Thursday, November 29, 2007

Beowulf (The Movie)

Beowulf is a computer animated 3D movie, which itself is presented in 3D. That makes the movie, by my maths, nine dimensional, which is at least four more dimensions than the human mind is equipped to cope with.

I spent the first quarter-hour or so of the movie unable to process the 3D effect; then something clicked, and I rather enjoyed the rest. It gets full credit for actually staying true to the format of a 1500-year old Danish epic; it's unapologetic about its narrative asides, over-the-top embellishment, and carnal focus. By the same token, as a modern audience you'll likely feel a little odd about its utter unwillingness to see the majority of its characters develop, grow, overcome obstacles, of find narrative closure.

Plus there's a lot of nudity. A LOT of nudity. You have to remember that back in those days clothes were nests for ticks and other parasites and it was actually more convenient to take them off prior to ruling your kingdom, going to war, fighting a troll, or humiliating enemy prisoners. Historical fact, honest.

All round, it's worth seeing. Director Robert Zemeckis is generally a purveyor of cinema which falls short of art but easily delivers fun, and Beowulf is no exception. Don't expect the world, and you'll be pleasantly surprised by what you get instead.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Gaming In 60 Seconds, Again

There's a whole bunch of games I've played over the last few months that I haven't had a chance to do detailed reviews for, so here's the short versions:

Mario Strikers Charged Football (Wii): Some absolutely crazy four-player multiplayer makes up a for a plethora of sins in this Nintendo-themed extreme soccer game. The single player game is high on repetition and low on quality opponent AI, but the ability to body-check Princess Peach into an electric fence adequately compensates. There's an online mode, but the general shoddiness of the Wii matchmaking support will likely dissuade you from getting a lot of use out of it. Best enjoyed with three friends and some beer.

Phoenix Wright: Justice For All (DS): Phoenix Wright's second courtroom adventure in the English-speaking world serves up more of the same as the first time around, but once again the quality of writing, zany humour, and tight pacing make for a satisfying and memorable experience recommendable to all DS owners.

Drawn to Life (DS): Not only is this game apparently raking in a fair wad of cash down here in Australia, but it's also actually worth playing, which is unusual in such a heavily kid-oriented title. A backbone of lackluster generic platforming is made highly entertaining by a central mechanic whereby you draw the key graphics in the game yourself. The fun of designing your avatar to be an evil skeleton or a killer robot is only enhanced by the way the game saturates you with an endearingly innocent sense of charm.

Dead Rising (XBox 360): I'll probably be coming back to this one, but my initial verdict is that no matter how much fun mutilating hordes of zombies with a blunt object may be, it can't compensate for the bloodyminded awfulness of the save system, or the fact that most of the boss battles are built around the game's distinctly subpar gunplay mechanics instead of the core zombie-mashing action. The gamers likely to get the most mileage out of Dead Rising are the ones with a high tolerance for frustration.

Halo 3 (XBox 360): Master Chief's third serving of first-person-shooter antics may have sold a bucketload of copies but it's still better suited to series fans than virgin punters. It's brutally short, it's incredibly derivative, and once again the narrative is disjointed and unsatisfying, but if you've ever enjoyed anything about Halo this one is undoubtedly the finest in the trilogy. The fantastic musical score and high production values will help alleviate a lot of the downsides. Furthermore, if you're the sort of person who's likely to spend time with the online multiplayer components it becomes an exponentially more attractive proposition. Unlikely to win over new players, though.

Geometry Wars (XBox 360 Live Arcade): A game that probably could have been easily delivered on a Commodore 64, Bizarre Creations' Geometry Wars is nevertheless definitely the best game that Live Arcade has to offer, and could be considered to be the game that reinvigorated the top-down duel stick shooter genre. Featuring simple gameplay which is endlessly addictive and brutally challenging, the game combines aspects of classic games such as Asteroids and Robotron to produce something significantly greater than the sum of its parts. This should be the first game downloaded by any new 360 owner.

Paper Mario (Wii Virtual Console / N64): There is nothing about Paper Mario that fails to please. Mario and friends make their (second?) RPG outing, which features gameplay, pacing and controls tuned to near-perfection. Brilliant level design and consistently entertaining game mechanics provide a solid foundation for a game filled with charm, humour, and a surprisingly large amount of solid characterisation, all within the context of a storybook where all the characters are represented as 2D paper cut-outs exploring a 3D paper world. The only weak spots are some extended fetch-quests, and Princess Peach, who once again proves unable to escape from the equivalent of a wet paper bag.

Everyone Hates Space Giraffe

Jeff Minter, indy creator of games such as Llamatron, recently went a little crazy over on his LiveJournal, regarding the success (or lack thereof) of his latest game Space Giraffe, released exclusively on XBox Live Arcade last August.
"[N]ot seeing a lot of reason to continue even trying to make games, at this point, when a remake of Frogger, one of the worst games in the history of old arcade games, can outsell Space Giraffe that we put so much love and effort into, by more than ten to one, in one week. OK, we get the message. All you want on that channel is remakes of old, shite arcade games and crap you vaguely remember playing on your Amiga. We'll shut up trying to do anything new then. Sorry for even trying."
The internet reaction to this has been fairly unanimous and unsurprising in its lack of care factor.

As someone who loved Llamatron and paid to download the full version of Space Giraffe, can I say only that when you deliberately go out of your way to make a old school shooter, pack it with seizure-inducing graphics that mostly obscure the action, give it an offbeat non-descriptive name, fill it with in-jokes and obscure references, and release it solely by digital download, you can't then go on to complain about it not becoming a mainstream hit. Take your cult status and enjoy it, dude.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Plush Heartless

By the way, I saw this little fellow at Swancon 2007 but didn't have a usable photo until now. Unfortunately its talented creator could not be persuaded by love or money to make me one; I guess that's what I get for not being the chosen bearer of a keyblade. Dagnabbit.

Thanks to Julia for the photo.

The Simpsons Game

The Simpsons Game is funny. Sometimes it's even ha-ha funny. But to enjoy those good-time laffs you're going to have to wade through a whole heapin' helpin' of awful, awful game design.

I played the XBox 360 version, and it's fair to say that The Simpsons Game is a good looking game. It looks, more or less, just like the series, making smart use of cell shading to produce artwork that would fit perfectly in the TV show. The game's take on Springfield may not be quite as large as in the excellent Simpsons Hit & Run but it's still entirely convincing.

The sound quality is likewise excellent. All voices are provided by the TV show's voice cast - and there's a lot of voice work in the game, including level and location specific comments for each character and a hefty swag of cutscenes. The music is exactly what you'd expect from something bearing the Simpsons label.

The game alleges that it features work by "the writers of the TV show". That's a writing credit so vague as to possibly denote any combination of up to several dozen different individuals, but there's no denying that it does feel like something recent seasons of the TV show might come up with. Which is to say, a contrived and awkward plot that stumbles through a succession of comedic misses in order to occasionally achieve some brilliant laugh-out-loud hits.

You'll be so convinced that this is the authentic Simpsons experience that you'll be absolutely unable to avoid realising how stupid it is to waste such a great licence on a lame platforming game.

Which, in case subtext is not your thing, is what this game is. If you've ever run, double jumped, and collected your way through a brightly coloured mascot game before, then you'll feel right at home with the Simpsons. Presuming, of course, that your home makes you regularly scream with homicidal rage. The Simpsons are in fact so-ill fitted to this type of game that some kind of monster shoehorn must have been used in its creation.

The game sees Bart discovering a manual to "The Simpsons Game" in an alleyway, which informs him that he and his family members in fact have a range of super powers. Bart can turn into Bartman in order to glide, grappel, and use a slingshot. Homer can turn into a giant ball capable of obtaining some pretty high velocities. Lisa can interact with statues at key points in each level to use the "Hand of Buddha", effectively turning the game temporarily into a god-sim and letting you pick up and move around nearby objects from above. Marge can use a loudspeaker to recruit nearby locals Pikmin-style, as well as deploy Maggie to infiltrate all manner of ventilation ducts.

Marge's set of powers are actually rather cool and could easily have formed the basis for a complete game; they also fit in nicely with her existing character without coming across as silly. The voice acting for her command-issuing function is some of the best in the game; she starts out as her usual conservative self but gets more and more involved as the game goes on. Hearing her incite Ralph Wiggum and Rod and Todd Flanders to "drink the enemies' blood!" is priceless (Todd: "Just like Cain killed Abel!" Ralph: "Murder makes me level up!").

The other "unique upgradeable powers" the characters get are, for lack of better words, just plain stupid. They're one of the grossest concessions to gameplay over atmosphere you're likely to see in a game, and it's all the more grating for the fact that the resulting gameplay is still rather poor. While suspension of disbelief has never exactly been a driving goal of The Simpsons, Homer's transformations into a rolling ball of lard are nothing but weird, and "Bartman" looks out of place every time you use him.

The basic gameplay is generic platforming - fight some enemies, do some jumps, solve some puzzles, find some collectibles. Fighting enemies mostly just involves mashing the same buttons repeatedly until the enemies fall down. Sometimes the enemies have hilarious banter while you're fighting. (Orc-Moe, during the "Neverquest" level: "Help me out - am I chaotic neutral or neutral evil? Anybody?"). Sometimes, however, their scripted lines are so inane or uninspired as to make you want to avoid enemies so as to not have to listen to them.

Jumps are often tricky, but not because of good level design or challenging gameplay. Mostly it's just the awful camera perspectives, which rarely let you line up the camera either behind or directly above your character, and quite often lock off the perspective to some horrible three-quarter view. You've got infinite lives and fairly frequent checkpoints, but still, falling to your death because a fixed camera doesn't let you accurately estimate distance isn't a challenge, it's a bug, which should have been ironed out in playtesting.

In fact, you'll get the strong impression that there actually wasn't much playtesting of the game, period. For example, the final boss fight on the XBox 360 features a sequence that forces you to use the controller's d-pad instead of the analog sticks, to input a series of "left, right, up"-style keypresses. The 360 d-pad unfortunately isn't designed for that level of accuracy, and if you're like me you'll regularly fail what should be a droolingly easy scene just because the game thinks you're pressing "up-left" when you're only pressing "left". There's nothing like a poorly playtested and artificially hard final level to take the fun out of finishing a game. (*cough* Halo *cough*).

Speaking of which, the ending of the game is rubbish.

So with all this hideous gameplay, why would you play the game? Well, because it's The Simpsons. Because it features a cameo by game designer Will Wright, who gets to say the line "I'm Will Wright, bitch." Because you can take on Matt Groening in a boss fight, where he's defended by Futurama's Bender and Zoidberg. Because it features Milhouse dressed as The King of All Cosmos from Katamari Damacy. Because it'll throw a reference to LonelyGirl 13 at you when you're least expecting it. Because you can kick the crap out of "those guys from Madden", and rescue Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario from being enslaved by evil game developers.

Because the game is absolutely packed to the brim with gaming humour, and getting to see The Simpsons turn their trademark wit at your favourite hobby with the highest level of their clever dialogue, spot-on timing, and pop-culture savvy is a thing worth sitting through a few hours of sub-par level design in order to see.

I don't regret buying it. But I do regret that The Simpsons as a video game property has yet to really reach above the sub-par genre clones that it's been dragged through to date, and it's left me wishing for just that little bit more.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Viva Pinata

Viva Pinata is an absolute must-have game for anyone who's ever experienced the guilty thrill of beating their pets to death with a shovel. And really, isn't that all of us?

There's an animated series that goes with this game. I haven't seen the series. I don't intend to see the series. I have the definite suspicion that the series does not focus on breeding adorable animals, dressing them up in a variety of accessories, giving them lovable names, and then beating them savagely with shovels until their sweet candy-flavoured brains spew forth onto the soil.

Which, really, is a shame, because the whole shovel-beating thing is gameplay gold.

I think Viva Pinata was conceived as something for kids. I don't mean baby goats, but instead those little mewly human-things that come out of pregnant women. Some executive somewhere saw a wiggly dirt-child playing with a pinata and decided that this should be the basis for a cheap Pokemon knock-off.

This executive, who we shall call "Winston", went out and got some art assets drawn up, and recruited what he laughingly referred to as "voice talent", and had some hideously grating music prepared, and then turned the whole thing over to a game developer.

It is to the good fortune of shovel-wielding pet-lovers everywhere that the developer in question was Rare.

In my imagination, which is a wonderful place filled with leprechauns, Rare sat down with Winston's material, and tried to fashion it into the saccharine money-pig that had been intended. Oh, how they tried. Their brain meats strained mightily. But they failed. These kings among developers, these hallowed perpetrators of Conker's Bad Fur Day, just couldn't find it in themselves to make the pastel monstrosity they had been tasked with.

And so they made a different game. And that game is Viva Pinata.

Sit your kids down with Viva Pinata. They'll love it. You can test whether they love it by buying them a kitten. Kids who have learned the correct lessons from Viva Pinata will give their kitten a name, a humorous hat, and a house, and then make it mercilessly breed non-stop with other kittens in order to produce kitten-babies that can be fed to other, more valuable animals, such as magpies or crocodiles, so as to invite these crocodiles and suchlike to live in your garden. That's experience that you just can't learn in schools, people.

Also, baby animals should occasionally be randomly beaten with a shovel. Just in case it makes them "evolve". You have to check for that; it'd be criminal not to, really.

In Viva Pinata I find myself regularly naming my baby kittens "Winston".

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Doom and the 360

Doom is a game about shooting demons in the face with a shotgun. When it first came out in the early 90s, that premise was every bit as fun as it sounds.

Last month, straight off the back of finishing Half-Life: Episode 2, I downloaded Doom through XBox Live Arcade to find out exactly how the classic action had aged. It turns out shooting demons in the face with a shotgun never gets old.

Right in the face. With a shotgun. It's like the demon AI has been scripted to present you with maximum shotgun-to-face coverage at every stage of the game. You can't even look up or down; your view is locked with neck-brace-intensity at demon face level for the entire head-pulping experience.

Oh, man, if only they made 'em like this today.

With a shotgun.

You'll be looking for keycards. Looking for keycards is always gaming gold. What do the keycards unlock? Demons. And/or shotguns. Pure gold.

This is what is called in the industry "laser-like focus on core gameplay". I think John Romero tripped over it in a stairwell somewhere and accidentally installed it in his latest software project; thus Doom was born. Later, to the sound of much laughter, he attempted to make us his bitch.

The 360's Live Arcade adaptation is a fairly faithful port, although it features "upscaled music" (which translates to "incentive to use your own MP3s instead"). Pulling the right trigger to fire feels a whole lot more natural than stabbing a key on the keyboard. And it has Achievements, which are like sweet, sweet gaming candy. Can you believe it? You get to shoot demons in the face with a shotgun and earn achievements for it. This is why we said no to communism, people. Under communism the State would have shot the demons for us and then shared the achievement points with our unskilled younger siblings.

So in short, every game that has been made since Doom is a waste of time and you should return to playing this classic shooter immediately.

Man. Right in the face.


Haven't posted in a while, but I'm still alive. I will be in Perth from Xmas through New Year's. Some gaming related updates:

* I have an XBox 360. I now understand that when it's said that this console is a next-gen console, that's not a reference to its graphics, processing power, or controls, but rather a statement about its online implementation, which is so evolutionary as to bring tears to my eyes. You can incidentally find me on Live under the gamertag "GregT 314".

* Guitar Hero III is probably the best iteration of the franchise so far; unfortunately it's blisteringly difficult even compared to the already quite eye-watering GH2. I play the previous games on Expert without the need for too many tears; I'm going to be quite significantly challenged to finish this one on Hard, though. For those who've taken the time to learn hammer-ons and pull-offs you'll be happy to discover songs that you can play for upwards of thirty seconds without strumming thanks to stupidly extended shredding sections.

* The Wii is currently not much in use. I'm waiting for Super Smash Bros Brawl. Wake me when I can use Solid Snake to exterminate Pikachu. I read a report recently that it's not that there's a shortage of games for the system, it's that the massive glut of games that are being made can't get pressed at the factory quickly enough. It's Nintendo; they wouldn't lie to me about something like that. I wait hopefully for the forthcoming Candy Mountain of games.

* Portal is the greatest game ever. But then you have been exposed to the internet in some way during the last month, so you already know this. If you haven't played Portal yet, shoot your grandmother, and then play Portal. Or just play Portal, whichever. Anyone who gets me a plush Companion Cube for Xmas wins bonus points.

* Much to my surprise, you can find me on Facebook. Along with, apparently, the entire cast and crew of my primary school, who appear to be largely alive and not face down in gutters.

That's all for now. Keep doing those things that you do, in that place. You know what I'm talking about.