Thursday, April 28, 2011

Top Ten Favorite Games: #4 Banjo Kazooie/ Banjo Tooie

I know that I’m breaking the rules here by lumping together two games in one spot. What I think is Banjo Kazzoie and its sequel, Banjo Tooie, are interchangeable games. And they deliver virtually the same experience.

A lot of my top ten is nostalgia fueled. Whose wouldn’t be? That’s most evident with the Banjo Kazooie games. They don’t hold up well in many key aspects. But I love them nonetheless.

Banjo Kazooie was the game that tied me over while I waited for Zelda Ocarina of Time; it did more then tied me over, I fell in love. I didn’t realize how good of a game it was going to be. My cousin and me were addicted to this little puzzle platformer from the moment we slotted the cartridge into the N64.

It’s such a weird concept too. An anthropomorphic bear—which plays a banjo, and may be semi-retarded—and a bird, which lives in his backpack…see this just sounds ridiculous! There’s no way in hell that you’d be able to pitch a game like that nowadays. But Rare had lots of mad ideas. And Banjo Kazooie turned out to be a very well made platformer.

It didn’t break the mold, and neither did its sequel but it had solid mechanics (Banjo and Kazooie together had moves which you had to collect and master in order to progress further in the game) and the snide sense of humor was strangely adult despite the game having a childlike aesthetic. 

Banjo and Kazooie had to work together in order to progress.

You can still make a game where your primary goal is just to collect arbitrary items and make that the centerpiece of the gameplay, but I wouldn’t base a whole game around that. Banjo Kazooie did that, and for the time it was fun. It was Mario 64, and it was structured similarly. Collect Jigsaw pieces (much like Stars for Mario), and with those hop into different worlds, each with a different theme—loved the prehistoric level in Banjo Tooie as an aside.

There are still some really neat ideas in Banjo Kazooie even when I look back upon it. Banjo and Kazooie each had separate talents (other then Banjo being able to play the instrument of his namesake, and Kazooie being a cheeky little bitch) and together you could literally reach new heights. Obviously Banjo couldn’t fly so Kazooie sprang out of the backpack whenever you double-jumped or needed to sore through the air. Some of the moves were hilariously violent, like Banjo using Kazooie as a bat to hit enemies.

What made the sequel, Banjo Tooie, even better was the plethora of different game elements that were in each world you visited. The running and jumping motif stayed strong, but many of the worlds had a wide variety of things to do; there were on rails shooter segments, a First Person Shooter Mode; tons of different mini-games that emulated real life sports, plenty of puzzles; and on top of that every level had you transforming into either an animal or a inanimate object—transforming into a washing-machine and shooting dirty undies out of your mouth was the best. Really, it was.

Just like the Hulk, Banjo's shorts grew when he transformed...lucky us!

Rare made colorful games. Not just visually, but in how you’d play them. Playing the Banjo Kazooie games is like seeing a rainbow; it just brings a smile to your face. Except playing the game is like playing a rainbow…wait what? I lost myself in that analogy. Just forget it.

Banjo Kazooie and Banjo Tooie hold a special place in my heart. And I’ll admit that’s nostalgia’s doing. Banjo Kazooie wasn’t a groundbreaking game; it copied a lot from Mario. It’s still an oddly unique concept. That’s maybe why I was so drawn to it.

Other games have had some great duos; Jak had Daxter, Ratchet has Clank. You can take those, give me the mumbling bear with a smart-mouthed bird stuffed in his backpack any day.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Green Lantern Emerald Warriors Issue #2


“Last Will/ Lie of the Mind” 

Writer: Peter J. Tomasi
Pencils: Fernando Pasarin
Inking: Cam Smith

Too bad not a lot happens in this issue. In the last, we were treated to a nice opening action scene that splashed the Green Lantern powers across the pages. Emerald Warriors #2 doesn’t feature anything like that.

Green Lantern fan favorite Kilowog and Arisa join with Guy Gardner as he ventures out to the unexplored sectors of space. What Guy’s plans may be is still just as big a mystery as they were in the last issue—so we don’t get any more info in that regard.

Adding Lanterns Arisa and Kilowog to the party may bring some interesting tidbits to Emerald Warriors. As both Lanterns are dealing with internal turmoil. Arisa blames herself for Lantern Sodam Yat’s apparent death. And Kilowog is feeling the sting from seeing so many of the Lanterns he personally trained die in front of his eyes.

Sometimes you need to trudge through some trades just to get to the meat of a story. That’s really what this issue is, just filler. We do learn more about what’s up with Guy Gardner. Not his plans—but what he’s dealing with physically.

Apparently the Red Lantern Ring he wore briefly during the Blackest Night story arc has left some residual effects. Which can’t be cured without the aid of the Blue Lanterns.

While Emerald Warriors #2 may not be the strongest showing, it’s still an essential read to understand what Guy Gardner’s goals are. It’s a speed bump of a comic, but it has to be driven over. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Top Ten Favorite Games: #5—SSX Tricky

It’s tricky to rock around the clock...actually I really hate that song. Funny because it’s the theme song of the sports game I’ve spent the most time with. Extreme sports game I should say, but I hate that term too. SSX Tricky is a videogame, plain and simple. Calling it merely a sports game is a disservice.

SSX is an over the top snowboarding game. Your eyes may bleed the first time you race on the track Snow Dream, which is set in Japan—the colors are so vibrant, we’re talking every color of the frickin’ rainbow. Most tracks featured in this arcade-style snowboarding game are so colorful they make Wizard of Oz look like Gotham City.

Some find the tone to be off-putting in SSX Tricky. All the snowboarders you choose from are either stereotypes—like the laid-back surfer dude or the overly excited Japanese girl—but it was fun. Why bother taking it seriously. I mean one of the characters had a giant orange Afro!

Racing in SSX was fun, but the tricks--as the name would imply--were the real showcase.

SSX Tricky was a hybrid of snowboarding and skateboarding. A lot of the tricks had you doing flips and defying gravity in ways that are just inhuman. It was the exact opposite of a simulation. That’s not what the SSX games are about. Sticking the landing after a crazy trick where you pirouetted on your snowboard wasn’t the goal. The goal was to do insane tricks, rightfully named “über” tricks, and to just have fun.

Playing SSX was so freeing. I could jump into a half-pipe and do tricks for hours. I did, I’ve never spent more time playing a game and literally not accomplishing anything in it…I just road around. Isn’t that what games are supposed to be about? Just having fun.

I know you may think that having a sports game so high on my list of favorite games seems odd. That’s what people may think if they’ve never played SSX before. Especially SSX Tricky, which was the best in the series.

Stupid Eddy...ah, who cares, let's hit the slopes!

SSX wasn’t just a sports game. It was an event, and something truly special. It doesn’t matter if you like snowboarding or sports games at all: as I could care less about actually “shredding powder” on some mountainside.

This game was a detach from reality, more so than any other game I’ve played. When you see a cliff that looks like you can do a trick off of it, you just have to go for it. SSX induces a sense of spontaneous creativity. Where you want to race in any setting (the track Mercury City Meltdown is my favorite, it’s a track built around city buildings and skyscrapers), or do a back flip off a glacier.

I’m glad to see that there’s a new SSX in the works. But nostalgia is a bitch, and I’m sure no matter how good this new SSX is it won’t recapture the feeling I had playing Tricky.

Even the soundtrack was awesome. Most of the game had a hip-hop instrumental vibe to it. And I actually grew to like the voiceover from Rahzel who beatboxed before every race.

Few games hold up because of dated visuals or stale gameplay mechanics. Sure SSX Tricky’s character models are blocky and un-detailed. But the art style should hold up. And the gameplay is something that needs to be experienced to understand. Pick this game up if you still own an Xbox, PlayStation 2, or GameCube. Better yet the Wii can play GameCube games, and everybody has that damn thing. Give yourself a treat and pick up SSX Tricky, if you haven’t played it before you’re in for a unique gaming experience.

Game of Thrones Review: “The Kingsroad”

Ned Stark becomes the Hand of the King just as his son Bran is bedridden after falling from a tower.

Catelyn Stark is beside herself with grief. Michelle Fairley’s spends the first half-hour sitting next to Bran. This is the first time—and maybe the last—that the viewer will see real emotion from Catelyn Stark. She becomes very stoic as the book/ TV adaptation continues, almost emotionless.

Obviously Bran didn’t fall from the tower; he was pushed. Because Bran didn’t parish, an assassin is sent to finish the job. The assassination scene, and many others are completely ripped from the book. And they play very well. Even some lines, mostly Tyrion Lannisters’ are verbatim.

There are certain interactions with the Starks and Lannisters in the show that don’t happen in the book. This is necessary to establish the underlying conflict that both families share. Like I said about the premiere episode, there’s a lot of info that needs to get across in a short time.

There are still seven episodes left, so in time things will become more understandable for those who haven’t read the books.

We see more from Daenerys’ story, as she is now the Khalessi of the Dothraki people: basically like a Queen. She becomes more accepting of Khal Drogo’s advances, although she has little choice in the matter. For those who just think it’s just a gratuitous sex scene every time we see Daenerys, rest assured her story becomes more fascinating as time goes on. We do see her become more assertive later in the episode, Daenerys grows into her own, albeit in a very sexual manner.

Both Sansa and Arya's wolves are shown -- Robb and Jon's are not.

I do have some issues with how the Dire Wolves have been portrayed. Although we do see two instances in which the wolves defend the Starks. We don’t see Ghost, Jon Snow’s wolf or Robb Starks wolf, Grey Wind. It’s troublesome since both wolves are much more predominant then any others, especially during the action scenes. Ghost isn’t even present while Jon Snow leaves to start a new life on the Great Wall. Ghost is an integral part of Jon Snow’s story, and he’s his only friend when he first reaches the Wall. Yet Ghost is nowhere to be seen.

Hopefully we’ll see more from the wolves as the series continues.

This episode separates the Starks from each other, leaving them on their own for the near future. It’s this vulnerability that brings spice to the story. Catelyn Stark leaves to get answers on who is trying to murder her son Bran. Jon Snow secludes himself from the rest of his family to serve as member of the Night’s Watch—a group that protects the Great Wall that keeps all manners of beasts from entering the Seven Kingdoms.

We also see the true nature of Prince Joffrey, and how utterly naive Sansa is.

In all of this what’s most troubling is King Roberts unwillingness to rule. Ned Stark truly is the Hand of the King, and he’ll have to do the dirty work his supposed friend Robert does not.

The “The Kingsroad” is really a tone setter for the series. It's really about everybody going their separate ways. Although the series quickly plays up the tension between the Lannisters and the Starks, and things will come to a head soon.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Gear Review: Xbox 360 D-pad Transformer

Honestly, I don’t know what the real name of this Xbox 360 controller variant is—the word “transformer” is awesome…so I’ll use that. 

How Microsoft screwed up a directional pad in the first place is beyond me. This controller features a transforming D-pad, with two options: the regular confusingly designed D-pad from the original controller, and a redesigned pad that is supposedly much more responsive.

Sadly that’s not the case. While the D-pad is certainly much better--much sturdier, and responsive when pressing a single direction, or pressing in diagonal. Sliding from down, diagonal, then to forward movement in one swift motion is a crapshoot at best.

This is mainly a problem with fighting games. I tested this with a few fighting games, and while it worked fine with Street Fighter at times—with Soul Caliber and Tekken it’s not precise enough to pull off the more complex movements. It’s about 50-50 that you’ll throw out a move that requires a down, down/ forward, forward movement (The means rarely pulling off Tekken’s Electric God Fist move, which is commonly used by about 5 different characters).

You can flip--literally--between the original D-pad and the sturdier redesign.

It’s baffling to me that a D-pad is the biggest gripe with the Xbox 360 controller. If it weren’t for that it would probably be the best controller ever designed.

Making the new D-pad sturdier wasn’t quite what needed to happen to improve movement. It actually needed to be softer. Like the DualShock controller on the PlayStation 3, or even the PlayStation 2…or PlayStation 1—hell the NES and SNES had better D-pads than the Xbox 360 controller. And the common theme is that they were all much softer and a little squishy, but they didn’t sacrifice preciseness despite being made of softer plastic.

Other differences are purely cosmetic. I’m ambivalent to the gray-scale color scheme; and the analog sticks are more concave…but none of these differences are necessary.

It’s not a complete miss, but what this controller should be good at is fighting games. It’s not. This controller is an odd beast. I’m sure there’s a much better 3rd party controller that outshines this one; at least it’s D-pad. Yet for as expensive as this controller is, I shouldn’t need to search elsewhere for a better product. I say pass on this peripheral.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Mass Effect Evolution

The Dark Horse comic based on the videogame Mass Effect has just released its final issue. Mass Effect Evolution is a four issue comic detailing the origins of Mass Effect’s “Illusive Man”.

The “Illusive Man” is the powerful leader of the organization called Cerberus. With almost endless resources, the “Illusive Man” puts humanities best interests ahead of any other species in the universe. He’s a dangerous and intriguing character, and where he came from and how he built the Cerberus empire is shrouded in mystery.

Mass Effect Evolution follows the “Illusive Man”—then named Jack Harper—as he fights the Turian race in what’s is called the “First Contact War.”

The war isn’t the centerpiece, as Jack and friends discover an ancient artifact that seemingly alters those who physically contact it. Jack Harper tries to save one of his colleagues from touching the artifact, and in doing so he is also altered…but not to the extent of those who come into full contact with this “Arca Monolith”—as the artifact is called.

Ever wondered why the “Illusive Man” has glowing blue eyes? Well Mass Effect Evolution shows how that happened. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really show how Jack Harper accursed the wealth in order to build Cerberus and take the moniker of the “Illusive Man”. Which is misleading, since that’s exactly what Mass Effect Evolution is supposed to be about: the origin of the “Illusive Man”. The final pages don’t detail how “Illusive Man” built his organization; all of a sudden he just has it.

We do learn a few things. For one, “Illusive Man” may not be in full control of his own actions—I won’t spoil anything for those who still want to read each of the four issues of Evolution. But there definitely is questions raised about the “Illusive Man”, and very few of them are answered in the issues of Mass Effect Evolution.

You also see the story of Saren, the main villain from the original Mass Effect. While we don’t get a full story on how Jack Harper turned into the “Illusive Man” we do see how Saren became the person he is in Mass Effect…kind of.

That’s because Mass Effect Evolution devalues some of Saren’s reasons to hate humanity and wish for their destruction. One of his biggest reasons for hating humans is because a human killed his brother. Mass Effect Evolution has the full take on those events and the fate of Saren’s brother is revealed. And it just doesn’t fit with what was established in Mass Effect. Saren has no reason to hate humans at all.

It’s okay to give characters more backtstory…what’s bad is when that story contradicts itself. It seems unnecessary to tell Sarern’s story this way.

I would only recommend Mass Effect Evolution to Mass Effect fans. That’s a major flaw. Mass Effect Evolution isn’t a strong story. And without the Mass Effect license it would be a pretty terrible four issue comic. The art is very underwhelming—Jack Harper looks different in almost every panel; its just not very pleasant to look at.

Nonetheless, Mass Effect Evolution does give detail on the characters of Saren and the “Illusive Man”. But none of the information is necessary to understand any of their respective motivations and personality traits. Mass Effect Evolution gives an unsatisfying abridged version of the origin of the “Illusive Man” and contradicts the character of Saren. I recommend the Mass Effect novels over this trade—skip it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Top Ten Favorite Games: #6—Dragon Quest VIII

Like many, my love for traditional Japanese Role Playing Games has gone down the toilet. And in the passed 5 years only two JRPG’s have really stuck with me. Dragon Quest VIII is one of those titles.

The Dragon Quest series doesn’t have a storied history in the U.S. Being renamed Dragon Warrior, and having many of it’s titles on very obscure systems over the years--alienating all but the hardcore followers.

Obviously if you follow Japanese culture, the Dragon Quest series is monstrously popular. And there was a lot of hype being thrown on Dragon Quest VIII; it just wasn’t something that I was anticipating as much as our friends to the east.

I’ll even admit that the only reason I bought it was for the free demo of Final Fantasy XII that was packaged within.

I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed this game. I’m a big Chrono Trigger fan, and I loved the art style from the Dragon Ball series when I was a child. Akira Toriyama (the artist behind Dragon Ball and Chrono Trigger) is the creator of most of Dragon Quest’s visuals, and has been for many years. The Cel-Shaded look is what makes the anime style pop. It looks like a 3D rendition of Dragon Ball, and it was very nostalgic to see such a familiar look. It was whimsical, yet cartoony, in a good way.

It really was a very traditional RPG though. And I don’t recommend it to everyone. Not because there’s nothing new in the game, but because it’s actually a really hard game.

Akira Toriyama's art is always a welcomed sight.

If you don’t “grind”, that is level your characters up constantly, you will fail! And dying in Dragon Quest games is expensive. If a party member would die, I would just leave them dead because it cost an absurd amount of gold in order to revive them. That’s right, if a party member dies, they’re dead for good and you have to pay way out the ass to get them back. 

But I really did like the difficulty. I wasn’t a big fan of having to “grind” all the time, but it’s satisfying when you’re completely destroyed by a boss, and you come back later, ten levels higher, and you wipe the floor with him. It’s empowering: you feel that all the time and work you put in paid off.

Is it old school? Yeah, we’re talking random battles; tough difficulty; a story that has it’s moments but for the most part is vanilla, and turn-based gameplay that definitely didn’t set the world on fire—but it’s such a solid game.

I’ve only enjoyed the Xbox 360 JRPG Lost Odyssey quite as much as Dragon Quest in the passed few years, and I've played a lot of RPG’s. Dragon Quest stands out because of its polish. If it were a statue, it didn’t break the mold, but it’s still one gorgeous creation.

Top Ten Favorite Games: #7—Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

It’s hard to think of a more “game changing” title—Call of Duty 4 is just that for this generation. There is no other game that comes even close. Sure, you could just point to the sales of the Call of Duty franchise as proof of how hugely successful these games are; that’s not enough though, just because a game is popular doesn’t mean it’s any good.

COD catches a lot of flak nowadays as an annualized franchise. It’s being squeezed out each year, with little improvement or advancement in between each title. That’s because everything that COD is now, and maybe anything it will ever be stems from the masterpiece that was Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

My heart was leaping out of my chest during the singelplayer in COD4, it was a non stop adrenaline ride—sorry for the cliché, but it’s apt in this context. Sure if it were a movie it would probably be a cheesy Michael Bay action flick, but as a game, actually being in the shoes of a marine was such a haunting and exhilarating feeling.

There are so many levels were it’s just an “Oh, shit!” reaction—from experiencing what it’s like to be shot in the face (don’t know if anyone wants to know what that’s like?), to being in the middle of a nuclear blast at one point!

COD4 made you feel like a badass. You were untouchable as this team of U.S. Marines and British Special Force. It wasn’t new to be in a full-blown warzone in a game, but COD4 just made it feel more real. You could almost feel the air get hot behind your ears as bullets grazed passed your head. While now it’s standard fare, so may of the levels had a great atmosphere, and you could almost create an entire game off of just the concept from one of the missions.

But what’s made Call of Duty into the powerhouse franchise it is today is multiplayer.

Introducing pseudo-RPG aspects into a First Person Shooter was such a brilliant idea, and well it wasn’t wholly original--it was perfected in COD4. It was so satisfying to shoot someone, see those numbers appear over their heads, and get that guitar riff whenever you leveled up. Gaining experience led to new guns and perks that could be used to customize your playstyle. 

I'd never been addicted to competitive multiplayer--COD4 changed that!

Unlike recent Cal of Duty’s, COD4 was a much more balanced affair. Not just in the tangible sense (all the guns in COD4 just feel so much better than any other COD) but with killstreaks and the decline in the level of competition.

I won’t get into how much “camping” has hurt most multiplayer games like COD—I’ll just say because COD4 wasn’t the phenomenon that it’s successors have been it was a more pure game (less people played it, but the people who played were exceptionally skillful), when you met someone with actual expertise, you knew it. And it was a better experience. Now people just camp in order to get killstreaks…I understand the thinking, but COD4 wasn’t about individual killstreaks, it was about teamwork.

I still play Call of Duty now…who doesn’t? But those who played Call of Duty 4 know that’s where the title was at it’s absolute best. No First Person Shooter has a better combination of singleplayer and multiplayer than Call of Duty 4.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Green Lantern Corps Issue #53

“The Weaponer, Part 1”

Writer: Tom Bedard
Pencils: Tyler Kirkham
Inking: Batt

Green Lantern Corps #53 is a fascinating read. It introduces The Weaponer, a villain (although that is purely an assumption) to the Green Lantern story arc. There have been others who used the moniker “Weaponer” in the passed, notably the “Weaponers of Qward” who forged Sinsestro’s Yellow Power Ring.

The character simply titled The Weaponer is the man who specially created Sinestro’s ring by hand it seems—which is an interesting tidbit of info unto itself.

What’s noteworthy of Green Lantern Corps #53 is The Weaponers unique ability; or should I say adaptability. The Weaponer possess a shield that scans any weapon, analyses it, and forms the perfect counter to that weapon; allowing The Weaponer to exploit the weaknesses of an enemy and adapt to any situation.

He can even mimic the constructive traits of a Green Lantern Power Ring.

Within a few short pages, The Weaponer easily beats both Kyle Rayner and Soranik Natu (the daughter of Sinestro). Capturing Natu in the process, and demanding that Rayner find Sinestro, so he can pay for the crimes he’s committed on the planet Qward. 

The final scene of Green Lantern Corps #53 has Kyle Rayner pleading with Sinestro—who is still on Earth—to help save his daughter. Upon Sinestro’s refusal to help, Kyle delivers a right hook to Sinestro’s chin…needless to say, “it’s on!”

It’ll be nice to see if there is a big fight scene between Kyle Rayner and Sinestro, but I won’t get my hopes up too high. Besides, the short-story arc is supposed to be about The Weaponer and what his motives—besides revenge—may be. I’d definitely want to learn how he mechanized an item that lets him absorb any weapon he combats. We’ll see, as this is only part 1. The next issue may explain these questions…or possibly raise more?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Game of Thrones Premiere Review

"Winter is Coming"

I’m a big fan of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire. I’m currently on the third book; I’m thoroughly enjoying the series, but the first book, A Game of Thrones, is by far the best in the series. 

The first Song of Ice and Fire novel, titled A Game of Thrones was an emotional ride. It really is much more of a political drama…but don’t think boring Star Wars prequel senate meetings; the conversations in Martin’s books are scintillating.  It’s not that everybody has weighty words when they speak, it’s that they talk like regular people. It’s somewhat hard to explain. But think the opposite of what the Lord of The Rings characters are, and you’ll get a sense of what the atmosphere of the Song of Ice and Fire books are about.

The world of Song of Ice and Fire is medieval and Tolkien-esc in some respects, but it is much more centered on humanity and what that means. The series does become more fantastical in future novels, but A Game of Thrones is more of a family drama…but even that statement doesn’t explain the depth of this story.

The premiere of the HBO series, simple called, Game of Thrones was on last night. Did it live up to everyone’s expectations? I can’t answer that…but for me, I was utterly blown away—for the most part.

Sean Bean as Eddard Stark--it's a great match

Now I don’t watch a lot of television, but that’s just because I always find most shows cheap looking. Even the best produced and funded shows can still look like they were filmed in a back lot. Game of Thrones avoids this, sometimes—but not always. One of the sets in particular, in a place called Pentos looks very “TV”. And I was expecting more scale from the main setpiece, Winterfell, but even it feels a little shoddy.  

But, as a whole this does look like it has the highest budget for any series on television, ever. So I can forgive and forget. As most of the time, the show is gorgeous. Winterfell, the glorious castle, and home of the Stark family looks just how I imagined (except for the aforementioned scale). It looks damp and dark, and all the inhabitants are used to the chilly cold that strikes only as far north as Winterfell.

Tonally and visually it’s a desaturated looking show. That’s not to say there’s no color. What is there is rich, but don’t expect the colorful bounty that was Hobbiton in the Lord of the Rings movies.

Game of Thrones isn’t about action. The first scene in the show really isn’t indicative on what you’ll see throughout the series. Or so I assume. The producers of the show may try and up the action, but the novels—mainly the fist one—don’t have a lot of big fight scenes, so know what you’re getting into.

This is more of a political drama. And the first book really is a murder mystery; but there is much more to it then just that. As who is murdered doesn’t really matter so much as why they were murdered.

Admittedly you may have to be a fan of the series to sit still throughout the hour long episode—which feels very long because there is so much information that you have to digest in such a short amount of time.

The Game of Thrones will be broken into two parallel stories. The main story takes place in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, and the other is on another continent loosely labeled the Free Cities. 

The cast of young actors is solid

The premiere does a good job juggling both stories. And the cast has many noteworthy actors. Sean Bean plays the role of Eddard Stark, King of Winterfell and future Hand of The King. I thought at first I would get the feeling that Sean Bean would channel the personality of Boromir from his stint with Lord of the Rings, but that isn’t the case.

You can tell that he understands the source material and knows that Eddard Start is a man of high values, and he plays that up brilliantly. I particularly like the chemistry between he and actor Mark Addy—King of the Seven Kingdoms, Robert Baratheon—, which is important to establish their longtime friendship. 

Then there’s Peter Dinklage who plays the scheming Tyrion Lannister (probably the most interesting character from the entire Song of Ice and Fire novels), it’s been said he was “born to play this role” and while that is a good and a bad thing, the reality is that it’s a true statement—I can’t imagine anyone being able to play Tyron better than Peter Dinklage, it’s a perfect fit, and we’re going to see much more of him as the series continues.

Unfortunately the premiere of Game of Thrones is very, very slow. And I assume that this is more difficult for those who haven’t read the book as well. Luckily, or unluckily (depends on how you look at it), there isn’t much exposition, the episode just plays out—and major details are thrown out as just off-hand comments at times. But even though I knew how this episode was going to end, it still left me breathless; and if you weren’t pulled in with the premiere’s climax than this show may not be your thing.

Game of Thrones has a long road ahead of it. And I’m surprised how well they were able to tell such a large amount of information in just one hour. But we’re just scratching the surface of the fist book in George R.R. Martin’s epics series, and trust me it’s going to be great. A must watch for any fantasy fan.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Dragon Age 2 Review

Dragon Age Origins was a mixed bag. The PC and console versions differed greatly. With Dragon age 2 Bioware set out to elevate those differences. The changes were for the better. Dragon Age 2 is far superior to its predecessor. It doesn’t outshine Origins in all aspects, just where it counts for most RPG’s: combat, character, and story. Dragon Age 2 nails these three key components.

I think the biggest barrier for someone who loved Dragon Age Origins will be the smaller scope that’s in Dragon Age 2. You can only play as a human (In Origins you could play as a human, dwarf, or elf). There isn’t an all-powerful great evil that needs to be banished. But you do change the landscape of a city, and that may have larger consequences in future Dragon Age games.

The magnifying glass is zoomed on a city called Kirkwall. Aside from a few small outlying locations around Kirkwall you don’t venture out into the world. Focusing on one location is almost unheard of in today’s RPG’s. Luckily Kirkwall is an engaging setting. There are lots of sidequests, and the companion quests are very well written.

You play as Hawke, a refugee who escaped the “blight” that ravaged the lands in Dragon Age Origins. All the events in Dragon Age 2 have already transpired, but they are misconstrued as tall-tales and legends. A dwarf named Varric (think Han Solo…but with an exposed chest) has been asked to retell Hawke’s story.

Hawke is a hero, called  “The Champion of Kirkwall.” But how did he become “The Champion”? That is the story the plays throughout the course of 6 years in Dragon Age 2.

I was pulled into the story. Hawke does change Kirkwall, but you have to play through the game in order to find out how, and in what way. Good or bad…or neither. It’s ultimately based on your decisions. There are three big set piece events in Dragon Age 2 and the choices you make effect the city of Kirkwall, and may have even further reaching implications. 

The Mass Effect style dialogue wheel is far better than the static text of Origins

Dragon Age Origins really was two different games. And what worked on the PC just didn’t translate well on consoles. Dragon age 2 scraps the combat system found in Origins and ups the action quota.

Dragon Age 2 works similarly on PC and console. It’s less about numbers floating above people’s heads, and queuing up attacks. Now when you click a button attacks happen instantly, even if you’re a mage. Want to shoot a fireball? Just unleash the spell, whether or not the attack hits is no longer based on a “behind the scenes” numerical value. If you want to hit someone just aim and shoot, or if you’re a warrior or rogue, just whack ‘em!

The combat has that visceral God of War feeling. When you land a hit with a sword, you feel the weight behind the strike. It’s just right. No more having to select an enemy, slowly move into position, and hope that your attack connects. Just jump in and hit the guy! Melee is brutal and satisfying in DA 2. Combat is something I look forward to, instead of dreading like with Origins.

That’s not to say the depth has vanished in DA 2, it’s just deemphasized slightly. You can still micromanage your team’s abilities and take control of them whenever you like during combat. Combat can still be paused, and attacks can be queued. When the pause is released, then all hell breaks loose and your team fires off their abilities all at once.

Personally I like to stick with controlling only one character at a time. Most of the time your AI controlled teammates will function properly without you needing to coddle them and manage their movements. But there’s instances where the AI just has a brain-fart, and just stands around not using their abilities even though they’re told to do so. It doesn’t make sense that I switch onto my mage and they aren’t healing even though that’s their top priority; this doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does it brings some of the hardest fights to a standstill.

Another problem I have with the AI tactics is that you’re not given enough tactic slots. You have to level up in order to unlock more. Why to I need to level in order to unlock more slots so the AI can function properly? I just don’t get that.

The visuals are better than Origins, but texture quality is still lacking

I’d also recommend the PC version of DA 2 over the console version. I did mention that you don’t have to control your squad individually; you can just play as Hawke and for the most part everything works fine. The game just flows better when you switch back-and-fourth between team members, and it’s still sloppy to accomplish that without a mouse and keyboard.  

Your also limited on the amount of abilities/spells you can have mapped to the face buttons of a controller. With a mage this can become a problem, as there are just too many spells. And having to pause the menu and go into a sub-screen just to find one spell is a tedious process on consoles. With the PC you can have most of your abilities mapped to hotkeys--it’s a quicker and less cumbersome system.

And then we come to the visuals. Dragon Age Origins was just kind of a gross game to look at. Everything in Origins looked like it was covered in mud. It was just an ugly, ugly game.

Dragon Age 2 looks better. Not by much though. Some character models are nicely detailed, but almost all the textures in DA 2 seem just way to low res. It also doesn’t help matters when the game has horrendous load times. I played mostly on the Xbox 360, and I experienced load times up to 40 seconds long. That’s way to long, I’m sorry…this game isn’t a visual stunner, so there’s no excuse. But if you’re playing on the PC then these problems are lesser. The game looks much crisper and has a cleaner overall look to it.

I really wish they had taken the graphics a step further. The early concept art featured a caricaturist art style, with elongated features for many of the different races. Everything shown had this painted look to it. But aside from a few racial differences (the Qunari look completely different from their Origins counterparts) the game really doesn’t stray too far from its predecessor.

This is a Bioware game and characters are Bioware’s specialty. DA 2 really steps out from Origins to feature a cast of characters as interesting and well developed as any I ever seen; even the cast in Mass Effect 2.

The aforementioned dwarf Varric is my particular favorite, he really is a smarmy bastard—but in a diviner way; and deep down his hearts in the right place, even if his mind is centered on booze and women. Then there’s Fenris, an Elf who had magic burned into his skin. He’s a powerful ally but he hates mages, and if you side with them he’ll voice his opinion every time.

Some times I mix and match my party members just so I can hear their conversations. Even when you’re walking around each party member has something to say to one another. That’s attention to detail. And it wasn’t something I found in Origins. 

Characters--like Fenris here--are what makes DA 2's story more interesting

I couldn’t stand listening to anyone talk in Dragon Age Origins. But DA 2 is different. Each character has something interesting and there’s a Mass Effect-like sidequest structure in which you’ve got to do something for each companion later in the game.

The best character really is Hawke though. Just having a fully voiced protagonist brings so much to the table. The mute hero from Dragon Age Origins was okay, but you don’t realize how much more interesting a conversation can be until your character actually talks.

The Mass Effect dialogue wheel is a nice touch as well. Although, I do think there’s more depth and options in the dialogue present in Mass Effect 2, DA 2 does an admirable simulation. Stale lines of text be damned, Bioware just does things right.

From the combat, to the characters--Dragon Age 2 is a big step in the right direction. And I really was skeptical of this game at first. I was wondering if it was going to be a rushed sequel. But it really isn’t. The combat is solid, and the story is much more focused. This isn’t a short game either. It took me 45 hours to beat…and I’m starting a second playthrough soon.

Dragon Age 2 is a really well made game. Bioware really went back to the drawing board—literally in some cases—and came up with a superior sequel. While DA 2 doesn’t completely break away from the Tolkien mythos, it does tell a very good story from top to bottom. Where Origins was wobbling on it’s feet, Dragon Age 2 is steady and sure-footed. It’ll be very interesting to see where Bioware takes Dragon Age from here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare Review

I’m a huge fan of Red Dead Redemption—it’s one of my favorite games ever. That’s saying quite a bit since it’s such a recent game. Recent or not, Red Dead Redemption was great, and I maintain the opinion that no game has a better ending.

Each mission in Red Dead Redemption had you usually putting a bullet in someone’s skull; sure I’ll admit that. But the structure of these missions was what made Red Dead Redemption fun. I love the train escort mission in Mexico, and the assault on Fort Mercer. Whenever you receive a mission from an NPC you knew it wasn’t going to be straightforward. There were tiers to each mission and you didn’t know what you would do next.

It was the best Rockstar game I’ve ever played because of the inventive mission types throughout the main storyline.

That’s why the Undead Nightmare DLC is disappointing. I really wanted to play more of Red Dead Redemption, and I’d heard good things about Undead Nightmare; but outside of the quirky encounters with people that Marston met in Red Dead’s main game, there isn’t much I enjoyed. 

You can tame The Four Horses of the Apocalypse--each has a different ability, like unlimited stamina.

Really all you do in Undead Nightmare is go to a town or settlement, and kill all the zombies. That’s it! And you repeat this about a dozen times.

If you take away these “town cleansing” missions then the main story is short. But most of the time you can’t progress the main storyline without cleansing a town first. It just gets boring, fast.

One thing I do like is that you have to change your placestyle in Undead Nightmare. Headshots are the only way to kill most zombies, and ammo is minimized. You quickly get overrun by undead, if you’re on foot, so I almost always shoot zombies from horseback.

I really did like how Undead Nightmare started off. With a creepy narrator giving us an overview of the situation. But the narrator never comes back and you lose that zombie movie vibe that the game was originally going for.

Undead Nightmare does feel like it’s own standalone game. Event the visuals have a different look to them. The landscape has a yellow haze over everything, and the zombified wildlife is a nice touch.

I would have enjoyed Undead Nightmare more if there were a multiplayer free roam mode. Unfortunately the only multiplayer addition is a Gears of War-esc horde mode, where you try to survive waves of zombies. I would have loved shooting zombies in a free roam mode, but alas.

All the wildlife in Undead Nightmare has been zombified

I may have just become bored of shooting countless undead. Does every game need to have a zombie mode? It’s fun for a little while, but for me it becomes stale far to quickly.

Undead Nightmare is only $10 on the Xbox Live Marketplace, which is a fantastic price. So it’s almost a steal. But I thought the gameplay would be more indicative of what I’d played in the original Red Dead Redemption. If you like Red Dead, and you love to kill zombies, then this expansion is your dream. Personally I just was expecting to be blown away based on the reviews I’d seen for Undead Nightmare. Unfortunately I wasn’t, but at $10 I don’t feel cheated in the least, I just wanted more depth.

Green Lantern Issue #57

“The Predator!”

Writer: Geoff Johns
Pencils: Doug Mahnke
Inking: Christian Alamy, Tom Nguyen, Keith Champagne & Mahnke

In Green Lantern #56 Hal tracked down the Orange Lantern Bearer Larfleeze. He learned of the entity called Ophidian that was trapped inside Larfleeze’s lantern. Hector Hammond joining the party changed Hal Jordan’s plans.

Hector Hammond fuses with Ophidian, yet Hammond seems to have most of the control. Hector Hammond by himself is already dangerous, but with the power of Ophidian he is a much more serious threat.

Fearing that Hector Hammond may go after Carol Ferris, Hal heads to her last known location, Las Vegas.

Star Sapphire Carol Ferris is in Las Vegas trying to track down the entity of love, The Predator. The Predator entity is corrupting people and trying to get them to realize true love. Obviously possessing someone and forcing their hand is intrusive, and Hal Jordan and Carol Ferris try to stop this.

Yes this review seems really expository, that’s because Green Lantern #57 is difficult to talk about without giving away the entire story. And the story is the only thing noteworthy as there’s very little action in this issue. 

Most of the fight scenes leave you wanting more, and that’s not what I want from a Green Lantern comic. I want more spectacle and more use of the Power Ring; Green Lantern #57 doesn’t have that, and it would be okay if the premise was more intriguing, but it isn’t. This issue just feels like a set piece, and not what is indicative of the Brightest Day story arc as a whole. Or so I hope.

Many different inkers lent their talents to Green Lantern #57. And some of the panels are really strikingly colored. Notably panel’s 19 & 20, which are vibrantly lit, and standout from the main artwork featured in this comic.  

Most of what happens in this issue happens extremely quickly. Each panel jumps to one scene and then the next, and there isn’t much cohesion with each piece of art depicted. In one panel Carol and Hal can be talking, and in the very next panel they are getting strangled. The visuals are really chaotic. And it seems like Geoff Johns really wanted to tell this story in one issue—it probably would have been better suited to be broken up into two or three.

Green Lantern #57 tries to cram so much info into one issue that it becomes unfocused. It’s just kind of a “blah” feeling from beginning to end. And you get that the next issues will explore how Hal Jordan deals with the various other entities that are loose on Earth. But Green Lantern #57, as a standalone story, isn’t particularly enthralling.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Top Ten Favorite Games: #8--The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

I get a weird—but good—feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever I look at the box-art for Majora’s Mask. Those creepy dead eyes staring back at you. It’s just a sense of unease. That’s really the atmosphere of Zelda Majora’s Mask. That everything is just off, or twisted to make you feel that this isn’t Hyrule anymore.

I wasn’t even ready for a new Zelda when Majora’s Mask was released. I was still engrossed in Ocarina of Time. But the things that Miyamoto was saying caught my attention.

I remember reading GamePro, and seeing the time clock that was present in all the screenshots for Majora’s Mask. I was somewhat afraid, like most Zelda fans. “Will this game have a time limit?” was the common question. But upon learning that there would be a Back to the Future-esc pace to Majora’s Mask, in which you could travel back in time freely, eliminated any worries I had.

Looking to the sky in Majora’s Mask is a startling experience--the Moon has a face. And I loved how the Moon got closer and closer as time passed. By the third day (the final day in which you can stop the Moon from falling), the Moon is so close you can almost touch it. Every time the Moon gets nearer the entire world shakes, no matter where you are, you can feel it. It was a chilling effect, and I loved it.

Only thing worse than waking up to this, is waking to Julia Roberts big-ass mouth!

Majora’s Mask was just different. I thought the Zelda series would go in a new direction upon its release. Unfortunately we know that hasn’t been the case. Majora’s Mask is the “black sheep” of the Zelda series—well maybe Zelda 2 takes that title, but Majora’s Mask definitely had a mixed reception when it was first introduced.

The dark, doomsday-day aesthetic worked so well in Majora’s Mask. It’s funny that I find Zelda Twilight Princess unappealing since it shares a similar atmosphere. That may be why I like Majora’s Mask, it’s one of a kind, and to emulate that, i.e. Zelda Twilight Princess, is foolish.

Zelda Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask are the two Zelda games I always look back on fondly, but for different reasons.

Ocarina was a true rendition of the “legend” that has become synonymous with the Zelda series: Ganondorf tries to steal the Triforce, and kidnap Princess Zelda—Link tries to save the land of Hyrule, defeat Ganon, and save Princess Zelda. This “legend” has been retold in almost every single Zelda to date. Not Majora’s Mask though.

Majora’s Mask is a standalone story. No Ganondorf, no Princess Zelda (there is a small cameo), no Hyrule, and no Triforce. It wasn’t even a story about Link; it was about the people of Termina (the name of the central town that’s the focus of Majora’s Mask’s story) and their situation. And guess what? It worked. 

Damn! It's been a few years, but I don't remember this in the game...

Creativity goes a long way. And every Zelda since Majora’s Mask has had that creative and ingenuity curtailed. I don’t know why. Majora’s Mask was different, and it was good. It was a free-flowing story with impending doom, drama, love, intrigue, death (nearly every mask Link receives is from someone who has just died), and character development.

Character development in which you had the chance to help people fix their lives before the moon crashed. You actually had a journal that kept notes on every single person you met in Majora’s Mask, and what their problem was. When you look back on it, nearly half of Majora’s Mask’s playthrough is spent helping various people throughout the land. Majora’s Mask was the first game that made me feel like Termina was a living world where the virtual people actually had lives; they had places to go and things to do, and you felt like just a piece of the whole puzzle.

Majora’s Mask blended the emotions of unease and hopefulness together to create a memorable game. It won’t be duplicated. Not until Nintendo wants to abandon the “legend” formula that all Zelda games have fallen into. And if that’s the case I won’t play another Zelda game again. I’m fine with that. Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask are special to me…well the Zelda series since, as a whole, is mediocre--Nintendo is to blame for that.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Green Lantern Emerald Warriors Issue #1

Writer: Peter J. Tomasi
Pencils: Fernando Pasarin
Inking: Cam Smith

Guy Gardner is the central focus in the Brightest Day spinoff, Emerald Warriors. There have been some parallels to Hal Jordan’s current plight on Earth and Guy Gardner’s journeys through space. Guy Gardner is seemingly on some kind of secret mission. Emerald Warriors will follow Guy Gardner as he follows through with a pact he made with former Guardian of the Universe, Ganthet, and Red Lantern bearer Atrocitus.

You don’t really get a sense of what’s going on in Guy Gardner’s life.  While in the middle of recording some form of last message, he is interrupted and has to take care of a few criminals "Green Lantern" style.

Guy Gardner is an over-the-top personality. And the first action set piece in Emerald Warriors #1 shows exactly what the character of Guy Gardner is all about.

I love the first 12 pages of this comic. You really get to see what the Green Lantern Power Ring can do. Pasarin draws the most elaborate constructs, which fit right in with Guy Gardner’s personality. Seeing how creative an artist can be with the Power Ring is why I love reading Green Lantern comics-- it’s pure imagination.  

Many of the panels have little details that are easy to miss. You really have to scan over each page to take in the total effect of Pasarin’s art. There are so many intricacies to the art in Emerald Warriors #1 that sometimes I actual forget to read the dialogue. 

That is not to say Tomasi’s writing is uninteresting. In fact, Tomasi portrays the character of Guy Gardner just the way he should be: brash, cocky, and short-tempered. Guy Gardner is the popular "meat-head" high school jock…and he certainly is the person you would want backing you up in a fight, and Tomasi has Guy Gardner’s mannerisms down pat.

If someone asked me, “What exactly can the Power Ring do?” This issue—Emerald Warriors #1—is what I would point to as a great representation of the power of a Green Lantern and how artists should manifest the abilities of the Green Lantern Power Ring.

Emerald Warriors #1 is setting things in motion…what that may be, I can’t say. By the end of Emerald Warriors #1, Guy Gardner is given permission to explore the unknown sectors of the galaxy. This may lead to some intriguing developments. If I can say one thing about Emerald Warriors, it’s that the premise—whatever the outcome may be—has certainly captured my interest. So far, Emerald Warriors looks to be a great addition to the Green Lantern continuity.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Top Ten Favorite Games: #9--Tekken 3

I was sitting in a Laundromat the first time I saw Tekken 3. It was the opening intro. Each fighter practiced his or her fighting style in the rain, with lighting illuminating the background. The animations for each punch & kick thrown looked so realistic. I was captivated by how each character had an individual martial art that reflected what I’d seen in movies and television.

Unfortunately I didn’t get much time to play the old arcade cabinet I saw in the Laundromat. So I was left with yearning for how Tekken really played.

1 year later I met a friend (I was 11 at the time, to give you some perspective) who knew a cousin of his that owned a PlayStation. I was a Nintendo fanboy at this time…but I had heard really good things about the PlayStation; little did I know, that when I left, I would fall in love with Sony’s console.

I didn’t know that Tekken 3 had just been released for the PlayStation, and well at my friends’ cousins house I couldn’t get enough.

Tekken 3 was everything I wanted in a fighting game. Great visuals, style and substance to each fighter, unique and differentiating martial arts, and an addictive quality that only comes with mastering the subtle nuances that each fighter processed.

It would unfortunately be another 2 years before I would play Tekken 3 ever again. Sometimes I knew a friend-of-a-friend that would have the game, but this was rare.

I think after awhile my father could see how much I wanted a PlayStation. We finally bought one, with a copy of Tekken 3.

I was so into this game I really was lethal. Well nowadays I just dabble in Tekken games, the skills I learned from my many hours perfecting each fighter are still relevant even in these newer versions.

To me, the best fighting games want you to master the play-style of each fighter. Tekken 3 had that longing to become death incarnate with each combatant. 

Hwoarang--my boy!

Tekken 3 was really something I hadn’t played before. Even for a fighting game it was different. When you knocked an opponent into the air, they floated for a little while, and I always found that odd. Until I immersed myself in the art of air combos or “juggling” as it’s called in Tekken. The physics of Tekken are what makes it unique. When someone is airborne you can deal damage in artistic and flashy ways. Did you have to juggle someone elaborately? No you didn’t…but it was fun anyways.

I really don’t consider myself a big fighting game fan. But for a 5-year span, I was absolutely into the Tekken franchise. Tekken 3 made me want a PlayStation; years later Tekken Tag Tournament made me purchase a PlayStation 2. Wherever Tekken was, I’d follow. And I think that’s the mark of a great game. One where you’ve got to buy a new system just to play that game--no matter what you have to play it. For me, that was Tekken.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Green Lantern Corps Issue #52

“Ganthet vs. Cyborg-Superman”

Writer: Toney Bedard
Pencils: Ardian Syaf
Inking: Vicente Cifuentes

Issue #51 of the Green Lantern Crops concluded with Alpha-Lantern Boodikka sacrificing herself so her fellow corpsman could recharge their rings. Boodikka is able to regain her humanity; and together with comrades Kyle Rayner, Soranik Natu, John Stewart, and Lantern Hannu they are able to rally the people of planet Grenda against Cyborg-Superman.

Former Guardian of the Universe, Ganthet tries to repair and de-mechanize Alpha Lanterns at the malicious request of Hank Henshaw aka Cyborg-Superman. Henshaw is still trying to find a way to regain his humanity. Yet he doesn’t care much for Ganthet’s pleas of not knowing whether or not he can actually repair the Alpha Lanterns, let alone do the same thing for Henshaw.

There are a few really cool scenes in issue #52. Notably, panels 2 and 3 in which Lantern Boodikka reflects on each aforementioned corpsman, as they stand before her. As her humanity returns she remembers how she feels towards Kyle Rayner and the other Lanterns—one particular instance has her battling Cyborg-Superman for the control of her own mechanical body. We witness that while most of Boodikka’s body is artificial, her willpower and her honor, as a Green Lantern, remain strong. 

The end of issue #52 focuses on equality and acceptance within the Green Lantern ranks. John Stewart says, well trying to repair Boodikka, “Do you really thing I’d abandon a fellow Lantern?” That’s what issue #52 and the prior issues leading up to this conclusion were trying to proclaim; that even though the Alpha-Lantern’s are mechanical, they’re still worth treating with respect and dignity. The humanity of the Alpha-Lanterns is still intact; it’s just buried deep in their cybernetic bodies.

Upon returning to Oa, each respective Alpha Lantern is repaired in order to let their humanity flourish. The Guardians then bestow Honor Guard status (which allows a Lantern to patrol the entire Universe, not just a designated sector) to a handful of Green Lanterns, including Kyle Rayner and John Stewart.

Now that Kyle Rayner and John Stewart are among the Honor Guard of the Green Lantern Corps things are sure to be very interesting in the coming issues.