Monthly Archives: October 2014

Chronic Depowering

Chronic Depowering

Along with the Damsel in Distress, the Heroic Sacrifice, and Turret Sequences, the biggest trope in video games is without a doubt the depowering of the protagonist. You start off fully torqued and hit the ground running. Smash this, kill that, all without breaking a sweat. Feels good to be strong.

And then it’s all taken away from you. In a blink, you are reduced to the larva form of your formerly heroic self. You can still smash and kill but without nearly the same efficiency, potency, or flourish. It should by all means be the driving force behind the story: find the bad guy, get your powers back, and kick some ass. And it works.

Well, it works sometimes. We know, as an industry, that it works. Just about every God of War game contains this trope in some form (how many times does Kratos rise up from the depths of hell?), though 2007’s God of War II showcases this most effectively right at the start. Still a raging deity from the end of the first game, Kratos is killed by Zeus and loses everything. We then spend the game repowering.

God of War

This example (and the rest of the series) succeeds because the core of the franchise is a functional combat engine. Even with the various weapons and magical attacks, the mechanical foundation of God of War is still engaging. Countering, blocking, dodging, and murdering all feel so good even without the various cherries on top. There’s enough meat on the bone to support a game on its own, but the appendages allow the narrative to stretch and flex.

In fact, the depowering additionally serves to strip bare the game’s skeleton and show that it still works. It’s brazen and a bit cocky, but it’s well earned. It’s most reminiscent of the Metroid series where Samus also has a nasty habit of being depowered. Most likely to maintain universal consistency and keep the escalation in any given story interesting, the intergalactic bounty hunter often finds herself sans bonus weapons and armor, the most efficacious example being Metroid Prime 2: Echoes.

And yet those games till work because that series is not necessarily about having those weapons but about getting them. I don’t mean from the perspective of the plot where we find our inciting action, forcing us to unravel thread after thread in the pursuit of abilities but that the driving force of the moment-to-moment gameplay is the desire to find more things.

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes

To get into tight spaces, we need to be able to become a Morph Ball. To open up this last door, we need the Ice Beam. The Metroid games are wholly built around the idea of exploring areas to find the need for an upgrade, not just for the sake of becoming more powerful. (It also doesn’t hurt that it’s fun being able to do more things.)

The reason I bring these considerations up is because of the recently released The Legend of Korra video game. Based on the popular cartoon series on Nickelodeon, it tracks the story of subsequent Avatar Korra following the progenitor series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Placed between seasons two and three of the television show, Korra faces a chi-blocker named Hundun.

Hundun manages to strip Korra of her powers basically right from the get-go. You get the taste of all of her elemental powers—courtesy of being the Avatar, the only being in the world at any given time able to bend/control water, earth, fire, and air—and it is fantastic. Each element has meaningful variance (as they are based on different martial arts disciplines).

The Legend of Korra

Air is fast and sweeping, keeping up combos. Water snaps out far and wide, making sure no foe is out of reach. Earth is slow but hits hard. And fire wrecks up close. It adds strategy to an otherwise basic fighting structure. The game functions much like Bayonetta, another Platinum Games product, but fails to deliver on the bombastic combos and hardening difficulty of varied and unrelenting enemies.

Instead, much of The Legend of Korra is steeped in timed counters, which isn’t a terrible idea, but it doesn’t inherently have a lot of variety. This is where the four elements would have stepped in and relieved the pressure of the struggling combat systems, but following the introductory stage of the game, we are stripped of such privileges.

This renders the fighting in a supposedly fighting-centric game rather tedious. Enemies tend to dawdle and for the majority of the game, we don’t have any extended options to entice ourselves with variations on the same theme. Not that getting the powers makes the last quarter of the game all that much better, but it is an improvement.

The Legend of Korra

The depowering in The Legend of Korra fails to make a positive impact because the game doesn’t fall back onto anything worthwhile. Unlike God of War where the combat was still taut and exploratory despite the lack of discrete options and Metroid where the focus is discovery and the finding the need for those powers, The Legend of Korra does it for the sake of finding a narrative and mechanical impetus for progress.

Oh tropes. You do have a knack for making a good thing bad.

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You Should Probably Play 80 Days

80 Days

On the route from literature to video games, few seem as poised for the transformation as Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. It’s a classic tale from a classic writer, and all of it points to a classic setup for an interactive interpretation. With a wager setting a hard time limit and an impetus to experience new locations in that timeframe, what better than this for inkle studios to take and turn into 80 Days.

Of course, that bit of inciting action wherein Phileas Fogg takes up a wager to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days with nothing more than his servant Jean Passepartout and a presumably stout mustache in tow isn’t nearly as important as the execution. And 80 Days executes on the premise wonderfully. By putting you in the shoes of Passepartout and removing the inessential or irrelevant parts of the objective, the game opens itself up to a much more interesting system of storytelling mechanics.

For instance, the original challenge was brought about by the trans-Indian railroad, a technological innovation that allowed travel from Bombay to Calcutta in three days. (There’s also the bit about an Indian princess and Thuggee cultists.) Impressive, but it locks the pair into a much more insular experience. Inkle saw fit, instead, to throw in a massively spidering web of possibilities to get from place to place and focuses on a decidedly different and steampunky world seen through Passepartout’s eyes.

At its core, 80 Days is about resource management. With time, money, and health all working against you as you singlehandedly attempt to arrange this worldly trip (like, get off your ass, Fogg, and help me), you have to spin several plates at once while the game actively tries to topple them. And you never know when something you do is going to make your life better or worse.

That is the crux of what makes 80 Days so interesting. At the very opening of the game, you are faced with a decision to either lie or come clean. And that’s where you are shown the fourth resource: your relationship with Fogg. Your decisions on this trip will either enhance or degrade his opinion of you, showing you as an unreliable mess or an uninteresting fool or a wholly self-sufficient and wise companion.

It rouses a similar feeling to Telltale’s The Walking Dead series, but with the temporal pressure spread out over an entire journey rather than moment-to-moment, which strangely enough makes every branch that much more anxiety-ridden. With zombies and the always immediate goal of survival, choices often felt like less like a choice and more like a necessity. But with Passepartout, picking how to respond to Fogg and the strangers you meet on your travels feels infinitely more consequential.

80 Days

Instead of knowing your choice will result in someone living or dying, it’s more akin to real life. When you go about the daily world, you never know what decision will come back and bite you in the ass or simply pass off as another flowing, uninterrupted part of your contiguous life. The same goes with this game where the things you choose to say and do may or may not result in anything of note. You decision to hop a turnstile could just get you to your train on time or it may halt you for several days and land you on Fogg’s bad side.

This setup of obfuscated dominos could have easily been ominous or tedious, but 80 Days is rarely either, at least not in a bad way. If anything, the lazy dread that follows your solitary and potentially monumental decisions are exciting. Every situation could land you in a dozen other new places that you hadn’t planned on or could have even foreseen, but it’s never an inescapable fate. It only serves to broaden your adventure across the globe.

Part of it is that the responsibility is placed entirely in your hands. While some notes come up in your inventory and on timetables of where you can be to get somewhere today or how much a candle is worth in Africa, so much of the earned context of your journey is only retained in your head. With the people you encounter, you realize that taking note of names has the potential to payoff later. Or getting your hands on gear in Russia can help with your trek across the Pacific.

80 Days

The laissez-faire approach to information retention in 80 Days makes each journey feel that much more personal, especially as with each replay, you find or are forced into new routes and unknown territories. Or at least that’s one possibility. A huge part of what makes the game work is the writing. It’s consistently impressive and fits entirely well within the milieu of what the art and the characters establish, but it also allows you to dictate Passepartout’s character.

Choices allow you to make him as well-traveled as you’d like, opening up the potential of him to skip intel gathering in the market and instead pursue more meaningful threads like airship procurement and automata security. As your choices actively meld right back into the written words of the story, it feels as much like you writing the story as it does you reading one that already exists. Simultaneous creation and discovery.

Without a doubt, 80 Days is a game you should definitely play. For all the aliens you’ve shot as a space marine or the cities you’ve saved jumping a car off the top of a skyscraper, this tale of two men finagling their way across the world feels more like an adventure than most of those other grandiose stories combined. Genuine fear, anxiety, excitement, eagerness, and desire, and that’s before you even board the train.

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Shoot for the Moon

Shoot for the Moon

Borderlands was a genuine and pleasant surprise. Borderlands 2 was also a jolly good time, even if it was less impactful given it was a second dose of a medicine we’d already grown accustomed to. (I’m indifferent about Claptrap at this point.) Now we have Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, and the only thing I can wonder is: why?

There’s nothing wrong with a studio forging ahead with a series when the general population thinks they’ve tapped that vein to its full potential. It’s a proven fact that people often don’t know what they want because they don’t know what’s possible, and that holds especially true in this regard. That’s how we end up with franchise games like Tomb Raider and Assassin’s Creed II, two games that belie their lineage with meaningful contributions to the family tree.

In the case of The Pre-Sequel, though, it’s been handed off to another studio. Whether there was a pitch made by 2K Australia or Gearbox Software simply thought they could make more money, it’s unclear, and it’s really unimportant at this point. What we have is The Pre-Sequel as it exists now, and it is unequivocally more Borderlands.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it makes the differences all the easier to highlight. The big addition to the game over the first two Borderlands is the lunar landscape on which you’ll be doing your vault haunting. On this moon, you have lower gravity, which necessitates high arching, slow-paced jumps. Luckily, they’ve added additional mechanics for your locomotive needs.

By way of an oxygen kit, this includes various ways to gain additional jump height, slow your fall, and change directions, often in the form of a butt-stomp that will promptly and aggressively return you to the ground. This is the single most significant contribution to the game because it makes moving around actually not tedious.

In past Borderlands, getting from one place to another was slow and boring and, especially at higher levels, a serious nuisance. At least at lower levels, slogging through enemies got you meaningful amounts of experience and loot. But beyond that, transporting yourself across the vast expanses of Pandora was a frightfully and literally flat affair that even rocket-boosted vehicles couldn’t fix.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

With this moon-induced setup of bounding, boosting, and stomping, getting around the admittedly smaller world of Elpis (Pandora’s moon) is inherently more interesting. At any given time, you have what feels like infinitely more options to pursue, whether it’s running straight ahead or jumping around like an idiot between higher and higher ledges. It adds some egregiously missing verticality to a previously pancaked gameplay.

Mixed in with the actual shooting of the game, though, you end up with something far more muddied. This new, confused, slow-paced shooting strides closest to that of Halo and the old days of Counter-Strike 1.6 on one of those (usually) low-gravity maps like scoutzknivez. Both of those invite alien but engaging rhythms to their firefights because of their floaty feel.

With Halo (and, to an extent, Destiny, as they’re from the same studio and have very similar moment-to-moment sensations in their mechanical interactions), the cartoonishly empty movements and weights of characters and items in the world lend a certain strategic element to each battle. The best way to describe Halo fights is that they have a cadence, where enemies and players build their actions around the idea of jumping around and shooting and moving around cover.

Counter-Strike

In the scoutzknivez experience of old school Counter-Strike, it’s much more about the limitation of the game setup that plays into the lowered gravity of the map. As the name implies, you only have a scout rifle and a knife, which by itself is both a faster and slower sort of game. But in a match where everyone can jump to the top of one of several towers in a single bound, the gameplay becomes massively more interesting.

Now, the act of scouting is expanded so much higher and lower and wider than before, and risks become more enticing because of the ability to actuate on impressive moves, like skying upwards, scoping a headshot, and falling back down into a window to knife someone. It actively plays into the restrictions set by the map.

That’s where The Pre-Sequel loses out. It often feels like low gravity for the sake of low gravity. The pace of combat in Borderlands is neither strategic enough nor snappy enough to be either end of the spectrum that supports moon gravity. Instead, the best thing to do is keep things on the ground and let fly the lead (or lasers).

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

It’s not that an acrobatic approach isn’t viable; it’s that it isn’t the most viable. That only invites a struggle towards tracking and a lingering descent back down to the ground. And when you are playing a game, hopefully at some comfortable range of difficulty, it’s the most viable option in combat that affords you survival, not the ones that let you goof around up in the air.

Integrating the spacey maneuvers into your repertoire is entirely possible and can be fun, but it never feels necessary, leaving the addition behind in the pile of useless toys. Other integrations of the concept like in Halo and scoutzknivez plays into the innate rhythm of the ridiculous situation. The Pre-Sequel just kind of holds it above its head like some sort of trophy.

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Fury Review: Tanks for Nothing

Fury

Busywork. If don’t have a job that puts you right in the path of tedious, monotonous tasks, then you’re surely familiar with the concept from your days in school. With that in mind, you can probably recall the feelings of boredom, watching time pass in increments slower than a clock can capture. If not, you can easily force the recollection by seeing Fury, the most tedious, perfectly fine film you’re likely to see all year.

Fury is a war drama starring Brad Pitt as Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier. Set during the closing months of World War II as the Allies prepare to invade Germany, Don has to lead his crew and his tank (nicknamed Fury, natch) in a series of missions with a fresh-faced, naive typist named Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) replacing his former assistant driver. The crew has been together since the North African Campaign and is generally cold to the fresh meat.

This includes Shia LaBeouf as Boyd “Bible” Swan who more or less takes care of firing the main gun; Michael Peña as Trini “Gordo” Garcia, the tank’s driver; and Jon Bernthal as Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis, the guy who keeps Fury running and shooting. The film is prefaced with the fact that German tanks are by and large superior to American tanks, and then we’re off and running.

In these opening moments, the film is its strongest. It opens in exceptional form with a quiet and brutal showing of base surviving. It’s cold and clinical from its dioramic appearance to the finely tempered coloring of the scene, leading to the equally telling homecoming that feels more like walking among rubble than it does soldiers.

This is also where we witness the best acting the movie has to offer. LaBeouf as a religious soldier bears a barren, steely gaze in his eyes that truly communicates the single most important quality of these men: they are beaten. Not defeated and not losers but they have been smashed and ground up by simply surviving over and over again. And this look shows up in everyone else, though the belied stoicism from Pitt’s Don Collier layers in additional intrigue.

But Fury quickly forgets to go anywhere beyond that. At a certain point in the film, Pitt delivers the following: “ideals are peaceful; history is violent.” In other words, war is hell. It’s a concept we’ve become familiar with to the point of numbness. After so much media exposure to the idea, the effect has come has far as it can go without actually putting the audience in a real war. It is a nail that has been hammered a hundred times now, and that’s all it has.

Fury

As the movie goes on, characters fall into tropes as they are convenient and never leave. Don is a harsh but learned leader who takes care of his own, living by sink-or-swim and dying by the sword, though he has such a gooey center that he also just might pick you flowers on his way over. Grady is a drunkard, abusive idiot who only knows how to be a drunk and an idiot. Trini comes and goes as comic relief and Boyd is the religious man who never gives up on faith.

And then there’s Norman. He’s an enlisted typist who somehow gets assigned to replace the best gunner in the 2nd Armored Division (as Don puts it in one of his welcoming encounters). He’s never killed, hasn’t been trained to use a weapon, and isn’t entirely convinced he should even be near the front. The film effectively charts his growth into a weathered Nazi-killing machine as he stumbles through battle after battle and conversation after conversation with his sergeant.

The problem is that the turn is so incredibly predictable that it’s painful. Worse than that, it’s unearned. That perhaps is the only truly wrong thing that Fury does in its two-hour runtime. Norman’s transformation doesn’t even feel forced so much as it feels casual and bland. At least forced would communicate effort. And when you throw in the pit stops Norman has as he reveals more about the crew and those living adjacent to the war, it feels incredibly token.

Fury

Spread out over the course of 134 minutes, it feels tedious. It’s doubtful there was anyone in the theatre who did not know how the film was going to end, and as more and more war film clichés trickle through the screen and into our brains, a literal checklist appears in your eyes. And you can see as writer and director David Ayer ticks off each box with each passing minute while the audience slogs through this cinematic busywork.

The end itself is just an aggregation of action tropes, including one of the biggest and perhaps most annoying of recent years. (Don’t click this link if you don’t want anything ruined. It just goes to a TV Tropes page, but just from that, it can only confirm your suspicions. And yes, it was also tired in the movie.) Even as dozens and dozens of bodies piled up, yawns escaped mouths while gasps were nowhere to be seen.

There is, however, legitimately good stuff happening in Fury. Pitt effectively does his Brad Pitt thing, but he manages to add layers to a trite archetype that saves the character from being totally written off. And the depictions of the terrors of war are quite effective when they aren’t groan inducing. The opening scenes where Norman cleans the tank is especially good.

Fury

The tank encounters are also noteworthy. When we finally get to a tank-on-tank battle, it’s hard to get out of your mind thinking that Ayer may be a player of video games. He so effectively and meaningfully captures the anxiety of fighting in and with a tank. The timing of it all, where you have to make every shot count since you might not get another one, is perfectly showcased. It is genuinely tense and a treat of a break from the stale narrative.

But still, Fury isn’t a bad movie. It’s good-looking, good sounding, and well acted with some topnotch tank action. But everything else is bromidic as hell. You can hear the pen as it scrapes across the notebook in Ayer’s hand, crossing off each to-do item on his How to Make a Movie checklist. It doesn’t do any of it terribly. It just doesn’t do anything originally, either. Fury is simply uninspired.

Final Score: 6 out of 10

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Late to the Party: Edge of Tomorrow

Late to the Party: Edge of Tomorrow

Death doesn’t hold a lot of water in video games. It’s a leaky boat with you dumping out your liquid doom as fast as it’s coming in, but every once in a while, it pulls you under. But then it always comes right back up. Maybe a little worse for wear, but you’re floating either way. It’s only a matter of time, though, until you go back under.

MMOs can only thrive on this flow, such as it is (and they are). The corpse run is an idiomatic reference to the entirety of this surrealistic loop, dying and going back to loot your own shell of former existence. Some games now address this systemically and infuse its reasoning into a narrative impetus. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor simply makes you an undying fusion of a wraith and a Ranger. Assassin’s Creed makes you a literal digital avatar of another digital avatar. NeverDead actually just made you an immortal.

But then this rise of Dark Souls-like games, where this loop is entirely vital to what makes the game work. There’s minimal consequence to death, but death comes often and swift. It’s the gradual slope to overcoming this brutalization that makes such games any sort of intriguing.

This is what makes Edge of Tomorrow so interesting. It takes the gamut of concepts from the industry regarding a live’s terminus and makes it all fit so well in a movie. In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise plays Major William Cage, a media relations officer in the US Army. Pretty normal save for the fact that the entire world is all but lost to an invading alien race known as Mimics.

The nations have banded together into the United Defense Force, but they’re fighting a losing battle. That is until a woman named Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a sergeant, proves that a new armored/mechanized exoskeleton is a proven weapon against the insanely fast and deadly Mimics. After being forced into combat for the first time in an all-or-nothing counter-invasion by the UDF, Cage falls after managing to take out one of a seemingly exotic species of Mimic.

Or rather, he only appears to die. He actually gets stuck in a time loop where he lives the same day over and over again, fighting and dying in the same mean and fatal combat each time but retaining every memory from every iteration. But with training from Vrataski, Cage improves. He eventually begins proficient in killing the enemy and is well on his way to forming a plan to defeating the Mimics once and for all.

Edge of Tomorrow

(Spoiler Alert: To further discuss what makes Edge of Tomorrow a success, I’m going to discuss its plot development, which includes elements of its ending. It may be all the way out of theatres by now, but it also only came out in May of this year, so heed this warning if you still want to watch it. (And you should.) Or just read on anyways. You’re a big kid. Make your own decisions.)

It turns out, though, that it’s due to a melding of the rare Mimic’s blood—an Alpha, actually—with Cage’s that forces him into this loop. And after sustaining a major injury, he receives a blood transfusion, which essentially removes his temporally confined existence but also removes humanity’s greatest weapon against figuring out how to beat the Mimics.

And that is where the genius comes in. For every moment prior, we are treated to nearly trivial representations of death. There are no life counters, no ticking tracker of one-ups counting down to a game over, and no punitive measures. It’s pure respawn. Counter to the likes of Borderlands deducting funds from your wallet for reviving you, you simply start over and try again.

Edge of Tomorrow

In fact, Edge of Tomorrow trains us to think that respawing is only ever a good thing, too. Cage learns to fight after only surviving his first outing for as long as he did through good luck and good hair. Vrataski, Cage, and their scientist buddy eventually discern the location of the Omega Mimic, the key to defeating the alien foe once and for all. We come to trade the cringes and laughs of Cage’s early fatalities for the knowing observation of his growth into a viable warrior and possible savior for Earth.

Then, when Cage loses this ability to revert each day’s activities, it becomes strikingly apparent what it means to die. The contrast is shocking, like jumping into a pool in fall. That crutch that the game taught us to lean us is suddenly gone, and every scratch on Cage’s face starts to look less like a reason to call it a casual wash and more like a reason to be scared.

When J Squad asks Cage what to do after they land/crash in Paris and he says he doesn’t know, that he’s never lived this day before, it hits home. It hits hard because it tickles a now-rarely touched or noticed part of your brain, the chunk that retains your days of playing Mario or Castlevania.

Edge of Tomorrow

Who hasn’t been in that exact same situation in one of those games? You’ve blasted through your health and your lives to get to the last boss. You managed to abuse your previous trial and error knowledge to cheat your way through hard bits and pieces, sacrificing resources where necessary. But now you’re at the end, the end that you’ve never seen or tried or even heard of.

And you can’t die now. Eat it and you might as well not pick up the game again, like, ever. This life has meaning. And as you get beaten down, back against a wall, you realize that all the lives that you had before meant just as much. You learned, you grew, and you made it here all through biting and clawing and fighting.

Edge of Tomorrow capitalizes on that notion so well. It expands just from the physiological improvement of Cage’s combat and the knowledge gained from understanding that the Omega has to be found and killed but also that Cage learns his love for Vrataski can blossom so quickly and irrevocably. It’s not a fluke, and neither is his success.

Edge of Tomorrow

It’s a delicious sentiment, especially in the context of video games. Our iterations have meaning beyond a number in a sequence. And Edge of Tomorrow lays it out so well through a wholly transformative and fulfilling intersection between films and video games.

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Gone Girl Review: Never Found

Gone Girl

Never have I been so uninterested in an interesting story. Gone Girl from the outset has a lot of promise, and the trailer would lead you to believe it’s all there. You have a story based on a New York Times bestseller; David Fincher at the reins directing; Ben Affleck handling the lead role; and even has Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross teaming up once again for the soundtrack. Too bad it just never comes together.

Gone Girl tells the story of married couple Nick Dunne (Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike). Nick goes out one morning to share a drink with his sister at their bar and comes back to find that Amy has disappeared. Worse than that, it appears that a genuine crime has taken place. Kidnapping? Murder? Signs point to all of the above, and too bad for Nick because the signs also point to him.

The juice of the film’s narrative is potent stuff. It tells an intriguing story and it fills its dioramas with mirrors that reflect on modern society. It manages to comment on our need for facades, our need to inject media into our veins, and our unintelligible simultaneous need and desire to deceive. There’s a substantial flip in the middle that, whether you see it coming or not, is wholly gripping.

That grip, though, is rather ephemeral. There are several points in Gone Girl where it has you almost irrevocably by the throat and all you want is more. But it never quite sustains that momentum in any meaningful way, always slumping to the floor before it hits the throttle. The beginning opens with an impressive and cold heft, and then fails to hide any of its mystery. And towards the end of the first third, more intrigue emerges, but is swiftly snuffed by a blatantly revoked curtain.

A lot of what the movie can claim as engrossing moments can all be attributed to its cast. From top to bottom, both the casting immaculately syncs with the roles and the actors fulfill their potential. Affleck plays the oddly disaffected, shady husband with aplomb, and Pike goes through the whole film navigating banks and turns with a fantastic deftness. And from larger supporting roles like Nick’s lawyer (Tyler Perry) and the lead detective (Kim Dickens) to smaller parts like the annoying neighbor (Casey Wilson), it seems as if the characters fit their portrayers like a glove.

The same goes for Fincher as the director. This movie, for the most part, tells the story of a cold and calculated deception, precise as a laser, and what more does Fincher do best than coolly and rawly showcase characters in slow-burning scenes. His signature style is on full display here, and combined with the similarly matched music from Reznor and Ross, it slides over the plot and covers it all like a nice, murderous blanket.

Gone Girl

That’s why it makes the film’s failure all the more puzzling. The writing isn’t terrible by any stretch; the story is proven and critically well received in its novelization; and the cast and crew are complementary to its material to a fault. But it lacks so much in providing any sustained or noteworthy amount of suspense. Even guessing the truth and ending to the movie failed to interest me.

Sitting through the film at around the 120th minute mark (yeah, it’s a doozy), I found my mind wandering. It drifted off to the realm of trying to figure out why it’s failing to grab me and hold me, or unraveling my curiosity for how boredom was so effectively distilled into a single movie, and then scolding myself for not trying hard enough to like this film. But oh how I tried.

The portrayals of Nick and Amy are likable in the beginning. That’s not the problem. The problem is that likable doesn’t get viewers invested. We are all standing on the cliff, wanting to be pushed into caring and wanting to find out more. But the movie takes us by the hand and leads us astray. We are first introduced to the idea of Nick as a drinker with no emotions, overriding a sweetly romantic retelling of their first encounter. And it focuses on arousing suspicion just enough to where our inclination towards Amy is also overshadowed.

Gone Girl

So without a personal investment in the leads, we are left with the mystery, but from the get-go, whether what the movie tells you is true or not, it leaves very little curiosity to be mined. Then, without both drama and emotional attachment, we are left with just a shell that sounds good and looks good with some nice allegorical analyses taped to the front.

Gone Girl is not a bad movie. Far from it, it’s well-made and well-acted. But somewhere along the way, it forgot to include several critical elements that tie those two halves together. There’s a lot of well-earned boredom to be had here but also more than a handful of incredible performances. But for all the competence thrown your way from Fincher’s hands, Gone Girl still fails to deliver.

+ Great performances from Affleck and Pike
+ Soundtrack, casting, and directing all fit the film like a glove
– Present an interesting story as so incredibly boring
– Fails to dramatically capitalize on dramatic source material

Final Score: 5 out of 10

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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review: Tex-Orc-Ana

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Much of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is completely unoriginal. From its combat to its traversal to the very foundation of its narrative lore, this is a game that stands wholly on the shoulders of those that came before it. Even its most distinguishing feature (the Nemesis System) brings up old flavors of racing rivals. And despite all that, Shadow of Mordor is still one of the most inspiring and well-executed games made this year.

The crux of the game is that you play Talion, a Ranger guarding the Black Gate between Mordor and the less sticky-looking part of Middle-earth. Set somewhere between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, your watch is attacked by Orcs, resulting in a dead squad, a dead family, and a dead Talion. But when he wakes up inextricably attached to a wraith, things get really interesting.

Strangely enough, it’s almost entirely the things not related to Talion’s quest that are most enticing. Well to do the story justice, it’s important to note that it actually goes some cool places and introduces nuance to an otherwise straightforward tale of vengeance. The dead family and revival thing rings a bit hard for God of War, but after coming across some twists and layered characters, the quality writing becomes apparent and showcases an engaging story, if you can ignore a few misguided delves into the land of tropes.

But the big highlight is the aforementioned Nemesis System. Shadow of Mordor is an open-world game replete with the usual and well-strewn smattering of collectibles and what not, but it feels far more like a living, breathing organism than most other open worlds before it. The Nemesis System complexly but intuitively replicates and integrates an Orc hierarchy into the game’s emergent narrative.

There is a continual upheaval of both what you would expect fodder enemies to do with their time and what you would expect from a game otherwise centered on delivering a predetermined, discrete tale. You see, as time passes, these Orcs and Uruks go about their lives with their weaknesses, strengths, desires, vices, and history. For instance, one lower ranking grunt may make a power grab at the captain above him. If successful, he will move up. If not, he leaves a hole for an even lower foe to advance.

You will develop a personal history with your ladder of Uruk. One warchief of never failed to call me a coward, relishing that he forced me to retreat once. (Like, once, dude. Let it go!) Another bore the scars of my sword from our first encounter to our last, ending with my blade finishing what it started so long ago. And it’s remarkable just how much they can react to and, just as importantly, vocalize. They call you out with incredible specificity, especially when you meet the hand that fell you.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

More than advancing graphic fidelity and 3D-modeled, physically accurate sound echoing, this is one of the first things you will encounter in the new generation and realize what beefier machines can offer. It is emergent yet personal, feeling both wide open to reaction and designed with staid consideration. It is finally an open world that feels entirely open while being an actual world. And once you are able to directly manipulate Orcs in the hierarchy, a modicum of unexpected political strategy enters the mix.

It’s important to mention alongside this fantastic systemic development that it integrates a refined retelling of some previously explored mechanics. The combat is wholly lifted from the Arkham series, using unreal acrobatics to enable a fluid, combo-oriented fighting system. Attack, dodge, and counter, with special variants directed towards specific enemies. For instance, shielded enemies require you to flip over them, and others only can be killed by stealth. Sound familiar?

It is especially evident where the inspiration came from as you earn upgrades to your combat that allow you to use your special moves that would normally require a high combo to only need a small one. And as you sneak around, using arrows to attract and sonically manipulate wandering guards, you realize that both Arkham managed to nail action and stealth all in one go and that Shadow of Mordor managed to not fuck it up. (More superficially, the way Talion’s cape flows around him in a fashion eerily identical to Batman’s cape.)

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

And in a smart move, opting to fuse with a more interesting and more appropriate method for traversal, the freerunning over obstacles and up walls comes straight from Assassin’s Creed. It’s simple but satisfying pushing your stick a direction and having Talion figure out a badass way up there, making huge leaps from window to window and leaping sizable gaps.

But the game also makes wise improvements. For instance, rather than have to climb down or jump down from only particular points, you just leap and it’s all good on the ground. And if you run for a bit, you engage with a super fast wraith run, speeding up otherwise tedious late-game maneuvers. Also, believe it or not, the stealth actually works.

Then, rather than piling on more and more gadgets and weapons, you only ever have you bow, your dagger, and your sword and then get to bind with runes that enable special abilities. Some allow you to regain health as you inflict damage while others or prevent Uruk from running away. Most of them, though, allow for experimentation and noteworthy shifts in play styles.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Combined with increasingly complex enemies and terrain, fighting becomes as interesting and as personal as the Nemesis System. Rather than being a set of mechanics that fill out some arbitrary (and potentially imaginary) content requirement, combat in the game only serves to become more layered and nuanced but never complicated or rote.

Unfortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, the scripted parts of the game are the bits that are lacking. Missions are often simplistic and lack any impetus to internalize its context. So much of what was made to be deliberately fun and engaging ended up being obstacles to the juicy bits of Nemesis. Then the instilled drama of slow motion sword-bashing and head-rolling can eventually take its toll on your patience.

There’s also a distinct lack of an endgame regarding the Nemesis System. It ambiguously (yet strongly) motivates you to engage with its advancing slots and players but never reaches a conclusion beyond having reached your self-proclaimed goal of overtaking the Orc military society. And while a sharp-looking game, it only becomes a good-looking one after it opens up in the second half.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Those, however, are middling affections floating amidst the scope of a feature that should define other open-world games that follow. Innovation lacks in the majority of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor‘s designed feature set, borrowing from successful and tested franchises that have come before it, but refinement is not lost on this melting pot. It all supports the Nemesis System, a network of intrigue and personalization meant to drag make-believe vendettas into a shifting, systemic tableau. It comes together in one of the best action packages of the year.

+ Borrows and refines combat and traversal from tried and true methods
+ The Nemesis System makes slaying hundreds of Uruk (and even death) interesting
+ Rune system makes meaningful changes to your play style
– Lack of goal to Nemesis makes the climb up the ladder eventually feel fruitless
– Terribly bland campaign missions

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Game Review: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Release: September 30, 2014
Genre: Third-person action
Developer: Monolith Productions
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $59.99
Website: https://www.shadowofmordor.com/

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The Obvious Gotham

Gotham

Television pilots are terrible. They’re rarely indicative of the future of the show. Either through drastic shifts in showrunners, celebrity guest director, or hard swings in characterizations, the ensuing series often pivots in some not insignificant way. For instance, the first episode of New Girl was terrible and the show turned out to be quite fun.

The prominent mutation can usually be attributed, however, to the fact that the pilot has so much to do. It has to set up characters, motivations, and conflicts that will blossom over the course of the season and entire series. It’s full of so much stuff that is doesn’t have room to breathe and luxuriate in personality or subtlety. It’s rare you get a pilot like Boardwalk Empire or Breaking Bad and are afforded nearly feature length time.

That’s why it seemed like a rash idea to pass judgment on Gotham after it’s first go at broadcast. It had a terrible habit of treating the audience like drooling buffoons. Or it had no idea how to play coy, opting to spit on your face instead of throwing you a wink and a smile. It basically hit you on the head with its foreshadowing. (Penny Arcade’s expert skewering is dead-on.)

Gotham continues to do that, opting for an Independence Day-sized foreshadowing rather than a deft silhouette passing by the doorframe. It makes up for it by capitalizing on a rather talented cast (especially with Donal Logue as Harvey Bullock and Jada Pinkett Smith as Fish Mooney) and two hefty scoops of dark and moody, but Gotham has a larger problem that looms tall—even bigger than the signs it puts up pointing to Edward Nygma as the Riddler.

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s go over quickly what Gotham is: James Gordon is still a detective at the Gotham City Police Department; Bruce Wayne’s parents pretty much just got murdered; and neither Batman nor any of his nemeses exist yet in the mature forms with which we’re far more familiar. It centers around Gordon as he attempts to fight back against the rampant and thorough corruption of the city while parading around big name villains like the Penguin, the Riddler, and Catwoman.

Do you see the problem? There are so few ways to make this work and so many ways to make this fail, and unfortunately, it seems as if Gotham is going the way of the latter. As it currently stands, it appears as if the show is structured to shape up around Gordon’s vigilance and tenacity against the endless, crushing waves of dirty crime and dirtier politics. And there’s no compelling way that works out in the context of the greater Batman mythos.

Gotham

You see, all of those stories begin and end with Batman. Not that they only ever existed or need to exist while Bruce Wayne is capable of being Batman but that their impact on the city tightly orbits around the caped crusader. Even when we find out the backstory of the Joker or Mr. Freeze, it’s because we know what becomes of them that we care where they started, and what becomes of them is inextricably tied to the Batman’s existence.

Tying the bad guys solely to Gordon’s career at Gotham PD is severely problematic because then it impacts the both the necessity and impetus of Batman’s involvement. Consider that if Gordon is successful, he wholly negates the need for Batman. Even if he doesn’t entirely take down the villains, he can build massive cases that can bring about legal victory through the courts, also nullifying Batman’s utility. What need is there to don the cowl and cape when all of the baddies are already behind bars?

Further consider that if none of these incognito personas à la Edward Nygma or Oswald Cobblepot fully develop into their demented alter egos until Batman arrives in Gotham, then their dastardly deeds weigh fully on the Dark Knight’s shoulders. His coming into being actually symbiotically brought into existence the Riddler and the Penguin instead of leaving them to be a coroner and a garden-variety mobster.

Gotham

Any amount of driving narrative success from Gordon can only serve to inject doubt into our minds regarding Batman’s future guard of the city. Consider instead that the far meatier story would be Gordon’s golden resolve versus the temptation to fall to underhanded policing. We would, in effect, watch him fall.

We see him at a stalemate and lose butting heads with the seedy underbelly of Gotham. His victories are tantamount to saving lives but rarely thwarting crimes—and don’t even bother integrating the likes of Selina Kyle or Carmine Falcone. It’s demoralizing to him and it beats him down into the ground. Eventually we see the cracks in his formerly solid and taut gaze towards justice.

He stumbles. He’s clearly and understandably tempted to fight dirty. Each season he falls deeper into the delectable bargain of being and corrupt as his foes, spitting and clawing in the name of a safer city. The end state is for him to reach his breaking point just as Wayne returns to Gotham and takes up the mantle of Batman. That cape and that cowl are not only Gotham’s salvation but—more importantly—Gordon’s as well. He shows that Gordon’s faith and Gordon’s actions were not misplaced.

Gotham

Gotham is an obvious show. It’s not just about it’s on-the-nose references and painful elbows in the ribs about future villains and the like but it’s about the show’s core problem: even without Batman, it still fails to not be about Batman.

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