Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hands-On with Call of Duty: World at War

Most first-person shooter fans have had their fill of World War II-based games by now, which is probably one of the main reasons why the present-day Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was so well received last year. When it was announced that Activision’s acclaimed series would be once again returning to its World War II roots with Call of Duty: World at War, many gamers were less-than-enthusiastic. Fans were even more disheartened when they learned that Treyarch—the studio responsible for the middling Call of Duty 3—would be developing this latest installment. Apprehensive fans were likely relieved when World at War hit shelves in November, as the game retains the cinematic flair of the fourth installment, transferring its solid overall gameplay mechanics and breathtaking visuals to a World War II setting.

The game also features battlefields previously unexplored in the series, putting players in the boots of a U.S. Marine fighting against the Japanese Army in the Pacific and a soldier in the Soviet Red Army fighting the Nazis in Berlin. The campaign lasts only a few hours, but top-notch production values—including celebrity voice acting from Kiefer Sutherland and Gary Oldman—keep the experience immersive from start to finish.

World at War does, however, have some troubling combat issues that keep it from being as solid as its predecessor. At even the normal difficulty level, you’ll end up dying not because of genuinely challenging battles but because the game throws a seemingly-endless barrage of unavoidable grenades your way as often as possible. There is an on-screen indicator that warns you when a grenade is nearby—which also gives you the option of tossing it right back at the enemy—but even if you run to a seemingly safe distance from the blast, a grenade is cheap, frustrating, instant death nearly every time. The more it happens, the more it seems like a design flaw.

In addition, World at War's AI is oddly unbalanced. At times, enemies will intelligently take cover and fire at you at opportune moments, but often they will stand right out in the open just waiting to be picked off. Friendly AI doesn’t fare much better, offering little-to-no help during the game’s more intense firefights. While it wouldn’t be satisfying for computer-controlled allies to do all of the work for me, a war game shouldn’t make me feel like I’m fighting alone.

But the strength in a Call of Duty title lies primarily in its multiplayer which, I can safely say, is just as good in World at War as it was in Modern Warfare. You’ll be using World War II-era equipment, weapons and vehicles, but the matchmaking, upgrades, rankings, perks and wide variety of game modes make World at War a satisfying multiplayer experience that should win over fans of its predecessor.

A great extra in World at War, unlocked once you complete the single-player campaign, is Nazi Zombies mode, which pits you against, you guessed it, Nazi zombies. Kudos to Treyarch for including such an off-kilter game mode in an otherwise serious World War II shooter. For a superior zombie experience I recommend Left 4 Dead, but this mode is a lot of fun. Playing it alone or cooperatively, Nazi Zombies should remind most shooter fans of the phenomenal Horde mode in Gears of War 2. Fight of waves of zombies, earn points, repeat.

It’s not a revolutionary game, and in many respects this is Modern Warfare recast in a less-than-modern setting, but is that really such a bad thing? Even if they've grown tired of World War II video games, first-person shooter aficionados owe it to themselves to check this game out.

Publisher
: Activision
Developer: Treyarch
Platform: Xbox 360 (reviewed), Playstation 2, Playstation 3, Nintendo DS, Wii, Microsoft Windows
Rating: M
Release Date: November 11, 2008 (North America)

Left 4 Dead: A Wort Report Review

Who would have thought that surviving a zombie apocalypse could be such a great form of stress relief? With multiplayer first-person zombie shooter Left 4 Dead, Valve Corporation (Half-Life, Portal, Team Fortress) encourages gamers to live out their undead-fighting fantasies in what may be the best zombie action game ever made.

If you’re looking for a storyline or character motivation, you certainly won’t find much of either in Left 4 Dead. The game boils down to playing the role of one of four human characters who must fight through hordes of ravenous zombies to make their way from safe house to safe house. There are four scenarios—each framed as a horror movie—taking players through a hospital, a farmhouse, a rural town and an airport. Gameplay-wise, all of the scenarios are basically the same, pitting the survivors against hundreds of undead flesh-eaters. The zombies here bear more resemblance to the fast-moving variety featured in Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake than to the lurching, moaning corpses in George A. Romero’s original. Their speed gives Left 4 Dead an element of twitchy panic that keeps gameplay both frantic and fun.

In addition to the overwhelming numbers of "Common Infected" in each of the game’s scenarios, players will also be confronted by mutated "Special Infected," which have their own unique abilities and attacks. Hunters, for example, will pin players to the ground and viciously maul them until one of the other survivors saves them while Smokers lash out at the humans with a whip-like tongue. As one can probably guess by their name, Tanks are hulking beasts that use their immense size and strength to pummel the survivors, requiring players to gang up on them with their most powerful weapons to take them down quickly before they cause too much damage. The Witch, a dangerous female zombie, can take players out with a single swipe of her claws if she is startled. My personal favorite special zombie in Left 4 Dead is easily the Boomer, a fat, bulbous infected that vomits green bile on the survivor characters, the smell of which alerts other zombies to the humans’ location. Dangerous and revolting. What a combination.

It’s possible to play Left 4 Dead solo with three computer-controlled allies, but the real fun of this game is playing online with friends or complete strangers. Few games inspire the level of teamwork necessary to make it through Left 4 Dead’s scenarios alive as a group. Try to abandon your comrades and you’ll probably wind up with more than a few bite marks on your arms and torso. Oh, and you’ll probably be dead. There’s also a Versus mode, which allows players to control special infected against the humans to see how the other half lives.

With only three modes of play (Campaign, Versus and Single Player), one wonders how Left 4 Dead stays interesting, but thanks to the game’s “AI Director,” scenarios are different each time you play them. It’s nearly impossible to predict when a Hunter is going to leap out of nowhere and pin you to the ground, or when a Boomer is going to sneak up on you and lose his lunch right in your face. As if eviscerating zombies could ever possibly get boring, Left 4 Dead is never the same game twice.

Thanks to Dead Rising and the Resident Evil series, there has been no shortage of zombie-blasting goodness in video games for quite some time. However, Left 4 Dead recreates the feeling of being in a zombie film better than just about any game ever released. It’s not deep by any means, but it’s incredible fun and a must-play for fans of cooperative online gaming.

Publisher:
Electronic Arts/Valve Corporation
Developer: Valve Corporation/Certain Affinity (Xbox 360 version)
Platform: Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows
Rating: M
Release Date: November 18, 2008

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Watchmen Movie Faces Legal Trouble

A Los Angeles judge ruled on December 24 that 20th Century Fox owns the distribution rights to Warner Bros.' adaptation of acclaimed graphic novel Watchmen, which could put the film’s March 6, 2009 release date in jeopardy, Variety reports.

“Fox owns a copyright interest consisting of, at the very least, the right to distribute the Watchmen motion picture,” the ruling said.

According to the article, Fox filed a suit against Warner Bros. in February claiming that they retain the rights to distribute the film under a 1994 turnaround agreement, having originally acquired the rights to Watchmen in the late 1980s. Warner Bros., however, has denied claims that Fox has any remaining stake in the film.

Judge Gary Allen Feess said he would elaborate on this ruling in the near future, and has set a January 20 trial date for Fox’s suit.

I’m no legal expert, but this all seems to indicate that the Watchmen film—directed by Zack Snyder—may run into some major problems leading up to its release. In a worst-case scenario, the film could be shelved until the suit reaches some sort of resolution. From what we’ve seen so far, Snyder looks to have done justice to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ masterpiece, which was long thought to be unfilmable due to its epic scope and bleak, deconstructionist themes. It would be a shame if Watchmen's arduous journey to the silver screen is halted by legal complications this close to its release date.

Merry Christmas from The Wort Report!

I hope each of you out there had a very happy, healthy and memorable Christmas. This year, I’ve learned that the holiday becomes far more involved—and tiring—when kids are a part of the equation, but my niece Emma had a blast with all of her new toys. Since this may be the first Christmas she remembers, Santa was extremely good to her.

And Saint Nick was pretty good to Uncle James as well. Although my family didn’t go too nuts with the gift-giving this year (and refreshingly so), I ended up with some great new clothes, the fourth season of The Office and two Xbox 360 games that I can’t wait to sink my teeth into: Call of Duty: World at War and Left 4 Dead. Nothing says Christmas like perforating zombies and Nazis with automatic weapons. I wonder why Bing Crosby never wrote a song about that.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Celebrating 30 Years of Life Day

It may have only aired once on Friday, November 17, 1978 on CBS, but The Star Wars Holiday Special has left an indelible mark on the history of George Lucas’ media juggernaut for better or for worse. Okay, it’s mostly for worse, but true fans owe it to themselves to track down a copy of this trainwreck and watch it in its two-hour entirety at least once. It's a geek rite of passage. Only those fans can safely say at cocktail parties that, yes, they have seen Bea Arthur sing to a giant, drunken rat. “Just one more round, friend.” You can’t make this stuff up, but 30 years ago, someone did. That same someone also thought it would be a good idea for Carrie Fisher—who looks like she's under an influence of some kind during the special—to put lyrics to the Star Wars theme to close the show. I’m still shuddering.

And before any of you hop on your George Lucas hatewagons, no, he had precious little to do with this abomination. However, the show did reunite the original Star Wars cast, including Fisher, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Peter Mayhew and Anthony Daniels, all of whom look like there’s something else they’d much rather be doing. Even guest stars such as Art Carney, Harvey Korman and the aforementioned Arthur have a certain despondent look on their faces, as if to say “I don’t know what an Internet is, but I have a feeling that people will one day use it to laugh at what I’m doing here.” Well, they’re right. But, then again, there’s a certain amount of self-awareness that one encounters while watching the Star Wars gang reunite Chewbacca with his family for a Wookiee holiday called Life Day. It’s difficult to laugh too hard at those involved when one finds themselves watching a dubbed copy of a terrible, 30-year-old Christmas special at 2 a.m. in their bedroom. As Obi-Wan Kenobi says, “Who’s the more foolish—the fool or the fool who follows him?”

Okay, so there’s a short animated segment of the special that’s pretty good, and actually gave fans a glimpse at notorious bounty hunter Boba Fett a year and a half prior to his live-action debut in The Empire Strikes Back, but there’s little else to defend. That’s probably why, when confronted about the holiday special, both Lucas and the cast like to pretend it never happened. Those hoping for The Star Wars Holiday Special: Special Edition (kinda redundant, especially since it’s not all that special) probably shouldn’t hold their breath, as an official version of the show has never been made available for sale and most likely never will. It’s a shame, since I’ve always thought that Chewbacca’s father Itchy (his full name is Attichitcuk, in case you didn’t know) would benefit from a CGI makeover. I hope I didn't give someone out there an idea.

For the most comprehensive information on all things related to The Star Wars Holiday Special—including behind-the-scenes photos, exclusive interviews and details on all aspects of the show’s production—visit the show’s unofficial site at starwarsholidayspecial.com.

Until next time, happy Life Day!

Images courtesy of starwarsholidayspecial.com

Monday, December 22, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire: A Wort Report Review

Prior to seeing Slumdog Millionaire, I knew almost nothing about it. I had heard that it was directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) and that it somehow revolves around India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, but that’s about it. I was pleasantly surprised that this rags-to-riches underdog story not only has its heart in the right place, but is also incredibly exhilarating, moving along at a breakneck pace without sacrificing its ambitious scope.

Growing up on the streets of Mumbai, Jamal Malik (played as a teenager by Dev Patel) is a contestant on India’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and is just one question away from winning 20 million rupees. The only problem is that the show’s host (Anil Kapoor) doesn’t believe that an uneducated, tea-serving “chai wallah” at a Mumbai call center could possibly be able to answer the more difficult questions correctly without cheating. As a result of this suspicion, Jamal is arrested and forced to review each of his correct answers to prove his innocence to the police. With each question, the film flashes back to a point in Jamal’s childhood where we see just how he came to know the answers to the show's questions and, in turn, we learn more and more about Jamal’s tumultuous childhood.

The first section of the film—when Jamal and his older brother Salim (played as children by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail respectively, and by Tanay Chheda and Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala when they get a bit older) are orphaned and forced into panhandling—is the most difficult to watch, primarily because it paints the Mumbai slums in such an unsavory light, with Boyle concentrating on making the city’s trash-strewn streets look as uninviting as possible. But there is a ray of hope for young Jamal in a fellow orphan named Latika (played as a child by Rubiana Ali, by Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar when she gets older and by Freida Pinto as a young adult). While Slumdog Millionaire begins as a dark, somber and sometimes horrifying meditation on the hardships of living on the streets of India, it soon becomes a celebration of Jamal’s quest to reunite with Latika, from whom he is constantly separated due to circumstances beyond his control. It’s overtly saccharine even for a love story, but it’s rare that a film of this caliber celebrates life rather than dissecting its lesser points.

Slumdog Millionaire is a film deserving of its near-universal acclaim. If you’ve ever seen a movie about a street urchin who gets a shot at being a millionaire, you probably already know how this one ends. However, in spite of its inherent predictability, Slumdog Millionaire is sentimental without being too sappy and poignant without being pretentious. This is a must-see film.

Slumdog Millionaire
(2008)
Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: Simon Beaufroy
Starring: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan
Release Date: November 12, 2008 (limited), December 19, 2008 (wide)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Reflecting on The Dark Knight

Like many comic book fans and movie buffs, my favorite film of 2008 is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, a sequel that not only far surpasses its predecessor, 2005’s Batman Begins, but has cemented itself as the best comic book-inspired film to date. Hitting DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, December 9, The Dark Knight is surely on heavy rotation in more than a few living rooms, but does this wildly popular blockbuster stand up to repeated viewings on a smaller screen?

When Batman Begins hit theaters three summers ago, it was lauded for being a massive step up from Joel Schumacher’s embarrassingly campy Batman & Robin. Nolan’s real-world franchise reboot took the character back to his darker roots—taking significant cues from Frank Miller’s acclaimed Batman: Year One—demanding that movie audiences once again take this character seriously. Anchored by an impressive cast including Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman and Liam Neeson, Batman Begins assured fans that the denizens of Gotham City had a bright cinematic future with Nolan at the helm.

Released on July 18 in North America, The Dark Knight quickly shattered box office records, becoming the second-highest grossing domestic film of all time and garnering massive amounts of critical praise. Audiences paid particular attention to the late Heath Ledger's brilliant portrayal of the Joker. The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis writes that Ledger’s Joker “is a creature of such ghastly life, and the performance is so visceral, creepy and insistently present that the characterization pulls you in almost at once."

Indeed, this new take on the Joker is a far cry from Jack Nicholson’s more humorous take on the character in Tim Burton’s Batman, released in 1989. Cold and calculating, with smeared clown makeup, stringy green-tinged hair and his face scarred into a permanent shark-like grin, the Joker has emerged as one of the most iconic screen villains in history. Through this character, the film explores the relationship between order and chaos, with the anarchic Joker measured against an increasingly stoic Bruce Wayne/Batman—once again played by Bale—who is fast learning his limits as Gotham City’s masked protector. Throughout the film, Nolan proves why Batman and the Joker are so effective as adversaries, and uses their combative relationship as a means to explore real-life issues of right and wrong, whether they be personal, political or otherwise.

In addition to that central conflict between Batman and the Joker, the journey of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) from "white knight" district attorney to gun-toting psychopath is also a fascinating one, illustrating the degenerative impact chaos can have on the best of us. "Madness is a lot like gravity," the Joker explains. "All it takes is a little push."

At its base, The Dark Knight is not only a pitch-perfect comic book adaptation, but it may be one of the best morality tales to penetrate pop culture in recent years. It certainly doesn't hurt that it's enormously entertaining, and maintains a level of intensity that doesn't dissipate until the closing credits.

So is The Dark Knight more than a staggeringly successful summer blockbuster? It sure is. Does it warrant repeat viewings? Absolutely. Its mature dissection of ethical dichotomies is further proof that comic books can and should be fully embraced by mainstream culture, which once looked down its nose at the medium as a low-brow, childish diversion. These days, those who once ignored comic books and the movies based on them are lining up at Best Buy with Blu-ray copies of The Dark Knight tucked under their arms. As the Joker says to the Caped Crusader in the film, “you’ve changed things.” Indeed, he has.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Get X-Cited for the New X-Men Origins: Wolverine Trailer!

Premiering theatrically December 12 before showings of The Day the Earth Stood Still, the official trailer for the upcoming X-Men Origins: Wolverine has hit the Web, and is available in high-definition exclusively on MySpace.

Taking place several years prior to Bryan Singer’s original X-Men (2000), Wolverine—helmed by Academy Award-winning director Gavin Hood—delves into the volatile past of the titular clawed Canuck (Hugh Jackman), and features fan-favorite characters such as the Blob (Kevin Durand), Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) and Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) to name a few. The film pits Logan against longtime rival Sabretooth, played by Liev Schreiber who, judging by the trailer, looks to match Jackman’s ferocity with a healthy dose of animalistic menace.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine
slashes its way into theaters on May 1st, 2009.

Friday, December 12, 2008

HFPA Announces 2008 Golden Globe Nominees

On Thursday, December 11, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) announced its nominees for the 2008 Golden Globe Awards and, as expected, the late Heath Ledger was recognized for his nuanced take on the maniacal Joker in the year’s runaway hit, The Dark Knight. While it’s satisfying to see Ledger nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture, it’s simultaneously disappointing that The Dark Knight was overlooked in every other category.

Ledger’s scene-stealing portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime surely elevates an already great film, but that’s just the thing—The Dark Knight is a great film, not just an impressive individual performance. While I admittedly have yet to see any of the nominees in the Best Motion Picture (Drama) category (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, Revolutionary Road and Slumdog Millionaire), I can’t help but think that the HFPA may have overlooked Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins sequel because it’s a “comic book movie.” Comic book adaptations have surely come a long way, but they have clearly yet to escape the genre’s “strictly kids’ stuff” stigma. Perhaps the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) will look more kindly on the Caped Crusader when Oscar season rolls around.

On a more refreshing note, both Tom Cruise and Robert Downey Jr. were nominated in the same category for their uproariously funny supporting roles in this summer’s Tropic Thunder, while James Franco picked up a nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture (Comedy or Musical) for his stoner turn in Pineapple Express.

The 66th Annual Golden Globe Awards will take place Sunday, January 11, 2009 at the Beverly Hilton, with a live telecast beginning at 8 p.m. (EST) on NBC. Click here for a full list of Golden Globe nominees.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

New Level, Costumes Available for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

LucasArts announced on December 5 that a new mission and additional costumes are now available for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed through the Xbox Live Marketplace and the PlayStation Network. The new mission, set in the demolished Jedi Temple on the planet Coruscant, allows players to guide Darth Vader’s secret apprentice Starkiller through the rubble of the demolished building to learn more about his Jedi lineage.

In addition to the new single-player stage, LucasArts has bundled nine new costumes with the mission pack, including:
-The Apprentice (Temple Exploration Gear)
-The Apprentice (Cybernetic Reconstruction)
-The Apprentice (Sith Training Gear)
-Mace Windu
-Darth Maul
-Qui-Gon Jinn
-Dark Stalker
-Lightsaber Training Droid
-Combat Training Droid

A new standalone costume pack is also available, which includes:
-The Apprentice (Utility Combat Suit)
-The Apprentice (Animated)
-The Apprentice (Spirit)
-Republic Trooper
-Luke Skywalker (Tatooine)
-Ben Kenobi
-Plo Koon
-Count Dooku
-Jango Fett
-C-3PO

I had my issues with The Force Unleashed when it was first released in September, but having picked it up again after learning about this new downloadable content, Ive realized how much fun it can be despite its flaws. If one can get past the camera issues and the shoddy targeting controls, The Force Unleashed provides for some decent hack-and-slash gameplay set against an aesthetically well-constructed Star Wars backdrop. There’s also a lot of cathartic joy to be had in frying Imperial Stormtroopers with lighting and tossing them to their doom with the Force.

With a newfound appreciation for the title, I purchased the Jedi Temple mission and while it shouldn’t take anyone very long to finish—it runs at about 30 minutes to an hour—it’s worth playing for fans of the game. There’s some fairly intuitive puzzle-solving and platforming involved, and its best moments are reminiscent of Luke Skywalker's Jedi training on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back, when he is forced to confront his innermost demons.

On the Xbox Live Marketplace, the Jedi Temple Mission Pack costs 800 Microsoft Points ($10), which is a little pricey but worth it for fans of the game. The standalone costume pack costs 400 Microsoft Points ($5), which is not entirely justified since the costumes are merely character skins. They don’t change gameplay in the slightest. However, if you can’t resist the humor in seeing C-3PO wield a lightsaber, then by all means pick it up.

For more information on The Force Unleashed, visit lucasarts.com.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Gears of War 2: All Patched Up!

If you’ve been having trouble finding a public multiplayer match in Gears of War 2, you’re hardly alone. For me, it seemed near-impossible to get a game of Horde going without waiting 20 minutes for the matchmaking system to put together a team. Oftentimes I would forgo playing Gears 2 altogether because of these multiplayer issues, which is a shame because it’s a mind-blowing experience both online and off.

Thankfully, the good folks over at Epic Games have answered our frustrated cries for help and grunts of frustration. Beginning November 27, those logging into Gears 2 while connected to Xbox Live will be prompted to download the aforementioned patch which makes online matchmaking a breeze. Coincidentally, the patch hit on Thanksgiving, giving gamers plenty to be thankful for—and just one more reason to ignore their relatives over the long holiday weekend.

“We want to thank everyone for their patience during this time and we will continue to monitor the situation,” writes Gears 2 Senior Producer Rod Fergusson in a post on the Epic Games Forums. “We’re hopeful that the matchmaking issues we’ve seen up till now are a thing of the past.”

Image courtesy of Microsoft Game Studios and Epic Games

Friday, November 28, 2008

Current Console Generation Not Ending Anytime Soon

Happy Black Friday, Wortmaniacs! As of this writing, people all across the United States are celebrating the age-old tradition of over-the-top post-Thanksgiving consumerism to ring in the holiday season. Video game consoles—such as the Nintendo Wii, the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360—surely rank pretty high on most people’s holiday gift guides but, with today’s rocky economic landscape, does it make a whole lot of sense to blow a lot of cash on a system that’s only going to be obsolete in a few years?

Thankfully, Europe’s Xbox head Chris Lewis said in an interview with Edge Online that gamers can look forward to a longer relationship with the current crop of consoles than they’re used to.

“I think this generation will be longer, because there is so much scalability,” Lewis told the gaming industry news site. He added that through downloadable content like the New Xbox Experience (NXE), it is possible to continue enhancing current hardware without the need for a physical—and expensive—upgrade.

“So if you think of that scalability and the opportunity to enhance and develop what we do with this platform, then I think it’s very, very possible—and indeed appropriate—that this generation will be longer," he said. “But we’re not specific about when that will happen, and we don’t have a particular timeline that we share right now. But as I said, there’s a lot more still to come.”

This is a relief, since I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with my Xbox 360, and the Wii has charm despite its disregard for gamer-targeted software. Even the Playstation 3—which I’ve yet to own—has built a pretty impressive stable of exclusive games, including LittleBigPlanet and Metal Gear Solid 4. In addition, with gaming taking a bold step into the mainstream over the last few years, video games are enjoying a true golden age this generation. Let’s make sure it lasts.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fable II Reflections

With so many other distractions—namely work, a social life and Gears of War 2—it took me longer than I would have liked to play through Fable II. When it was first released, I applauded the game’s virtual world and the seemingly endless possibilities that the realm of Albion provided. Having finally conquered evil and restored peace to the land, I can say that there’s a lot about Fable II that is satisfying but, unfortunately, developer Lionhead Studios’ decision to build an open-world game with the casual player in mind leaves it feeling shallow despite the variety of things to do.
Yes, if one wishes, they can raise enough gold to buy all of the property in the game and amass a veritable army of brides and children, but what’s the point? Aside from the occasional Achievement to unlock, there is little real incentive to dabble in avenues that are tangential to the main plot. Albion may be overwhelming when one first boots up Fable II, but the novelty wears off quick. In time, you won’t care whether the townspeople really like you or whether or not they approve of your new haircut.

As for the main quest, there are lots and lots of battles to slog through, many of which can be won with the simple tapping of the melee button. Magic spells work too, but they leave you far too open to attack to use as often as your blade. Ranged weapons—such as pistols or crossbows—are to be used only when enemies are attack you from a distance (which is pretty rarely). So, basically, action boils down to staving off swarms of enemies by tapping the X button. And since you can’t die—yes, you’re reading that correctly—there is no penalty for losing a battle. When you lose all of your health in combat, your character is “knocked out,” loses some experience points and receives a permanent but negligible scar. Without challenging combat, completing the game’s main quest is an absolute certainty. It leaves you with nothing to conquer.

When viewed as an action RPG, Fable II is an ambitious but ultimately unremarkable experience. There’s lots to do, but little reason to do any of it. It brings to the surface a lot of issues that I’ve been having with the “sandbox” genre lately, namely the fact that the closer gameplay gets to real life, the less interesting it becomes. Managing money, relationships and a career are complicated enough in my own life, so why would I want all of that in my video games?

Keeping its flaws in mind, Fable II is still worth playing through at least once. Albion is a fun—and great looking—place to explore, and the game’s sense of humor is not without its charm. All in all, Fable II is like a visit to the local renaissance fair, except without the chainmail chafing or the oddly-disturbing shouting pickle salesmen.

Keep an eye out for new downloadable content for Fable II—including new items and quests—which will be available on Xbox Live Marketplace in mid-December.

Update: The downloadable Fable II:Knothole Island expansion will be available in late January 2009—not mid-December as previously announced—due to "unexpected technical difficulties." Click here for more information.

Image courtesy of Microsoft Game Studios and Lionhead Studios

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Quantum of Solace: A Wort Report Review

Taking place immediately following 2006’s critically-acclaimed James Bond franchise reboot Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace is a relentlessly fast-paced action film that never truly allows its characters—or members of the audience—to stop for a moment to catch their breath. Having said that, it’s a worthy sequel and one of the better Bond films overall.

Already silencing his most vocal critics with his last outing as 007, Daniel Craig returns to prove that he is, undoubtedly, the best Bond since Sean Connery. He may be the least-refined Bond on film, but Craig’s version of the character bears the closest resemblance to creator Ian Fleming’s “blunt instrument” of the British Secret Service. As in the Fleming novels, Bond makes mistakes in the line of duty, and sometimes has difficulty keeping his assignments from becoming personal. In the original series of 20 films, however, that dynamic became lost as the character too-often devolved into a cartoonish, smirking self-parody. This Bond is brutal, cold-blooded, pissed off and flawed.

And he screws up pretty often in Quantum of Solace, just ask M (Judi Dench), who constantly finds herself berating Bond for leaving a trail of human wreckage as he searches for those at the helm of Quantum, a mysterious worldwide criminal organization. Driven by anger over the death of his lover Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) in the previous film, Bond’s mission leads him to Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), chairman of the ecological organization Greene Planet and prominent member of Quantum. His evil plan—because all Bond villains must have evil plans—is to stage a coup coup d’√©tat in Bolivia and gain control of its water supply. It’s more subtle than nuking Fort Knox or building a diamond-powered orbital space laser, but it works.

Bond is aided this time around by the lovely Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko)—who, like Bond, is fueled by a personal vendetta—as well as a few other allies both old and new. Unfortunately, because Quantum of Solace is such an action-packed film, we never get as much time with these characters as we’d probably like. Jeffrey Wright once again turns in a slick performance as CIA agent Felix Leiter, and Dench’s M is just as commanding as she’s always been. However, with such an exhausting number of chase sequences and slugfests in Quantum of Solace, there simply isn’t any opportunity for introspection. Perhaps there will be time for all of that in the sequel.

This modern Bond may lack the charm, gadgets and one-liners that once defined the character, but none of those superficial trappings are missed in Craig’s grittier portrayal. Quantum of Solace may be a little too over-loaded with action for its own good, but it’s sure to leave audiences both shaken and stirred.

Quantum of Solace (2008)
Director: Marc Forster
Writer(s): Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade
Starring: Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini, Gemma Arterton, Jeffrey Wright
Release Date: November 14, 2008
Rated: PG-13
Official Site: 007.com

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Gears of War 2: Bigger, Bloodier and More Badass

Hype is a curious thing. Whenever a long-awaited book, movie, television series or video game finally reaches the anticipatory masses after months of torturous waiting, the end result is almost never as good as audiences had hoped. Like most people who played and loved the original Gears of War, which hit the Xbox 360 in 2006, I fully expected a sequel to come down the pike in the next few years. But would Gears of War 2 be a marked improvement over the first installment, or would Epic Games rest on their laurels and churn out a by-the-numbers rehash of an already-proven formula?

Thankfully, the folks at the North Carolina-based developer have been hard at work on their Gears sequel, taking everything that worked about the first game—namely its cover system, varied weaponry and frenzied gunplay—while implementing new enemy types, sprawling environments, a more involving storyline and some of the best multiplayer modes to hit consoles in quite some time. Oh, and it’s also got flamethrowers. Barbecued Locust, anyone?

Gears 2 takes place six months after the first game, when the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) deployed the Lightmass bomb to decimate the sprawling underground tunnels of the Locust Horde, a mysterious race of war-hungry monsters that had emerged from under the surface of the planet Sera 14 years earlier. Once again, players assume the identity of gravel-voiced soldier Marcus Fenix who, along with his fellow Gears and members of Delta Squad, are engaged in a last-ditch effort to cripple the Locust Horde and bring about peace for humans so that they may rebuild their war-torn society.

As a sequel, Gears 2 asks more storyline questions than it really answers—paving the way for the inevitable Gears 3—but you’ll be surprised that, after the end-credits roll, you won’t feel cheated in not knowing the entire story just yet. While it’s a middle chapter—similar in many respects to Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes BackGears 2 has a clear beginning and end. You won’t be left wanting, but you’ll still be excited about what happens next.

One most also note the smaller, more personal story at play in this installment as Dom, a member of Delta Squad, desperately searches for his wife Maria, whom he hasn’t seen for a decade. This adds a level of emotional involvement in the game’s storyline that was absent in the first Gears, but it does unfortunately come in spurts. At one moment, Dom will be close to tears, but he’s gleefully sawing a Locust Drone in half the next. It’s not entirely consistent, but it is important to show just what these gun-toting tough guys are really fighting for.

But it’s what they’re fighting against that most gamers are more concerned with, and Gears 2 throws an impressive collection of new bad guys at Marcus and company. No longer are the formidable Boomers just lumbering oafs with giant guns. This time, players are up against Flame Boomers, Butchers, Grinders, Maulers and Workers. You can probably guess what each of their specialties are. Other new baddies include Locust Flamers—who each come equipped with the aforementioned flamethrower (called a Scorcher)—vicious Bloodmounts, monk-like Kantus and Tickers, which are skittering little creatures that have a tendency to get up-close-and-personal before they explode. Think of them as bloodthirsty time bombs. You will hate Tickers. Kill them quick.

There are larger enemies among the Locust ranks as well. Reavers—the air-borne enemy mounts from the first game—will now attack you from the ground. The hulking Brumaks—which Xbox 360 players only got a glimpse of toward the end of the first game (PC gamers actually got to fight one)—are now a constant threat throughout the single-player campaign. But even these massive beasts are dwarfed by some of the larger foes that Delta Squad must go up against—and inside of.

Graphically, Gears 2 maintains the high level of detail present in the first Gears, but utilizes a broader color palate to escape the repetitive “dirty brown and gray” aesthetic that plagued that game. Now, no two underground tunnels look quite the same, and the variety of locations—from hospitals to labs to underground temples to crumbling city ruins—keeps the campaign visually diverse as you carve a bloody swath through the Locust Horde.

The campaign should take most players around 10 hours to complete on their own on the Normal difficulty setting, but there’s no reason not to revisit previous sections of the game to unlock new achievements or to relive some of the more memorable firefights. However, the real reason to keep coming back to this game is its multiplayer. A vast improvement over the bare-bones multiplayer gameplay in the first game, Gears 2 features eight competitive multiplayer modes, including the new Wingman, Guardian and Submission. A revamped party system and skill-based matchmaking—powered by TrueSkill—makes for a more fluid online experience. Of course, you can still play through the campaign with a buddy using Gears 2’s drop-in/drop-out feature.

However, when all is said and done, the real star of Gears 2 multiplayer is Horde mode, which pits you and four other players against wave after wave of Locust enemies. The mode throws more at you and your teammates as you progress, forcing players to work as a team to attain the highest score possible. It’s fun without being frustrating, and inspires online cooperation as opposed to trash-talking or name-calling. More game developers need to look to Epic’s example.

One would be overzealous in calling Gears 2 a masterpiece, but it’s pretty damn close. A well-constructed, satisfying campaign and deep, addictive multiplayer make this a must-buy. If you don’t own an Xbox 360, go out and get one. Gears 2 is worth the investment.

Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Epic Games
Rating: M
Release Date: November 7, 2008

Images courtesy of Microsoft Game Studios and Epic Games

Monday, November 10, 2008

Zack and Miri Make a Porno: A Wort Report Review

It’s filthy, disgusting and lewd but, like the bulk of writer/director Kevin Smith’s work, its heart is absolutely in the right place. After going back to the well (and successfully so) for 2006’s Clerks II—a sequel to his 1994 low-budget breakout film—Smith returns with the hilarious Zack and Miri Make a Porno, which may be one of his best films to date.

The title pretty much says it all. Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are lifelong best friends and roommates who are in dire straits financially. At their high school reunion, Miri runs into her old crush Bobby Long (Brandon Routh), and unrelentingly hits on him until she realizes that the former high school football star is hardly interested. These days, he’s a gay porn actor, alongside his lover Brandon (Justin Long). All this talk about having sex on film for money gives Zack an idea: what if he and Miri made their own adult film to solve their money woes? Miri is keen to the idea, despite never having slept with Zack in all the years of knowing each other for fear of ruining the friendship. However, sparks start flying when they start getting ready to film their big scene, and they discover that they have feelings for one another that they never knew existed.

Rogen and Banks have terrific onscreen chemistry and are joined by a phenomenal supporting cast, including Smith mainstays Jeff Anderson and Jason Mewes. Craig Robinson, best known from NBC’s The Office and the Judd Apatow-produced Pineapple Express, gives a scene-stealing performance as Zack’s coworker (and porn financier) Delaney, and is really ready for a starring role.

As raunchy as Zack and Miri is—complete with consistently foul language and some visual gags that I probably would have rather not seen—there’s a love story buried underneath the bodily fluids and fecal matter. Smith has always been able to strike a balance between smut and sentiment, but this film is surprisingly adult given its sophomoric premise. With Zack and Miri, it's obvious that Smith has matured as a filmmaker, but that doesn’t mean he’s outgrown dick jokes and Star Wars references. Thankfully.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)
Director/Writer: Kevin Smith
Producer: Scott Mosier
Starring: Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, Craig Robinson, Jason Mewes, Traci Lords, Jeff Anderson, Katie Morgan, Ricky Mabe
Release Date: October 31, 2008
Rated: R

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Hope Runs Deep on November 7

The wait is nearly over. At 12:01 a.m. on November 7 (tomorrow), Gears of War 2 will be released at 20,000 retailers worldwide, with fans assuredly lining up to celebrate the long anticipated sequel to one of the most popular and successful Xbox 360 titles to date.

Gears 2 is expected to be one of the biggest games of the 2008 holiday season, so it's probably a good idea to get ahold of your copy as early as possible. Visit gearsofwar.xbox.com for information about all of Epic Games/Microsoft Game Studios' Midnight Mayhem events, and check with your local retailer for more details.

I’ll see you there.

Image courtesy of Microsoft Game Studios and Epic Games

Bond’s Best Game Since GoldenEye

Released in 1997, Rare’s GoldenEye 007 for the Nintendo 64 was a revolutionary title. Not only did it prove that first-person shooters really could work on consoles, but it also showed that a licensed game based on a movie—in this case, the 1995 James Bond film GoldenEye—could transcend expectations and become one of the best games ever released.

For the Bond franchise, that success has been a hard act to follow. After the release of GoldenEye, the license shifted to Electronic Arts, who released movie-based and original Bond titles, all of which were met with mixed reviews. The latest Bond game, Quantum of Solace, is published by Activision and, thanks to its use of the acclaimed Call of Duty 4 game engine, it’s easily the best Bond game since GoldenEye. However, its all-too-brief campaign mode coupled with “been there, done that” multiplayer makes it strictly a weekend rental.

The game is based on both the Quantum of Solace film and its predecessor, Casino Royale, with Daniel Craig providing the voice of his film counterpart along with Eva Green, Judi Dench, Mads Mikkelsen, Olga Kurylenko and Mathieu Amalric. While it spans two films, don’t expect to spend more than five hours on the single-player game. Even for a movie-based game, players should get far more in a solo experience for a $60 game.

It plays and controls very similarly to Call of Duty 4—also published by Activision—and this is a very good thing. Players familiar with Call of Duty’s run-and-gun gameplay should feel very comfortable slipping into Bond’s tuxedo, and the game’s newly integrated cover system is welcome during its more intense firefights. There are some quieter moments where Bond has to be stealthy and avoid detection, but a majority of the game is heavy on the gunplay. It won’t take you all that long, but you will have fun playing through Quantum of Solace.

Like just about every game released over the past few years, Quantum of Solace breaks up the action with quick-time events and Simon Says-esque “hacking” sequences. Most gamers have no doubt tired with these by now, but developers keep insisting that we want interactive cutscenes and “follow the flashing lights” puzzles, yet developers keep forcing them on us. They don’t hurt the game in any sense, but they add absolutely nothing. Gamers like puzzles, but not when they’re this easy.

And easy is a great way to describe Quantum of Solace as a whole. On the default difficulty setting, most gamers will hardly break a sweat as most levels boil down to “find some cover, wait for enemies to reload and shoot them in the face.” Also, the enemy AI is a bit dull, as the bad guys are usually content with either finding terrible hiding places next to explosive gas canisters or running headlong into Bond as if to say “Daniel Craig! I loved you in Layer Cake!” before getting a few rounds in the chest. For a real challenge, most dedicated gamers will probably find themselves upping the difficulty level almost immediately.

Aside from some minor character animation issues and the fact that most of the game’s enemies seem to shop at the same “evil henchman” clothing store, Quantum of Solace is a beautiful game, recreating locales from both films while retaining a visually distinct Bond flavor. If you’ve played Call of Duty 4, you know the level of detail to expect. Graphically, this game doesn’t disappoint in the slightest.

Aside from the single-player campaign, the multiplayer is reasonably good, although it does little to improve on anything that’s been done before in previous first-person shooters. There are plenty of fun gameplay modes—including Golden Gun and Bond Versus, which pits one player, as Bond, against six members of the Organization—but it’s essentially Call of Duty 4 with a new coat of paint. If you’ve never experienced that game’s online multiplayer then there’s certainly nothing wrong with Quantum of Solace and it plays extremely well. However, if you’re expecting something groundbreaking you won’t find it here.

And in this crowded fall 2008 release season, a title really does need to break new ground to compete with the big dogs like Fable II, Gears of War 2 and LittleBigPlanet. If you’re a Bond fan, there’s no reason why you won’t enjoy Quantum of Solace, but it’s hard to recommend a purchase for anyone else. However, it’s definitely a game worth playing. Bond hasn’t been this good in over a decade and, hopefully, we’ll be seeing him again on consoles real soon.

Publisher: Activision
Developer: Treyarch (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Rating: T
Release Date: November 4, 2008 (US)

Images courtesy of Activision

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Yes He Can!

Congratulations to Barack Obama for becoming the 44th president of the United States of America. Not only did he make history last night by becoming the first African American elected into office, but I am confident that he will continue to make history throughout his presidency, providing the country—and, indeed, the world—with the kind of progressive leadership that we have been sorely lacking over the past eight years.

"The road ahead will be long,” he said during his victory speech last night in Chicago’s Grant Park. “Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America—I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there."

And I believe him.

Photo courtesy of BarackObama.com

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Simpsons – "Treehouse of Horror XIX"

With the show now in its twentieth season, longtime fans of The Simpsons often knock newer episodes for their far-reaching plots, but it’s nearly impossible to find fault in the show’s Halloween specials. This year, with “Treehouse of Horror XIX,” the series' writers may have not only crafted one of the best Simpsons episodes in a long while, but also one of its strongest Halloween specials in recent years.

The episode kicks off with Homer trying to vote for Barack Obama (his bulk requiring him to use a double-wide voting booth, naturally). However, the electronic voting machine counts his vote toward John McCain. When he protests, the machine mangles and kills him in gruesome fashion. A rigged election? No way!

“This doesn’t happen in America!” Homer screams. “Maybe Ohio, but not in America!”

Like all other “Treehouse of Horror” specials, this one is broken into three segments. The first of which, “Untitled Robot Parody,” Is loosely based on Transformers. When Bart is doing some last-minute Christmas shopping for Lisa at a discount store, he finds her a Malibu Stacy convertible, which just so happens to be a transforming robot. It’s much better than last year’s gift (a box full of his burps), but when Lisa’s gift assembles an army of other transforming robots to wage war against a rival race of alien transforming robots (sound familiar?), things get rough for the denizens of Springfield. There are some great gags in this segment, particularly the introduction of “Sex Toy” (“Where haven’t I been?”), the front page of the Springfield Shopper (“Christmas Occurs”), a robot plane vomiting passengers and a crying nacho machine. It even ends strong, with the robots playing a game of human foosball. Hey, Homer thought they might enjoy it.

The second section, “How to Get Ahead in Dead-Vertising,” starts off with a pitch-perfect spoof of the opening titles from AMC’s Mad Men, and revolves around Homer landing a gig killing celebrities so that advertisers can use their likenesses without paying them royalties. The highlight of this segment was a musical montage in which Homer brutally murders George Clooney, Prince and Neil Armstrong so that ad men can use their likenesses to hock George Clooney Brand Novelty Vomit (“now with more chunks!”), Prince’s Choice Drought Resistant Grass Seed and Country-Style Ragu (“It’ll send you to Mars"). After Homer begins thinning the celebrity ranks, the dead stars decide to get revenge on the living, descending from Heaven to exact revenge on everyone exploiting their image. It all ends with a dead Krusty the Clown blowing Homer’s brains out. In Heaven, Homer and Abraham Lincoln share an, er, awkward moment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The final segment—and my personal favorite—is a spoof of the Halloween classic, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. In “It’s the Grand Pumpkin, Milhouse,” our favorite blue-haired dork takes the Linus van Pelt role in waiting out in the pumpkin patch for the arrival of the so-called "Grand Pumpkin." When he finally does arrive, Milhouse mistakenly offers him some pumpkin bread, which sends him on a murderous rampage through Springfield. This segment is a nice mix of surprisingly edgy humor (the Grand Pumpkin’s a racist?) and reverent homage to the annual Charles Schultz tradition, even going so far as to borrow from its distinct art style.

Overall, this is one of the more memorable Simpsons episodes to air in quite some time and, as always, the macabre humor of this “Treehouse of Horror” special really seemed to let the creative minds behind this series run amok and push a few new boundaries as well.

To view this episode in its entirety, visit thesimpsons.com.

Image:
THE SIMPSONS ™ and © 2008 TTCFFC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The Lord of the Rings Conquers Consoles in January

It may be a clich√©, but good things really do come to those who wait. IGN reports that Pandemic Studios’ multiplatform The Lord of the Rings: Conquest will be released January 9, 2009 internationally and January 13 in the United States, missing its previously-set fall 2008 release date.

Do you like the Star Wars: Battlefront series? Are you a J.R.R. Tolkien fanatic? If so, this game promises to combine the two in a geektastic smorgasbord that brings the awesome and brings it hard. If you answered no to both of the above questions—and probably combined your responses with an annoyed grunt of some kind—then this post must be boring the hell out of you so far. Sorry, pal.

I tried to get into The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth II on Xbox 360 in 2006, and I didn’t like the distant, real-time strategy gameplay employed. It may work on a PC (see Command & Conquer, StarCraft) but I've yet to play an RTS on a console that I've actually had fun with. I’m also not a huge fan of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), so The Lord of the Rings Online doesn’t necessarily get me all hot and bothered like a Hobbit in a cake shop. But if Conquest provides the same visceral, boots-on-the-ground action that the Battlefront games have provided then this is easily a must-buy on my end.

Click here to visit Pandemic's official site for more information on The Lord of the Rings: Conquest.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Have You Seen It? The Nightmare Before Christmas

Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is fast becoming one of my all-time favorite holiday films. Bold statement, I know. Directed by Henry Selick with music by Danny Elfman, Nightmare is an irresistible modern classic, although I remember not being all that fond of it when it originally hit theaters in 1993.

I first saw this film when I was nine, and I was a tad underwhelmed when I walked out of the theater with my father. I somehow expected something far different from what I saw. Based on commercials, I had no idea that Nightmare was a musical and, for some reason, I expected it to be decidedly darker than it actually was. I blame Tim Burton’s previous effort, Batman Returns. After seeing that film—with its gang of horrifyingly maladjusted clowns and Danny DeVito’s Penguin spewing black bile every time he opened his toothy maw—I expected Nightmare to give me, well, nightmares. It did nothing of the sort, and that was a letdown for some reason. I was an odd child. But I'm an adult now (snicker) and, as such, I've come to appreciate just how much this film has to offer in its musical mash-up of two wholly different holidays.

The film’s main character, Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon) seems to have it all. He’s the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, celebrated for his fine-tuned scaring abilities, but there just isn’t any thrill in doing the same thing year after year. Distraught, he wanders into the forest and stumbles into Christmas Town, deciding that he might want to give the whole Santa Claus thing a shot. Everyone in Halloween Town is overjoyed at the thought of “Making Christmas” (they let you know as much through an all-too-catchy song) save for Sally (Catherine O’Hara), a lab-created living rag doll who has strong romantic feelings for Jack. She sees that Jack’s fascination with taking over Christmas will only result in disaster, and, as one would guess, she’s right. Jack succeeds only in terrifying children all over the world by taking Santa's place on Christmas Eve and almost gets Saint Nick killed at the hands of an appropriately-named boogie man named Oogie Boogie (Ken Page). But Jack saves the day, Santa saves Christmas and Jack and Sally embrace on a snowy hilltop at the end of the film. Hooray.

Whether it’s the songs, the characters or the quirky, stop-motion animation, there’s a reason why Nightmare is a holiday staple to this day. It also has a longer shelf-life than most holiday-themed movies—you can pop in the DVD from October through the end of December and never feel seasonally out-of-touch. Whip it out on New Year’s Day, however, and you’re probably asking for trouble.

Speaking of DVDs, there’s a nifty Collector’s Edition on store shelves now, which includes all-new bonus features and a digital copy that you can play on your iPod or other portable media player. Head over to Amazon.com to order it. It's also available on Blu-ray for those of you who have already made that inevitable technological leap.

Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Director:
Henry Selick

Writing Credits:
Tim Burton (story)
Michael McDowell (adaptation)
Caroline Thompson (screenplay)

Original Music by:
Danny Elfman

Get Out There and Vote!

Wortmaniacs of America, if you haven’t been keeping up with John McCain (R) and Barack Obama’s (D) heated race to the White House, you’d best read up on the facts.

Election Day is Tuesday, November 4, and regardless of political affiliation it’s important that each and every U.S. citizen exercise their right to vote. Head on over to canivote.org to find a polling place near you and, if you’re still undecided, visit the candidates' official websites at johnmccain.com and barackobama.com and make your choice as informed as possible.

Ghostbusters: The Video Game to Hit Shelves Summer 2009

Variety reported on October 29 that Atari will publish the highly anticipated (and delayed) Ghostbusters: The Video Game, which is slated to hit store shelves early in the summer of 2009 to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the original film.

According to the article, sources close to Atari added that the company may also have a licensing deal with Sony Pictures to produce sequels to the game if the first one is successful.

Based on the limited information released thus far, I see no reason why Ghostbusters: The Video Game won’t be a massive success both critically and financially, but we’ve all seen movie-to-game translations crash and burn before.

I’m hoping that Ghostbusters: The Video Game includes, as a bonus, a full version of the original 1980s Activision game based on the first movie, which I could never understand for the life of me (I was about 4 when I tried playing it). If they do, it would be a crime if they decided to do a spell/grammar check on the hilarious end-game message:

“Conglaturation !!!
You have completed a great game.
And prooved the justice of our culture.
Now go and rest our heroes !”

As a writer, this collection of words and exclamation points should probably make my head hurt, but it has a sad, poetic quality about it. Kind of like when the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man erupted in a shower of sugary goo at the end of the first movie when our heroes crossed the streams.

I’ll never look at s’mores the same way again.

Update: Atari issued a press release on November 7 stating that Ghostbusters: The Video Game will be a major part of Sony Pictures' celebration of the original film's 25th anniversary, which will include other consumer products such as toys, t-shirts, comic books, prop replicas, Blu-ray releases of both films and a theme park attraction.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Night of the Living Plumber

Happy Saturday, Wortmaniacs! I hope you all enjoyed your Halloween tomfoolery last night, whether it involved tricks, treats or getting totally hammered dressed like the Joker or Sarah Palin (easily the two most popular costumes this year). My choice was less predictable (ish) in that I went as John McCain’s buddy Joe the Plumber, of which there were only two last night at Brazen Fox in White Plains. However, only one of us was a zombie (hint: me). I couldn’t resist the chance not only to be political prior to one of the more important elections in our nation’s history but also to play around with fake blood.

To get myself into character over the past week, I’ve been on a steady diet of zombie cinema (that’s right, cinema), including George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Land of the Dead, along with the semi-comedic The Return of the Living, directed by Dan O’Bannon. For anyone rushing for the comment function to remind me that I’ve left out 28 Days Later and its sequel, they’re not really “zombie” movies in the traditional sense. The same rule applies to Planet Terror, which follows standard genre tropes but does not technically feature the undead. There are rules people.

I capped off the week by watching Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and—I know I’ll catch hell for writing this—I think I might enjoy it even more than the original. It’s far more of a high-octane action film than Romero’s methodical, gory and sometimes poignant exploration of consumer culture, and I have issues with the idea of zombies sprinting after their prey (it eliminates the kind of slow, creeping terror that is a cornerstone of this genre), but Snyder’s film one of the better horror remakes to come down the pike lately. I definitely recommend a rental.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Night with Lara Croft

If you weren’t already aware, a playable demo for the upcoming Tomb Raider: Underworld unearthed itself on Xbox Live on October 28 and it already looks like Crystal Dynamics, the team behind Tomb Raider: Legend and Tomb Raider: Anniversary, is ready for a three-peat. Aside from some camera issues, Underworld is pretty slick overall. The graphics showcase some impressive attention to detail and Lara Croft controls far more smoothly this time around, with a few more tricks added to her always-expanding acrobatic arsenal.

While the first two installments of the Eidos Interactive franchise showcased innovative level design—particularly for the mid-1990s—It was all downhill from there. Following initial success, it seemed as though less effort went into creating levels and puzzles that were actually fun as more attention and craftsmanship went toward rounding off Lara’s increasingly gravity-defying breasts. I'll admit, the 14-year-old version of me would have loved that job and I doubt I’d turn it down today. But I digress.

With 2006 came the multiplatform release of Tomb Raider: Legend, which made our favorite buxom treasure hunter relevant again outside of the so-so Angelina Jolie films. The following year, Eidos released a revamped and updated version of the original Tomb Raider, featuring new graphics, controls and slightly tweaked level design. What was old became new once again. And so here we are in 2008, awaiting the November 18 release date of the eighth (wow) game in this franchise.

In the demo, Lara is on the coast of Thailand exploring ancient ruins (are there any other kind?). Players will notice that the environments seem a bit more interactive than in the previous two Crystal Dynamics title—for example, Lara will physically push ferns and bushes aside as you move her through them. It's a subtle but effective showcase of the game's physics engine. Not so subtle is Lara's ability to actually kick attacking animals in the face. Have you ever kicked a tiger in the face? Lara Croft does it all the time.

As of this writing, I haven’t gotten all that far in the game, since I’ve developed a nasty habit of inadvertantly hurling Lara to her death in a piss-poor application of the “look before you leap” philosophy. But Underworld looks great, plays great and retains the thrill of exploration that was omnipresent in those early Tomb Raider titles.

And for those interested, yes, Lara’s boobs are still too large for her to be able to move the way she does and no, in this case I’m not a stickler for accuracy.

For more information on Tomb Raider: Underworld, visit tombraider.com.

Image courtesy of Eidos Interactive

Guinea Pigs and Pan Flutes

I’m normally a hardcore South Park supporter. You know the type. The people who seem personally offended when you admit to them that you missed the latest episode. “Dude, you’ve gotta watch the encore tonight, man. It works on so many levels.” Yeah, I’m that douche. But mostly I’m right. South Park is one of the best-written shows on television today and its consistent blend of topicality, irreverence and absurdity keeps it interesting after being on the air for over a decade.

However, the recent two-part “Pandemic” episode has me a bit flustered. Well, more flustered than I usually am. Why? Because I don’t think I liked it very much. I can appreciate that it managed to tie a worldwide epidemic of pan flute bands (pandemic…get it?) to a Cloverfield parody in which giant guinea pigs ravage major cities around the globe. I even liked the inclusion of the boys’ classmate Craig, through which co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone seem to be mocking how absurd the show is getting in its twelfth season. A plot to raise money by forming a pan flute band leaves Craig, Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman lost in the Andes Mountains. Craig provides a running commentary.

“Do you know why nobody else at school likes hanging out with you? Because you're always doing stuff like this,” Craig says. “You're always coming up with some stupid idea to do something, and then it backfires, and then you end up in some foreign country or in outer space or something. That's why no one likes hanging out with you guys.”

Craig is awesome. The rest of “Pandemic” and “Pandemic 2: The Startling?” Not so much. South Park works best in the realm of the bizarre, but the giant guinea pig Cloverfield spoof just wasn’t funny enough to spread over two episodes. And the plot with the boys was pretty boring, all things considered. What would have been a fine 22-minute burst of insanity became an exercise in “how far can we take this premise” and it backfired, in my opinion.

But judge for yourself. Head to SouthParkStudios.com to watch the two-parter in its entirety.

Image Courtesy of Comedy Central

Robert Downey Jr. to Reprise Iron Man Role in Three More Films

He may be in England filming Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes—in which he will play the iconic detective—but most movie fans worldwide are already anticipating the actor’s return as Iron Man, whose summer 2008 film debut earned $318 million in North America alone. Those same fans will be delighted to know that Downey will suit up for two more Iron Man sequels in addition to an Avengers film, which will unite ol’ Shellhead with the Hulk, Thor, Captain America and other Marvel heroes. The Associated Press reports that Iron Man director Jon Favreau will executive produce the Avengers film, due out in theaters July 15, 2011. Marvel Studios has yet to announce a director.

Iron Man 2 is slated to blast its way into theaters May 7, 2010. Favreau will return to direct, once again teaming with Downey as the titular superhero/billionaire industrialist and Gwyneth Paltrow as his leggy assistant, Virginia "Pepper" Potts. Series newcomer Don Cheadle steps in for Terrence Howard as James “Rhodey” Rhodes, who may or may not take to the skies as War Machine, his armor-clad alter ego.

Haven’t seen Iron Man? If that’s the case, I’m sure the rock you’ve been living under for is pretty damned comfortable. Hell, it must be. If you’ve really been that resistant to seeing good movies, do yourself a favor and pick up the DVD for the best superhero action you’re likely to find this side of Gotham City.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Christopher Nolan Says Dark Knight Sequel Not Guaranteed

It’s safe to say that most audiences were completely blown away by The Dark Knight this summer, and were clamoring for a sequel as soon as they left theaters. However, director Christopher Nolan says that he’s not necessarily planning a third installment in his Batman franchise.

The Los Angeles TimesHero Complex blog caught up with Nolan to talk about The Dark Knight’s critical and financial success, with the film fast approaching $1 billion worldwide as of this posting.

"I can’t get my arms around it, to be quite frank. It’s mystifying,” said Nolan. "It’s terrific but at the same time it’s a little abstract, the numbers are so big.”

When asked about the possibility of another installment, Nolan explained that he didn’t make the Batman Begins sequel with a third film in mind.

“Well ... let me think how to put this. There are two things to be said. One is the emphasis on story. What’s the story? Is there a story that’s going to keep me emotionally invested for the couple of years that it will take to make another one? That’s the overriding question.” He added, “On a more superficial level, I have to ask the question: How many good third movies in a franchise can people name? [Laughs.] At the same time, in taking on the second one, we had the challenge of trying to make a great second movie, and there haven't been too many of those either. It’s all about the story really. If the story is there, everything is possible. I hope that was a suitably slippery answer.”

The last time someone else took the helm of a Batman franchise two movies in we ended up with nipples on the Batsuit. And, in all honesty, I don’t see how a third Batman film in this series would be able to top The Dark Knight regardless of the director. If Nolan decides to leave the series alone, here’s hoping that Warner Bros. does too.