care about Heavy Rain is lost on the editing room floor.

For people who have no intention of buying, borrowing or stealing a PS3 to play Heavy Rain, this movie is a barely acceptable substitution assuming you have three hours to burn.  However, the story isn’t so original that missing it will somehow diminish your life.  At best, watching this movie will make you fit to be a Heavy Rain poseur, apt to criticize without ever experiencing the game.

Overall Score: I’m going to give René Jacob a +4 for the effort that he put into this project but as a movie Heavy Rain is a solid 0.  Curious?  Here’s the first part of the movie for your viewing pleasure.