Friday, February 29, 2008

Devil May Cry 4

The last generation of game consoles has a lot to answer for. They brought us the guitar sim, the open-world sandbox, and, relevantly, the "stylish action game".

Putting aside that "stylish action" is a crap name for a genre, I've still never really been a fan of Prince of Persia or God of War. All those parkour performances and ancient Greek orgies were just shiny cover for my sworn nemesis, the platform game.

But I've got a soft spot for Devil May Cry. With the exception of the universally reviled Devil May Cry 2, this is a franchise that knows that nothing should ever, ever get in the way of killing demons.

Devil May Cry 4 is a sequel in the finest traditions of "more of the same". If you enjoyed DMC 1 or 3, you're going to feel right at home here, as everything you liked before is back and looking to pick a fight. It's a game about going from A to B, and killing every ill-tempered hell-loving fiend that gets in your way in the most implausible, frenetic, and cinematic way possible.

This time around you'll be playing the first half of the game as Nero, who is essentially what you'd get if you made series protagonist Dante a little less macho and gave him a giant "devil arm" that acts as a kind of magical grappling gun. You'll take Nero through to the halfway mark, after which you get control of Dante, who doesn't have the grappling gun but does have access to a bewildering array of of diffferent fighting styles and weapons.

You may be the kind of person who'll feel offended that you don't get Dante right from the outset, but here at The Dust Forms Words we have a name for that kind of person, and it is "nutjob". My experience was that Nero is significantly more fun to play than Dante, partly because the devil arm is surprisingly well integrated and partly because Dante's weapon-changing stance-shifting style is annoying complex and ill-suited to the XBox 360 controller. However, even if that's not your take on the situation, you'll still likely find that both characters are fun to play and equally worthy of the franchise.

The franchise's last outing was known for a range of frustrating difficulty issues, with initial Japanese and US releases being, apparently, eye-gougingly hard. Australia got the kiddy version, which later saw store shelves in the US as well. Thankfully, this time around the difficulty is just right, with a stupefyingly easy "Human" difficulty for the talentless and prepubescent, and an appropriately challenging "Devil Hunter" mode for those experienced with the series. Finishing Devil Hunter naturally unlocks further levels of difficulty which go right through to the insane "Heaven or Hell" mode.

The game theoretically features a plot, wherein a mad cult intends to use the Yamato blade to open a hell gate and create some kind of living god, but it's not really terribly interesting and mostly just serves as framing for the excellent cutscenes and fantastic boss fights.

Speaking of the boss fights, you'll be fighting each boss three times. The first time is as Nero, where the tactics focus on the clever use of Nero's grappling maneuver; the second time is as Dante, where you're deprived of the grapple and have to come up with new strategies that integrate Dante's strengths. These first two fights with each boss are fun, and really bring the differences in the characters to the forefront. However, you then have to fight all the bosses again, back to back, in the second last level of the game, for no particular plot reason whatsoever, which is probably the only moment in the game that'll have you hating the developers. It's one time too many and it feels like a frustrating and unnecessary level of padding added to the game's length.

That gripe aside, I can heartily recommend Devil May Cry 4. It features combat that feels fun, looks great, and has a surprising level of depth, and better yet the game knows its strengths and plays to them, serving up endless action without plunging you through platforming or minigaming tedium. The whole package utilises the XBox 360's graphical capabilities well, and it's the sort of game you're probably going to want to come back to when you're finished to attempt the harder difficulties.

Basically, if jamming buttons and killing demons sounds like the sort of thing you'll enjoy, then you're unlikely to find a better execution of it that Devil May Cry 4.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Raining Cats And Blogs

Arkem has pointed me in the direction of Ian McKellar's auto-lolcat feeds, which combine cat photos from Flickr with post headlines from various RSS feeds. Hilarity ensues.

The main page is here.

CNN news lolcats are hilarious.

Craigslist cats are also funny but NSFW.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

No Country For Old Men

I was going to do a whole post about No Country For Old Men but it just doesn't seem to be in me. Short version: well worth seeing even if you know in advance that the ending rides the short bus.

Josh Brolin (Grindhouse, American Gangster) plays a Texan labourer who comes into possession of $2 million after stumbling across the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong. Sending his wife into hiding, he goes on the lam with the money, followed by terrifying hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Tommy Lee Jones plays a sheriff looking into the case.

It's directed by the Coen Brothers (Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?), so if you're familiar with their work you won't be surprised to find that this is a protracted shaggy dog tale with an ending that spams hard on the epic fail button. The main plot abruptly ends at the 100 minute mark, leaving the movie to shamble aimlessly onward while the audience fidgets uncomfortably.

Despite a conclusion that metaphorically salutes Hitler this is still a hell of a well made movie. With excellent performances all round, great directing and cinematography, and more outrageous Texan accents than you can poke a stick at, No Country For Old Men largely succeeds by keeping each scene independently entertaining.

See the film, enjoy it, and then beat the Coen Brothers savagely around the head until they learn the meaning of the word "resolution".

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Babylon 5: The Lost Tales - Voices In The Dark

There's a reason these tales were lost.

Babylon 5: The Lost Tales is Joe Michael Straczynski's direct-to-DVD continuation of his well-loved B5 universe. Intended to be an ongoing series, of which Voices In The Dark is the first and so far only, each disc in the series features two or more short telenovellas featuring original members of the Babylon 5 and Crusade casts.

The first half of Voices In The Dark opens 10 years after the final season of B5 and showcases Commander Lochley, now promoted to the rank of Colonel. Actress Tracy Scoggins has clearly seen better days, but stumbling around like a drunk on a bender and going to bed wearing ridiculous prostitute makeup are the least of her worries when she finds herself dealing with a traveller exhibiting a raging case of demonic possession.

No stranger to The Exorcist, Lochley promptly whistles up a deeply generic old priest with a shaky belief system, who endlessly pontificates about the nature of God and the Devil until you're begging Lochley to flush him out the nearest airlock. The next half hour drones by in a procession of tedious monologues; Lochley asks herself some hard and deeply uninteresting questions about the nature of faith, and then somehow it all resolves itself, ending the first half of the disc in an uninspiring drizzle of mediocrity.

For the second Tale, we find Sheridan looking rather dapper as President of the Interstellar Alliance and being interviewed by an unconvincingly trampy ISN reporter. Some winceworthy attempts at humour are made, until the real story kicks into gear when technomage Galen visits Sheridan in a dream to tell him that Sheridan must kill a young Centauri to prevent a forthcoming apocalypse.

Of course, Sheridan is going to do no such thing, no matter how much the show attempts to convince you over the next 30 minutes that he might. Bruce Boxleitner is a vastly better actor than Tracy Scoggins and is sober to boot, so this expedition is by and large more successful than its predecessor, but it's still a tiring farce that avoids B5's traditional strengths as though they were made of killer bees.

Neither of the two stories are well written or well directed. JMS is responsible for both the script and the direction, so the blame falls squarely at his feet. The short story format sits poorly with his traditional flair for the epic, and his penchant for the monologue finds neither the dramatic timing nor the acting talent to be effective. The special effects and digital compositing fail to convince and the small set and cast budgets make the environments feel claustrophobic and provincial.

Ultimately The Lost Tales adds nothing of consequence to the Babylon 5 universe, completely fails to stand on its own merits, and is a depressing embarassment to all concerned in its creation. No amount of obsessive fandom can justify supporting this rubbish with money and you're best to leave it alone and wait for B5 to resurface in the fullness of time with some genuine inspiration and enthusiasm behind it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

3:10 To Yuma

If you took everything about Westerns that was ever dramatic, exciting, powerful or stylish, and distilled it down into 122 minutes, you'd probably end up with something that looked a lot like 3:10 To Yuma. Which, by the way, is one hell of a good movie.

It's the story of Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a crippled civil war veteran who is battling to save his unprofitable land and gain the respect of his rebellious son. The opportunity to solve both his problems appears when he is offered a high-paying prisoner escort job, taking murderous bandit Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to the 3:10 train to Yuma Prison.

Unfortunately for Evans, Wade's gang (led by an entertainingly villainous Ben Foster) aim to break their boss free. Joined by his runaway son, and aligned with a steadily depleting pool of allies, Evans finds himself up against nearly insurmountable odds as the arrival of the 3:10 train draws near, and must come to understand why he is doing what he is doing and what really matters to him in life.

3:10 To Yuma is filled with all those themes that Westerns have always handled so well: duty, justice, honour, revenge, manhood, and the relationships between fathers and sons. In less talented hands that could all add up to a macho gun-fest with nothing much to say, but here they're handled sensitively and stirringly.

There's regular violence throughout the film, and it's always shocking. Not shocking in the dinsoaurs-burst-through-windows horror sense, but shocking in a way that conveys that violence is never something anyone is really prepared for. Shoot-outs start with deafeningly loud and brutally startling gunshots, and murders happen suddenly and before anyone can react. Characters are well fleshed-out throughout, and even minor roles are invested with a suprising degree of humanity.

This version is a remake of the 1957 film of the same name. It's directed by James Mangold, whose previous offerings include the critically successful Girl, Interrupted and Walk the Line, as well as the much less wonderful horror flick Identity. Mangold is at the top of his game here; he absolutely nails the essence of the Western genre, and balances action and violence skillfully against characterisation and psychological suspense.

Both Crowe and Bale are perfectly cast and deliver excellent performances. Ben Foster (most recently memorable as Angel in X-Men 3) is also a stand-out appearance as Wade's second in command. Sci-fi fans may also appreciate Alan Tudyk (Wash from Firefly) in a minor part as a doctor-slash-veterinarian.

The musical score is absolutely perfect, evoking all the best themes of the genre while remaining original and attention-grabbing. That's surprising, as it's by Marco Beltrami, best known as a composer for B-grade horror and action flicks (Mimic, xXx: State of the Union, Blade 2, Resident Evil). Beltrami distinguishes himself here with music that stands comparison with the works of Ennio Morricone or Elmer Bernstein.

Ultimately, 3:10 to Yuma is not just a good Western - it's a very, very good movie. It's the sort of movie that will make you want to watch more Westerns, and will remind you of why this genre was so popular for such a very long time. It's absolutely not surprising that it's garnered critical acclaim wherever it's gone, yet it simultaneously holds a lot of entertainment value for less demanding audiences. This is cinema done well, and if Hollywood makes more films like this we'll be well served this year as a viewing pubic.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

I always assumed that my cinematic blood feud with that hack Tim Burton would be settled with fire and death, but as it turns out he's defused the situation by making a rather stunningly good movie instead.

Sweeney Todd, for those not in the know, is a movie based on Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical about a certain Mr Benjamin Barker (played here by Johnny Depp). Brought low by the cruel mischiefs of fate, Barker is shipped off to the colonies as a convict while his wife is meanwhile molested by an unsavoury judicial official (Alan Rickman). In short order Barker escapes, returns to England, and, finding his wife apparently dead, swears murderous vengeance upon all and sundry, which is where the story begins. Before long Barker is calling himself Sweeney Todd and has resumed his previous trade as a barber, which largely consists of murdering his customers and giving the corpses to obliging neighbour Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter), who cooks them up into pies for the consumption of the masses.

That may all be gruesome fare for a musical but it's perfect subject matter for director Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). For years now I've been waging an uphill battle to convince the public at large that this man's life work has been shameless tripe; specifically, that he couldn't find plot, pacing, or characterisation if someone stapled his tongue to them on a carefully illustrated diagram. In Sweeney Todd, though, Burton manages to sidestep his regular directorial Chernobyls by letting the magic of the musical do his storytelling busywork for him.

Sweeney Todd is filled with actors at the top of their professional careers. Johnny Depp is predictably outrageous in the title role, continuing his Pirates of the Caribbean accented drawl. Also it turns out that Alan Rickman has a passable singing voice, though it's nothing to write home about. The real treat, though, is Bonham-Carter (Fight Club, Til Human Voices Wake Us), who after slumming her way through a plethora of sub-par roles and appalling performances over the last decade finally gets a chance to steal the show as Barker's slightly loopy pie-cooking foil.

The story is driven largely by the music, which is excellent and well framed by both the directing and the performances. The songs regularly carry the acting and pacing above the typical Tim Burton doldrums, and the movie almost entirely retains the magnificence of Sondheim's original score. It's over-the-top and full of ridiculous conceits, but that's less the music itself and more the nature of musicals as a medium. The bombastic melodrama is perfectly suited both to Johnny Depp's talents and to Tim Burton's exaggerated sense of gothic style, and if you're not hating it then you'll likely be loving its grandeur and unapologetic self-involvement.

This is a gory movie. Not gory to the extent of your average slasher flick, but still with far more blood and guts flowing than seems right in a movie that has people singing. It is essentially a film about a very deranged man who kills people and then feeds them to other people in pies, and that's not dodged or bowdlerised at any point. Don't take the children.

For all the death and drama, though, this is a fundamentally fun movie. It's something you can really get behind. The lead actors are a delight to watch, the script is witty and understated, and there's a sense of finely tuned comedic timing that follows the story the entire way through. Those pitiful creatures who consider themselves Tim Burton fans should love it, and for everyone else it's quite capable of sustaining a passionate independent cult following, should you be looking for something like that.

Don't miss out on the entertainment here just because you've been put off by Tim Burton or by musicals in the past. Sweeney Todd is a high quality movie. It's worlds above most of the rubbish that hit theatres last year, and if it's unlikely to outshine its contemporaries that's only a testament to the excellence of 2008 cinema so far.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Phoenix Wright, Ace Attorney: Justice For All

For those who still haven't discovered the magic of Phoenix Wright, you'll be glad to know that your entire life to date has been shallow and without meaning. For everyone else, Justice For All provides four more well-told courtroom whodunnits while leaving the basic Phoenix Wright formula completely unchanged.

Justice For All is Wright's second Nintendo DS adventure, and like its predecessor it's really only an English-language port of a Japanese GameBoy title. This release has most of the extra quirks that the last DS game did, such as the ability to use the microphone to shout "Objection!", and basic touchscreen control, but unlike the last Phoenix Wright this time there are no bonus cases or touchscreen-based forensics to engage in.

At their heart the Ace Attorney games are really just murder mysteries, set in a courtroom. You're the defence attorney for someone accused of murder, and thanks to the highly unlikely mechanics of the world's legal system the only way for you to exonerate your client is to collar and prosecute the real criminal within the statutory deadline of three days. Each case is made up of a series of chapters, which alternate between "investigation", where you interview bystanders and search areas for clues, and the courtroom, where you cross-examine witnesses and present evidence.

As in the last game, the courtroom sections are more fun than the investigations, but it's a closer race this time, partly due to the quality of the writing, and partly due to the game's sole new mechanic, the "psyche-lock". Occasionally when you meet characters you'll discern that they're carrying a secret, represented by a lock-and-chain motif, and if you can guess the majority of their secret by presenting them with relevant evidence they'll crack and tell you the rest. It's really not all that different from just regular questioning, but it ably serves to spice up the proceedings by the small amount that the game needed.

The graphics are mostly recycled from the last game and consist of cartoony animations and still frames. The music too is a rehash from the original, but that's really a good thing because it means the series' iconic courtroom music survives intact.

Those frustrated by the last game's poorly-written final case will be pleased to know that everything on offer here is logical and well-constructed; although you'll occasionally feel stuck, it will rarely be as a result of poor puzzle design or a confusing input system.

Justice For All is really little more than an interactive story, so naturally the game stands or falls on the quality of its writing, which thankfully is of a generally high standard here. The quality of the individual cases does vary, though. The first two are rather weak, the third is better but kind of out there, and the fourth and final case is blow-your-mind fantastic. I mean that - it's excellent. The game is worth buying just for that last case.

If you haven't played the original game yet, you'll probably want to play that first as the sequel has a fair amount of story continuity. However, if you've already played and enjoyed Phoenix Wright, Ace Attorney then there's really no good reason not to pick up Justice For All.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Half-Life: Full Life Consequences

If you're too proud to repost other people's material wholesale then the terrorists have already won.

So, via Shrydar:
Half-Life: Full Life Consequences - DJY1991's hilarious machinima adaptation of squirrelking's epic Half-Life fanfic of epic proportions.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Eternal Sonata

Eternal Sonata's gorgeous graphics and intriguing story can't cover up its apocalyptically tedious and irrelevant gameplay.

I say this now not because I have finished the game, but because I'm about to start Devil May Cry 4, and I'm pretty sure that Dante won't approve of me playing a dull, dull XBox 360 JRPG during his demon-killing time. I may in fact never come back to Eternal Sonata, which probably means I'll have to find a new way to reliably fall asleep in the middle of the day.

The game is the story of Frederic Chopin. Yes, the real-life Polish composer. Confined to his deathbed, watching the last minutes of his life tick away, his only regrets are that he didn't spend enough time levelling up and finding epic loot. Apparently. Before you can say "Mary Sue", Chopin is deposited wholesale into a nun-punchingly generic fantasy world and teamed up with an assortment of flat-chestedly androgynous five-year olds on a quest to defeat some sort of an evil.

If that sounds like every RPG you've ever played before, that's because it is. But with Chopin. Who, to the best of my knowledge, has not previouisly been a playable character in an RPG. Which is a shame, because apparently he wields awesome magic powers and wears a stylish top hat.

Eternal Sonata is beautiful. Let's get that out of the way right now. This is probably one of the best looking games you have ever seen. It's got great art design, top-notch character models, and the whole thing is a fantastic example of how eye-gougeingly impressive cel-shading can be when done right.

It looks so good that you're going to really wish it's a good game. You're going to scrunch your eyes tightly shut and clench your fists and quietly whisper to yourself, "I do believe in Namco-Bandai! I do, I do!" But all that wishing is going to go to waste, because behind the graphics is one of the most appallingly horrible Japanese-style RPGs in years.

Character progression is linear. You get XP, you go up a level, your stats increase. The only decisions you get to make are what weapons to equip your characters with, and seeing as weapon progression is also linear that's not a big deal.

You can get up to 10 characters in your party, but you can only use three at a time, so in practice you're going to always take the best three and ignore everyone else. And there are very definitely a "best three".

You'll spend most of your time in typical JRPG fashion going from Location X to Location Y in order to fight Boss Z. The path from Location X to Location Y can be either a forest, a cave, a sewer, or, if you're lucky, some kind of cave-forest or sewer-cave. Boss Z is typically large, slow, and completely irrelevant to the story. Along the way you open chests to find useless items that you could have bought at the village store.

Monsters are displayed on the travel screen, so theoretically you can avoid them in order to pace the amount of mindless grinding you have to do. In practice, however, every second monster completely blocks the path, so you'll still be fighting every two steps. Also, the number of unique monster types is so small you can practically count them on one hand. It seems every nook and cranny of Eternal Sonata's world is populated by the same bats, scorpions and killer sheep.

Further cheapening the whole endeavour is the shockingly incompetent level design, which turns the process of travel into a kind of foreign-language Where's Wally? You'll regularly travel around the same three screens for hours while waiting for the necessary spark of genius that tells you the single yellow pixel in the extreme distance is the end of a rope that you can climb down to continue. Every location is unnecessarily mazelike, and picking one of the endless dead-ends results in having to fight another half-dozen totally unnecessary battles against the local sewer-cave's bat-scorpion-du-jour.

The battles themselves could have been good. They take place in real time, letting you freely move characters into appropriate tactical configurations and ranges. Some of the characters have unique attack mechanics, such as the archer Viola who requires you to actually aim at enemies with a crosshair and does more damage the farther she is from her target.

Also, the game uses an interesting light and dark mechanic, where characters and monsters have different abilities and stats depending on whether they're standing in light or darkness. Some monsters even change form depending on whether they're in shadow or illumination. That becomes better still when you realise that characters and monsters cast shadows, which other characters can stand in, and some monsters are phosphorescent and thereby carry their own pool of light around. Unfortunately, the potential of all this is never really explored and it ultimately comes across as more gimmick than mechanic.

What with Chopin in the game, you'd think there'd be some focus on music, and you'd be right. The musical score is wonderful, combining Chopin's music with some great original piano compositions, and it's all yet another reason that you'll be wishing all this artistic quality had been lavished on something with gameplay that didn't quite so obviously feed puppies to hoboes.

The XBox 360 has had a bad run in the JRPG stakes, what with Blue Dragon being such an appalling punch in the goolies, and now Eternal Sonata going commando under its pretty, pretty dresses, but unfortunately you'll just have to hold out a little longer. Unless your tolerance for pointless grinding is at near-godlike levels, this isn't the game you've been waiting for, and you'd be much better served by going and having another go-round with the amazingly, amazingly good Mass Effect.

Did I mention Mass Effect is rather good?


As far as European boardgames go, one of my best recent finds would have to be Colosseum. Designed by Wolfgang Kramer (El Grande, Tikal) and Markus Lubke, and published by Days of Wonder, Colosseum charges players with running an ancient Roman Colosseum over five rounds, or "days", and attempting to put on the best show possible during that period.

Each player starts with a colosseum. On each turn, players have the opportunity to buy one and only one investment, which range from colosseum size upgrades to new performance blueprints through to a loge for the Emperor. Then players bid on groups of tiles in the "marketplace" which represent assets for use during performances, such as gladiators, boats, lions or scenery. Finally players put on a performance, which scores points based on how ambitious the performance is, how many of the required asset tiles the player possesses, whether any consuls or senators came to see the performance, and a variety of other factors.

The first interesting part of the gameplay is that performance scores aren't cumulative - only your highest scoring performance over the five days counts. However, when you put on a new performance, each previous unique performance you've done counts for five spectators. Also, the investment system means you'll only be able to put on the epic productions in the final game turns.

Successful performances pay the money you'll need to expand and perform well during marketplace bidding. Being in first place also scores you free "podium" upgrades which provide additional spectators at your shows. However, each round the player in last place gets to take an asset of their choice from the leading player, which can be crippling. Deliberately setting your pace over the five turns is a critical component of optimum play.

The asset tiles themselves have interesting connections and assymetries. For example, every performance that requires "lions" also requires "cages", so investing in one without the other is a losing strategy. When you have "boats" you don't need a lot more to put on a performance, but they're an all-or-nothing gambit as they're not used in many programs and are needed in high numbers to be effective. Some asset tiles reward you with a "star performer" token when you have the most of that sort of tile in play, which guarantees you extra spectators when those assets are used.

The driving force behind the game, though, is the five turn structure, which forces you to be brutally efficient if you want to put on five shows in five turns. You start with only two shows you can perform, so you'll need all five turns to buy the three programs and two arena expansions necessary for optimum endgame. A system of "Emperor's medals" means that lucky players may get an additional expansion, providing they have the cash to pay for it.

The contents of the game's box are gorgeous, with a vibrant board, colourful cardboard components, and some painted wooden pieces depicting the Emperor, senators and consuls which are absolutely some of the cutest markers ever seen in gaming.

Games run for about an hour. The gameplay is very easy to teach to new players, and the included rulebook is easy to understand and well illustrated. Becoming competitive will probably take most people a couple of games, though, as despite some included reference sheets the relative merits of different investment strategies are not immediately intuitive.

The game supports three to five players, remaining equally enjoyable at all group sizes, and retails for $50 USD, or $60-85 AUD depending on where you buy. If you're tired of endless games of Settlers of Catan and are looking for something new and exciting in Euro-boardgaming, Colosseum is well worth your time and money.