Latest Game and Movie Reviews (Live Update)

* Game Ratings (/10), Movie Ratings (/5)

DS Tokyo Beat Down 7.1
Xbox 360 Fracture 8.0
MOVIE The Unborn 0
PC Left 4 Dead 8.7
Xbox 360 Mirror's Edge 8.5
MOVIE Dead Space Downfall 3.5
MOVIE The Day the Earth Stood Still 0.5
PSP Super Stardust Portable 9.7  CHOICE PICK
PSP Need for Speed Undercover 2.8
Browse more game reviews | Browse more movie reviews | Subscribe to articles


Wednesday, March 03, 2010


Visit me now at my new blog.

The same quality reviews you have come to expect from this blog.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Game Review: Tokyo Beat Down

The sum of its fun parts couldn't save it from its overwhelming ambitions.



The Good:
Engaging plot * Colorful characters * Quirky dialogue * Nice variety of enemies * A handful of fancy moves and weapons * Combat segments and investigative sections make for gameplay variety

The Bad:
Unresponsive controls * Cheap enemy A.I. * Firing a weapon isn't as rewarding as it could be * Unfinished story

Nothing screams fun like old-school. For most of us, our malfunctioning consoles from the 1990s may mean that we are no longer able to enjoy the classic old-school titles of yesteryear. Fortunately, the DS has risen as a platform for us to relive some of these old-school titbits. Tokyo Beat Down is the newest doctor yet to be trained and qualified to administer us shots of nostalgia. A side-scrolling beat-em-up, Tokyo Beat Down slides us down to the days where repetitive punches, enemies whose bodies blink away after defeat, and breakable crates and barrels containing food, health kits and ammo are still hip and trendy.

Tokyo Beat Down isn’t just a rehash of any random side-scrolling beat-em-up. Rather, it adds an engaging plot, colorful characters, and quirky dialogue into the mix. Couple the aforesaid with a healthy handful of fancy moves and interesting gunplay, and what you have is a formula for a truly enjoyable game. The fact is that Tokyo Beat Down is both fun and disappointing. It rises above expectations with its skilful blend of furiously-paced combat segments, investigative sections, and a suspenseful story that handles the action with much panache. Unfortunately, the sum of its fun parts couldn’t save it from its overwhelming ambitions. Tokyo Beat Down is a game which prefers to be distasteful rather than satisfying.

We are taught that in Tokyo, the cops would do anything to contain crime – and that includes punching, kicking, throwing, and shooting criminals. In a city where a mere ‘dine-and-dash’ incident can result in the cops beating the heck out of you, you got to be wary of the main cast of Yaseu police station. There’s Lewis Cannon, the cop who has adopted sarcasm as a habit, Rika Hyoda, his buxom love interest, and Captain Takeshi Bando, the moody leader of the band.

With such a basic premise, Tokyo Beat Down could have turned out dry. But it’s easy to appreciate the effort which the nice lads over at Atlus have put into localizing this entry in the beat-em-up genre. Each of the main 3 characters in the game has a personality as distinct as the humor in the dialogue. The cleverly scripted jokes and puns which are constantly being exchanged do well to suit the beautifully produced, if somewhat over-the-top, still artworks of the characters. It certainly speaks volume about how competently accomplished the presentation of a game is when I am compelled to flip through each dialogue in the cut-scenes as leisurely as possible.

When the cut-scenes pulled and the screen cut back to the action, I feared for the worst. Side scrolling beat-em-ups have the fatal tendency for repetitive gameplay since the concepts within it are very much simple, requiring close to no brainpower to play the game – that is, laying a brick down on any one of the buttons and spamming the same manoeuvre to victory. Good beat-em-ups always compensate for this genre shortcoming by pushing the limits on enemy and moveset variety. For a while, I believed that Tokyo Beat Down was heading down the same path as its failed predecessors, but the increasingly varied enemies and challenges, and handful of fanciful moves keep this game fresh throughout.

Your move set is pretty much standard fare: punch, kick, throw, punch combo, kick combo, block and equip-weapon-and-shoot. Spamming the punch move could guarantee your victories in the first level or so, but no longer than 3 levels in would the game have started overwhelming you with some of the more comically dressed, but capable, enemies. There’s the agile guy donned in traditional Chinese clothes, the singlet-clad fat guy, the rocket launcher guy, the terrorist, and the Molotov cocktail guy. The sooner you realize that a combination of moves is needed to bring down each given type of enemy quickly, the better. Various objects are also strewn around each level, including wooden planks, metal tubes, shotguns, sub-machine guns, rocket launchers, and Molotov cocktails, empowering you with increased attack options when picked up. Occasionally, the game switches up combat segments with investigative sections to break the monotony of thrashing criminals. Some require you to question random people in the streets while others press you to break the crates and barrels to uncover evidence. While the investigative components aren’t very imaginative, they work well into the plot and add a much welcomed layer of variety into the gameplay.

Unfortunately, Tokyo Beat Down decides to plot its suicide all too soon. Its unresponsive controls and cheap enemy A.I. could not sustain the action – it’s easy to call it a day if weren’t for the extraordinary presentation here that puts it above other games in its genre. More often than not, equipping a weapon to engage an enemy proves much of hassle – and hazard – than anything else. The draw weapon function has been assigned to the left shoulder button, and that’s fine by me. What’s not fine, however, was how the game spectacularly failed to recognise any of my initial taps on the said button – which means that if you want to draw a gun, you would have to tap twice (frustratingly) on the left shoulder button and wait for a few seconds for the game to finish with its equip-gun animation before you can register your first shot. In those precious few seconds, you could get hit. The right should button, for which the block function has been assigned to, was also stubborn to response to my request on every other occasion. Put the former and later together, and the result is a game in which you would get points docked off from your health bar unnecessarily.

The cheap enemy A.I. doesn’t help much either. During several points in the game, I was hit from off-screen, and even if I wasn’t, the enemies would fire at me the moment I got up. At times, all of them would fire at the same time, giving you close to no chance of survival. This is especially annoying in boss fights, where the boss character is usually accompanied by several other minions. In these instances, there’s a fine line between victory and defeat because whether you get to finish the boss character off or not depends on whether the minions gang up on you continuously or not. In other words, it’s more luck than skill – and that sucks. Firing a weapon was also not as rewarding as it could be. They do so little damage – this, coupled with the unresponsive controls for firing, means that you’re better off punching, kicking and throwing criminals.

Tokyo Beat Down has its story to thank for keeping me captivated, but quite ironically, the plot is the game’s biggest letdown. I played through the entire game despite some of its glaring flaws because I wanted to uncover the mystery – an element so expertly weaved by Tokyo Beat Down. Just when I thought that I had uncovered the real culprit behind all the incidents, the story did well to plunge me into greater mystery. It was of no surprise then that I was caught off guard when the credits ran after this sentence in the last dialogue: “So we couldn’t catch the real culprit behind the bombings afterall.” An unfinished story’s cool – so says Tokyo Beat Down, but I find it ridiculous. It’s like watching Spider-Man fighting Sandman in Spider-Man 3, but while the battle is still going on, the credits suddenly roll.

Final comments
Tokyo Beat Down fired up to a good start with an engaging plot, colorful characters and quirky dialogue. Intense combat, together with investigative sections, as well as a variety of enemies and moves do well to keep the gameplay fresh. But it got overly ambitious, failing to fix its unresponsive controls and cheap enemy A.I. The biggest letdown, however, is its unfinished story. Tokyo Beat Down had some really great ambitions, but somewhere along the line, its feet grew too large to fit the shoes.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Game Review: Fracture

Does terrain deformation give this game a facelift or does it sink it into a crater?



The Good:
Huge variety of weapons * Good use of innovative terrain deformation element * Graphically impressive

The Bad:
Poor use of cut-scenes * Distinct lack in enemy variety * Inconsistent enemy A.I. * Generic music * Some technical glitches

The shooter genre can be a tough nut to crack – no thanks to the waves of run-of-the-mill titles released by the various publishers every year. A handful of games, including Lost Planet: Extreme Condition and Battlefield: Bad Company, have taken to environmental destruction to distinguish themselves from the others. Fracture works with this idea, but greatly expands on the concept. The result is an innovative and unique shooter built around the notion of terrain alteration. Does this imaginative element provide the game with a facelift or does it sink it into a crater?

Fracture thrusts you into year 2161. Global warming has arrived at its zenith and the ocean has conquered a portion of the United States, splitting the nation into half. The west (the Republic of Pacifica) has adopted genetic modification to better their citizens, while the east (the Atlantic Alliance) has decided that a brighter future can be achieved by technological advancement. You are put into the shoes of Jet Brody, an Atlantic Alliance soldier sent to the Republic of Pacifica base in San Francisco to negotiate with, if not apprehend, the Pacifican leader Nathan Sheridan after genetic modification has been outlawed by the government. Still bitter with the ban on genetic modification, Sheridan isn’t so keen on negotiations and proceeds to initiate an assault on the east. It’s now up to you to stop his rebellion, infiltrate his bases, find him and put an end to his ambitions.

The shooter genre is one that typically deals with perfunctory backstories – and Fracture does little to prevent itself from succumbing to the said stereotype. This is made more unfortunate because of the fact that Fracture does have an interesting premise which has lots of potential for plot expansions, but it expectedly succeeds in brushing its story aside once the gameplay begins. It’s like the developers have this really great introduction, but then they don’t really have an idea on how they could continue with their tale – so they shove in additional, if somewhat superfluous, phrases and sentences to embroider and expand the introduction. At the end of the day, however, there’s only this shallow script. The title of this script: Fracture.

You could mention that that’s all the details the game needs since the plots in shooters have always been about providing you with just enough reasons for you to go pop the heads off truckloads of baddies. I couldn’t disagree on that point, could I? But what startled me was Fracture’s exceedingly poor use of its cut-scenes. Never mind their clumsy execution which was demonstrated in out-of-sync mouth movements throughout the duration of the game. More noteworthy, however, were the cut-scenes’ excessively obvious failure to progress the plot. The said necessity was reduced to mere ‘Oh, they are attacking us!’ and ‘OMG! Look, they are using [insert threat here] to attack us!’ moments. Really, what’s the point of having cut-scenes in Fracture then? The game would be better off without them – and it would have been an improved product too.

Story and cut-scenes aside, Fracture is a rather enjoyable game peppered with a few easily-forgivable flaws here and there. Shooters have always been about providing a wide arsenal of weapons for the player to toy around with – and on that count, Fracture delivers. There are about a dozen of weapons to tinker with, among which are some of the standard ones like the sub-machine gun, shotgun, sniper rifle and grenade launcher and other more creative ones like the Rhino, which sends a electrically-charged boulder rolling to your enemies, the Lodestone, which pulls all objects in the target’s surroundings towards it, and the ALM-37 Deep Freeze, which freezes enemies temporarily. Being aware of the environment is essential to your survival in Fracture as different weapons can wield varying advantages in any given situation depending on the objects present in the environment. Some of the weapons are necessary for solving some of the puzzles in the game, but more on that later.

Besides equipping yourself with any of the 2 weapons, you will also be allowed to carry 4 grenade types. A tectonic grenade creates a lump in the ground, while the subsonic grenade, a crater. Throw a spike grenade and a spike which towers into the sky will rise from under the ground. A vortex grenade, arguably the strongest grenade type and the hardest to find, creates a vortex that will pull everything in its immediate vicinity towards it, sucking them and blowing up in a massive explosion. All in all, there’s a healthy variety of weapons in Fracture.

But the weapons aren’t the highlight of Fracture. Rather, it is the ability to alter the terrain. Marry it with destructible environments and what you have is a shooter that has a constantly evolving battlefield – and of course, dynamic gameplay. Terrain deformation is what the game calls it and it is this element that will set Fracture apart from the many run-of-the-mill shooters out there. With a suit function known as the Entrencher (or via using the tectonic or subsonic grenade), you can either raise or lower the ground. Basic uses include raising the ground to reach higher ledges and platforms, and create temporary cover, as well as lowering the ground to enter dirt-filled tunnels. Many commercial videogame journalists have criticized this feature as being underused, but I beg to differ. In fact, this raise/lower ground feature has made some really creative puzzles in the game possible. In one, you have to manipulate the terrain so that rounded mines can get to their targets (think of it as LocoRoco in 3D). In another, you can raise the ground to crush enemies into the ceilings. At other instances, you would be altering the terrain to dislodge pillars or sockets, and raising or lowering debris so that energy beams can be reflected onto their targets. Underused? Far from it.

Puzzles in the game aren’t necessarily limited to terrain deformation, though. There are some light platform sections where you have to use the Lodestone, a weapon which pulls all subjects in the target’s surroundings towards it, to move various platforms into jump-friendly positions. However, not all puzzles are as intelligent. The spike grenade seems to be grossly underused, almost to the point where it seems to be forgotten altogether. The spike grenade is only used in instances where you need to nudge something up, say a bridge, or in instances where you need to create a platform for you to be able to reach even higher grounds. Other than that, the spike grenade is practically useless. Disregarding the spike grenade, it is Fracture’s ability to allow you the freedom to screw around with your environments in any way you deem fit which makes this game such a satisfying and immensely fun one.

The same could not be said about the enemies, however. For all its variety in weapons, Fracture suffers from a distinct lack in enemy variety. There are only a handful of enemy types that you will get to face off against in the game: the sub-machine gun wielding guy, the rocket launcher guy that can leap to great heights, the shotgun wielding guy donned in a spacesuit, the grenade launcher wielding guy (also donned in a spacesuit), another variation of the sub-machine gun wielding guy who has teleportation abilities, the Half-Life 2 Antlion-esque bug and the Minotaur-like beast called Bolla. If you’re keeping count, that’s a total of 7 enemy types. That’s quite a number, but for most parts of the game, you would be encountering the sub-machine gun wielding guy, the shotgun wielding guy and the grenade launcher wielding guy; the others appear at very specific points in the game. This lack in enemy variety starts to drag the game down in the later parts when you start to encounter the same enemy over and over again.

It doesn’t help that the enemy A.I. is vastly inconsistent. In some instances, enemies take cover when shot at or switch cover if they find that their positions are being compromised but at other times, they display a blatant lack of common sense by staying riveted on open ground or failing to react even the slightest to your shots. Fracture compensates for this by planting enemies on every conceivable shooting angle and setting a generous number of enemy respawns. The result is a game that is challenging – though unfairly challenging.

On the technical side of things, the game does look good. Thanks to the terrain deformation abilities of the suit and the huge number of explosive-loaded weapons, Fracture has quite a number of opportunities to parade its impressive terrain alteration and explosion effects. It is even more impressive that the game manages the action with hardly a hitch in framerate save for slight drops at a select number of save points. The music, however, is very much generic, sounding monotonous at best. One of the most victimized portions of the game must be the driving mission. In it, you drive a futuristic buggy and must escape a facility before it blows up. The music fails to effectively convey any kind of intensity or dread, making the drive-and-escape mission feel routine. It is a pity, really, because a better piece of music could add layers of additional value to the game, especially for a highly-intense shooter like Fracture.

I also discovered a few glitches while playing the game. Most unfortunate was the instance where a boss character got stuck behind some crates. From my position, I could get several clips of bullets into its weak spots while it stood motionless. In another glitch, my health was unable to recharge even though I was not being shot at, putting me at a great disadvantage as I was in a near-death situation. Other minor glitches include enemies being stuck in animation behind barriers.

Like any other shooter, I was able to get 10 hours out from Fracture’s single-player. There’s some replay value here – mainly because there are data cells to be collected here. Some of these data cells are cleverly hidden, while some require more creative uses of your terrain alteration abilities to obtain. What they unlock, however, isn’t quite as rewarding as I’d like them to be. Depending on the number of data cells which you have gathered, equipments in the Weapons Testing mode may either be locked or unlocked. The said mode is unique, if very much pointless. After you have completed the single-player, there are the requisite multiplayer modes to toy around with.

Final comments
Overall, Fracture is a satisfying and fun game. It boasts a fresh and well-used concept in terrain alteration and has a wide variety of weapons that do more than just shoot – they solve puzzles. Fracture is one game that is easily enjoyable – if you can overlook some of its forgivable flaws and appreciate its greater offering – its innovation – one that actually works.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Movie Review: Knowing

You need to know this.



In my book, any movie with an aliens-arrive-on-Earth or end-of-the-world theme is worth the admission price. Regardless of the differences in creative interpretations, movies exercising any of the aforesaid themes pretty much guarantee a concoction of intriguing plotlines and explosive action with mostly impressive special effects. Knowing is the newest chief yet to cook us a tall tale about aliens and humanity being wiped out. After watching last year’s similarly-themed, yet disappointingly disastrous The Day the Earth Stood Still raze everyone’s attention to the ground, I have to admit that I was a tad sceptical about Knowing. But as I discovered, Knowing is a successful blend of elements from both themes as much as it is of a nastily intensifying and engaging production.

It is 1959 and students from an elementary school are asked to illustrate their predictions for the future. Rather unsurprisingly, objects like robots and flying cars are conjured up within the imaginative young minds of these children. Creepy little girl Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson) thinks otherwise and goes on to agitatedly press a series of seemingly random numbers on her piece of paper.

The movie cuts forward to the present day, fifty years after the drawings are reposed in a time capsule and buried. We pick up with single parent John Koestler (Nicholas Cage) and his son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), the later of who studies at the same elementary school Lucinda attended. As promised fifty years ago, the time capsule is unearthed and each student receives a drawing. Caleb is given Lucinda’s paper, setting up a plot point where John, a college professor specializing in astrophysics, becomes increasingly intrigued by the outwardly unconnected numbers on Lucinda’s paper. After an accidental discovery that one of the lines of numbers accurately represents 9/11 and its death toll, John immerses himself in more thorough research and comes to the conclusion that the other numbers on the paper are actually representations of various disasters which have occurred. 3 lines of numbers remain, and with the help of Lucinda’s daughter Diana Wayland (Rose Byrne) and granddaughter Abby (Lara Robinson again), both of whom John managed to track down, he must now find a way to prevent these supposedly predetermined catastrophes from happening – while also protecting Caleb from some eerie black-suited men who are seemingly stalking his son.

Alex Proyas’s prior directorial effort may have been the 5 years old I, Robot, but fortunately, his skills haven’t skidded off even by an inch. I enjoyed I, Robot tremendously and am certainly glad that the expertise shown in I Robot’s action scenes and plot turns have been carried over. If anything, Knowing is an impressive entry to the film library and is the perfect film to mark the return of Alex.

How am I supposed to know what these numbers are?

Alex’s penchant for suspense definitely shows in Knowing. Like any good movie should, Knowing tries not to give away too much from the start so that there’s a consistent layer of mystery and captivation. The most unique thing about Knowing is how it manages to tease audiences with subtle revelations ever so slightly every now and then hide it just as you finally decipher the cue. Quite intelligently, the smattering of clues administered throughout the duration of the film tend to inch you towards the side of certainty – meaning you are sure that what you have guessed based on the clue provided is what the movie is driving at – but then, your guess is almost always brutally deconstructed by the next clue. In other words, there is this constant balance between an ‘Oh, yes, I know what this movie is telling me’ ideology and an ‘Oh, wait, no, this isn’t what the movie is about’ ideology which never ceases to keep audiences at the edge of their seats for the next clue. And when all the ribbons which hold the box with the plot together gets unattached in a massive revelation during the last 15 minutes, it’s already too late for the audiences to realize that they have been rather cleverly manipulated into thinking otherwise all these while. This makes for a truly suspenseful film which takes much delight at plunging you into further suspense in the midst of an already intensely suspenseful moment. Knowing does this with a nasty and brutal whistle, butchering the minds of its audiences at every chance it has got. It’s like a magician revealing the beak of a parrot from his hat at one instance, the claw of a crow at the next instance, and the tip of a pigeon’s wings at another instance, but when the magician finally pulls out his pet from his hat, it’s neither a parrot nor a crow, or a pigeon, but a rabbit.

Serving as great accompaniments to the plot are the set pieces. Granted, the numbers on the paper are excuses for the movie to be able to provide its very own creative interpretations on how some fatal disasters could turn out, but that’s fine by me. (Mild spoilers) If you have watched the trailers, you would already have known that there would be an aircraft and train accident in Knowing. These set pieces are especially spectacular to watch, with visuals and effects that are aesthetically arresting. My favorite would have to be the aircraft crash. Tilted at a portentous angle, the airliner rams through electrical lines and crashes into a mushroom of flames on a patch of land adjacent to a busy expressway. As John helplessly rushes in to attempt to save the victims, portions of the airliner gets blasted out into the sky like rockets and the furiously expanding flames puff themselves up and engulf survivors, snatching them away from any hope they might have left. Images of this kind stay in the audiences’ minds long after the movie has ended, providing a topic for discussion among people who have watched the film before. Quite clearly, this is one of the demonstrations of how memorable Knowing is.

Final comments
Now, I’d have to begin with this overused line: Knowing is one of the best movies I have seen. But it’s true. Like any ‘one of the best movies’, Knowing goes about showing its stuffs to its audiences a little differently. When all the elaborate paragraphs are cut down, it all boils down to this sentence: This is the most intelligently suspenseful film I have seen yet, and its set pieces are nothing short of memorable. Now, you know you need to watch Knowing, don’t you?

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Movie Review: The Unborn

The Unwatchable.



A comparison between a horror film and a piece of fish wouldn’t be overly conspicuous. Like allowing that tender slice of fish melt in your mouth, watching a macabre tale unfold on the screen never gets stale. Part of this could be attributed to the fact that there are many ways to approach the development of a horror movie – just like how there could be many ways to cook a piece of fish. Depending on the way it is cooked – be it subtle or drastic adjustments in the atmosphere and the music, the story, or the gore and special effects, a horror film could either produce a mildly tantalizing or distinctively spicy taste. But what happens when you don’t even bother to add the oil if you want to fry the fish, start the fire if you want to grill it, or boil the water if you want to make steamed fish? The result is a lackadaisical showing that shows paroxysms of potential, yet ends up as an idea best described as misbegotten.

Casey Beldon (Odette Yustman) is just another ordinary young woman jogging in the park one day when she sees a kid staring at her with an eerie gaze. Her life turns topside soon after as the kid starts stalking her and gradually killing people around her. With the help of her grandmother (Jane Alexander), Casey discovers that a curse has befallen her family during the Holocaust. The curse involves an evil spirit being constantly in search of a new body to inhabit. Casey’s mother (Carlo Gugino) passed away trying to stop the vicious cycle and the time has come for Casey’s turn to halt it. Aided by her best friend (Meagan Good) and her boyfriend (Cam Gigandet), Casey must now rush against time to search for a way to break the curse before the evil spirit claims her life.

Suffice to say that there is already an established set of elements which are necessary for a truly intriguing and engaging horror film and we have come to expect this set of elements in every macabre tale we choose to listen to. The most fundamental problem with The Unborn which makes it so annoyingly mediocre and hardly watchable isn’t with its idea – in fact, it has a great premise – but with how it chooses to discard the basic ingredients of a horror film ever so clumsily and ignorantly.

One of most cardinal devices needed to manufacture a respectable tale of fright and thrill is the story. The plot as shallow as it is – it’s literally about Casey being SUDDENLY haunted by a kid and having to get rid of it. It is a rather interesting premise that has lots of potential for plot expansions and I was waiting to see if David S. Goyer could conjure up any surprises. But as I was watching the movie, I realized that he was just mixing unnecessarily elaborate exposition with random ‘Gotcha! I scared you, didn’t I?’ crap. It’s painful knowing that the movie will never shift into second gear with all those RANDOM nonsense, but even more painful understanding that there would be no surprises. Watching The Unborn felt like watching a game of Whac-a-Mole. It’s a straightforward concept made better only by a few random pops. The result is a movie that felt like a collection of boring scenes strung together. Not even once was I made to care about what would happen to the characters. The movie just kind of moved along languidly and it ended on an equally predictable scene that hardly qualifies as a climax.

Equipped with a hopeless story, the only way The Unborn could be salvaged is by scaring us senseless with its random ‘Gotcha!’ scenes. As expected, it cheerfully puts itself beyond redemption by having a PG rating stickered onto it. I really feel that filmmakers need to understand this: If you want to make a film that caters to families – toddlers, children, parents, grandparents, you make an animated feature or a family-friendly flick like Journey to the Centre of the Earth, City of Ember or Race to Witch Mountain – a movie where everyone can enjoy. However, if you want to make a horror film, you make one – not one that stays on the line between a family-friendly flick and a horror film. Horror films cater to horror fans, not to whole families.

Little boy scares the heck out of everyone.

The Unborn is just about as scary as a cockroach. There are only 1 or 2 legitimate scare scenes in the entire film. The remaining ones are so dumb that they will make you fall asleep in the cinema. The Unborn substitutes basic blood drips and splashes with stabs that result in wounds with no blood, truly hideous and terrifying flying faces with dogs wearing human masks that look as if they were stolen from a birthday party, a ghostly figure with a kid who has apparently been taught to stare blankly at people and dogs with wrongly positioned heads. What’s the point? The Unborn’s most hilarious effects come in the form of lame flickering lights – something which was used to such a huge extent that I began to wonder whether the movie was trying to introduce me the idea that I should be afraid of the dark – because the screening hall is dark! Let me teach the brains behind this movie a lesson in horror filmmaking: The dark is something you exploit for other scare tactics, not something that you expand upon by using it extensively. When there’s a line in the film that goes, “Do you believe in ghosts?”, you know that the film’s going to suck – and yes, The Unborn really sucks like vomit.

The lack of a deep plot and gore really hurt. But what makes this film the worst one I have watched besides the equally abysmal RocknRolla is the fact that there’s NO music in this film! NO music! The whole movie just felt like a board meeting where ideas are being passed around in an otherwise silent environment. How could a movie commit such a grave mistake like this? The total lack of music removes the atmosphere. Characters are really just lifeless cardboard cut-outs prattling away and scare scenes are there for the sake of being there because The Unborn was categorized into the horror genre.

Final comments
The Unborn is a grossly boring and tasteless movie – one that is annoyingly mediocre and hardly watchable. There is a very shallow story that consists of unnecessarily elaborate expositions and random ‘Gotcha’ crap, scare scenes that are too retarded to even make it into a made-for-TV film, and a total lack of music and atmosphere. That’s all the necessary ingredients for a horror film being disposed of. And so what do you have here? Zilch. That’s a perfect answer because The Unborn is one stinking pile of mess.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Game Review: Left 4 Dead

You can't signal perfection with a missing thumb.



The Good:
Distinctively-themed scenarios * Perfect mood and atmosphere * Adaptable enemy A.I. * Ingeniously-implemented elements that encourage true co-op play * Movie-esque presentation style

The Bad:
Inflexible friendly A.I. * Versus mode is unenjoyable * Lack of content

Co-op play has always been that special sauce that provides a game with an appetizing look and a wonderful taste. From Halo 3 to Gears of War 2 to Call of Duty: World at War, developers have been attempting to implement co-op play as a feature of their games. But every so often, there is a dichotomy between single-play and co-op play. Built upon the foundation of single-play, these games are merely administered a little tweak to their single-play formulas for the accommodation of co-op play. When you are engaged in co-op play, the game still feels very much like a single-play experience such that you remain an individualistic player, slaying only enemies which pose a direct threat to your survival. In fact, you could still very much progress through the entire game by yourself despite the fact that it’s a co-op experience the game is selling.

Valve dares challenge this videogame convention, with its latest creation, Left 4 Dead, serving as a testament to the ambitions of the developer. Left 4 Dead blurs this dichotomy between single-play and co-op play, threading into a school of ideas never once explored – a move that is as creative as it is bold. Fortunately, the result is quite simply an amazing gameplay experience that seamlessly blends the ‘single-player’ campaign mode and competitive multiplayer mode into an exclusively co-op experience. Being created in such a way that the survival of your team members is essential to your survival, Left 4 Dead will transform the way you play a shooter. This revolutionary gameplay mechanic is complemented by yet another handful of original, genre-defining and outstanding gameplay mechanics and components, making Left 4 Dead one of the few masterpieces to roll off from the conveyor belts of game development in recent memory.

The co-op play in question here is set in the familiar territory of a post-apocalyptic, zombie-overrun world. Left 4 Dead borrows heavily from the several Hollywood zombie flicks of the past decade, featuring both rural and urban environments that have either been torn asunder by the rampages of zombie hordes or abandoned to resemble a ghost town. All but 4 humans have been infected by the zombie-spawning virus and you will play as any one of these 4 humans, struggling through a series of 5 stages to arrive at the final zombie standoff and await rescue. At the end of every stage, there is a safehouse for your team to restock on weapons, ammo and medical supplies. There are 4 scenarios available for play in Left 4 Dead, with each consisting of the said 5 stages. Each scenario features a distinct theme: No Mercy and Dead Air are urban-themed scenarios, with the former requiring that your team fights its way through a hospital to arrive at a rooftop zombie standoff with a chopper as an escape conveyance and the later requesting that your team pushes its way through an airport with a final resistance against the zombies at the runway and with an aircraft as a mean of escape. Death Toll and Blood Harvest are rural-themed scenarios, with the former insisting that your team make it to the docks for a ship rescue and the later forcing your team to take refuge in a farmhouse before an armored vehicle arrives.

All in all, there’s a good variety of environments for zombie-tearing action, but with only 4 scenarios in the package, each lasting about an hour to complete, there’s not nearly as enough content as desired, but more on that later. Left 4 Dead’s accomplishment comes in the form of its competent translation of the mood and atmosphere of a top budget Hollywood zombie production to the gameplay itself. The objective of each stage isn’t to eliminate all the zombies, but rather, to survive – and that pretty much guarantees the dread and intensity of the gameplay. Just when you thought that you have cleared an area of any tangible threat, yet another wanton stream of zombies come scratching their way towards your team. Thanks to the adaptable nature of the intelligent A.I., a consummate pacing is sustained throughout each stage. What this means is that when you are going strong against the hordes of zombies, the system would attempt to overwhelm your team by hurling more zombies, while scaling back on the number of zombies and providing randomly-placed medical supplies and ammo when your team is not faring as well in the presence of the zombies. The result is a game that consistently keeps your team on its toes, maintaining the much-needed sense of hopelessness and desperation which accompany any imagined zombie invasion.

The said is complemented by the game’s skillful reproduction of the atmosphere needed to discourage the resistance of the survivors, yet motivate them to continue fighting when the circumstances call for it. The smattering of fires within each area and decrepit structures serve as reminders to the survivors that there is a seemingly lack of hope derived from constant resistance against the zombies, while the occasional love messages scrawled on walls and lighted areas do well to spur the survivors to continue fighting for the sake of humankind’s love and soulful presence. The strategic usage of other subtle elements contributes to the circumspectly created atmosphere as well. Every now and then, you will hear and see a wimping zombie (do zombies even cry, anyways?) lie motionless in one corner, wallowing in self-despair. At other times, you would be able to detect a zombie from afar just by catching its grunt. And when the zombies commence their attack, they roar, their faces tauted in agony and fear. The survivors, too, covey their emotions via facial expressions and behaviours so vivid that you would be able to tell how they are feeling without the aid of any spoken word. When a survivor is injured, he or she hobbles and his or her sight becomes relegated to a (vaguely blurred) black and white view. Put two and two together and what you get is a desolate world that is supposedly bereft of personality – reanimated to become one undead world that is living and breathing every moment – so much so that it doesn’t seem like you are playing the game, but rather, living the game.

The success of Left 4 Dead in the creation of such an immersive gameplay experience is unquestionable, but beyond it, there are 2 modes available for play, namely campaign mode and versus mode. As mentioned, campaign mode features 4 scenarios, with each consisting of 5 stages. More noteworthy, however, is the refreshingly unique brand of co-op play this game sells. In Left 4 Dead, the promotion of co-op play isn’t simply about the addition of more enemies or the increase of difficulty, but rather, the ability to work cohesively as a team, co-ordinate roles and responsibilities, and change tactics on the fly. You need your team members to survive and the game uses several methods to reinforce this notion: If you are snatched by the Smoker’s frog-like tongue, you’re going to need to the help from another survivor to free you. And if you are pounded by the Hunter, you’re also going to need to the help of another survivor to get it off you. While this brings the importance of co-op play to the frontline, I find it a tad irritating that if I am captured by these 2 special zombies, I must enlist the aid of other survivors to be able to escape. I prefer the more subtle implementations of co-op play: The Boomer spits vomit that distorts your view and spurs other zombies into a feeding frenzy, but the other survivors can help you keep other zombies at bay while you readjust your perspective. The Tank is the game’s version of The Incredible Hulk and would require the combination of all the power of the survivors to be taken down. In both ways, you’re not entirely incapacitated when you’re hit by the Boomer or Tank, but would need the aid of other survivors in order to live. Against groups of these marauding special zombies and the cannon fodder hordes of normal zombies that pour in every other conceivable direction, your team would need to learn how to distribute assault and defensive roles evenly among all team members and know when to change strategies and cover each other when the going gets tough.

It’s this co-op aspect of Left 4 Dead that brings into picture the capabilities of the friendly A.I. You could play with up to 3 other human players, but if there are not enough human players, the bots can offer to fill in the gaps. Needless to say, playing with at least one other human player is recommended as human players bring forth the dynamism and social aspect of co-op play. However, the bots do a moderately good job filling in the shoes of the human players as well. They are especially attentive of your status, healing you when you are low on health and quickly helping you up should you be incapacitated. Unlike human players, they are careful not to hit you with friendly fire too. But there remain a few quirks when playing with bots. For one, bots are uncooperative – it’s near impossible to co-ordinate attacks and defenses with them. Playing with bots also eliminates the ability to switch team strategies on the fly, making your team that much more vulnerable to the many unpredictable zombie attacks. During my time with Left 4 Dead, I encountered a few instances where a bot remained stuck in a particular location as well, though that issue has more to do with the bugs in the game rather than the modus operandi of the A.I.

The other mode available for play in the game is the versus mode. In this particular mode, one team human players control the survivors while the other, the zombies. If you are playing as the zombies, the game randomly assigns you to any of the 4 special zombie classes, namely Smoker, Hunter, Boomer and Tank. Each team of human players alternate between survivors and zombies after every round. Playing as the survivors in versus mode is pretty much the same as playing the survivors in campaign mode: Make it to the safehouse at the end of every stage and survive long enough to be rescued and your team wins. The onus is on the zombies to preclude the survivors from doing just that. For some reason, only No Mercy and Blood Harvest are compatible with versus mode.

Unlike campaign mode, versus mode just doesn’t cut the mustard where enjoyment is concerned. Admittedly, versus mode offers a distinctively different kind of experience from campaign mode IF you are playing as the zombies, but the ability to play as zombies is arguably also Left 4 Dead’s weakest link. As zombies are MUCH MUCH more fragile than survivors, requiring only a few bullets to be transformed into a meat fountain, there is a need for increased co-ordination in attacks. The smoker can sneak an unsuspecting survivor away from under the noses of his or her team. After the survivor has been captured, the boomer can vomit onto him or her, unleashing the other zombies onto him or her. It sounds easy and fun on paper, but in practice, playing as the zombies is plain painful and ridiculous. Team strategies and co-ordination of attacks there can be, but it takes only one other survivor with a sub-machine gun or rifle to single-handedly disable both the smoker and boomer with a few shots – and with still ample bullets to spare for the other wandering zombies.

The game addresses the vulnerability and fragility of the zombies by providing zombie-controlling human players with the capability to be respawned whenever they die, but even the respawn mechanism is handled almost too thoughtlessly. When a zombie dies, it gets respawned into a soul near the survivors. From there, it must thread back a certain distance away from the pack of survivors before its bodily form is returned. I can’t really comprehend the need for this utter inconvenience: Why couldn’t there be fixed respawn points throughout each map? What’s the point of being respawned as a soul near the survivors? Why can’t we be respawned directly into our bodily forms? Not only does this introduce inconvenience, but also disrupt the flow of the gameplay. Versus mode isn’t fun.

Regardless of which mode you play, however, the game employs a movie-esque presentation style which is a really nice touch. When each scenario is loading, a movie poster showing the cast members will be displayed. Upon completion of each scenario, the statistics would be announced in the form a credit roll. These statistics range healthily from the number of normal and special zombies killed by each survivor, to the amount of medical assistance each survivor administers to others, to the amount of friendly fire each survivor delivers. These statistics are supplemented by the ‘Zombies Killed in the Making of the Film’ count and if there are survivors who did not make it to the rescue point, an ‘In Loving Memory of’ line would roll. All these inconspicuous elements drive the game towards a fine cinematic production value – something that is very much in line with what the mood and atmosphere in the game has been trying to promote all along.

Final Comments
Left 4 Dead is unlike any other shooter you have played before. Merging an exclusively co-op experience with high production values to great effects, Left 4 Dead is one creative, bold, genre-defining and outstanding game. However, the unpliablity of the friendly A.I. and the unenjoyable versus mode get in the way to deny this game perfection. Another point that needs to be considered is the seemingly lack of content. With just 4 scenarios to experience, the game could get a little dull after quite a while. Granted, the unpredictable nature of multiplayer and the adaptable enemy A.I. do give this game extra fingers, but 4 scenarios can only accommodate that much amount of intrigue and interest before the game is left to gather dust on the bookshelf. There is no doubt that Left 4 Dead is worth checking out – but just be prepared to accept its palpable flaws.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Game Review: Mirror's Edge

When innovation works, it produces splendid results.



The Good:
Incredibly innovative and immersive gameplay

The Bad:
Poorly-executed cut scenes * Inconsistent collision detection * Repetitive architecture and over simplistic color scheme

Innovation is very much a double-edged sword. On one hand, it produces handsome results when fresh, yet competent ideas are fused with much thought and skill with tried-and-tested formula, while on the other, it tears a game asunder and sinks it much like the way Titanic was executed if the new elements are not implemented correctly. The former best describes Mirror’s Edge. Borrowing pages out from successful old-school platforming games, as well as from modern day first-person shooters, Mirror’s Edge is what one would call a truly innovative game. It does what other games haven’t in years – and for most parts – it succeeds.

Mirror’s Edge takes place in the near future – in a fictitious city simply acknowledged as Daily City. The ostentatious skyscrapers which dominate the city tell the story of prosperity, but the circumstances are anything but. Thanks to the totalitarian government, there are special couriers called runners whose job is to deliver deluges of information that would otherwise not survive were they relayed in the conventional way. Mirror’s Edge places you in the shoes of Faith, a runner whose sister Kate has been framed for murdering a politician. Now, Faith is both a runner and a sibling who must rush against time to clear Kate’s name before her sister is put behind bars.

Certainly, it’s an intriguing plot but unfortunately, it ends up as nothing more than a perfunctory backstory that does little to engage us in the world of Mirror’s Edge. Not surprisingly, the game has reaped several coveted benefits due to the healthy dose of innovation present here – and while the developer’s odd decision to eschew the traditional cut scenes which utilise the in-game engine and live action cut scenes for 2D animated cut scenes IS indeed innovation in exercise, the execution leaves much to be desired. More than demonstrating to us what perfectly terrible 2D animators the developer employs, the static and near lifeless 2D animation clearly severs us from the experience, removing any emotional ties that we may have developed with the characters in the game, and constantly reminding us that yes, we are JUST playing a game. The result is a story that IS intriguing, but not nearly as immersive as it seeks to be.

Luckily, in a game where the action is the emphasis, the story isn’t as important as it could be. And the action is where Mirror’s Edge truly shines. With gameplay of such unprecedented innovation, it’s hard to slot the game into the comparison charts with any of the games in the market today. Mirror’s Edge is quite simply this: Take the 2D world of old-school platformers, and give it a 3D spin. Now, replace the nondescript platforms with roofs of skyscrapers and bridges, and fit the structures with pipes, planks, air-conditioner units, cranes, scaffoldings and any other object which can be clanged on. Now add acrobatic moves to the abilities of the protagonist so that she can leap from location to location. Throw in some melee capabilities and weapon combat into her movelist. Now, refocus the camera so that we are seeing the world from the first-person perspective. That’s Mirror’s Edge.

Needless to say, maneuvering (or rather, platforming) in a 3D environment adds a whole new dimension to the gameplay. Unlike old-school platformers, players are no longer restricted to simple jumps from left to right, or down to up. What this translates into is the need for more convoluted controls to accommodate the more sophisticated platforming. What Mirror’s Edge has done is to streamline all the moves into just 3 buttons with wondrous results. The left bumper button and left trigger are allocated to moving up and down respectively, while the right trigger is allocated to melee. With the right combination of any of these 3 buttons, Faith has the ability to perform wall runs, slides, ground rolls, body curls, jump kicks and low punches. Stringing any of the combinations of buttons together produces more advanced moves like running up a wall and immediately turning around 180 degrees and jumping off it. The controls are really easy to master and in no time will you find yourself constantly leaping over or sliding under suspended pipes, skydiving off the edges of roofs and parachuting off insanely vertiginous positions and ending with a body curl in the air and a safety roll on the ground on a consecutive basis. That IS fun. Am I playing a more sophisticated version of a Sonic game? Perhaps I am.

And while you are at it, the game tries its utmost best to immerse you fully into what you are doing. The fact that the game is played in a first-person perspective already provides it with a level of immersion unlike other 3D platforming games which are played in a third-person perspective. The first-person perspective is complemented by an incredibly real sense of movement: Your environs slip to a blur and the camera shifts horizontally subtly when you run. Faith’s legs stretch out after a long jump and she shoves her hand at the door when you break it down.

The game’s not all about running and leaping, though. Occassionally, it throws cops, guards, and choppers at you to break up the monotony of platforming on a consistent basis. When that happens, you can either choose to ignore the threats and make it to the objective quickly or engage in weapon or melee combat with the enemies. While adopting the former approach gets you over each chapter as quickly as possible, it isn’t always the most pragmatic way to survive the level, but more than that, you would missing out on another enjoyable aspect of the game. Admittedly, having to engage in melee combat and gunplay does slow down the fast and furious (no pun intended) pace of the gameplay that Mirror’s Edge has been attempting to promote all along – but only by a little.

The basic process for combat goes like this: Disarm, take the weapon, continue moving briskly, gun down a few cops and guards, dispose of weapon, run towards the other enemies and administer them a few kicks and punches. Now, repeat the process. It works very much like Sega’s The Club where combat is less of a strategic element, but more of being able to gun down as many enemies as possible in the shortest amount of time – and as fluidly as possible. It’s distinctively different from what is offered in other first-person shooters and understandably so. This approach does work to Mirror’s Edge’s advantage as the whole combat component really blends in seamlessly with the general tenor of the entire game.

What disrupts the flow of the gameplay, however, is the rather inconsistent collision detection. On several occasions, I was sure that I caught hold of a zip line or an edge of an air-conditioner unit, but instead, I saw Faith falling to her death. What’s more frustrating is that the inconsistent collision detection almost always decides to bare its teeth at the most perplexing of jumping puzzles. What this essentially means is that some sections become nothing more than annoying trial-and-error portions – something so obverse to what Mirror’s Edge has been trying to accomplish thus far.

Throughout the course of the game, you get the chance to penetrate numerous buildings, subways stations in addition to roaming the streets of Daily City and traversing less desirable places like the city’s sewers and tunnels. The locales are interesting enough – that is, until you realize that you are running through the same area for the umpteenth time. But hey, it’s not the same area – it’s just the same austere architecture. Somewhere during the design process, the developer decided that it’s an appropriate decision to copy and paste the architecture of a particular building to other buildings. These same buildings, being swathed in the same few primary colors, offer little to few variations between themselves such that the environments become repetitious after a while. To an extent, both the unvarnished architecture and over simplified color scheme (ala Team Fortress 2) do support the theme of a city that is ruled by a totalitarian government, but I would prefer a more diversified offering as far as environments are concerned. The same simple environments worked in Team Fortress 2 because the said game was aiming for a more cartoonish style in its overall design, while in Mirror’s Edge, it doesn’t work because realism is the target here.

With a prologue and 9 chapters to play through, the game clocks in at approximately 9 hours. It isn’t very long, but after you have completed the single-player campaign, you can try your hands on the unlocked time trials and speed runs. Scores attained in time trials can be uploaded to an online leaderboard, but other than that, there’s really nothing much left to achieve in the game. That being said, Mirror’s Edge IS a short game, but is a fine example of how innovation has worked so well in favor of the material.

Final Comments
If you have grown tired of all the Gears of Wars and Call of Duties, and want to try something new, Mirror’s Edge’s the game for you. Blending the fast and furious pace of old-school platforming games, especially Sonic games, with the satisfying first-person melee and weapon combat of modern games, Mirror’s Edge is a game unlike any other. Unfortunately, its choice of static and near lifeless 2D animation for cut scenes and inconsistent collision detection serve the game no favors, and neither do the Team Fortress 2-esque environments. Nevertheless, Mirror’s Edge is one awesome game, with concepts so fresh that it is as irresistible as Subway’s sandwiches. You eat fresh – and you play fresh.

Powerplay Megabytes | Achievement Unlocked! | SUPER Rant | Game Reviews | Time Capsule | Movie Reviews | Previews | Hardware Guides | Features and News