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Friday, June 28, 2013

The Last of Us Review: Grave of the Fireflies.

 This isn't gonna be easy.

We never realize how lucky we are until its too late. People assume the most routine and mundane things in life will be there forever because that's how people work. We know its possible to loose everything, but we can't believe it. That kind of thing happens to other people, farmers in the Midwest, the poor in New Orleans, not to me.

Never before has a survival game been more about surviving. Not in the sense of how many nail bombs and bullets you have on hand, but the barbaric acts you'd be reduced to just to make it to the end of another day. This is technically a game, but its also every bit a linear story. Doubters would call it a $60 movie, but they can go sit in a corner and think about how much they hate themselves. This is an experience that you may think you've seen before, but not like

Not like this.

The Last of Us is the story of Joel. A bitter, fifty-something, smuggler getting by in a walled off quarantine zone in Boston Massachusetts. As the zone begins to rot out from the inside, he strikes up a deal with a political movement known as the Fireflies. They want to unify what's left of the United States and somehow a 14 year old girl is their answer. So off you go into the west, an act that's less of a journey, and more of a death march. Just when you think Joel's soul can't be wrung out any further, something comes along and just kicks him in the gut, most times literally.

My hat must come off for Troy Baker as Joel. He's a sympathetic man with a violent temper who you root for no matter what, even when you probably shouldn't. I was personally worried the similar roles of Bioshock's Booker and Joel would be practically interchangeable, but no. I had to sometimes remind myself that was the same actor. That in itself is amazing to me because I played the ever living heck out of that game and I am particularly good at picking out voices.

I have never had a larger disconnect between the character I wanted to be playing and the character I was actually playing. There is a part of this game where I had only one option to move forward, and it disgusted me. But it was the only thing the character of Joel would do, I did not want to be Joel. I thought about putting down the controller and walking away. I have never been made to feel that way before.

The acting is something to see.

Ashley Johnson as Ellie, she...she makes acting sound way too easy. It's hard to describe Ellie, not because of spoilers, but because her best work as the character is so subtle I can't do it justice in print. And youtube isn't much better. Simply put, you not only believe every syllable that comes out of her mouth, but anticipate them like a bird in a skinner box. "Ellie's talking again!" I'd scream in my head after a particularly nasty encounter, "It's about time she warmed/broke my heart. It's been almost an hour since she did that last." When the video game acting awards go out Johnson is going to sweep them, I would stake my life on her getting a BAFTA. You should run out and play this game solely because of her performance.

As for the actual game play, I'm slightly less god struck, but only slightly. The first ten minutes of the game are unreal. They are the finest I've ever seen in my 23 years, I didn't just try to choke back tears, I failed to. It's the 2 hours after that which bothered me. The tutorial stretch of this game is a nightmare in comparison, its just so painfully dull. There are those little master craftsman touches sprinkled across the quarantine zone that only Naughty Dog could have sprinkled, but too much of that place felt like a re-run of far less interesting games, like Gears of War (there, I said it). But once you finally meet Ellie, things start looking up dramatically.Because it isn't long after that, the clickers make their introduction, and the training wheels come flying off. Naughty Dog throws you in the deep end and you'd better learn to swim.

So you didn't like the tutorial, don't get all huffy-puffy about it.

It isn't too much longer after that, W. Earl Brown makes a meaty cameo. I have a long standing rule that if you give me a Deadwood alum, I will roll over and let you rub my belly. I'll do it man, don't push me! All my issues with the game play vanished after that, the only remaining problem I had was with myself. I would have loved to tear through the campaign as fast as I could, but I just...couldn't. This game takes a lot out of you, and daddy needed some levity. There's a hopelessness to the atmosphere that never lifts and I just can't marinate in it for too long. If you can, go nuts, there's an achievement for every new game + difficulty you beat. Though I don't see me beating hard mode for a good long while.

If you find yourself struggling like I did, know that it's worth it. You may have heard the ending is stupid, but let me tell you those people are stupid. Not only is this the kind of game that saves it's best for last, it gets exponentially better as it goes along. Just make it through Pittsburgh, I promise it gets so much better after that. Not that it wasn't awesome before, it simply becomes more so. 

The emotional depths this game reaches is staggering and that's coming from a guy who called TellTale's: The Walking Dead the best game of last year. I'm not choosing one over the other here, do not think that. I'm not ready to choose yet. But when this game strives for high drama, it hits the bulls eye. When it wants you to see what it takes to truly kill a man, your stomach will turn. When it wants your heart to melt like butter in a'll swear you smell bacon. 

This is something  you will share with your friends and family.

This is among the greatest ever made.
Take a bow.


Thursday, June 27, 2013

Borderlands 2: Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep Review.

"A grim-dark world that smells like death an' butts an' stuff."

I've said it  once and I'll say it again, fuggin' nobody does DLC like Gearbox. I've never understood why that is. Even when their DLC doesn't seem up to snuff, it's just because we're comparing it to the amazing standard they've set for themselves. Hammerlock's big game hunt wasn't amazing, but it was still fun, the final boss was brilliant in it's brevity, and you could have Werner Herzog passive aggressively comment on your hunting skill. 

In less than a year they've released a good 30 hours of extra content for Borderlands 2 and that is insane...I never understood what Skyrim's deal was. Wait, yes I did, that must have eaten up a good two DLC packs worth of time. So here we are, the season pass finale in which Tiny Tina plays dungeon master for a game of D&D with the original vault hunters. It was more than worth the wait.

If you never cared for TT's antics, then tough cookies, she's all over the place here. If you couldn't get enough of her adorable 90's hip hop slang (like me) you will cherish the six-ish hours you spend with her in the campaign, and this campaign is a trip. Gearbox went all out making brand new assets and re-skinning everything from the vending machines to the re-spawn checkpoints. They even went as far as to record setting appropriate banter for the previously mentioned vending machines and re-spawn cheackpoints. The checkpoints in particular made me chuckle more than once, "because perma-death runs are for weirdos." Delightful. Oh... and all new enemies. All of them. Did I forget to mention that?

Never before has there been such a radical shift in Pandora's bestiary than here, well actually that's not true. If I had to aline what this feels closest to in terms of their previous efforts I'd say Dragon Keep would be the happy medium between Zombie Island and General Knoxx. For those not in the know, those were easily the best parts of that entire game. Knoxx because this is the funniest and best written dlc episode (excluding the inspired addition of the character Mr. Torgue) and Zombie Island because it's a refreshing departure from BL2's usual setting and nearly all the enemies are melee based.

"That sentence had too many syllables, APOLOGIZE!"
This isn't a one two punch of a couple new monsters and something that shoots guns. There are skeletons, ka-nig-its, orcs, dwarves, and dragons...and mimics (Jesus, the mimics). While all the orcs need in terms of strategy is some fire, the skeletons (which you'll spend most of your time fighting) will throw your head shot method in the toilet. You see, their heads break when their health is halfway gone and panic will ensue.  So overall I'm pleased how differently this chapter plays out. The main quest line is pretty meaty and I like how a lot of the side quests are offered along the same route so you can double up on stuff to do without going too far out of your way.

But the most surprising thing about Dragon Keep is how it manages to keep the main story going. All previous DLC, while chronologically taking place after the end, were sideshows. The way in which the aftermath of the main game's finest hour (Where Angels Fear to Tread) is dealt with was unexpected. The cursory mention of Tina's friendship with Roland is now a central plot point and believe me when I say Tina has a surprisingly compelling prospective on who the real villain of BL2 was.

Cap that off with a touching denouement and Dragon Keep feels like the best stopping point this game has ever had. But they still leave their foot in the door for one LAST hurrah. But I don't care, if I have to wait another 2 and a half years for more Borderlands so be it. Lord knows they deserve a break.

We hold these truths to be self evident, that all dead are created evil.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

I have officially backed Armikrog, and lo, it was funded.

We did it! It's over and we can all take a collective sigh of relief. One day soon I'll have a brand spanking new copy of Armikrog kicking back in my steam library jamming out to Terry Taylor's latest additions to the already epic Imaginarium. Cuz' daddy needed that soundtrack, there was no way in hell I wasn't gonna find a way to get my hands on it. I'm just glad that prize was listed under $100...I may have bitten the bullet if came to that.

Anywho...Armikrog is backed! And I think I know the perfect song to fit the mood:

Crackpot Theory: Ellen Page has every right to be pissed.

Acting is a monstrously difficult gig and I'm not talking about the act of actually um...acting. I'm talking about the hair greying logistics of maintaining a career as a professional. Look at IMDB, they have this new "top 5000" thing above actor's names. That's about as many people who make a living at this at any given time, and that is a crushingly small window of opportunity. Being a pro requires talent, sure, but also an intense and unreliable alchemy to stay on top, and only the likes of Will Smith ever seem to crack the code.

But its luck mostly, complete random chance.  One minute you're a star on a hit TV show, the next you change your hair and the ratings go in the toilet. It's hard being an actor, job security does not exist. Your livelihood centers around a slot machine, essentially.

So when Ellen Page was asked about what she thought of the character Ellie in the Last of Us, she was not happy. "I guess I should be flattered that they ripped off my likeness, but I am actually acting in a video game called Beyond: Two Souls, so it was not appreciated."

Now, for someone who just finished one of the greatest story driven games ever made, these seem like harsh words. It sounds like an established movie star swatting down a competing artistic medium's leap towards mainstream acceptance. But she's not talking about The Last of Us. She's not ragging on it's gut wrenching prologue or it's difficult and original ending. She's talking about every actor's worst fear: being replaced, and she has every right to be pissed.

Think about it, every time someone looks for a "type" like a "Micheal Cera type" that's one more chance to be replaced by some one else, cheaper. Now the fact that Page is the lead in another Sony exclusive game dropping in October also makes for frustrating timing. It's like an award season where two movies with similar actors are up for best picture. To the laymen, the "Ellen Page game" could easily be The Last of Us, and confused messaging like that could hurt sales. It won't, but I can see her point of view in which The Last of Us is like following up The Social Network with Scott Pilgrim.

She's going out on a limb being in a video game. She is not a gamer and she may not have any idea what the pedigree of Naughty Dog means. At first blush it might seem to her like a callow attempt to steal her likeness, but Ellie has gone through several designs and is now decidedly less Page-esque in her final draft. She has since back tracked her words (which really weren't as harsh as people have made them out to be) and is now "looking forward" to playing Naughty Dog's prestige piece.

How much of that is her personal opinion and how much of that is PR spin from Sony, I don't want to know. But I hope she likes TLOU if she ever get around to it, and I hope Beyond Two Souls is the game Heavy Rain should have been. Preferably less tin eared in the localization department. That was not Philly.

Long story longer, image maintenance is essential to professional acting. Whoever said there's no such thing as bad publicity is a damn lunatic. It's hard enough controlling what comes out of your own mouth, let alone a cgi 14 year old who looks and sounds like you. The presence of Ellie in Page's career was an unknown, and what that game will do to Beyond's legacy is still unknown. And any unknown in the entertainment industry has a chance to be cataclysmic. 9 times out of 10 it isn't, but what if Ellie was prone to racial slurs? People who couldn't be bothered to parse the difference between her and Ashley Johnson would flood Page's twitter feed with deaf outrage. And sometimes that's all it takes.

So when another prominent non-gamer sounds like they're taking a swing at an undisputed masterpiece, stop, think, what are they really upset about?  And in the case of Ellie, maybe that non-gamer has a point.

That's some mighty fine "eye" acting right there.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Da Vinci's Demons Review: The Adventures of Young Leonardo Jones.

Ambidexterity is so a super power.  You and your heat vision.
Starz is quite the hit and miss premium network. They have shows that seem to hold together from a distance, but if you look too closely, creatively they appear strung together with chewing gum and chicken wire. I mean sure, Spartacus did not suck, but I never went out of my way for it, and having your lead get hit by cancer and die? That's just a bad hand all around, and they stuck with it without seeming weird or callus. 8 Simple Rules couldn't pull that off. They kept at it, is my point, and that kind of workmanship will pay off eventually.

Which brings me to David S. Goyer's  Da Vinci's Demons and how it sucker punched me into loving it.  It's good. It is just flat out, a "good" show. If you are sick of the two year long strip teases from BBC's Sherlock like I was, D.V.D. is a welcome and satisfying amuse bouche. That's french for surprisingly well written and acted sexy action-adventure-mystery I'm pretty sure.

And it is all of those things. I mean, this should crash and burn while being insulting and trivial, but it doesn't and it isn't. It's fun, witty, well paced, and it knows where it's going. It juggles court intrigue, warfare, screwball comedy, and even tomb raiding with a deft and well funded hand. Sure, some aspects work better than others most of the time, but they all earn enough merit for the over arching story to matter.

"You know you were like, 60, when we first met right?"
 "Shh! I can't focus on drawing Lucrezia's side boob when you talk to me!"

This could have been so many different shows, and the amount of ground it covers in 8 episodes is commendable on it's own. I mean, I don't believe Di Vinci was ever a Medici spy trying to con Vlad the Impaler, but that doesn't stop DVD from being awesome pretending he did. I'm glad I only know the broad strokes of Da Vinci's biography. Like how Nico didn't factor in until much later in his life and that's about it.

If you fancy yourself an expert on the man I bet you've already written off this liberally ridiculous piece of historical fiction. Like I said, I don't believe Da Vinci invented the camera obscura in the 1400's, but I love the way DVD lies to me... and he could have, if you don't think about it. Seriously, you shouldn't think too hard about the historical logistics and instead focus on what the show does well. Which is the story, the script, and the characters. Buckle up, because I'm about lick so many actor's boots right now:

Tom Riley:

A show is usually only as good as it's lead and Tom Riley brings the pain. He's funny, eccentric, endearingly over dramatic, and does his damnedest never to play the same trick twice. Though his finger twitching may grind on your nerves if you binge watch it. He's the literal renaissance man a show like this would need to stay afloat. And he steers the helm well, even when it enters more questionable waters. Remember when I said Count Dracula shows up? That's a perfect example. You believe the world around him because he does...or his character does, who knows? Maybe there's some nutty Danial Day Lewis method under his hood. I don't care how Riley does it, he's seriously giving Cumberbatch's Sherlock a run for his money.

Laura Haddock

This is a "premium" show, so they know there's a built in audience for over produced soft core porn. So yeah, if all you want out of her character is a sex scene every other episode (or at least some causal nudity) you're going to get your money's worth, whilst making me very sad. Yes, she's part of a love triangle, yes her character takes some time to really get off the ground , and yes... her plot twists get pretty out there. But it's fun and in her capable hands, its also much more convincing than it would be if preformed by someone who was (and I hate this term) "just another pretty face."

Once her character has room to breathe after getting nestled comfortably into the Medici-Papal land war conspiracy, she shines. Her face in the last shot of the penultimate episode is brilliant. It's so haggard, yet surprised. It's the face of someone who thought they had nothing left to loose and then looses so much more. Its difficult to talk about her arc without spoiling things so just know she's worth it. DVD could have survived without such a three dimensional female character, but it wouldn't have been half as rich.

Blake Ritson

 Every good story needs a villain and Ritson fits the roll like it was personally tailored for him. He plays the sword arm of the pope and he's not afraid to swing it. On the contrary, he's only too happy to oblige. He may seem to be the quiet, plotting, sociopath that's gotten a wee bit overexposed these days and for the most part he is. But like all the other actors above, they find subtext in the material that may, or may not, exist and mine it for all it's worth. He's a perfect foil for Da Vinci and watching them pace around each other out scheming each other's schemes is the highlight of this season. He's a character that exits for a few episodes, just when you think you're getting tired of him, so you can steel yourself for the next game of cat and mouse.  

Should you watch Da Vinvi's Demons? I say yes. Its one of the most pleasant surprises of the year, and among Goyer's best work. I love it precisely because its actually a lot better than Goyer's films in certain ways. I never knew he had such endearing characters in him judging from his past with Christopher Nolan. He helped make great films to be sure, but there aren't a whole lot of fleshed out characters in the Nolanverse. Because Starz has given such a talented feature writer room to breathe in TV land, they now have an extra check next to their name in my mental journal. And I know I'll be in front of the tube next year with bells on to see what happens to the gang that season. I hope to see some of you out there.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Why Douglas Tennaple's views on homosexuality are hurtful and why It doesn't change my opinion of his work.

Say it ain't so Doug.
So... *deep breath* remember how you felt when a personal hero turned out to be a lot different in reality than you'd imagined? While looking for material for my SAVE ARMIKROG article below, I came across something deeply troubling. A 2 year old article on GayGamer (an exceptionally well written site) covering a particularly nasty exchange between a homosexual individual and Mr. Tennaple on his blog. It's bad, it's...bad. I mean, he compares a homosexual relationship to a guy taking a dump in the ladies room. 

It's bad.

His work on The Neverhood changed me. It had me look at the interactive medium and made me want to "do that."  I didn't care what that meant at the time and the fire still burns. I once had a dream I was answering phones at the Insomniac Games branch twenty minutes from my home, and woke with a smile.

Usually rhetoric like that makes me angry, but now I'm just really really sad. It's one thing to be ideologically opposed to same sex marriage, it's another to be so mean about it. But you know what? He is in no position to stop any political ground gained on the movement and his work has never reflected any agenda of the sort. That is just what he believes and he is capable of producing worth while art divorced from those ideals.

So I find only my opinion of the man has changed and I'm still pleased as punch Armikrog is a thing that could happen. But now I'm just gonna... I'm... christ. I'm gonna make a drink and stare into the middle distance for a while.

This hurts.

Nintendo May Save Armikrog!

The Armikrog kickstarter is dying and I feel responsible. I know my $50 wouldn't have made much of a dent in their $300,000 deficit, but that doesn't mean I don't feel complicit in it's suffering. If ever there was a developer that earned a blind leap of faith from me, it's Douglas TenNaple.

Still, Polygon has broken the story that either way, Armikrog's ship may have come in. I'm not in the market for a Wii-U, but that doesn't mean I won't take back all the mud I've slung at their company in recent years. If they follow through, I will personally slobber all over Nintendo's ring. Because they would finally shine a mainstream spotlight on the progeny of The Neverhood. And that's something I've secretly always wanted. So keep on keepin' on, Pencil Test Studios. My fingers are crossed as tight as they possibly can.

So if you can, PLEASE GIVE.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Hannibal "Savoureux" Review: Chekhov's Fly Lure.

The board is set, the lines are drawn, the frame work of season 2 is now in place. Ladies and gents; Hannibal stuck the landing last night, deciding not to go with a shocking season end plot twist, but to subvert your expectations. This was a damn fine series of television and the most original detective procedural in over 6 years.  I couldn't have been happier with what I've seen and I prey to Bob that it finally finds an audience next year. Bob tells me I should stop doing that, but I think he secretly finds it flattering.
Ok, I'm sorry I made that fertility idol out of your old post-its. 

So to start, this season ends not with a surprise but with catharsis. Will's dreams of a dark foreboding elk finally make sense to him. Unfortunately his erratic and incredibly suspicious behavior  have put him on the wrong side of the law. Fishburne is once again aggravatingly grey in his role of Jack Crawford. He was the one that threw Will into the jaws of the el-, lion, but he remains unapologetic about the quivering mess of a man Will has become. Thankfully Bloom is there to voice the audience's frustrations and rightfully call him out as the selfish dick he is. But Crawford's counter point about the lives Graham saved is still worth chewing over.

Lector himself sheds some crocodile tears in front of his therapist after hearing the news of Graham's alleged involvement in the copy cat killings. A frame job he meticulously and brilliantly devised. That creepy break-in scene a month ago that showed Lector fiddling with Will's fly lures? That comes screaming back in a forehead slapping "of course" kind of way. I can't wait to go back and pour over the other little details of Lector's plot to drive Will crazy.

So instead of collapsing from exhaustion, Hannibal looks to be rolling up its sleeves. I'm left with the optomistic impression that the best this show has to offer is yet to come. The smell coming from Living Dead Guy production's kitchen is delicious...but I probably shouldn't eat it.


Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Last of Us: It's as great as you dared hope.

Today I planed on finally getting around to reviewing the first season of Da Vinci's Demons  (I loved it). But I also thought I could just pick up The Last of Us, get my feet wet and be able to think about something else for the rest of the day. That's not going to happen. Just when you think Naughty Dog is going to peak as a developer they do something amazing. I'm talking about Jak 2, Uncharted: Among Thieves, and now The Last of Us. Which, depending on how it ends and how many times I wind up playing it, I can clearly see myself calling it the studio's opus.

That's coming from the guy who's first video game ever was Crash (motherf**king) Bandicoot. As rose colored as my glasses are for this studio, I still didn't think they had something like the first 20 minutes of this game in them. I had tears welling in my eyes, and while I'll admit a similar character did that to me under similar circumstances last November, these are the only two times a video game has ever made me that emotional.

This is not a super fun game, in fact I find myself putting it down and walking away from it to write this blurb. It's almost...artful in it's tedium. It's characters are miserable, and you slowly take on their baggage. It's an exhausting game because it's so effortlessly sympathetic.

This isn't a review, but I urge you (the 16 of you) to pick it up if you have the means. If this isn't anouther touchstone moment in video game story telling then I don't know what is.

Except I do... and it is.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Why I won't be Seeing Man of Steel.

Weaponized handsome.

A lot of people I know loved this movie and I think the vast majority of negative reviews stem from a political agenda against comic book movies in general. At least I thought they were in Iron man 3's case. But I'm not going to see it. I do not want to prove my preconceptions wrong. I am a coward, I own that. But I am a very well reasoned coward, as I will explain.

My frigidity towards MOS came a lot earlier than the reviews and I'll get to that; but the most interesting thing about movies that appear polarizing on RT is how positive the positive reviews are. Because it can tell you a lot. Usually there will be loud proselytizing from at least a quarter of the positive reviews while the negatives will just come off as grumpy and indifferent. That's the best case scenario for a 50% movie.

This is not the case on MOS's page. Yeah there are about 10% that love it, but even the b-'s and the 3.4's sound browbeaten and bored. That's bad, not Phantom Menace bad, but remember when critics didn't hate it at first? A chilling effect like that could put this movie on a really dusty shelf if you know what I mean.

Don't be like that, Zach. All I'm doing is attacking your art and livelihood.
But again, the critic's opinions aren't close to the strongest reason I do not want to drop twelve bucks on this movie, its the director.

 Zach Snyder bores the living hell out of me and he has for years. He's not...bad, he's actually pretty good. But he never addresses his bigger faults as a film maker, in fact, given the chance he exacerbates them.

When 300 came out on DVD I didn't get a chance to see it and had heard virtually all of the lines shouted ad naseum by classmates for a good four months. I was pumped. So my sister and I sat down to watch it and aside from chuckling at how the only ethnic character we'd seen yet had been kicked down a well and all the prophet licking, we were having a good time. But about twenty minutes from the end we decided that 40 of the 80 some odd minutes we'd seen were in slow motion. You know what 40 minutes of slow motion is on a small screen (that isn't showing Dredd*)? It's boring. It's...really boring.

After a couple minutes of "I thought you wanted to watch this."
"No, I thought you did" We cut it off. A few years later his Watchman adaptation was looking really good; and while I'll defend that as his best film, I can't say I love it and I know plenty of fans of the source material that go into a mouth frothing rage when I bring up Nite Owl.

Which brings me to MOS and Superman. He's a hero I've never really got into, except that animated series theme is incredible, I should do something on Shirley Walker... but uh, I'm getting sidetracked. You ask me if I want to see the most boring action director tackle one of the most historically boring superheros? No. I'm sorry, but I'm gonna pass.

*the last two minutes of that clip is the end of Dredd. So, SPOILER.