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.

: 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.

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
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

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.