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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.