Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Going Gleek with Karaoke Revolution: Glee

There are some things we simply will not do in public – they just go against our nature.  First on that list is dancing, we don't dance in public.  It's not that we don't appreciate good dancing, it's quite the opposite in fact – we do appreciate good dancing and know that what we do isn't close to good.  One other thing we won't do in public, handstands.  We won't do those in private either, and that more has to do with the potential to cause grievous bodily harm to ourselves and others than anything else.  Our list extends beyond those two however, with things like wearing a hat in a restaurant, eating a Bhut Jolokia pepper, and saying a bad word about TiVo all appearing on it. 

Somewhere on that list resides "singing" as well.  We love to sing, we do it in the shower, in the car, and just about anywhere else that no one can hear us.  We simply don't do it in public because people tend to wince and stick their fingers in their ears when we do.  Oh, we get where they're coming from and they're not wrong – we may love to sing, but we're no good at it whatsoever.

It was therefore with some slight trepidation that we parked ourselves in front of Karaoke Revolution: Glee at Konami's Gamers' Day.   We have played other Karaoke Revolution titles in the past and quite enjoyed them, but we've never done so in public.  Our rule remained in full effect at Gamers' Day, something which saddened us, but we still took a moment to familiarize ourselves with the game and to listen to others belt out songs rather, well, gleefully.

The first thing anyone should know about this version of Karaoke Revolution is that it's a Wii-only title.  Yes, we've seen PS3 and Xbox 360 get other entries in the franchise, but apparently not this time out – if you want to sing Glee, you're gonna to need a Wii (Dear Nintendo and Konami, feel free to use that as a slogan.  No charge.).

The game itself is divided into several sections:  Quickplay, Shooting Star, Video Shuffle, and Scrapbook.  It was this last one that was on display, and from the Scrapbook menu there were several different characters we could choose… or, there will be in the final game, the only one available in the demo was Amber Riley's Mercedes Jones.  After selecting her, a whole bunch of song choices, including medleys, appeared (do we need to say that they were from Glee?), and once one of those was chosen the fun began. 

During the actual karaoke singing, the bottom of the screen carries the traditional Karaoke Revolution lyrics and notes, letting one see where they are and how the song should be sung.  The background, rather than being an avatar on a stage rocking out to the music, was the Glee cast singing the song as they did on the show.  The video quality itself wasn't outstanding, appearing something like a streaming show on Netflix – it wasn't bad, but there were definite compression artifacts.  Sing well and cute little icons appear on the screen in addition to your points going up.  Sing badly and you're liable to get the two-fingered "L" symbol or a slushie instead.  It was all very Glee oriented and amusing.

Those who were willing to show off their singing voices in public seemed to have a great time playing.  We even found ourselves quietly, under our breath, doing slightly more than just mouthing the words (although we'll deny we said that till our dying day).

As a television show, Glee did a good job in its first season of selecting a relatively eclectic mix of music, which means that there will be a pretty good variety of songs from which to choose in the title.  However, we are only looking at up to 35 songs in the game (the last Karaoke Revolution title released on the Wii had 50).  Whether that makes it feel a little bit limited or if the overall fun of the Glee experience wins out is something we won't know until we review the finished work.  Stay tuned, Gleeks!

Article first published as Konami's Gamers' Day: Karaoke Revolution: Glee on Blogcritics.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Testing the Pitch on Pro Evolution Soccer 2011

The first thing we did upon entering the space for Konami's Gamers' Day was take a spin around the room, checking out what there was to see and where we could quickly grab a controller and get started.  Upon completing our circle we found ourselves, as one would upon completing a circle, back where we began, which just happened to be right in front of free PS3 console running Pro Evolution Soccer 2011.

We weren't quite sure what to expect from the new PES 11, a game which hasn't garnered the same critical and fan response in recent years as EA's competing FIFA franchise, but not knowing what to expect was why we were there.  If we knew what the takeaway was going to be from every game, we wouldn't have bothered going to the event.  So, we grabbed the controller and were off to the races… er… match.

Bypassing the various league options, we jumped straight into an exhibition matchup as our beloved Manchester United and opted to stare down the threat of Real Madrid.  Prior to starting the actual matchup we were given a slew of options about tactics, formations, rosters, and stadium selection, etc.   It appeared to be an updated set of choices from what we've seen in the past, and there was nothing overt that we instantly felt should be there that wasn't.

Soon enough Man U. was taking to the pitch (as was Real Madrid, but they were the enemy, so we were less focused on them) in some pretty good pre-match cutscenes.  In fact, throughout the match the thing we were most impressed by were the replays and other extra animations – they looked really good, were spaced so that you never forgot they were there but they never intruded, and they made PES 11 feel almost like a TV broadcast.  The actual in-game graphics were less spectacular, with players sporting some jagged edges.  They weren't bad, they just weren't as smooth and noteworthy.

In terms of in-match gameplay (obviously the real reason to buy any title), PES 11 delivered.  The controls were, if not quite intuitive, easy to figure out.  A little meter just below the player with the ball helped us keep track of exactly how hard we were going to be hitting the ball and there were several types of passes/shots to choose from.  We are tempted to describe the passing as a tad difficult, but that's mainly because the game allowed us to send a pass just about anywhere we wanted; we weren't locked in to knocking it towards someone else.  That sounds great, but the end result of was that all too often we knew we had a player downfield but as he was off screen we couldn't tell exactly where we needed to place the pass and consequently either overshot or undershot our man. 

Essentially, it was a sort of passing freedom we weren't used to seeing in a soccer game, and only more time with it would truly let us know if it's something that is beneficial or detrimental.  Can one quickly learn to figure out where their guy will be and how to hit him or are folks going to repeatedly be sending passes into enemy hands (and with Real Madrid on the opposite side that's not the sort of thing you want to do)?

By the end of the match, Manchester United had one goal to Real Madrid's nil, which was certainly a satisfactory conclusion, and more importantly we were happy with how we got there.  To score our single goal we managed to put together a series of passes (they were all pretty close to one another) in something that resembled a pre-conceived strategy.  In short, we looked like a team.

In the final summation, it's correct to say that we were pleased with what we saw with Pro Evolution Soccer 2011.  There are some updated graphics, menus, and choices, and the entire package seems to be coming together quite well.  There is also an extensive online mode which sounds like a suped-up fantasy mode that also allows you to play games. We certainly look forward to getting our hands on the final version of the game and seeing how it all works out.

Article first published as Konami's Gamers' Day: Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 on Blogcritics.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Samus Aran Returns (Again) in Metroid: Other M

Often when I look at the cool toys today's youth gets to play with, I think of how great it must be to be a kid today.  It's a feeling only enhanced when I focus my sights on today's videogames.  Games today are so much more immersive, so much more seamless, and can truly be wonders to behold.  Perhaps though it was Sir Isaac Newton who explained that best by stating "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." 

One of the greatest videogame reveals ever – and something I distinctly remember learning for the first time – occurs in the original Metroid, when you find that this person who has been blasting their way through level after level, destroying everything in their path and folding up into a pretty sweet ball and dropping bombs is a girl.  Whether or not it should have struck anyone playing as a major reveal, I think, almost universally, it did and is a classic videogame moment.

Now, of course, everyone (at least everyone who plays videogames) knows the name Samus Aran and a lot of Samus' story.  Although the games in the franchise haven't followed a linear timeline (later titles have backtracked to earlier moments in the series, filling in blanks), we all have a decent idea of who this bounty hunter is, and is something we're now learning even more about.  The newest Metroid game, Metroid: Other M, while it may take place after the events of Super Metroid and before Metroid Fusion, does spend a lot of time telling us of Samus' backstory, and tying in the new bits fairly well with the old ones.

Rather than getting sent off on a mission at the beginning of this new title, Samus, still depressed over the events that occurred at the conclusion of Super Metroid (the game opens with a new cutscene depicting them), hears a distress signal which she follows to an old space station.  There, she meets up with some nice folks she knows from the Galactic Federation and is quickly off helping them get the systems up and running and generally figure out what's going on.  Plus, as you may have expected, the space station is full of baddies – some familiar, some new – just itching to be killed.  The specifics of that story though we're not going to ruin for you here, you'll need to play the game to learn exactly what's happening.

Developed by Team Ninja, Metroid: Other M is both very similar and very different from any other Metroid game you've played (or not played).  Unlike the Prime trilogy, Other M is not a first-person shooter… mostly.  Played solely with the Wii remote, the majority of the game is viewed from a third-person perspective as you make Samus run, jump, and roll in a ball in any which way you possibly can (and as well as the D-pad will let you) to advance to the next objective… mostly.  You see, while the above action takes place – and you can fire your beam weapon – by holding the Wii remote sideways, if you point the remote towards the screen, the game smoothly transitions to a first person perspective from which you can both fire your beam, examine objects (as one did in the Prime trilogy), and fire missiles. 

It is all pure genius.  Except for when it isn't.

While the transitions are smooth and it's a cool little trick, you can't actually move when in the first-person perspective.  You can turn your head (slowly), but you can't dodge an enemy attack (one of Samus' new tricks in this title) or roll into a ball or do anything but stand still and fire.  Not only that, but all too often you're going to find yourself switching into the first-person view and not looking anywhere near the direction you think you ought to be looking; take five seconds to orient yourself correctly and you'll likely find yourself having gotten smacked to the floor and knocked back into the third-person view.  It is true that the game does simply put you into the first-person perspective in the exact direction you were facing in the third-person one, but trying to lineup where you need to be facing in one to see what you want to see in the other is not all that easy.

Part of the problem with this may lie in the game's third-person view auto-targeting system.  It is a system which you're going to rely heavily on as there is no real way to manually target an enemy in the third-person. To target in third-person mode you just look in the general direction of the guy you want to fire at and the computer makes you hit them, but that doesn't help when there are a lot of enemies near one another or some high and some low – the game will choose who gets taken out in what order (and that doesn't always work out for you or Samus).  Consequently, you get used to Samus turning her gun towards an enemy in the third-person and find yourself left high and dry and turning your head slowly in the first.  You will also find yourself incredibly frustrated at first by the lack of missiles in third-person mode.

I won't spend a lot of time discussing the fact that lefties out there are going to need to break with Nintendo's suggestions (and the illustration shown at the opening of this title) for safe Wii use by, preferably, detaching the Wii remote's wrist strap from the remote or,  at the very least, simply not using the strap.  It is impossible to have the wrist strap on one's left hand with the remote held horizontally and if the strap is on the right hand it's impossible to utilize the remote in the left hand when pointed at the TV.  While you can leave the strap attached and not use it, that causes the strap to fling about, be quite annoying, and increase the amount of time it takes to reposition your hands when going back to third-person mode. 

Yes, that little bit of extra time it might take is a killer, and that's because Metroid: Other M is a fast-paced game.  Samus is fast, enemies are fast, all the action is fast.  It's the kind of title where you are probably going to find yourself dying repeatedly until you work out the exact right strategy for taking out the various baddies, and there are lots of baddies and lots of different strategies needed.

The game does slow down when Samus is exploring the environs, and that is a substantial portion of the title.  As is the rule with Metroid games, the environment is very large with plenty of rooms, lots of backtracking, and tons and tons of hidden secrets.  While you do go things somewhat linearly, there is almost always stuff to go back and collect later, once you have the proper equipment to do so, which does add to it.  The graphics are good if not outstanding and it is really and truly enjoyable to keep revisiting the same rooms over and over again, although it would be better if enemies didn't respawn almost every time you head back into a room you just left.  When you get lost – and it's entirely possible that you will as you figure out how to proceed to your next goal (there is a map with a handy-dandy ping to tell you where some bonuses are and where you ought to go) – spending the time to reclear a room over and over again as you search for the right next step can become monotonous. 

There are certainly other issues with the game, things that will cause you to yell in fury, things like Samus' utter instance on running into so many rooms.  Doesn't she know by now that when she runs into a room the door is going to close and lock behind her?  Apparently not, because she does so repeatedly, the doors lock repeatedly, and there will almost always be some creature who emerges from behind a wall or the ceiling or the floor to try to pound her to smithereens.  If she would only proceed with a modicum of caution through doorways she could save everyone so much trouble. 

However, the game overcomes all the above deficits and issues by creating a new Metroid title that feels like both an homage and something new and wonderful.  If you transported that little kid from 1986 who just had his mind blown learning that Samus was a woman to 2010 and sat him down in front of Other M, the game would be utterly recognizable and he would be able to progress smoothly in it.  Yet, it is a title that takes full advantage of the Wii's motion-sensing controller without making it feel like a gimmick. 

Metroid: Other M features tons of power-ups, oodles of hidden items, and more enemies than you can shake a power bomb at.  It has a great story, good production values (this marks the first time Samus has been given a voice), and good graphics and sound.  It may not be perfect, but it does prove that even if she's a girl, Samus Aran can hang with the big boys.

Metroid: Other M is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Animated Blood, Violence.

Article first published as Nintendo Wii Review: Metroid: Other M on Blogcritics.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A Quick Look at Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Out of all the vampire hunting heroes in the world, Reinhardt Schneider holds a special place in my heart.  Okay, fine, call me names, but I remember playing Castlevania on my Nintendo 64 over and over again so that I could get all the bonuses, see all the endings, do everything that could be done (yes I played the earlier ones too, but the N64 was the only one I felt the need to beat more than once).  I was in no way upset or disappointed that Reinhardt isn't the hero of Konami's latest Castlevania title, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, but it's hard for me to play a Castlevania title and not think of Reinhardt. 

In point of fact, Reinhardt may not be a bad guy to think about with Lords of Shadow as the new Castlevania title seems as though it may have very little to do with Castlevania.  Instead, it acts more as a standalone, separate piece, and as for that N64 version, it has been retconned out of the official lineage. 

So it was with Reinhardt in mind that I picked up a controller at Konami's Gamers' Day and got my first (and second) experience with Lords of Shadow.  I did have time to circle around to the title twice and got very different images of the game each time. 

The first time I found myself as Gabriel Belmont (to be fair I was Gabriel the second time too as he's the main character, but I digress), squaring off against a mammoth Titan half-stuck in ice, but not too stuck to send waves of the stuff crashing towards me, knocking me off my feet.  For reasons I was not privy too having picked up the game in the middle, I was battling this Titan on what seemed to be a frozen lake without any Castle Dracula to be seen.  Defeating him consisted of avoiding his blows and then climbing up his arm in order to destroy different specific squares on his body (they were lighted up all pretty like and the source of his power).  At least, it all started with the specific squares, I never got quite far enough to see how it ended before having to put down the controller.

More striking than the combat, which was most un-Castlevania like save for Belmont's whip and dagger use, was the quickly shifting, very dynamic camera, and the snow that kept pelting said camera.  It all looked great and Gabriel's outfit had a lot of detail, but where was Dracula? 

Well, even our second visit to the game didn't quite answer that question (except that perhaps not getting a specific answer may be an answer in and of itself), but we did get to play the beginning of the game during that trip.  The game opens in the year 1047 and features Gabriel Belmont showing up as a mysterious stranger in a dark, rainy village.  Though the villagers were wary of him, the werewolves who suddenly appeared made the villagers quickly turn their attention to other matters.  Being the hero and all, as Gabriel, I smote the werewolves with something akin to a chain whip that emanated from Gabriel's oversized cross.  This was done in fine fashion, with splattering blood, lots of jumps, and – I'll say this even though the idea didn't strike me at first, it was given to me by someone else and now I can't get it out of my head – acting an awful lot like a God of War we once knew.

As the demo progressed, each new section was prefaced by Patrick Stewart's voice, explaining to us a little about what Gabriel was up to (it turns out that his wife passed away and he's on a hunt for vengeance or redemption or to save the world or some good guy quest that's a combination of all those things).  There were horses to ride, grenades to grab and hurl back at enemies, and evil swamps to cross without hands grabbing us from the bottom and pulling us under.  It was all a lot for us to cope with, but cope we did until our time was up once more.

Walking away from the demo, I had two distinct thoughts that grappled with one another for supremacy in my mind – 1) boy, that was a great time and 2) ummm… why is this a Castelvania title?  The action was outstanding, it was easy to make Gabriel do some pretty spectacular moves, and the graphics were great.  Even though the camera shifted around, it never seemed to block what we wanted to see, and the light streaming through the tree canopy was almost mesmerizing.  But, while there was definitely an evil presence in the game and nefarious doings afoot, there didn't seem to be any reason for this to be Castlevania.  Where was the castle?  Where was Dracula (it couldn't even be definitively said that we were battling his minions)?  Medusa?  Any of the things we know and love about Castlevania save a guy named Belmont, a whip, and a dagger?

I do greatly look forward to get my hands on the game again, because I'm most definitely curious to see more.  I want to know if there is a reason for this to be Castlevania, if the combat continues to be compelling, and if all the boss battles work out quite as well as the one I saw.  It was exciting and thrilling and a little worrisome at the same time which may just make it the perfect tease to have shown at the event.

Article first published as Konami's Gamers' Day: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow on Blogcritics.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Finding Freedom with Deca Sports, Adrenalin Misfits, and the Kinect

Today we were lucky enough today to spend several hours in the basement of a New York City midtown hotel. Okay, that may not sound particularly lucky on the face of it, but this was actually a pretty nice hotel and what they had going on in the basement was something special.  In a room with dozens of televisions we got to sit back, relax, and play some of upcoming offerings from Konami and Hudson Soft. 

We ventured into a medieval forest in the newest Castlevania title, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.  We got to step into the ring with Lucha Libre: Heroes Del Ring.  We took to the pitch on Pro Evolution Soccer 2011.  We sung our hearts out with Karaoke Revolution: Glee.  We took a trip to Russia to rescue friends and stop baddies in Rush'N Attack: Ex-Patriot.  We even got to Kinect with some upcoming Xbox 360 titles. 

Over the course of the next week or so we'll be revealing more of what we saw in greater depth, but why should a single day pass without our giving you at least one or two highlights?

Well, if we're being honest (and we try to be), the thing that struck us the most was the Kinect, Xbox's not yet available motion sensing device.  First we saw it in use with Hudson's Deca Sports: Freedom.  The game is a combination of some previously released sports and new ones, but all redone for the Kinect, which is unlike anything we've seen before.  The device isn't just the Wii's motion-sensing controllers taken to the next level, the camera really does capture what you're body is doing and translate it (quickly) to the game.  Looking at the boxing and tennis offered by Freedom, one might get a bit of Wii Sports déjà vu, but that fact that you're not holding any sort of controller is something you can't forget.  You are not limited in your right jab because you just threw a left hook and the Wii remote's cord isn't long enough – you want to throw the punch, you throw the punch (and usually the system recognizes that you threw the punch).

When we slid over to Adrenalin Misfits, another Kinect title, all memories of the Wii (even with the Balance Board) disappeared.  Misfits, a sports title, is perhaps best described as talking place on a snowboard, except that the board isn't always on snow (we played not just on snow, but on water too).  Levels are selected by swiping one's hand to the left or right to make the menu scroll through the choices and then reaching out and pointing towards/grabbing at the one you want when it's front and center.  From there it's all about standing around looking like a fool to anyone who can't see the television as you lean this way and that, jump in the air and try to make yourself a little more aerodynamic (even if that really doesn't do anything). 

While we've all stood in the arcade on a massive machine that tracks our movement or at home on a Wii Balance Board, doing the same actions without any equipment is truly different and remarkable.  It makes us very excited for what can be done in the future.  The titles we saw that used it today were definitely intriguing and a great intro to the device, but the real question is what happens with the device down the line and that we're very curious to see.

Keep checking back in for more updates on the Konami's Gamers' Day.

Article first published as Konami's Gamers' Day: The Intro and the Kinect on Blogcritics.

Les Stroud Goes Beyond Survival

By now we are all well-versed in the ways of the indigenous-people-with-the-modern-world-encroaching documentary.  I in no way mean to suggest that the issue is an unimportant one, nor that it should in any way be minimized, simply that the manner in which such a story is told over the course of a one-hour television program has become rather standardized and often all too staid.  For me then, the big question when sitting down to watch a new entry into the genre is if the series is able to differentiate itself from they myriad of choices already available.

This week, Discovery Channel is premiering their newest series in this vein, Beyond Survival with Les Stroud.  The title itself is a play on Stroud's other Discovery Channel series, Survivorman, which features him getting dropped off in a remote location with nothing but clothes and cameras and, as the title would indicate, trying to survive.

In this new show, Stroud is traveling to the far corners of the world to meet indigenous tribes, learn something about their way of life, and their struggles to Photo Credit: Discovery Channelsurvive.  The premiere episode features him going to Sri Lanka to meet with two different groups both of which practice "devil dances," although they do so for different reasons.

As a piece on small, disappearing tribes, Beyond Survival is somewhat interesting.  Stroud is clearly incredibly fascinated by everything he's learning, soaking it all in and doing his best to truly become a part of the group that he is learning about.  In the premiere he goes as far as not only sitting on a thin stick over some water for hours on end to help fish, but getting himself moderately high on a tobacco leaf and betel nut concoction as well. 

It is in this latter moment that one sees a slightly different side to Stroud and what the show could be.  Rather than simply editing this segment in a straight manner, the producers have opted to use some slow-motion, almost making the viewer feel as though they have been overcome by the betel nut as well.  The scene is not wholly comically, instead the incident also shows a growing camaraderie between Stroud and the tribe and presents the group in a relaxed moment, showing them doing more than simply struggling to survive.
However, that moment is the exception and not the rule in Beyond Survival.  The majority of the piece plays out like a very standard documentary, even if the groups being discussed are ones we have not yet seen on television.  Stroud is invested enough in what he's doing and the tale he weaves is interesting, but there is little here – unless you are a fan of Stroud, a particular enthusiast of this type of documentary, or specifically interested in these Sri Lankan tribes – to entice new viewers. 

Matters are made moderately worse with Stroud's repeated use of a camera which he holds on a pole, often planting it on his hip so that he can film himself talking.  While it is the sort of thing that could prove occasionally useful in the show, it is over-utilized and also terribly distracting in the wide shot where we can see him holding it.  In one particular scene in the premiere (two scenes maybe as it's shown both in the cold open and the episode itself), Stroud is using his camera at night, almost in a faux-whisper as he discusses the nearby elephants and how he and the tribe are trying to be quiet and cautious.  Watching the moment unfold, one just wants to yell at Stroud to actually be quiet and pay attention to what's happening.  His talking seems either foolish and potentially dangerous (as though he's still high on betel nut) or that he's simply oversold what is taking place for the benefit of the viewer at home.  Whatever the case may be, if one wasn't tired of Stroud's pointing the camera at himself before that scene, they certainly will be after.

It is impossible to walk away from Beyond Survival with Les Stroud without feeling as though something will be lost when another indigenous tribe disappears forever.  The documentary is not so balanced as to fully discuss the reasons for the tribes' issues – and that is another shortcoming – but the story hear lies more with the tribes' lives than their deaths.  The stories told in the premiere are not uninteresting and Stroud does seem like a potentially fascinating man (why does he do what he does, how did he get into it, etc.), but the series itself has little to make it standout from a rather large field.

Beyond Survival with Les Stroud premieres on the Discovery Channel Friday, August 27 at 10pm.

Article first published as TV Preview: Beyond Survival with Les Stroud on Blogcritics.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Persons Unknown - The Missing Episode Found

I am, as I know I've stated in the past, a fan of serialized television.  I like being able to come back to a show week after week, month after month, (hopefully) year after year, and watch things unfold.  I'm always curious about where a show may be heading, what ideas the producers have, and if the producers have maintained a constant vision for the show – if they've had an idea from the beginning of where they would be by the end.

It is because I am such a fan of serialized television that I tend to think twice before embarking on a new serialized show.  There are questions that must be asked.  Do I think that the show has a chance or that I'll be massively disappointed when it just disappears?  Are the characters and story the sort of characters and story I want to stick with for an extended period?  Do I have faith in the producers?  In the actors?  In the network?  What else am I watching in that time period?  Now, I don't need all the answers to fall into the right boxes, there is a careful sort of calculus that takes place. 

This summer, that calculus led me to watch Persons Unknown.  I figured that NBC would stick with the series even if the numbers weren't good because, hey, it's the summer, what else are they going to throw on?  The numbers weren't good and the show got punted to Saturday nights, but I have a TiVo so that didn't matter and I stuck with it.  I stuck with it to the point that when the NY Giants had a preseason football game on the local NBC affiliate this past Saturday night, I hunted down the series on one of NBC's digital feeds and recorded it there (something I'll be doing again this coming Saturday night). 

Sadly for me, this time out my faith has not been fully rewarded.  While I am intrigued by the plot and some of the characters, NBC has opted to not bother airing all the episodes that they have.  The network did promise all summer long that they would finish the season – that our questions would be answered – but they're going to get to that finale next week by skipping an episode.  This past weekend we got episode 10 and next weekend we get episodes 12 and 13.  It doesn't take a very astute person to figure out that, sequentially, an episode must be missing and that disappoints me mightily.  It just doesn't seem right to do that. 

If you're one of the few other people out there watching Persons Unknown, while you may be as equally disappointed as I, all hope is not lost.  NBC has placed the "missing"  11th episode of the series on their website.  Not having seen it yet, I have no idea at this point how relevant said episode is to the conclusion, but as a lot has taken place over the last few weeks, I wouldn't be particularly surprised if it is an exceedingly important episode… at least, important if one wants to understand all that takes place in the finale. 

I will admit that I'm happy that NBC won't simply be throwing that episode in on the DVD release, in this day and age of streaming video that would seem completely wrong, but still have trouble imagining that they couldn't have worked out a way to air it on the network. 

In case you're displeased with NBC to the point where you don't wish to go to their website to view the episode, it's embedded below.

Article first published as Persons Unknown and the Missing Episode on Blogcritics.

Friday, August 20, 2010

AMC's Mad Men and Rubicon - Two Summer Standouts

My internal calendar has informed me that the new television season is right around the corner.  Okay, fine, it's less my internal calendar and much more the fact that the original cable series I'm watching this summer are promoing upcoming episodes using phrases like "only two episodes left in the most explosive season ever," or "the hottest original super-specified ultra-sub-genre series with six female leads and three males who appear in alternating episodes every third week to ever air between 8:12 and 8:17 on a cable network that specializes in a completely and totally different super-specified ultra-sub-genre is about to finish the summer third of its eighth-and-a-half season."  Which is all to say that I don't understand the ways in which television shows our promoted. 

However they may be promoted, the truth of the matter is that I'm definitely going to miss a bunch of the shows that I've been watching this summer.  I'm not in love with the fact that there's so much less on during the summer, but I definitely feel as though the choices are vastly improved from what existed when I was but a wee lad.

One of my current favorite summer series is also a brand-new one, Rubicon.  Airing after AMC's brilliant Mad Men, Rubicon is a conspiracy theory show that, much like Mad Men, seems willing to take time to tell its story rather than rush headlong into anything.  It isn't that nothing happens on either series, it's much more that both shows appear to be far more interested in telling a good story — allowing it to develop organically, creating the right feel, and getting what they want from the actors — than promoting action for the sake of action.  I think that's even more refreshing over the summer when it feels as though shows try to convince people to watch solely by promoting all the crazy excitement that is going to occur.  It's good television instead of flashy television, and it has made for the best two hour block of shows on this summer.

A lot of the kudos also have to go to the series' respective stars, Jon Hamm (Mad Men) and James Badge Dale (Rubicon).  I am not suggesting that both men play the same character, or that both go about their craft in the same manner, but both men have helped create fully three-dimensional figures. 

Don Draper is not always the most likable of characters - he does some rotten things — and Hamm never seems to shy away from those moments.  Watching Mad Men, you can definitely end up being angry or disappointed at this clearly fallible man.  There are moments when you can excuse his behavior for various reasons, but not every time, and those are some of Hamm's best moments. 

As for Dale, his Will Travers is still something of an enigma — we don't yet know what is happening inside of him, what he feels about his new position, how the loss of his family has affected him, and his exact opinions about his work.  Yet, watching Dale as Travers, all those things and many more seem to be percolating just beneath the surface.  While I have concerns that the producers of Rubicon may not have exactly figured out the conspiracy and the answers to all of our questions about Will Travers, watching Dale, those concerns melt away.  Even when Travers isn't confident about what he's doing, Dale appears very self-assured in the role and is a pleasure to watch. 

I do greatly look forward to start of the new television season, but at the same time I'm disappointed that as the season draws ever more near so do the finales of Mad Men and Rubicon.  Those shows did start later than most summer fare and consequently will run further into the new season, but certainly not long as long as I'd like.

Article first published as Summer Television: Mad Men and Rubicon on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ugly Betty: The Fourth and Final Season Makes its DVD Debut

For the past four Summers I have looked forward to the week every August when a new Ugly Betty complete season hits DVD.  I have never been head over heels in love with the series, but I certainly have greatly enjoyed watching it which certainly means something.

On the face of it, the story of Betty Suarez (America Ferrera) is an incredibly relatable one – she is the proverbial ugly duckling, trying to figure out where she belongs.  Betty is an incredibly good, kind, generous pePhoto Credit:  © ABC Studios. All Rights Reserved.rson who is pursuing her dream of becoming a writer.  By sheer happenstance, when the series begins she finds herself working for Daniel Meade (Eric Mabius), the Editor-in-Chief at MODE, a fashion magazine and definitely not Betty's forte.  However, over the course of the four seasons of Ugly Betty, she not only finds her place at MODE, she thrives there, so much so that she has some difficulty this season with the concept of possibly moving on to bigger and better things.

In essence, the majority of the fourth season, for Betty, is about whether or not she is ready to spread her wings and fly or if, just perhaps, MODE is the right place for her after all.  This basic question is asked repeatedly through the season as Betty starts a blog in one episode, is offered a job in another, and finally has to make a decision about her place in the series finale.

It was decided early enough during the season that Betty would not return for a fifth year that the producers had ample time to end the story of Betty, her co-workers, and her family in the way they wanted.  With television shows this can be both a blessing and a curse - the producers' goals may or may not come across on screen and fans may or may not accept what the producers had in mind.

In some cases on Betty, as with Betty's nephew, Justin (Mark Indelicato), the producers have done a fantastic job.  Over the course of the series Indelicato and Justin have been one of the most fun elements of Betty's life in Queens.  Heading into this season, Justin, while having all of what would be considered the stereotypical hallmarks of being gay, had never openly announced his sexuality although hPhoto Credit:  © ABC Studios. All Rights Reserved.is family certainly made assumptions.  Justin's sexuality is a recurring theme throughout this season and one that feels very well considered and written.  Indelicato perfectly portrays the indecision, the fear, and the worry that someone in the character's shoes may have and any episode which spends more time on him in season four is a good one.

Other storyline-wrapping instances fare far less well.  It is not going into too much detail to say that during the entire series Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa Williams) has done her best to get her hands on Meade Publications, the company that owns MODE.  Her schemes this season are just as well thought out as in the past, but the final payoff and the way her story and that of Claire Meade (Judith Light) ends is less than satisfying.  In fact, part of the storyline seems to simply vanish in the last episode.

Still other moments in the final few episodes make it feel as though the series simply had too much time to wrap up, with old, discarded, unnecessary characters being trotted out for one last little tale whose time could have been better spent elsewhere (and it is very noticeable that Rebecca Romijn did not return to reprise her role as Alexis Meade).  The same is certainly true of an episode that does a mini take on It's a Wonderful Life.

Fans will be happy to know that Tony Plana, Ana Ortiz, Becki Newton, and Michael Urie are all back for the final season.  Most of the characters do get recurring sPhoto Credit:  © ABC Studios. All Rights Reserved.torylines this season, although Tony Plana – as Betty's father – is noticeably left out in this regard.  Newton and Urie as Amanda Tanen and Marc St. James respectively are still (as I think I have mentioned every year) two of the standouts in the series.  More time is devoted to Marc this season than Amanda, but both have their moments and both appear together on the DVD extras in "MODE After Dark" which features the two having fun at the MODE offices and a short featurette about the cast's trip the Bahamas.

Perhaps because this is the last season and people simply wanted to move on, but the extras that come as a part of it are noticeably minimalistic.  There is a commentary track, provided by Indelicato and Urie, on a single episode; the only featurette is the look at the cast going to the Bahamas (the episode associated with that trip plays out like a big advertisement for the resort at which they stay); a blooper reel; and some deleted scenes.  It would have been exceptionally nice to hear the producers and cast spend some time discussing the evolution of the series, the characters, and their thoughts on Ugly Betty's conclusion.  The lack of such a featurette is both perplexing and disappointing.  The fact that the first two discs contain nothing but deleted scenes as special features but are each organized differently is just weird.

I still do not believe that I would have enjoyed watching Ugly Betty on a weekly basis, there would have been too great a lag between the setup of some of the plots and the payoff.  However, I am convinced that next August will be slightly more depressing without a new boxed set to which I can look forward.

Article first published as DVD Review: Ugly Betty - The Complete Fourth and Final Season on Blogcritics.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

My DVD Shelf as a Picture Album

I have, as I think all people should, a semi-extensive DVD collection.  I'd actually argue that it's not terribly extensive – it doesn't come anywhere near equaling what is available – but others would say that once you get somewhere in mid-hundreds it's a pretty solid affair.  I love the collection, I won't say that I wouldn't trade it for anything (life seems more important than some DVDs), but I do love it.

What always distresses me with the DVDs however is that I simply don't have enough to sit down and watch as many as I'd like.  I have watched all of them at some point or another, but I just don't get the chance to revisit them on anything resembling a regular basis.  I dream of one day, when I'm in my mid-60s, setting aside a few months (or a year) just to kick back, relax, and watch some great movies (and TV shows).  Of course, by then DVDs (and Blu-rays which I'm including as part of the collection) will have gone the way of the Dodo.  It's a distressing thing to think about, and yet I'm quite convinced that before I retire I won't have the chance to fulfill this dream of watching them all again (either chronologically or alphabetically). 

Why do I mention this?  Well, my DVDs are currently packed away with the rest of my stuff at a moving company's warehouse and I miss them.  Out of all the things the movers currently have, they're what I miss the most.  I don’t think it's actually me being overly materialistic, almost all of those movies holds some great memory. 

When I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in the theater I had to go to the bathroom in the middle.  Whenever I watch the movie now, I pay just a little bit more attention than I otherwise might and it still vexes me that I've seen that minute and a half fewer times than the rest of the film.  I know exactly where I was the first time I heard of James Bond, where I was when I watched my first Bond film, and what film it was.  I can tell you all about my going to see Back to the Future, Tron, Bull Durham, Pulp Fiction, and a myriad of other movies.

When I see my film collection, when my eyes run over the titles in it, those thoughts and so many more  come rushing back.  They are a hook on which I hang so many memories, so many small details about my life – like when The Little Mermaid got rereleased and we went to see it the night before my Spanish final and couldn't get a cab back from the theater which was in the middle of nowhere (I still did pretty well on the test).

Now that my daughter is starting to watch some of my DVDs it is as though I'm experiencing so many favorites again for the first time.  Seeing Disney's Robin Hood (which we used to see on rainy days at summer camp) now, I can't help but get caught up in the excitement of the archery tournament, watching old episodes of The Muppet Show I remember how terrified I was of the Alice Cooper one and look for any hint in my daughter's eyes that she might be a tad scared of it.

I do wish I had more photographs around to flip through and think about, but for me, looking at my DVDs sitting up there on a shelf works just as well.

Article first published as DVDs and Memories on Blogcritics.

Friday, August 13, 2010

More may be on Soon

Sometimes I feel like the world has my back (not always, but sometimes).  Earlier this week I wrote up a little ditty all about programming and how it didn't seem to matter how many channels I had there was, quite regularly, nothing on.  I mentioned that there was some free on demand programming but that my TiVo, with its CableCARDs, didn't have access to said programming.

Well, they still don't, but the good news being reported today is that Cox Communications and TiVo have made an agreement to allow on demand access to folks with the TiVo Premiere box.  Now if I only had a TiVo Premiere (I have plans to get one) and Cox (I don't know where I'd have to live to get that) one of my fondest wishes would be fulfilled.

What really excites me about this is the possibility that other companies will follow suit – there seems to be little (if any) technical limitations to the problem, just corporate ones.  I'm not sure if those are harder to fix, but I have my fingers crossed.

Article first published as Still Nothing on, but More is Coming on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I Have how Many Channels? Why is There Nothing on?

I cannot lie to you, from where I sit (on the sofa with remote in hand) I tend to have one thought when I watch television – more.  That's right, more.

I know, I currently have a few hundred channels, but I ask you, is that really enough?  Can a few hundred channels ever truly satiate one's desire?  Plus, as has been pointed out repeatedly, we all may have a few hundred channels but there's never anything on.  Seriously, if soap operas and talk shows aren't your thing, where are you going to go for quality programming at 2:30 on a summer afternoon?

Don't give me any of your ridiculous answers like "go outside and play" or "try a book."  I read regularly; currently I'm in the middle of And Another Thing… which will be followed up with Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (and don't kid yourself, they do).  As for going outside, I do that too and I promise you that one day I will break 100 over the course of 18 holes.  My point, however, is that I believe that in this day and age there should never be a moment when I turn on the television and there isn't something on that I want to see.

We are, I think, progressing in the right direction, but we're not there yet. 

The TiVo unquestionably has greatly enriched all our lives – it ensures that you can record the late movie and watch it the next afternoon without having to see the myriad of 976 commercials that interrupt it every eight minutes and it even suggests other shows that you might enjoy (although those suggestions regularly leave something to be desired).  Beyond that, as I discussed a few months ago, the TiVo has become an excellent device for streaming other media – it integrates beautifully with Amazon on Demand and Netflix. 

While that does make things better, there is one rather large fly in the ointment with the Amazon and Netflix offerings – I have to pay for them.  I already spend more than I care to think about on cable, why should I pay more for these other streaming services?  Where does my $100 a month go with the cable (or satellite, or FIOS, or…) company?  To a whole bunch of channels that I will never, ever use. 

Cable does offer a lot of on demand stuff, but much of it I would – again – have to pay for.  The (and I'm using a ballpark figure here) $100 per month a pay to cable gets me… the ability to spend more so that I can watch what I want when I want.  Yes, cable does have some free on demand, and if cable and TiVo could make it so that said on demand was usable on an HD TiVo that would be pretty swell, but currently it doesn't work and I'm not sure it ever will.

But, before I stray too far, back to those hundreds of channels I don't, and never will, watch.  I am in no way arguing for an a la carte cable system here, one that could potentially save me more than enough to offset the cost of Netflix and Amazon on Demand (although Amazon does need to work out an unlimited rental policy).  The question of a la carte pricing is for wiser minds than mine to answer.  Compelling cases have been put forward on both sides of the argument and I don't know where I come down. 

What I'm saying is that if I can get seven different 24 news channels why can't I get one 24 hour best of the '90s sitcoms channel (no, that's not what TV Land is)?  If I get more than a half-dozen home shopping channels why don't I get one that does nothing but show old episodes of Doctor Who (the show was on for decades, I think it could be done).

Those may not be the best of examples ever, but I find myself continually amazed that I can have so many offerings, love television so much, and still have nothing to watch.

So let me throw it out there, what channel would you like to see?

Article first published as Hundreds of Channels, Still Nothing On on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Wii! It's Madden 11

The Nintendo Wii, as we all know, cannot compete, graphically speaking, with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.  As we have been told plenty of times, Nintendo's idea was to create a more fun experience for everyone; to create a system where everyone could simply pick up a controller and play.  While I don't believe it has been a successful endeavor in every genre across the board, almost without exception I would rather play a sports game on my Wii than on any other system.  The Wii, with its motion-based play is able to approximate sports moves exceedingly well, which adds a little bit extra to my enjoyment level.

With the Madden franchise over the past few years, EA Tiburon has made a very overt decision to not have the Wii edition of the game remotely attempt to look like the PS3 or 360 editions.  The graphics on the Wii version are exceedingly cartoonish and with very exaggerated features.  It feels like a choice made to remove the ability to compare the Wii edition with the others rather than an attempt to play to the Wii's strengths and circumvent its weaknesses.  The graphics look good for the Wii, but are definitely not the game's strong suit.

While online play, mini-games, Madden Showdown, Huddle Up, and Road to the Super Bowl all return as modes this year, the heart and soul of Madden – and one place where this year's version is quite good (and revamped) – is in the Franchise mode.  It is here where any serious player of the game will spend the majority of their time – building a franchise, playing week to week, and seeing the dollars and trophies roll on in through the years.  Very importantly, and unlike last year's version of the game, you do not have to unlock the Franchise mode by doing other things in the game first – Franchise mode is placed front and center just like it ought to be.

The new Franchise mode now provides you and your chosen team with a campus and several advisors to tell you about the different aspects of the franchise (fans, money, team, and an assistant to keep the advisors out of your hair).  Each advisor sets a goal at the beginning of the season (have such-and-such a record by year's end, have "x" number of fans visit the stadium, net "y" dollars).  You won't instantly lose the franchise mode if you don't hit your advisors goals, but your campus gets prettier if you make them and you won't risk getting fired.  The game also tracks your long term progress in the mode with the goal of creating the best franchise of all time. 

Your campus consists of four separate areas.  First, there is the stadium, where the games take place and you can check the standings and schedule.  Next, there is the hall of fame, which allows you to view the expectations, check your legacy score (which is how you know where you stack up all-time), and look at your awards and the upcoming Pro Bowl.  Third up is the front office, which as the name suggests allows you to make all your front office roster, franchise, and gameplay settings decisions.  Lastly, there is the practice facility where you can try out plays and players and tweak your playbook and philosophy.

One of the main innovations you'll see this year outside of the Franchise mode – and certainly the most loudly proclaimed one – is "GameFlow."  GameFlow is a system of situational playcalling wherein you can either have the game call a play for you or choose from an extremely pared down selection of runs, short passes, long passes, and special teams plays (four of each).  The selection can be tweaked prior to the game and certainly ought to be as not doing so can lead to downs where all four of the runs you are allowed to choose from are variations on the draw, a terribly frustrating experience if you and your back are more fans of the outside. 

Essentially, GameFlow is like an expanded version of the old "Ask Madden."  It works, and you're not limited to using it (see below).  All in all, it feels like a good tweak to the old system, and the fact that with some work it is customizable really helps.  The two biggest issues with it being turned on is that your playbook is instantly cut back even if you don't choose to go with the auto-call and that if you take too long to select whether you want the GameFlow play or to call your own, the choice is made for you (GameFlow it is).

Conventional playcalling (as well as a simplified arcade playcalling setup) is still available as well, although it doesn't seem to be possible in conventional mode to set the menu to allow you to choose from various run and pass categories as opposed to having to choose from different formations.  Switching from one formation to another can rapidly deplete the play clock and be frustrating if you're the kind of player who thinks "well, I know I want to run the ball, but what kind of run do I want."

Gameplay itself unfolds exactly as you would expect from Madden on the Wii.  You can again opt to go with either simplified, arcade, controls or the expanded, conventional, ones and within those selections you can choose to either pass by pointing at the receiver and throwing or the more traditional method of selecting a receiver via one of the buttons and then throwing.  The graphics are little bit improved from last year and there are updated stadiums and uniforms. 

Whether or not the cartoony look that EA Tiburon has gone for the past couple of seasons works for you individually and whether you prefer a traditional controller setup and better graphics or not, the basic problem with Madden NFL 11 on the Nintendo Wii is that it feels almost unfinished.  Some menus require that you point with your Wii Remote and click, others give you the choice of using the D-pad or pointing, and still others only allow for the D-pad to be used.  Scrolling left-to-right to see a player's or a team's stats can be exceptionally frustrating depending on how large your TV is and how far you are from it. 

Beyond the controlling of movement in the menus though, the in-game experience is just a little lacking as well.  The biggest of these issues lies in the all-too-often occasion when you'll swear that you swung your arm up in the exactly correct fashion to give a decent if not spectacular kick, but the game will merely register your pushing of the button to initiate the kick and no swing (which provides force to the kick) whatsoever.

There are also issues in terms of playcalling.  If, while on offense, you see the defense come to the line and you decide to flip the play or call an audible, odds are you'll hit button to make the change too soon and all the choices will be grayed out.  Close the menu and then return and all the choices will be accessible, but you'll have wasted a few seconds on the play clock waiting for the game to catch up to you and that should never happen.  If you can see the defense and your players are, or nearly are, set you should be able to audible.

As another example, the net that catches field goals rises beautifully before an attempt, but it magically disappears after the attempt every single time.  If you are going to go to the trouble of making the net go up instead of just being there after selecting to go for a field goal why not have it go down as well?    

Additionally, there are a coupling of niggling problems with the commentary, delivered this year by Gus Johnson and Chris Collinsworth.  While we all know to expect a great deal of repeated phrases from our play-by-play and color commentators, Collinsworth suggesting that a 21 point lead is a "one-score game" is – if my understanding of how points are scored in football is in any way reality-based – ludicrous.  That's certainly not Collinsworth's fault, but it makes you hate him just a little bit when you have the game well in hand and he's jabbering on about how the computer can catch up by scoring some magical 21 point play.

These issues are all, on the whole, small things and the exact same sort of problem we've gotten used to seeing in Madden over the years.  However, that does not make them less distressing. 

GameFlow is the sort of addition that fans of the series will debate endlessly, and makes for a perfect selling point for the game ("this year we've completely revamped the way playcalling takes place!").  I, however, think that the game of football that Madden puts out on a yearly basis is a ton of fun and don't need to be convinced to buy the new version so I can get whatever difference they're putting forward from year to year.  Some of the changes are good and some of them are less than good, but I what I want is for it feel finished, to feel polished.  Rather than including tons of new animations for different things (and they did this year), fix the animations that are currently there (or not there, like the magical disappearing net).  The new animations look good, but they only make the problems with the old ones more glaring.

All of that being said, I still would probably buy this year's version over last year's.  The facelift Franchise mode has been given is fun, much like the rest of the game allowing for depth for those who want it and letting those who simply want to play season after season do that too (the advisors are largely ignorable if you win your games).  GameFlow isn't perfect, you do need to spend time customizing your play choices if you want to really use it successfully which kind of goes against the accessibility thing EA promotes.  However, I look forward to seeing how it gets tweaked down the line, it isn't great, but it hints at possible greatness in the future. 

Madden is the football videogame, it has been for years and still is.  The choices players have may be expanding with some new NFL- and NCAA-based titles, but Madden is not just the granddaddy of them all, it can still hang with the kids.

Madden 11 is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB. This game can also be found on: PS2, PS3, PSP, Xbox 360 and Mobile Phone.

Article first published as Nintendo Wii Review: Madden 11 on Blogcritics.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Rethinking Alex O'Loughlin and Looking at Some TV Pilots

About a week ago I wrote an article about the upcoming Fall television shows which intrigued me and what I was planning to put on my TiVo list.  I have now had the opportunity to sit down and watch several more of the pilots.  While this is certainly not a review (that's right, it's the disclaimer) – things can certainly change from the screeners that have been sent out to the time when series actual air – they are general impressions based on the way the show currently stands.

I'll say this right off the bat because there are many out there who will gloat about it, but the first show that I sat down to watch last week was Hawaii Five-0.  Yes, the Alex O'Loughlin starring Hawaii Five-0; the Hawaii Five-0 that I said I was interested in but was very concerned about it due to its aforementioned star.  I freely admit to enjoying the pilot, enjoying it a lot.  I would argue that there were a few too many shoot-outs over the course of the single episode (no fewer than four serious gun battles take place) but those are probably pretty expensive and I think we can expect the number in future episodes to go down dramatically.

I also don't mind saying that by the end of the episode I had almost completely forgotten my dislike of O'Loughlin – he was good in the series, funny when he needed to be, serious when he needed to be, and generally enjoyable.  The rest of the cast – Grace Park, Daniel Dae Kim, and Scott Caan – was also quite good.  The four actors certainly clicked as an ensemble right off the bat.  Hawaii Five-0 is definitely going on my TiVo list (happy O'Loughlin fans, the man has made my TiVo).

Another show that I was almost sure would be on my TiVo I felt less interested in after watching it, namely, Blue Bloods.  The Tom Selleck starrer was an enjoyable enough pilot where I'll be willing to go and check out another couple of episodes to see how it develops, but I didn't enjoy it the way I did Hawaii Five-0

The showrunner, Ken Sanzel has (perhaps) left the series.  We are told, he and Selleck didn't see eye-to-eye, but that doesn't particularly affect my opinion of this first episode as Sanzel came in after it was made. 

My biggest issue with the series is that I wasn't sure what there was for me to care about.  I know what the show wanted me to care about with each of the members of Selleck's brood, but I wasn't sure what I was actually going to care about as the show continued.  Additionally, they unveiled towards the end of the pilot what felt like an unnecessarily dark and potentially odd long-term story.  The show may be able to have things gel and to create characters that I care more about, but a lot of that is going to hang on the balance they strike between procedural- and character-based drama and that is, according to reports, what Sanzel and Selleck battled over.  Not being the biggest fan of procedurals, I would side on the character-based approach (Selleck's in the reports), but for that to work I'll need to actually care about the characters.  In the pilot I only enjoyed Selleck's chief and Donnie Wahlberg's Danny and even those guys I was on the fence about.

I checked out a bunch of other series as well, including Outsourced and Mike and Molly.  Neither of those pilots did anything to allay the fears I expressed last week.  Outsourced did manage to have one great laugh out loud moment early on, but it was only something I laughed at because, having been to India, I knew exactly what he was talking about.  If the show has to rely on "if you've been there you'll know this to be true and our take on it to be funny" humor they could be in trouble.  But, I did laugh, which means it will go on my TiVo.

Keep checking back as the new television season draws near, there will be plenty more things to discuss.

Article first published as A Closer Look at Some TV Pilots on Blogcritics.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

My Desire to see Games and ISPs Play Nice

Often when I finish reviewing a game it marks one of the last times I'll ever pick the title up again – not always, but often.  If I do play the game again, rarely does it find its way into some sort of regular rotation, and even more rarely do I end up liking a game even more than when I initially reviewed it, especially when all I'm doing is attempting to get ever closer to that elusive 100 percent completion.

Activision's kart racing with real cars game, Blur, is one of those exceptionally few and far between titles that I have found myself playing for nearly two months beyond when my review went live.  It is true that I was driving across the country for a week and a half in the middle of those two months, but the absence certainly did make my heart grow fonder.  I may have finished all the leveling up possible in the single player mode, but I hadn't gotten all the lights, nor I had finished my progress in the game's excellent online multiplayer mode. 

And that, my friends, is where the problem lies.  Over the course of the past three weeks every time, save one, that I've attempted to sign on to the Blur game servers the connection has failed.  Being signed into the PlayStation Network, Blur claiming that it was successfully able to go online to check for updates (or at least not complaining that it couldn't when it tried to look for updates), and the fact that there has been no change to my personal network setup since my last successful sign on to the servers makes me believe that the issue does not lie on my end.  However, with internet connections and firewalls and ports and routers and any number of things potentially causing the problem, who can really say.  A quick Google search also indicates that I'm not the only one to repeatedly have issues connecting but again that doesn't mean that it lies on their end.

As I anxiously await an update from the PR people for Activision, it struck me that perhaps this is something of a larger problem with internet connected games.  Every time you finish a race in Blur, the game wants to connect to the servers and when it can't spits back an error and that is exceptionally annoying. 

It is my personal hope that the Blur server is simply overtaxed, that too many people are trying to login and play the game (and it is worth playing) and that one day I will turn the game on and it will work in all its glory once more.  But, no matter where the fault lies, it certainly makes me think twice about internet connected, and internet required, titles.  

Whether or not the fault is on my end – and again my internet settings haven't changed since the last time the game worked – it will require (and I've already spent) hours trying to figure it out. 

Isn't this a place we've all been?  Will my internet service provider help?  Yes, provided you can give them all the right information.  Will the game publisher help provide the necessary information?  Yes to the extent that they can if they know what the issue might be (and in Activision's case they have definitely posted which ports need to be opened if that is an issue anyone out there is having).  But, what happens when you run into the inevitable situation where one company won't do what's require to help the other or where each blames the other?  Will they get on a conference call with you and try to work it out?  Wouldn't that be swell?  No, in the end, you're going to spend hours on end on hold with each company waiting to talk to a tech and explain the problem from the beginning each time you are sent ping-ponging back and forth between the ISP and publisher.

There has to be a better way.

Don't ask, I have no idea what that better way might be, but there has to be one.  Doesn't there?  All I know is that I want to play more Blur online. 

Article first published as Getting Your Videogame and ISP to Play Nice on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Top Gear - Season Five, Alive

About a month and a half ago (maybe a little more, but I'm not sure why that would be relevant) I sat on an airplane listening to two individuals behind me discussing their problem with BBC America. They said that while enjoyed many of the shows on the network they felt that all too often when they turned it on, Top Gear was airing.

I know, that's completely crazy, isn't it? Why should it ever be an issue to watch an episode of Top Gear, even, perhaps, the same episode of Top Gear over and over again. Unless you're a true gear head there is simply no way that you can possibly remember all the facts and figures the show gives you about the cars they're testing out, so there's always something for you to learn no matter how many times you watch an episode. And, if you are a gear head, I can't imagine that you'd ever turn down the chance to watch anything about cars – particularly the wide variety of cars that they routinely examine on the series.

I bring all this up because, if you didn't know, BBC America is currently airing new-to-you episodes of the series. Well, they're new to the States anyway, and therefore, I assume, new to you. BBC America has dug back into the archives and is currently showing season five of the series. Personally, I really look forward to the moment when they finally work they're way backwards to season one, just so I can see how the new series began, but that isn't to say that I'm not truly enthused with season five.

There are plenty of people, and there are moments when I might count myself among them, who are constantly perturbed by the fact that we get shows from across the pond month and/or years late. However, in the case of season five of Top Gear, I think it actually makes for a fascinating study. Season five of Top Gear was originally broadcast in England in the Fall of 2004. So when Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond take a look at cars – more so the average cars for regular old human beings, but not entirely – and suggest which car is better than another (last night they particularly liked the redesigned Ford Focus), we have the opportunity to look and see whether they're pick actually managed to be the better car for more than a month after it was driven off the lot.

As another example, and this time I am going to use a supercar even though I said that tended to be less interesting, last night the guys looked at the Ferrari Enzo which managed to post the fastest power lap time (that's not a spoiler even if you haven't seen the episode – it originally aired six years ago). Discussing the time, Clarkson said that they had talked about it and couldn't imagine another car on the road or even soon to be on the road that might be faster except for the Bugatti Veyron, which they still described as only potentially existing in the future. We all know at this point that the Bugatti Veyron does exist and, if you've watched later episodes of Top Gear, you may even know how it fared when it went around the track (that I won't spoil for you).

So, again, I'd have to argue that the folks behind me on the airplane were just plain wrong. Be it a new but old episode, a repeat, or completely brand-spanking new, I'd argue that Top Gear is always a worthwhile investment of one's time. Frankly, I'd say more about it, but I have an episode on my iPhone that I haven't seen in a week and a half and it's calling to me.

Article first published as Top Gear - Old Episodes, Good Times on Blogcritics.