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.