Monday, October 27, 2008

Pro Evolution Soccer 2009 - [PS3] Review


This review is written by a self-confessed PES fanboy but I guarantee I can be unbiased. I just want to remind you, the reader, that this is a review of the PS3 version so some criticisms may not apply to the PC and Xbox 360 version, i.e. online issues. PES 2009 strikes me as the most important release in the entire series, as with last years entry Konami stood by and let EA Sports steal their crown as the most impressive and progressive football game around. Has Konami learnt from last year and can they regain their crown so spectularly lost?

As a true Pro Evo fan it pains me to say that they have unequivocally failed to live up the challenge and have equally failed to provide an online experience equal to that offered by PES 6. Let us get the basics out of the way first. The graphics are functional but not what one expects from a current-gen console. Last generation player models and animation sets are not good enough, although player faces are impressive. There are some nice weather effects on show but overall the game still has the look of a PS2 title. The audio too is most unimpressive. They have made some strides in improving the crowd atmosphere with some real crowd chants. There is also support for custom soundtracks and importing of real crowd chants. However, and this will come as no surprise to fans of the series - the commentary is terrible. Why Konami can't see this and either hire new writers or spend money on better development is a mystery.

People have made a big issue of the fact that PES has lost a number of licences since the last game but for me that is a non-issue. Sure it is nice to play with teams with real kits and names but does it affect gameplay? No, not a bit. If it does bother you there are many option files available for download for both the PS3 and Xbox 360. In order to create these Konami has spent a lot of time developing the editing options in the game. It now boasts a pretty expansive editing suite were people with the time and patience will be able to spend many a happy hour creating their favourite players and teams.

Another area Konami has spent some time is the Become A Legend (BAL) mode. Viewed as a response to FIFA's Be A Pro mode, BAL actually predates the FIFA mode by a couple of years having been available in the Japanese version. BAL is a very substantial addition and very addictive and enjoyable too. Create your player, play in a trial game and sign a professional contract. Your goals are to break into the first Xl and keep your place. Then you need to worry about getting a move to a bigger club and playing for your country and finally becoming a legend in the game. It has an addictive quality as you feel you want to play 'just one more game' to improve your stats. Also the feeling of scoring a goal or getting an assist is greatly increased in this mode as you feel that you made the right moves to get into that position. You'll be punching the air after your first goal.

There are some niggles with this mode, mainly poor team-mate AI. Watch in tears of frustration as 99 times out of a 100 your winger will fail to deliver a ball into the box or a defender will hoof the ball for a throw in rather than play the simple ball to midfield. If you have patience though you can overlook these issues and you will get a lot out of this mode. The option to take your 'legend' online and play with up to three other 'legends' works very well, especially with some like minded players. Finishing off a free flowing attacking move with friends online is a sweet feeling.

The rest of the game however has been starved of such attention from Konami. Master League a staple of the series has been virutally untouched. Transfer negoiations have been speeded up. Really? Big deal. The Champions League is also a new addition but why is is not integrated into Master League? It seems the obvious thing to do really but that isn't Konami's style. At this point it must be said that despite the lack of innovation the actual gameplay is still perfectly fine. It plays just like every other entry in the series and is slightly slower in pace than last year. The controls are also nice and tight. There is a huge number of tricks that can be pulled off if you are willing to invest the time to learn them, adding a nice layer of depth to the game.

Now I have to address the online component of the game. I cannot find one justification for having to use the Konami ID system. Not only do you need a Konami ID but you also need a Game ID. It adds an extra layer of complexity when all you want to do is play online. The whole thing would not be so bad if the system worked smoothly but it does not. I regularly have to try at least five times to log onto the system. Once onine the lobby and match-room system is very badly designed and confusing.

How does it play online? Well I have found it to be fairly free of lag but not as smooth as it was for PES 6, which is unforgiveable. The AI on computer controlled team-mates online appears to be hugely compromised. The default difficulty when online is beginner and as a result online games are a goal fest. You will regularly watch in horror as your AI controlled defenders stand by and wave attackers through on goal. It makes for a very annoying and unrealistic game experience.

In summary the game plays very well offline and BAL is a very welcome addition. However the many online issues, a lack of innovation and a feeling that this is only a polished last-gen game means Pro Evo 2009 is found wanting in the face of fierce competition. Unless next years game is called Pro Revolution I for one will be giving it a miss.

Graphics
There are some small graphical improvements over previous games but this is not how a current-gen football game should look. Player models haven't progressed from the PS2 era and animations are getting stale.

Sound
The comentary is as woeful as ever and utterly fails in comparision with FIFA. Some improvement in crowd atmosphere, a nice touch is hearing individual shouts. The soundtrack is improved from last year and support for custom soundtracks is a plus.

Controls
Controls are still nice and responsive. There is a good range of tricks to pull off and not easy enough to feel like a cheat. Passing has been improved, especially the manual pass option.

Verdict
As a long, long time PES fan it hurts me to say that this is not the game I wanted. PES was supposed to come back with a bang but rather it has returned with a few minor improvements to core gameplay. This is simply not enough to recover from years of neglect. I simply cannot recommend this game when FIFA '09 is the competitor. For diehards only.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Become A Legend - My career

I think I will use this blog to chronicle my quest to 'Become A Legend' in PES 2009.

I want to be an attack midfielder as I think that will get me involved in the action more than just being a striker or a winger. After my initial match I got three offers - West Ham, Spurs and Hull. I choose Hull thinking it would be easier to get into the first team. I spent about eight weeks playing against the first team in training. Then in my 9th match I scored my first goal in the 88th minute. I got fouled near the penalty area and took a quick free-kick. I played the ball to the edge of the box and it was returned to me by Barmby. I hit it low first-time and it flew into the bottom right corner of the goal.




As a result of this goal I was called up to the 'A' training team. After a couple of games there I was put on the bench. During my first match on the bench I came on for the last 15 minutes. Not a lot of time to make an impression. In my second game I started the second half and did pretty well. I then went through a period of about 5 or 6 games playing the entire second half. However, I then went through a period of time where I was being left on the bench for the whole game. It is pretty frustrating as you don't get to improve much sitting on the bench.

After getting through this period of bried appearances I finally made the starting line-up. I started three matches in a row and the team didn't lose any of these matches. In my second start I hit the crossbar with a great shot from 20 yards or so.



Unfortunately, I picked up my second yellow card of the season in my third game and I got suspended for a week. I never made it back into the line-up for the final three games of the season. I did make a couple of substitute appearances but didn't do much. During the close season I signed for N.E.C. Nijmegen in the Dutch Eredivisie. Mainly because they offered to play me as an attacking midfielder whereas everyone else just offered my central midfield. Now I just have to force my way back into the starting line-up.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Why I'm not giving up on PES


There has been a lot of talk over the last two years and these past months in particular that Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) crown is slipping and the FIFA franchise is poised to overtake PES as the finest football game around. Of course there has always been a large group of people who preferred FIFA’s style of gameplay but I think it is fair to say that PES has always been the favoured game among the gaming media and football purists. PES has never matched FIFA for presentation or licensed content but for as long as I remember it has always been the better game to play.

My complaint about FIFA and one shared by many is that I never felt that I was in total control of the player, as though certain moves were being performed by the AI. Another thing I did not like was that in past games there were tricks mapped to a certain button, which reduces the skill involved in playing the game and thus reduces the feeling of accomplishment. I’m not writing this article as an attack on FIFA (in fact have owned previous FIFA games) rather it is about what appeals to me about PES and why I’m not giving up on it just yet. During this article I will be discussing both ISS and PES as I consider them to be the same series of games as one evolved from and replaced the other.

I first encountered the game on the Super Nintendo in 1994 as International Superstar Soccer. The game was simply light years ahead of the competition in my opinion. The graphics for the time were simply stunning with large well animated player sprites that were made to resemble the stars at the time. I remember Columbia was my team of choice back then and I had Carlos Valderama patrolling the midfield. Of course he had a fictitious name but he had the famous hairstyle so there was no doubting who he was. In the game Columbia had a player called Alvarez who was very speedy and I used to run him into the ground but he would always get me a couple of goals. My friend and I used to play each other everyday on the game and it became a running joke how often I would exhaust that player but never substitute him. PES only got better with the release of International Superstar Soccer Deluxe. As we have now come to expect the sequel was more of an evolution than a revolution but it did have plenty of tweaks to make the game superior in every way. My friend and I could now play co-operatively (rarely used), had better graphics, more commentary and if I remember rightly the ability to hack down goalkeepers. Pretty sure I collected a lot of red cards that way.

ISS Deluxe kept the two of us going for a long time, until my friend upgraded to the N64 and bought International Superstar Soccer 98. This is the game in the entire series that I remember least fondly. It mainly had to do with the N64 controller. I just could not get used to controlling players with the analogue stick, something which is second nature now but certainly not back then. The graphics were vastly superior to the SNES version but my inability to score goals in the game (thus losing regularly) meant I never really loved this release. Around this time I myself upgraded to the PSOne and there was some competition on that console in the football genre. I bought Actua Soccer that I still maintain was an excellent football game. Playing five strikers with S. Korea was the best possible tactic in that game and it had great commentary from Barry Davies (it is possible time has skewed my memories). Soon enough ISS came to the PSOne as International Superstar Soccer Pro Evolution (ISS Pro Evo), a bit of an unwieldy name really. This game came as a major shock to me. The style of gameplay changed quite dramatically. Whereas previous games had a fast attacking flow to them ISS Pro Evo was slowed down considerably and relied much more on accurate passing than running with the ball. It was especially difficult playing this version and the N64 version around the same time as they were so different. The graphics on ISS Pro Evo were impressive but very different. The players looked more realistic and had very good animation. I have to be honest and say that I don’t remember a lot about this version apart from the fact that I used Norway all the time and relied on their striker Flink to get the goals. He always did, including a magnificent bicycle-kick from outside the area. It is funny the little unimportant things that you remember.

During all this time I had been playing some of the FIFA games. While writing this I thought that I only owned FIFA ’95 but I actually had FIFA ’99. I remember because of the Fatboy Slim song used on the title screen. Even then the presentation of that game was far superior to PES, however after playing so much PES I could never get used to the camera angles used by EA in their game. The isometric camera angle that worked so well in FIFA ’95 no longer felt comfortable and the snazzy new cameras employed on the PSOne versions never felt right either.

It is now 2001 and once again I upgraded, this time to the PS2. Pro Evolution Soccer, the first in the true PESPES 2 quickly followed and then PES 3. I always thought it was strange that Pierluigi Collina appeared on the cover (the first real life person to do so) but didn’t appear in the game itself. PES 4 came along and if I remember correctly this game came with a large number of licences and brought La Liga, Serie A and the Dutch Eredivise to the game. I’m not sure which year the Master League was introduced but it was a masterstroke. No longer did we just have to play exhibition matches or boring leagues with international teams we could now have full seasons with player transfers. Probably something FIFA had been doing for years but for a PES fan it was all new and welcome. I think it was around PES 4 that I found Mathieu. Simply put, he is the best player to ever appear in a PESPES circles. series is released and it takes the football game to a whole new level. game. He was always listed as a SB (why do they not call them fullbacks?) but he had amazing stats for shooting, dribbling, passing and power. Ideal for an attacking midfielder and that is where he played forever more. Every year I would search him out and put him in the team. Every year he would be the best player in the team. The sheer number of screamers he scored was amazing, just give the ball to the guy 25 yards out and shoot. The real life player never had the same impact but I did look at this wikipedia page before and it did mention his fame within

When PES 5 came around it brought with it a totally new gameplay innovation - online play. I never had my PS2 online but I did buy the PC version of PES 5 just to play it online. It worked really well and was my first experience of online gaming. Skip forward to 2006 and again I’ve upgraded consoles to the Xbox 360 this time. The first title I buy? PES 6 of course. This title got a bit of criticism for not being a massive leap over previous generations games in terms of graphics or innovation. I always felt this was unfair as the Xbox 360Xbox Live I had an easy way to play it online. I would say that playing PES 6 online is where I had the most fun with this game. I still remember my first few games on Live, the score lines weren’t kind to say the least. Still I got my 100 online wins achievement in around 150 matches which is pretty good. I would consider that my favourite achievement from my 360 days. The game wasn�t without its flaws though - those online cheaters made me so mad. Another of the things that did annoy me was the all conquering Inter Milan team with Ibrahimovic and Adriano up front. Fun to play as but not against. That is where the uninterrupted run of success finished I’m afraid. was still new and Konami did well to get a game out. I did not care that the game did not have a next generation shine, I just cared about the gameplay. It was exceptional in my opinion. Not only that but now with access to

The next game was PES 2008, billed as the first true next generation PES. I want to get one thing straight, this is not the terrible game that it is made out to be. The gameplay is still as good as other PES games there can be no argument about that. What is wrong is that the online component of the game was entirely broken. In the year that I had the game I never once got to play it online. I do not understand how a company of Konami’s size and reputation can release such a substandard product. I traded in PES 6 when purchasing the 2008 edition, an action I very soon came to regret. On top of that Mathieu was no longer the same player in Master League.

After the disappointment of PES 2008 we are now in a situation were a lot of PES fans tired of incremental updates, poor licence deals and shoddy online play have jumped ship and are now buying FIFA. That is perfectly fine, I do agree that Konami need a big wake up call and the loss of a large percentage of the fan base will make them take notice. Konami have been making all the right comments in the lead up to PES 2009EA Sports Euro 2008. I have heard good things about FIFA ’09, however I did not enjoy the demo. FIFA now seems to take the more realistic simulation approach, which is funny as I used to consider it more of an arcade style game. Still after recent disappointments I am still excited about PES 2009 and am willing to give Konami another chance. I think they deserve it for all their past good work. - better graphics, better AI, better physics etc... The problem is we have heard all these promises before and yet they never seem to come to fruition. In the meantime FIFA has become a real alternative. I really enjoyed the few games I played of

As you can probably tell my current total belief in PES basically stems from the good times I have had in the past. It is the kind of brand loyalty that companies would kill for. This is not the only reason though, I have seen enough about the new game to think that they have got it right this time. The new Become A Legendmode looks really interesting and contrary to popular belief this mode predates EA’s Be A Pro feature having been in previous Japanese Winning Eleven titles. This is the single most exciting feature to come to PES in many years and I cannot wait to try it out. The introduction of the Champions League mode is also a nice bonus. When you consider in the past that EA have released a whole game based around the Champions League this is quite a big bonus to be included as an extra mode. The Legends mode where you take your created player online to play with friends will be great fun, provided of course that the online code works this time. Another big improvement coming this year is the totally revamped edit mode. Players are free to edit teams and players in nearly every way, an option that has been missing since the PS2 days. The edit mode will be particularly useful on the PS3 since the system is open and you can plug in a USB key with an edited option file. Unfortunately, Xbox 360 users will most likely have to edit everything manually. Finally, I was impressed by the demo and can only expect the final retail release to be even more polished.

There is a lot riding on this next release of PES. If this game fails to deliver again I do not know where the series goes from there. PES 2009 will be the game that should have been delivered last year. This puts Konami a year behind FIFA and for the first time puts them in the position where they have to play catch up. Will next years release be a reinvention? How do they go about that? I do not know the answers but I am excited to find out.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Wipeout HD [PS3] - Review


Wipeout HD is the first installment of the iconic racer on the latest Playstation console. It has been a long, long time in coming but it has been worth the wait. Having been in development for well over a year (a long time for a downloadable title) and dogged by epilepsy test failures it finally hit the PSN store a couple of weeks ago. The game takes the best tracks and the teams of the last two Wipeout titles on PSP and gives it a HD polish.

Wipeout has been around now for 13 years and not much has changed gameplay wise. Anyone who is familar with the series will be thankful for that. The player pilots their hovercraft around large complex courses at high velocity trying to gain speed boosts and weapons. All the while trying to avoid opponents, walls and opposition weapons. The opposition AI will provide a real challenge and are actually very aggressive. The feeling of immense speed is here and I think this is the fastest of the Wipeout games that I've played. The controls will take time to get used to for those who haven't played before but perseverence is worth it. Once you get a handle on the left/right airbrake system you'll be flying around the track mere millimetres from the wall.

The one addition to the gameplay has been the addition of barrel rolls. Performed while in the air they will give you a speed boost when you land but they do cause damage so sparing use is essential. The most obvious improvement here is the graphics which are produced in full 1080p HD, hence the name. The game runs at a very solid 60fps and even at its fastest the game is silky smooth. The track design is very impressive with plenty of background details and vertigo inducing loops. This game is easily the equal of any other racing game this generation.

The sound is a very important aspect of any Wipeout game and this version hasn't stumbled here. The sound effects are very impressive. There are some good music tracks too from recognisable artists but the soundtrack is not as strong as previous games. This may be due to the fact that a budget for a downloadable game doesn't stretch to licencing more expensive artists. This isn't a problem though as custom soundtracks are supported so you can play music stored on the HDD of your PS3. One cool thing I noticed is that the sound of the music will distort if your ship is hit or if your going through a tunnel the sound will change to suit that. Very impressive.

I've mentioned that this is only a downloadable game but do not let that you put you off. There is simply a ton of content here. There are 8 tracks (which can be played in reverse configuration) and many different race modes - time trial, single race, tournament, speed lap, zone mode and online racing. There are also 12 teams and ships to master. The zone mode is something that has been in previous games and is a fan favourite. You race along and the game gets progressively faster and you just have to stay alive as long as possible. The music playing will affect the visuals on screen with the track and backgrounds flashing to the beat of the music. Very cool stuff. Throw in trophy support and this is a very substantial package indeed.

The online component works superbly and supports up to 8 racers. It is easy to find a race and one that suits your skill level. I have experienced no lag while playing the game and that was with the full 8 players. Worldwide leader boards will also have people coming back to try and post faster times.
Put simply this is a must buy title for owners of a PS3. The game is only €17.99, which is an absolute bargain. Great gameplay, amazing graphics and a lot of repayability. Go and buy.

Graphics
Simply stunning. The graphics are produced in full 1080p HD resolution and it looks amazing. Equally impressive is the fact that it runs at 60fps making for a silky smooth visual experience.

Sound
Music has always been a trademark of the series and the sound here doesn't disappoint. Great sound effects and some good tunes combine to enhance the Wipeout experience. Plus there is support for custom soundtracks.

Controls
Very responsive controls and there are a number of control schemes on offer. Sixaxis controls are perhaps not as good as using the tradition dpad. Control is given over input sensitivity so there can be no complaints over control of your ship.

Verdict
Quite simply this is a must buy. Excellent graphics, sound and gameplay. There is a lot of content and the online component will have you coming back time and again. Only €17.99! Buy now!

Little Big Planet - my first published level.

Today I published my first level in the Little Big Planet beta. It is called Platforming 101 and it is a simple platforming level set in a forest setting. It is my first attempt at designing a level so I tried to keep it simple. It isn't an amazing work of art but for a first go I'm proud.

I will try to make more complex and better designed levels once I have the full retail version. As it stands no one is sure if published levels will exist beyond the beta so it would be terrible to put a lot of hours into a level and see it vanish. I will write up my impressions on the beta later.


Friday, September 19, 2008

Iron Man Blu-ray / DVD differs from theatrical cut


An interesting story has emerged about the upcoming Iron Man Blu-ray and DVD release. It turns out that the version of the film on the home format will be ever so slightly different from the theatrical cut of the film.

While the movie was in production the website [a href="http://www.iesb.net/"]IESB[/a] obtained a photograph of the Iron Man suit in action and they published it on their website. This was nearly a whole year before the film came out. The studio Paramount went into meltdown and contacted the movie sites internet host and had the site shut down. The problem was that the photo was obtained and printed legally so Paramount had no right to do what they did. Shortly after both sides met and Paramount offered an apology and gave the website an exclusive set visit.

After this incident the direct Jon Favreau used the 'spy' photograph in the movie as a kind of easter egg. It is used at the very end of the movie as the picture on the front page of a newspaper that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is reading. Kinda cool really.

Anyway, now the IESB website is suing Paramount for unauthorised use of their photograph. So with the legal battle ahead the picture has been removed from the movie and replaced with a different image.

I think it is a petty reaction from the folks at IESB. You would think as a movie fan website they would be proud to have some of their own work show up in such a clever way in one of the biggest movies of 2009.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Hot Air Balloon Trip - 13 September 2008

Yesterday myself and my wife spent the evening floating around the Meath / Navan area in a hot air balloon. A pretty cool way to spend an evening.

We got a gift token for the trip last September but the weather has been so bad the past year that it was only yesterday we got to go. On the day you are due to go you ring their information
line to hear a message to say whether or not the weather is good enough to fly. We were just lucky to get the weather yesterday as Friday wasn't good and today was terrible. They only fly in very good conditions - light wind, dry and no cloud.

So we drove down to Trim and we got collected by the pilot and his partner. From there we got transported to the launch field along with the eight other passengers. I was surprised that many people would fit in the balloon at one time but I didn't expect the basket to be as big as it was. The good thing about the trip is that they get you involved in every part. We all helped to unfold the balloon (envelope is the correct name) and it is massive. Then we had to lift down the basket from the truck and it is really heavy. Reassuringly heavy I suppose because it feels really sturdy. The next stage was filling the balloon with air. For this they get you to direct big fans into the balloon opening. It gets a bit toasty in this position as you can see from the second picture.


All of a sudden the pilot yells GET IN THE BASKET and a big scramble ensues as the
basket starts to move around. The thing that really struck me about the trip is how smooth the flight is. The basket doesn't shake or move at all and is totally level the entire time. A friend asked earlier in the week how they steer while in the air and I know the answer now - you don't. Basically the wind takes you and the pilot just hopes to find a suitable landing area before running out of fuel.

I'm not sure exactly how high we were but I think it was about 600 feet. It was a nice height as it gives you a great view of the area without things getting too small. Also you would be amazed at how sound travels. You can hear everything so clearly - dogs barking, children playing and car horns beeping. I think I g
ot some decent pictures of the area although I'm sure any professionals reading won't think so.

Next up is the landing (in Navan), which was great fun. The balloon drops pretty fast and we hit the ground then bounce back up in the air. We bounce up and down twice more before landing precariously teetering between topolling over and landing normally. Apparently it
is fairly normal to topall over and nothing to worrry about but I think we were all relived when the balloon settled down normally. The pilot's partner who had been following us in a van got permission from the farmer to enter the field and collect us. I'd hate to be in a situation where you land in a farmers field who gets upset, we did take a few big chunks out of the ground. The last part is packing up the balloon and it gets done surprisingly fast. The pilot has 19 years experience and has us working in perfect harmony to get the balloon folded. Then we have to lift the basket back onto the truck and we're all back off to Trim to enjoy a few glasses of champagne.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Dimitar Berbatov - debut coming up.


I just realised that Manchester United signed Dimitar Berbatov two weeks ago and I never posted anything about it. He is a very fine player, there is no arguing about that. However, I do feel that some people are getting carried away. His goalscoring record in the Premier League is good but it isn't exceptional. In fact he scored the same number of goals in the same number of games as Robbie Keane last year and no where near the number of Ronaldo. He is very good but just because they have him now doesn't mean they are going to walk away with the title or defend the European Cup successfully.

I am happy he is there though but they did pay over the odds. Although about £5 million of that is basically hush money so that Spurs don't report them for practically kidnapping Berbatov from the airport. Obviously that was very poor form from Man Utd but the Premier League is a soap opera afterall so there is nothing wrong with a little drama every now and then. So his debut looks like being tomorrow morning against Liverpool. I am never confident about the results in these matches with Liverpool even though Uniteds record over the last few years has been exemplary. I'm going to say it will be a score draw with Berbatov on the score sheet.

We shall see...

Pro Evolution Soccer 2009 - nearly here



I find myself for the first time since 2001 without a copy of Pro Evolution Soccer to play. As anyone who knows me will know PES is and probably always will be my favourite series of video games. When I traded in my Xbox 360 a few months ago for the PS3 (still happy I did) I also traded my copy of PES 2008. It may not have been the best game in the series but I still really enjoyed playing it. I didn't think I'd miss not having a PES game to play but I really do.

I have refused to buy any games on the PS3 that I've owned on the Xbox 360 previously so no COD4, GTA IV or PES 2008. Although I hear that PES 2008 on the PS3 is a very bad port anyway. So with that rule in place I've been fairly restricted to what games I've bought or played on the PS3. I've bought and traded on the launch games and now I'm at a loose end. There is nothing really worth playing until October 17th (I think) when PES 2009 launches. It can't come soon enough really.

I know the 2008 version did a lot of damage to the brand, I for one was never able to get a game going online. However, I have every faith in the developers that they will get the series back on track with this one. For me the most anticipated new feature is going to be the Become A Legend mode, where you control just one player throughout their career. I can't wait to give it a go. I think I'll pick an offensive midfielder first as I think it will keep me involved in the match whereas a player on the wings might get a bit isolated. I also hope they have fixed the online component as it has been far too long since I was beating all comers online.

Just over month to go.

And then comes Little Big Planet...

Friday, September 5, 2008

Boom Blox [Wii] - Review


Another blockbuster from Steven Spielberg?

Boom Blox is a puzzle game developed by EA for the Nintendo Wii. The interesting thing about the title is that film director Steven Spielberg approached EA with an idea for a game. Against expectation it is a relatively simple family game rather than some grand action/adventure game. When this game first launched here in May I had picked it out as a definite purchase for the Wii. We are all acutely aware of the shortage of quality software titles on the Wii so I decided to hold off on buying it till there is a lull in good games and I could come back to this. So with nothing worthwhile on the market for PS3 or Wii recently, I went back and got Boom Blox last week.

The gameplay is like a mixture of Jenga, dominos, a shooting game like 'Duck Hunt' and Lego. There are three distinct game variants - throw, shoot and grab. In the 'throw' games you use the Wii Remote to throw objects at the onscreen objects to accomplish different things. There is a reverse version of Jenga where you throw balls at a tower of blocks with the aim of toppling the tower. Shooting games are pretty self explanatory really. The 'grab' games are perhaps the most fun. There is a game that is basically Jenga where you use grab blocks out of a large pile and try to avoid toppling the tower. Three game types doesn't sound like a lot but there is a massive variety of games within each type. The developers have thrown in plenty of little details that will make each level play differently. For example purple colour blocks will disappear when hit meaning blocks above will fall into the empty space, or hit two green blocks into each other and watch the resulting explosion fling surrounding blocks around the screen. These little details let the player bring much more strategy into play than one would expect.

You can play all these games as mini-games, trying to get a bronze, sliver or gold medal in each one. Or you can play the adventure mode where the developers have attempted to wrap a story around each game. It is a nice idea but the narrative isn't exactly deep or engaging and to be honest you don't buy this type of game for the quality of the story. The single player mode is not as fun as I was hoping it to be. In fact I was quite disppointed in it to be honest. However, you can overlook this rather large failing with the exceptional multi-player gameplay with two, three or four players. You can opt to play competitively or co-operatively with the latter being more fun in my opinion. Suddenly games that are fun alone become even more fun as you try to knock over your opponents towers or leave a precariously position tower for your opponent to remove a tricky block. I can't wait to break this game out when I have a few friends over as I suspect it will be a big hit with four players - fast, frantic and highly competitive.

The game is deceptively simple. The graphics (even for a Wii title) are unlikely to win any prizes. They are nice and colourful, while the backgrounds are surprisingly good. There is some added personality in the game with the addition of animals who watch the action from the sidelines and they have some nice animations. The sound too is equally functional rather than amazing. There is some nice tunes, especially those that have the animals chanting along and there are good solid sound effects for the falling blocks. The most impressive aspect of the game is one that can be easily overlooked - a very advanced physics engine. Everything that happens in this game happens as you would expect it to happen in the real world. The blocks fall very convincingly, causing chain reactions where you expect them. There is never a time when you think that something that has happened was scripted, you are always in control.

A good deal of effort has gone into improving the longevity of the game. Firstly, there is over 100 levels of co-operative and competitive levels to work through, added to the 300 or so single player levels. Very impressive. If that isn't enough there is a quite impressive level editor. Here you can alter existing levels or create your own from scratch. You can play the single player game to unlock more objects to use in your own creations. There is a handy meter on the side to say when you have enough objects in the level, otherwise the physics engine would be overloaded. It is here that the game shows off some more technically impressive functions, sharing created levels with friends over WiiConnect 24. It is good to see a third party developer take a lead here rather than wait on Nintendo so show everyone how it is done. Kudos to EA for going the extra mile and hopefully it will encourage other developers in future.

Graphics
Simple graphics but this is not title that requires state of the art graphics. Most of the power of the Wii is probably busy calculating where all those blocks are supposed to fall. Colourful and cute like most Wii games.

Sound
Functional and solid. The soundtrack is unremarkable apart from songs when the animal spectators chant along.

Controls
Possibly the best implementation of the Wii Remote since Wii Sports. It is especially good at calculating the speed of your throw from the force you use physically. The grab tool is also very accurate.

Verdict
I know EA gets a lot of criticism (some deserved) but for making this game they deserve a lot of praise. As a multi-player title it is a lot of fun, one of the best multi-player games on the Wii which is high praise as the system has a lot of good party games. If you want a fun game that you can hop on and play in short bursts or fancy a lengthy challenge then this is the game for you. If you intend playing solely on your own then I'd recommend renting first.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - Review


Here is a review that I had written back in May but had forgotten to post. Better late than never I suppose. Now that a few months has passed I might be inclinded to look more critically at the film but I haven't changed the text since I wrote it.
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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Quite a mouthful for a title but perhaps fitting for a movie that looks like it is going to generate some heated debate. Whatever way you eventually feel about the movie, it is without doubt one of, if not the biggest film event since Star Wars: Episode One back in 1999 and you owe it to yourself to see it.

I still remember going to the cinema to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade nineteen years ago, in the Savoy in Dublin. It is one of those memories that I will always treasure. It was a surprise trip with a group of friends. When we left the cinema we were all on a high from the movie and spent the day all wishing we could be Indiana Jones. It has been a long wait and a nervous one ever since it was confirmed that a new film was in production. There were so many questions. How would Harrison Ford cope with the physicality of the role? Can they capture the spirit of the original movies? How much influence would George Lucas have? Having seen the movie I can at least answer two of those questions positively and hey, two and out of three is not bad.

First let me say that I really enjoyed the movie. It is an action adventure movie first and foremost, I do not think it pretends to be anything other than that. As such, it has to deliver on the action front and it does - in spades. The opening action sequence immediately dispels any doubts over Fords ability to play the role. From here on in you forget that he is now much older and he is simply Indy as he was all those years ago. The action beats range from the vaguely realistic to the totally preposterous but never fail to entertain. I was particularly taken with the truck convoy chase through the jungle. I will acknowledge that it was insanely over the top and brought to mind one of the weaker effects sequences from Peter Jackson's King Kong. However, it was so much fun that you cannot help but love it all the same. Bazookas, sword fighting between vehicles, fistfights and giant ants what more can you ask for?

I was also particularly fond of the motorcycle chase from earlier in the film. It was more old school in its direction and I think you can see Dan Bradley's (stunt co-coordinator on the Bourne franchise) influence shine through in this sequence. This scene had more physicality to it, it may also be because looked to have a total absence of CG trickery. Indy being pulled from the bike into the chasing car and then fighting his way to the opposite window and climbing back on the bike is right up there in the hit list of Indy stunts. When you think of Indy climbing under the moving Nazi truck in Raiders, or Indy fighting on top of a tank in Last Crusade you can now add this sequence from Crystal Skull.

The feel of the movie really does capture the spirit of the originals. It follows the well established format set out before - the opening action sequence, the downtime when we get some heavy plot exposition and then the adventure starts and continues till the very end. The humour of the previous movies is all present and correct too. For me it is the small moments that make this movie. The 'punch Joe college' moment, the sand trap scene, the hints at past adventures they all combine to make the experience as a whole so satisfying.

I've already mentioned Ford's ability to play the role physically, but he also handles the acting side of things just fine. His comic timing is still there and he still radiates this feeling that he is the type of guy who you'd like to have as a friend. Thinking of the cast made me remember something that this movie has over the other films - a really likeable sidekick (I consider Sean Connery to be his mentor, not a sidekick). Shia LaBeouf's character Mutt is as good a sidekick your likely to get. Short Round anyone? Give me Mutt any day. I like the tough guy image he projects but you can at times see how frightened he is at the situation he has gotten himself into. The bonding scenes between LaBeouf and Ford came across as very genuine too; they are two of the better written characters. I think that Cate Blanchett does a good job with what she is given but her character is a little too one-dimensional. We do not get to know anything really about her background or motivation other than she is a loyal solider of the Soviet Union. Ray
Winstone is a good addition to the cast, always a reliable actor he does a good solid job here. Of all the actors and they are all good actors it is John Hurt who has the least to do. For such a terrific actor he is criminally underused, reduced to a silly comedy sideshow act, he is only given something relevant to say in the final two minutes.

I was really impressed with the look of the movie. It was bright and colourful and seemed to have a really crisp sheen to the whole proceedings. A lot of praise must go to Spielberg for putting all this together on film because there is a lot going on here. The plot is not exactly straightforward and there is not much time for exposition between action scenes. However, he
still finds time for some iconic shots - especially the introduction of Indy, putting on his fedora in silhouette. Sublime.

I have said a lot about the parts that pleased me but there are a few elements that left me cold. The story is perhaps one of the weaker in the series of films, although it might be stronger than Temple of Doom's. One of the questions I posed at the start of the review was how much influence George Lucas would have. Unfortunately, it appears to have been too much. I think it is safe to assume that the alien (and that is what they were, forget the "inter-dimensional beings" guff) aspects were championed by Lucas. Sorry if that is a massive spoiler but you were warned. He seems to be totally preoccupied with alien beings and he obviously is not happy with keeping it confined to the Star Wars universe and has seen fit to bring it into Indy's world. I will be interested to hear if reports come out over time of how accommodating Spielberg was to this idea. I think that the story line would have worked better if the alien aspect were expunged. They could still be looking for a crystal skull and the lost city of El Dorado. That would make an interesting film; there is no need for the skull to be alien in origin. Someone should have shown Lucas, Spielberg and Ford (for he has a lot of influence) the movie Stargate before green lighting this script.

There were some other problems, most notably the lack of a very strong baddie. I already said that Blanchett's Agent Spalko was one-dimensional and you never really get the feeling that she is capable of killing Indy. In fact, after Indy survives a nuclear explosion you get the feeling he might just be invulnerable. Although, he did drink from the cup of ever lasting life in Last Crusade so there is some justification for his amazing survival. I think the 'monkeys' scene is destined for the wrong kind of movie notoriety. And why has Karen Allen (Marianne Ravenwood) got a smile permanently on her face when faced with the certain of not just herself but her son too?

At this point you will have to forgive me if this review turns into a bit of a rant. I have heard a lot of negative comments about this latest Indiana Jones but the majority of these comments are in my opinion base on a fallacy. And that is, that the first three Indy films all contain amazingly complex and wonderful storylines, terrific character development, Oscar worthy dialogue and realistic action scenes. These are the thoughts of people who are looking back with rose tinted glasses on a series of movies that have not been in the cinema in 19 years

Let us look at the facts. Indiana Jones has never been realistic. There are so many examples to draw upon to prove this point and this needs to be proven so people can stop beating Crystal Skull with big fat fraudulent stick.

- The Ark of the Covenant contains the Wrath of God that will send forth ghosts to melt the faces of people with open eyes.
- People can live with their heart ripped out.
- Drinking from the cup of ever lasting life will give you immortality and heal gunshot wounds.
- Having a conversation with an 800-year-old knight from the Crusades is an everyday occurrence.

Suddenly having aliens in the movie does not seem all the unrealistic to me. In fact, it is in keeping with the outlandish stories of the past movies. I am always willing to listen to a point of view but some of the negativity this film is gathering could have been averted if these people had their facts straight.

I hope this review does not pigeon hole me as some kind of Indiana Jones fanboy. I would not consider myself to be such because not even I can defend Temple of Doom. However, for this movie I feel I had to voice my opinion on what I consider to be unfair criticisms. I have only seen the Crystal Skull once and have not had time yet to decide where to rank it against the other three. My first reaction is to say that Raiders and Last Crusade can rest easy but Crystal Skull will probably overtake Temple of Doom in my critical rating. The bottom line is Indiana Jones promises action adventure and you get it in the traditional spirit of the Indy movies.


****

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Shoot 'Em Up - Bite-Sized Review


I watched Shoot 'Em Up tonight on Blu-ray. It is one of those rare movies that is so bad it is good. As the name suggest the whole movie is one long gun fight between Hertz (Paul Giamatti) and Mr. Smith (Clive Owen) who is protecting a new born baby and a lactating prostitute. It sounds preposterous and it is.

This film is so over the top ridiculous it makes Wanted look like an Sunday night BBC drama. Normally I like over the top movies but that is with the proviso that there is some sort of story going on in the background. This film really is the one of the best examples of style over substance. The director (Michael Davis) seems to think he can coast by on visual style, action and violence alone.

To be fair the movie does have its fair share of really quite inventive and humours moments, such as a gun fight while sky-diving, a gun fight during sex and a very original way of ending a car chase. Along with these highlights the film is peppered with a series of good one-liners. Giamatti as the villain of the piece gets all the best lines, as the villain usually does. My favourite being "Guns don't kill people! But they sure help".

I like the idea behind the movie, a pure action movie but I'd put it down as a failed experiment. It isn't without merit though and it is thankfully pretty short. I'd recommend it for action junkies.

Actually if you liked Crank you will probably like this.

**

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Golden Compass - Bite-sized Review


I just thought I'd post a few little thoughts on this film.

I never got around to seeing this film in the cinema when it came out but I've just finished watching it now. The overriding impression it has left me with is that it was a massive missed opportunity. Now I've never read the books but from the film it is obvious that there is a very detailed and well thought out universe there. The film however failed to get any of this detail across.

It felt as though the makers knew that they couldn't fit everything into this film and were determined to keep the running time under two hours. As a result the movie hurtles along at a million miles an hour, jumping from one place to another. There isn't enough time given to explain the world that these characters live in, which is a shame. Also the actors Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman whom the advertising was based around had barely any screen time. Especially Craig, who has little more than a glorified cameo.

Having said that I felt it was okay and I would be interested in seeing a sequel if it gets made. That is a pretty big if at this stage considering its box office in the US. It has certainly made me interested in reading the books though.

Another thing I have to take issue with is its win in the Best Visual Effects category at the 2008 Oscars over Transformers. The effects were impressive but nowhere near the level of Transformers that in my opinion set a new benchmark for visual f/x.

Monday, September 1, 2008

R.E.M. @ Twickenham 30/08/08 - Review

I went to see R.E.M. at Twickenham last night and it was awesome. I suppose I always say that after one of their concerts but the setlist was just so strong last night. There were several songs that I never thought I'd get to hear live in person but they were performed last night.

They opened up strongly with Living Wells the Best Revenge, These Days,The Wake-up Bomb and What's The Frequency, Kenneth?. Four rocking songs that really get the crowd going, especially Kenneth as it is the most well know of the opening salvo. For me Wake-up Bomb is the highlight as I've only seen them perform it on a couple of occassions and I've always like the song. It does sound slightly different live, just louder than the album.

They then start up with Drive that always goes down well with audiences as it is both familiar and always gets people clapping along to the strong beat. I always look forward to this song. Following that we have a quick blast of hard fast rock in Man-Sized Wreath that Stipe told us last night is written about Martin Luther King. Another rarity in the shape of Disturbance at the Heron gets played, which gets a lot of confused looks from non-fans but the diehards go mad (including me).

After that we get a little political with Stipe airing the bands hopes for the forth coming presidential election in the US. Of course they want Obama to "get the Bush the **** out of office and Obama the **** into office". They play the song Ignoreland which I am sure I've never heard live before and it was simply amazing. I was never fond of the album version but with having it performed after the political talk it gave the song new meaning. Plus it sounded really cool. Walk Unafraid is up next and is as usual a high point of the show, a real rocking song from an album (Up) that is decidedly non-rock.

The next song starts slow but is soon going along a good pace with Hollowman and the crowd seems to like this one very much. Then we have one of the all-time classic songs Fall On Me that gets every one going with hands in the air. When Electrolite gets performed next Stipe encourages everyone to wave their mobile in the air to recreate the look of Los Angeles at night. The effect looks cool on the big screens. The following song really surprises me, The Great Beyond. The crowd goes wild for it, I remember later it is the bands biggest commercial hit in the UK. The next song is my one of my least favourite in the entire back catalogue I'm Gonna DJ. This had taken over as the final song at concerts so I'm left wondering what is going to fill the gap. At least we have that song out of the way.

Up next we get Exhuming McCarthy which gets strange looks from some people as it starts with a tape recording of an old political speech. Just like it does on the album. It has always been a very enjoyable song for me so it is nice to hear it performed. The One I Love starts up and once again is a mega hit with the crowd. It is always fun to look around and see couples holding hands during this and having a smug laugh to myself as I know this song is really the reverse of a love song. During the song, Stipe gets upclose and personal with the crowd which is cool.

The band then decide to take the tempo down and play I've Been High a really soft song that sounds really good live. The next song is the biggest surprise and the highlight of the night, an acoustic version of Let Me In. I've never heard it live in person and hearing an acoustic version is even more rare. Truly amazing performance of the song and to see the band huddled around the piano playing it was some sight. With a couple of slow songs done we get some high octane performances coming.

Horse to Water blasts out and I'm jumping around as you have to do to this song and it's crazy chorus. It is a newer song so most people don't know it but I'm loving it. The Bad Day starts up and everyone knows it and then we have everyone jumping around. As this song ends with everyone clapping in unison they start immediately into Orange Crush as the crowd continues to clap. This song is a staple of the R.E.M. live set and every time I hear it, I know why. It just rocks. Another surprise next is the reaction to Imitation to Life, the crowd goes wild. It is a good song no doubt but everyone seems to really love it. It sounds a little harder than the album and I like it, especially as the crowd really gets into it.

BREAK

The encore starts with Supernatural Superserious, which is a good choice for two reasons - it is fast and recognisable. Losing My Religion is up next and as you'd expect the crowd love it. The next song is Perfect Circle, from their first album and another rarity. It is a really nice slow song. Country Feedback comes along and it has always been a favourite. The live version they play is always superior to the album version as Peter Buck likes to get carried away with the guitar. This is a stunning performance. The band finished up with the old one-two of It's The End of the World and Man On the Moon. Both get the crowd really involved and wrap up a superb concert.

Certainly a highlight of this year.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction - Review [PS3]


This is the first Ratchet & Clank game that I've played and I really think I've been missing out. When you start you are thrown straight into the action with little in the way of a story. I thought it was going to be light on narrative but a rather strong story starts to develop as the game progresses. Along the way you will meet up with several characters like smugglers, space pirates and a female companion for Ratchet.

This is a platform game but not in the normal sense. Along with traditional platforming sections you get a heavy emphasis on shooting, hence the name Tools of Destruction. When the developer titled it 'Destruction' they weren't kidding. The selection and size of weapons on offer is amazing. Weapons range from fireballs, razor blades, massive bombs and tornados. In keeping with the humour in the story line there is some funny weapons like the disco ball. Use this and the enemies will be so busy dancing they won't be bothered with what you are doing.

I briefly mentioned humour above but I must elaborate on that. Several of the cutscenes have laugh out loud moments. The writing and voice acting in these scenes is of a high standard. There are also some nice touches throughout the game - want to get into secret pirate areas? Then don a pirate outfit and dance a jig to the satisfaction of the guard. Hilarious.

If you get bored with platforming and shooting enemies there is relief on hand in the form of space combat levels. They are nice and short so as not to overstay there welcome but they are fun. There are also little mini games like circuit breaking, which is implemented in a better way than it was in Mass Effect. There is also a neat gameplay twist when you get to play as Clank. Without access to Ratchet's amazing arsenal you do get some neat tricks unique to Clank. Using his bullet-time style time manipulation skill is really great fun.

I really must praise the value for money that the game offers. I frequently thought that I must be nearing the end of the game only for the story to move on and more levels introduced. Every level is very large (each is unique and extremely well designed) and there are a large number of them. There is also an RPG element to the game. With each weapon and device you get you can enhance them and you can also power up your armour. For further challenges the developers have added in hidden challenges to each level. If you complete them you gain points to unlock hidden extras.

Graphics
Nothing short of spectacular. The graphics, while of a totally different style to Uncharted are equally impressive. This is comparable to an interactive Pixar movie. Also impressive is the number of enemies on screen with no deterioration in frame-rate.

Sound
This game has a wonderful soundtrack. Much of the background music sounds rather grand and epic but it matches perfectly with what is going on onscreen. On top of that you have excellent voice acting and cool sound effects.

Control
The controls are wonderfully well implemented. With so many weapons on offer the selection menu is very well integrated into the game. The implementation of the Sixaxis controls are also the best I've seen yet on the PS3.

Verdict
With the length of the game and the sheer number of enemies to defeat there is a decent challenge on offer. I really enjoyed my time with this game, more than I thought I would because I thought I had outgrown platform games. However with the mixture of humour, top quality presentation and outright fun gameplay it won me over. Recommended.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army - Review


I very much enjoyed the first Hellboy movie. What grabbed me was the really likeable characters and their complex relationships with each other. Then there was the amazing universe that they were living in that fascinated me. While the actual plot was a little undercooked I still looked forward to a sequel to see and learn more about the characters. It has taken a while but Hellboy 2 has come along and given me exactly what I was hoping for.

I feel that the story in this movie is significantly stronger than in than in the first. The plot is introduced very cleverly by Guillermo del Toro in with a neat visual twist. The story of The Golden Army is told to a young Hellboy as a bed-time story and we see the story acted out in the same way as a young child might visualise it. The idea of this fantasy world starting an uprising against mankind is an intriguing idea and as a bonus allows some more complex ideas to enter into the story. The idea for instance that Hellboy just might be on the wrong side in this fight. After all, the humans that he protects are all scared of him while he fits right in with the creatures that he fights. The main antagonist in the movie is Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) an elf who believes that mankind has ruined this world with their greed and believes that his kind could make it a better world. Unfortunately, Nuada is not afforded enough screen time try to justify his actions. I think more could have been done with trying to get Hellboy to switch his allegiance but that is only a minor quibble.

As the story progresses from one set piece to the other, which are very enjoyable, the real joy to be found in the movie is in the bits in between. The everyday interactions between the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence (BRPD) team members in their personal and professional lives. We get a glimpse of the work that goes on at the BRPD or when we see how Hellboy and Abe like to kick back and relax. The film also takes the time to introduce new team member Johann Krauss in what turn out to be some of the best scenes in the movie. The Krauss character is an interesting new addition to the team. I found it unusual that this by-the-book uptight character would also provide some of the films funniest moments. Krauss really does steal the show in most of his early scenes. The movie is just filled with little moments that elevate this movie above most other comic action movies. From the post-mortem/interrogation of a tooth fairy, a POV shot of tooth fairies being crushed from above (just loved this moment) to a scene trying to get information from a troll. All throw away moments that might not get into the final cut of more high profile comic book movies but make this movie all that richer for having them.

It is good to see that most of the cast is back and on form for the sequel. Rupert Evans' character John Myers is missing without explanation but his character brought very little to the first film so his omission is no loss. Ron Perlman once again excels in now what is surely his signature role. He is just the ultimate tough guy hero with a range of one-liners to challenge even John McClane. Selma Blair gets more to do with Liz Sherman this time around rather than act depressed and confused like in the first film. I hope the success of this film will get her more recognition and higher profile roles. We could all do with more Selma Blair on the screen. Doug Jones' Abe Sapien gets the biggest boost in the film in terms of screen time. His character was a little under used in the first movie but here he is almost an equal player with Hellboy. Also a boost for Jones is that this time they have used his voice in the role rather than have it dubbed. I think he did a great job as Abe and as the other creatures that he performed as. In fact, his tentative relationship with Princess Nuala is one of the highlights of the movie for me.

The real star of this movie is undoubtedly director Guillermo del Toro. Justly acclaimed as a visionary director after Pan's Labyrinth he has continued on the fine work with Hellboy 2. The creatures in both films have a similar look and it isn't unrealistic to think that both films could be set in the same universe. I have to say that I like that idea very much. The worry about a movie like this is that it would become over reliant on CG. Thankfully this is not the case. Off course there is plenty of CG on screen but only where it is necessary and what is there is of a very high standard. The rest of the world is executed with a brilliant mix of makeup and practical effects. The result is astounding, especially in the Troll Market scene. I am already excited over getting the Blu-ray release to see everything again in sharper detail. It is amazing to see what del Toro can create with a relatively small budget ($72M) in comparison to say, the final scenes of Indy IV ($185M budget). The creature design is also of the highest quality. Many of them are grotesque and scary while others have a curious mix of cuteness and repulsion, the tooth fairies being a prime example. It is safe to say that The Lord of the Rings franchise is in very safe hands.

The movie has a bit of everything really - horror, fantasy, comedy, action and emotion. If you were a fan of the first movie then I'm sure you will be going to see Hellboy 2. If you haven't seen the first don't worry about not knowing the characters. This story is very self-contained with very little reference back to the first. Whatever you need to know is explained to you so there really is no excuse not to go see this movie. Now to add this to my Christmas wish list of Blu-rays.

****

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The X-Files: I Want To Believe - Review


The title says it all really - I Want To Believe. I really did want to believe that this film would make up for a lacklustre series finale, get the show out to a mainstream audience again and lay the foundation to a series of movies. I did want to believe all that but now having seen the film, I know in my heart that is not going to happen. As you have probably already guessed I am a massive X-Files fan, I have been since the show first aired on TV. In fact only 18 months ago I purchased all 9 series on DVD and when I first heard that a sequel was in development I was very excited to see Mulder and Scully back in action.

The thing that had me most curious was how they were going to pick up the story again after the series finale when both Mulder and Scully were on the lam from the FBI. To be honest I'm not that impressed with the way they resolved that situation. They basically just swept the whole situation under the carpet in order to get the story moving. I can understand the decision though as it was likely made in order to try and keep things simple to try and not confuse newcomers to the X-Files.

The most enjoyable thing for me about the movie was the interaction between Mulder and Scully. The chemistry between the two in the series was always one of the most interesting aspects of the show. I was glad to see that with this movie the chemistry was still definitely there and that their relationship had developed in exactly the way I wanted to see. I've always liked David Duchovny as an actor and it was great to see him back as Mulder. The same goes for Gillian Anderson and Scully. Both actors just seemed to fall back into the groove. The casting of Billy Connolly was an interesting choice. I know that he is a good actor but he isn't really given much to do here other than look confused and/or creepy at various times.

The director Chris Carter has done a fantastic job in getting the movie to feel exactly like the series. I loved the use of the titles and the exact font from the series that is printed on screen to set the scenes, nice touch. There is also a great cameo from a past character that hits all the right nostaglic notes. I did like the fact that the movie reminded me of the show but this is also perhaps its biggest downfall. There is nothing particularly cinematic about the film at all. There are no particularly impressive sweeping shots of the locations, no big action set pieces or amazing special effects. The story is actually very underwhelming from a sci-fi/horror point of view. They also give Scully a subplot that keeps her away from most of the action. Unfortunately for me this subplot fell flat and I'd have rathered seeing Mulder and Scully working closer together for longer. If this was an episode of the show, which it could very well be then it would only rank as decent episode. It certainly isn't among the very best like Jose Chung's From Outerspace, Home or The Post Modern Prometheus.

Having underwhelmed at the boxoffice on its release in the US with a $10M haul I think it unlikely that we'll see any further adventures in cinemas. I think though that there could be a future for the X-Files as a series of direct to DVD films. I know that they did all they could to appeal to a wider audience by omitting an alien storyline and refraining from talking too much about the past but I knew that it wouldn't work. The show finished six years ago and even then it wasn't at the popular heights it had been four years earlier. In the end it is just a case of too little, too late. If your not a fan of the X-Files feel free to drop a star from my rating.

***

The Incredible Hulk - Review

** Part 2 of 2 old unpublished reviews. **

I saw The Incredible Hulk a few weeks ago and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the film. I'll say upfront that I don't find the character of the Hulk to be particularly interesting and I don't know that much about the wider universe that he inhabits, i.e. villains. I didn't really like Ang Lee's version of the film but I didn't hate it with as much vitriol as some people but I suppose that is because I don't have any fondness for the character. Now after seeing this version I can say that my mind has changed and I actually cared about the Hulk.

This movie makes a few references back to the TV show from the seventies, especially in one sequence where they play the music from the show. It is a very effective scene to get across to the audience the loneliness and sadness that Bruce Banner is feeling. The whole film does a wonderful job of making us feel a lot of sympathy for the Hulk. It is in his facial expressions and the way in which he shuffles sadly around the screen. At this point I must make a special mention of the CG that is used to bring the creature to life. It is simply amazing in certain scenes. It is better than the last version, which you would expect considering it is five years on. Still the facial animation, especially in the final battle is simply amazing. It is a step on from King Kong and several from Gollum.

Having praised the Hulk effects I have to point out that I felt some of the other effects sequences were below par. Especially the scene with the attack chopper at the university - the whole scene just looked cartoony. Perhaps too much time was spent on the Hulk and they left themselves short of time and money on other sequences.

I really liked the cast in the film. I remember being amazed when I heard that Ed Norton had been cast as Bruce Banner. I knew that he would be able to play Banner with ease but I found it hard to picture him in a big action movie. His performance is spot on though, Banner is unassuming, softly spoken and desperately sad. He has no trouble with the Hulk out sequences as Norton is well used to playing angry, i.e. American History X, Fight Club. William Hurt is another actor I like and he is well suited to the role of General Ross. Although he didn't exactly chew the scenery in the way I was expecting. Liv Tyler was okay in the role, nothing special. I personally don't think she is a particularly gifted actress. I think Jennifer Connelly is still the definitive Betty Ross. Tim Roth plays his part very well as an angry over the hill soldier.

It is my understanding that the idea behind this reboot/sequel/remake was to provide the missing ingredient from the Ang Lee film - action. And plenty of it. In that respect I think it underwhelms. There are three big Hulk sequences but they are all fairly similar. It isn't like the Hulk is know for his cool martial arts skills or John McClane like oneliners. I did like the action scene at the University though, it was cool to see the Hulk go toe to toe with the army. The final battle with Abomination though was a let down. It was one long CG sequence with the two creatures battling it out. It is great on a technical level (particularly the facial animation of a struggling Hulk) but I got bored about half way through and hoped it would end quicker. After seeing the director, Louis Leterrier's The Transporter recently I was hoping for some more imaginative action sequences but I was left disappointed.

On the whole it was a very enjoyable movie. Good acting, decent if not spectacular action and some really good scenes dealing with the emotional side of the story. The scene with Betty and the Hulk in the cave is a particular favourite. I'd recommend this film to anyone who enjoys comic book adaptions.

***
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This is the second movie made directly by Marvel Studios (Iron Man being the other) and I do really like the way this studio is shaping up. This film and Iron Man are all a prelude to The Avengers and with the quality of the movies so far I feel that Marvel comic movies are in good hands and look forward to the next release. Roll on 2011 for The Avengers movie.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Iron Man - Review

** Part 1 of 2 old unpublished reviews. **

I just saw this film earlier tonight and I loved it. I was a little worried that the director, Jon Favreau might not be able to deliver on the action side of things. I'm glad to be proven wrong, and how!

This film just has so many things going for it. The action is great, the performances are for the most part great, especially Robert Downey Jnr. in the title role. It has been said in many places but he really is the right man for the role. He just brings so much charisma to it and it turns out that he can handle the action too with aplomb.

This is the first superhero movie that I have enjoyed the real life identity of the character more than the superhero. That is not to say anything bad about Iron Man himself but the character of Tony Stark is just so good. The other characters aren't really given that much to do as so much of the screen time is given over to Tony Stark's story, which is understandable considering it is an origin story.

The is perhaps the one disappointing thing about the movie. The fact that it is an origin story it spends so much of the time setting up the character that it really fails to deliver a villain to match. At least the story of how he became Iron Man is a very good one and for a change doesn't rely on some sort of weird science experiment gone wrong i.e. Hulk, Flash and others. I quite like Gweneth Paltrow but I found her presence in the movie a little strange. I guess I'm just surprised to see her in an action movie and I did find her a little unconvincing during the action scenes to be honest. Although if I was looking for a secretary I'd hire her in a flash (unless Maggie Gyllenhall was interested).

Another thing that impressed me were the effects. The use of CG was very impressive, especially in the flight scenes. The Iron Man character is one that could easily have turned out looking a bit corny but they pulled if off in style. It was also noticeable that many of the effects were physical rather than CG and I think this added considerably to the believability of the film.

I'm glad to see that it has been a smash hit on it's opening weekend at the box office. Fears of it suffering from the threat of GTA IV seem to have been misplaced. I'm glad for two reasons. Firstly, it is a triumph for the filmmakers and for the casting of RDJ. Secondly, it is a success for Marvel Studios in their first film so that means we are likely to see a sequel and other superhero movies from the studio.


I can see a parallel with the first X-Men movie. It is very enjoyable but you get the feeling that the sequel can be something really special. If you haven't seen it I recommend you do so now.

And oh yeah, it has a killer last line.

****

Uncharted [PS3] - Review


I'm a little late to the party with Uncharted: Drake's Fortune but that doesn't matter with a game of this quality. The game comes across as very much like an interactive movie and not just any movie but a summer tent-pole blockbuster. The kind of movie that is big on action and charismatic action heroes and light on originality and logic. The story has Nathan Drake (the player) searching for El Dorado all the while being pursued by pirates intent on finding the treasure for themselves and killing you in the process. There are numerous cut scenes throughout the game but they are well written and acted so they won't bore you while you wait to continue playing. In fact, I found myself looking forward to each scene so I could have the story advanced a little bit further.


It is a difficult game to place into a specific genre. At times it is most definitely a third-person shooter, very much in the GoW mould with you diving into cover and blind firing around corners. The shooting mechanics are top notch but it probably helped that I'm well used to GoW. The left shoulder button will aim while the right will shoot and this gives you great control over your shots. You will need it at times as ammunition can become quite scarce. Honing your accuracy is important as a headshot will take down an enemy in one go, which is very effective and hugely satisfying. The enemies show some impressive AI at times in their bid to stay alive. You will see them almost panic when caught out in the open and then watch them slide into cover to avoid your shots. They will stay in cover and will jump out to take shots but not always jump out in the same way. This extra intelligence helps to make the gunfights more fun and reduces the chances of getting bored. There is also some fun hand-to-hand combat if you get tired of shooting. Simple button combos lead to some pretty spectacular fight moves on screen.

At others times you put away your gun for some impressive platforming and puzzle solving sequences. As Nathan you will pull off some very impressive leaps and platform grabbing. The way in which the environments are designed makes it intuitive to know where to jump next without making it so obvious so as to ruin the challenge. Some of the puzzles are clever but none are tough enough to leave you scratching your head in frustration for any length of time. These sections do add a lot to the game and give you time to relax after some of the more extended shootouts. The balance is a little skewed in favour of the shooting scenes and if you prefer the shooting parts that will be good news for you. On the other hand if you prefer the platforming sections then you may find the action parts becoming a bit too numerous and overlong. Personally, I liked both elements with a slight leaning towards the gunplay so the balance was just right for me.

Before playing Uncharted I had read and heard a lot about the quality of the graphics and everything that was said is true. This is the most visually impressive game I've ever played. As the game progresses you think you've seen it all but then you enter a new environment and are wowed all over again. The detail in the jungle levels and the fantastic architecture on show in the ruined city levels is nothing short of amazing. The water and lighting effects are also set a new standard. I also really liked the physics used on the enemy characters. When you kill them they fall over and react realistically to their surrounds and it is great fun to watch them fly though the air after being hit by a grenade. The sound doesn't disappoint either with a fantastic soundtrack and great sound effects to create a truly absorbing gameplay experience.

The game is not perfect however, as I have a few gripes about certain things. I have already compared the game to a Hollywood movie and the story does a good job of pulling you in and getting you to care about the characters. I did enjoy the story (even if it is a heavy distillation of many past movies) but at a certain point in the story it takes a left turn that I found quite jarring. It didn't quite fit what had gone before and I feel it did affect my overall feeling for the game. I will praise the level design as the levels can be quite large but they are well thought out. However, I did start to feel at times that they are too linear. It looks at certain points like you can take a different route only to be blocked by invisible barriers. The game also felt a little on the short side. I think I beat it in around 7 hours (could be wrong) but if you add in all the cut-scenes the amount of gameplay is actually less than that.

Is there any replay value? I think it depends on what type of gamer you are. If you like to find every collectable in a game then Uncharted is the game for you as it has many, many hidden treasures through out the levels. I tried to find as many as I could but I only finished with just over half. There are also medals to be collect for doing certain things, i.e. 10 headshots, 20 stealth kills etc... The forthcoming patch to include Trophies is going to use the medals system to unlock the Trophies. Some are fun to get and hard so it will add some longevity to the game if your that way inclined.

There is great fun to be had with this game and I for one can't wait until the developers (Naughty Dog) officially confirm a sequel.

Graphics
Uncharted is undoubtedly the best looking game on the next-generation consoles. The level environments are simply stunning, featuring jungle environments with lush vegetation, exquisitely detailed ancient cities and amazingly lit underground caverns. Then there are the wonderful character models with amazingly lifelike animation. Throw in some spectacular water effects and you have one seriously pretty game.

Sound
The sound is another area where Uncharted excels. The musical score sounds just as impressive as any that would be put on a Hollywood blockbuster. The sound effects are particularly impressive, with gunshots sounding incredibly loud and powerful. An extra layer of polish is added with all the ambient background effects in the jungle environments.

Controls
The game controls superbly well and is very similar to Gears of War in many respects. You control your character with one stick and the camera with the other. The face buttons are for diving into cover and performing certain situation specific actions. The shoulder buttons are for aiming and shooting. It is all brilliantly responsive whether you are platform jumping or involved in a shootout. The controls are particularly good for the platforming sequences and jumping from ledges and running along walls while holding vines will be second nature in no time.

Verdict
Uncharted has unbelievable presentation from the graphics and sound to the Hollywood quality presentation and story. It is married to some great game mechanics and the meshing of the shooter and platform genre works brilliantly. Apart from some small concerns I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this to any PS3 owner who hasn't played it.