Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fantasia & Fantasia 2000 Explode Onto Blu-ray

One of the complaints against Disney is that the films, books, television shows, etc., that they produce are all strictly low brow, that the company doesn't have any ambitions to produce great works of art, merely commercially successful ones.  Perhaps the perfect counterpoint to that argument is Walt Disney's Fantasia.  The film combines classical pieces of music with animated segments, and while it unquestionably has some whimsy to it, it doesn't feel as though it is perfectly suited to mass low brow viewing, some of the animations are distinctly abstract and do not lend themselves to easy consumption.

It is explained quite clearly up front in the film that the animations depicted to go along with the pieces of music are not what the composers intended, but rather what the songs inspired in the Disney artists.   Consequently the result is a film that looks vastly different from one segment to the next – as stated, some are© Disney. All Rights Reserved. purely abstract animations whereas others are story driven. 

Virtually without a doubt, the most famous of the pieces in Fantasia is "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," based on Paul Dukas' piece of the same name.  This is the classic Mickey adventure that virtually everyone knows – Mickey is an apprentice to a Sorcerer (Yen Sid), and when tasked with cleaning, opts to use the Sorcerer's hat to animate some brooms to do the work for him.  Things go awry and Mickey nearly drowns in the resulting flood before the Sorcerer returns to save the day.

Of course, there are other incredible and incredibly memorable pieces included in Fantasia as well.  Things such as Amilcare Ponchielli's "La Gioconda: Dance of the Hours" which features tutu-ed hippos dancing alongside alligators.  There is also the combination of Modest Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" with Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria" to end the film.  The opening portion of the segment is notably disturbing for a Disney film, featuring all manner of evil creatures rising before the day comes and they retreat once more. 

Each piece in the film is introduced and setup for the audience, a great idea to help situate viewers.  As described in one of the bonus features, it also helps "cleanse the palette" between the pieces which are all vastly different from one another.

As has oft been documented, one of Walt Disney's ideas with Fantasia is that it could be rereleased constantly, with new musical segments replacing old ones.  Perhaps unfortunately, that never happened.  A sequel was however produced, Fantasia 2000, and that has been included in this new Blu-ray set as well.  Fantasia 2000 is notably shorter than the original, and certainly more accessible to kids as well.  The abstract pieces are missing from the film, replaced instead with those more of the story-based ilk.  It also, true to Disney's idea, does contain a work from the original, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." 

For this reviewer, the highlight of the second movie is unquestionably © Disney. All Rights Reserved."Rhapsody in Blue" by George Gershwin which is paired with Al Hirschfeld inspired animation.  Hirschfeld actually also served as a design consultant on the segment.  It is quite a lively piece of music and truly special to see Hirschfeld's drawings come to life.

Fantasia 2000, as with the original, also includes interstitial moments to set up the next piece, in this case they are done by celebrities including Quincy Jones, Steve Martin, and Bette Midler.  Whereas the original film features Leopold Stokowski as the conductor (he does appear in the archival footage of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" in 2000), Fantasia 2000 has James Levine with the baton.

Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 are probably best described as experiences.  It is wondrous and wonderful to sit back, relax, and watch the music and animation flow over you.  On Blu-ray, Disney has done an incredible job with the films.  The colors and color palette are rich and varied, the detail is incredible, and both films shine.  It is impossible to overstate just how good Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 look in this release.  Every moment, every tonal shift, every animation is absolutely gorgeous, and the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks are superb accompaniment.  There really is little if anything to complain about with the audio – it is full, rich, and clean.  Disney, as I have stated before, in general, tends to do a very good job putting films on Blu-ray and with this release they have outdone themselves.

In terms of bonus features, the four disc release isn't quite jam-packed, but it does have some nice stuff, starting with each film existing both on Blu-ray and DVD.  For the first Fantasia there are two commentary © Disney. All Rights Reserved.tracks that were originally released with the "Legacy Collection" DVD, one with Roy E. Disney, James Levine, animation historian John Canemaker and manager of film restoration Scott McQueen.  The other is hosted by Canemaker and features archival discussion by Walt Disney himself.  The new commentary here is by Brian Sibley, a Disney historian.  The original film also contains an art gallery, a short piece on the Disney family museum, and one detailing a notebook created by Herman Schultheis which delves into how the animation was created (the techniques were long thought to be forgotten).  It can also be watched with artwork on the sides of the image to fill out the 1.33 aspect ratio to that of modern televisions.

For its part, Fantasia 2000 also contains two audio commentary tracks from the Legacy release, one with Roy E. Disney, Levine, and producer Don Ernst; and the other with the director and art director for each © Disney. All Rights Reserved.Fantasiasegment.  There is also a featurette on a never-produced film called Musicana which Disney thought might be a follow-up to . 

The highlight of the special features for both films, "Destino," is also on the 2000 Blu-ray.  This short (approximately seven minutes) was originally conceived of and planned out by Walt Disney and Salvador Dali in 1946.  For various reasons it was shelved only to be completed in 2003 (it garnered an Academy Award nomination that year).   As it is animation set to music it fits in perfectly with the release and looks like the perfect blend of Disney and Dali – a combination one would never have considered putting together, but which works exceedingly well.  The Fantasia 2000 Blu-ray also has a feature length documentary (82 minutes) on Walt Disney, Salvador Dali, how their histories intertwine, how they came together, and how the short ended up being finished.  It is an amazing piece of history, and nearly as interesting as the features.

Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 are films unlike so much of what is in the Disney canon.  They are triumphant works of art, blending the best in animation with truly wonderful pieces of music.  They are also stunning on Blu-ray and well worth purchasing even for those who own a DVD copy of the films.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 on Blogcritics.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol - The Trailer

While it is true that I've already done some Christmas shopping, now that Thanksgiving is here I feel that I can really get ready for the holiday season, a time of year which I enjoy to a great degree.  There are in fact few things that I like better than the holiday season. 

As a part of my holiday celebration I actually try to make it a point to watch at least one version of A Christmas Carol (often The Muppets one) and to read the Dickens classic as well.  It is, for me, a holiday tradition.

I love a lot of other non-holiday things as well of course, and one of those things is the Whoniverse.  Much like Christmas, there is something wondrous and special about the Doctor, his companions, his enemies, and his stories.

Now, one of the ways to make me exceedingly happy is to combine the things I love, like, say, having Doctor Who actually airing its Christmas special on Christmas Day and having it be a Dickens' Christmas Carol-inspired tale.  Seriously, that's like taking a whole ball massive ball of goodness and condensing it into an hour-long  Christmas gobstopper (would that it were everlasting). 

Well, BBC America, Stephen Moffat, and a whole lot of other people (like current Doctor Matt Smith) are all getting together to give me quite the Christmas gift.  Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol will be in fact airing on Christmas Day. 

Yes that's right, I'm insisting that they're doing it all for me.  And why not?  I have the Christmas spirit.

Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol premieres December 25 at 9:00pm on BBC America, but you can see the trailer right here and right now.

Article first published as Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol is Coming! on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Joining the Family Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

One of my favorite games of 2009, perhaps actually my favorite game of last year, is Assassin's Creed II.  The story of Ezio Auditore da Firenze and his adventures in Italy during the Renaissance is a hugely compelling tale (much more so than the framing narrative with Desmond which we'll get into later), one with multiple cities to visit, a ton of sidequests, and great platforming & fighting mechanics.  This year, Ubisoft has followed up Assassin's Creed II with Assassin's Creed:  Brotherhood.  The game sticks with Ezio rather than moving on to a new assassin and time period (as happened between the original and second Assassin's Creed games), picking up right after the events of the ACII.

As with its immediate predecessor, Assassin's Creed:  Brotherhood is a truly engrossing title.  Rather than reinventing the wheel, it is a refinement of last year's game, and as such is just as strong a title… mostly.  In fact, it is so good that the missteps it makes are that much more glaring and hard to overlook.

Beginning with the bad, one of the reason's that ACII works so well is that once an area is displayed on your map, it is almost always available to visit.  There are some occasions when you get told that a place you're trying to go to is locked, but it doesn't occur all that often.  In Brotherhood, unfortunately, it occurs on an incredibly regular basis (at least early on). This is because while in the second title you venture to a lot of different cities, most of Brotherhood takes place in Rome and its surrounding area, and consequently it's a single huge location almost all of which is visible even if it isn't visitable.  Assassin's Creed II simply chooses not state that there are cities that will be available later, Brotherhood has more trouble because while you can do lots of sidequests, the main story must unfold in only one direction and the game therefore can't allow you to visit places in Rome until its time for you to do so.

That then is why you're not allowed to go to certain areas, but the way the game prohibits you is really the issue.  While you physically can enter many of them, the game informs you that within Ezio's memory the place is not yet available and will kick you back out.  They are able to get away with this because you're less Ezio than you are a man in the present named Desmond, who is distantly related to Ezio, and who is in a chair reliving Ezio's memories (ignore that frame to the story though, it's pure foolishness and, as I stated in my review of Assassin's Creed II, just one of those things that makes non-gamers shake their head and wonder why anyone would want to spend their time playing).  What actually should occur – what would have made a whole lot more sense – is for locations you're not allowed to visit to simply have manmade or natural obstacles blocking your path.  It would be a whole lot more satisfying to be told that you can't go somewhere because the drawbridge is drawn or because you haven't yet learned a technique that will allow you to jump higher or grab a more slippery ledge than it is to have the game derez you once you enter an area and then drop you back outside it. 

The entire thing is made even worse by the fact that locations within areas you're not allowed to visit are shown on your map (although it doesn't say that you're not allowed to visit them).  If I can't go somewhere in a game, I need to know that before I spend my time barging my way through crowds, evading guards, and generally making a nuisance of myself.  Taking 10 minutes to get somewhere only to be told once you've arrived that the game has arbitrarily decided you can't enter is very frustrating.

Now that the big bad is out of the way, let's take a look at the good, which is just about everything else.  Rome is a huge city in the game and you can spend hours just running around it, doing sidequests for the various factions you encounter (thieves, mercenaries, and courtesans).  Each of these factions also has a set list of things that they would eventually like to see you accomplish (just because it'll impress them), things like hiring each group a set number of times, silently killing guards from behind or from a hiding place, etc. 

The game also adds in the ability to recruit new assassins and to send them abroad so that they can complete quests for you (ones that you're not allowed to go and do).  The assassins gain experience, can level up, and earn you money by completing these quests.  Assassins can also be called in to help you in your missions, which, unlike hiring thieves, mercenaries, or courtesans, doesn't cost you any money (though the assassins may lose their lives).

As you are in Rome and not your home town in Brotherhood, no longer can you earn money by improving your villa and making its surroundings look spiffier.  Instead, the majority of your income is derived from paying to reopen shops around Rome and investing in landmarks.  Depending on how much you have improved the city, the bank gets a set amount of cash every 20 minutes which can in turn be used to buy weapons, medicine, equipment, and for opening other shops.

Yes, as foolish as it may be, Desmond and his cronies from the present are still looking for the apple and ways to defeat the Templars in the present in Brotherhood, but much of that can be overlooked, slipping by the wayside so that you can focus on what really matters in the game – giving the Borgias what-for. 

Brotherhood even manages to come up with a fairly acceptable excuse for Ezio having to start out the game with none of the items he accumulated in the second title.  That sort of thing is always a tough sell, but necessary in order to not start you, the gamer, off at such a high level in the sequel that you can simply plow through the entire title with little to no effort.

I am not sure that the graphics in Brotherhood are all that much superior to ACII, nor is the sound, nor the control scheme.  Of course, in terms of the controls, they worked beautifully before so why shouldn't they now.  It must be stated, however, that there are a couple of notable disappointments with the graphics.  First, there are definitely moments when the game shows you a picture of Ezio dispatching someone where the heights don't line up correctly (Ezio may be doing the motions for slitting a throat, and the throat may be getting slit, but Ezio's arms and weapon are not near the throat).  Additionally, the mini-map that appears on screen sometimes has a seam where two portions meet; this presumably denotes different sections of the game to be loaded, but ought not be visible to the player.

What you really have with Assassin's Creed:  Brotherhood is a stellar extension of a stellar game.  There is enough here to do and see that it can't simply be executed as DLC, it is a full title in its own right.  Even so, with similar graphics, controls, and story, there are certainly times when it seems as though it may initially have been conceived of as DLC but just became too big and too engrossing to be delivered in that manner (almost akin to the Majora's Mask sidequest from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time getting spun-off into a full Zelda title).

Brotherhood will do absolutely nothing to convince folks who weren't fans of the last title that they ought to get involved with the franchise (as ACII was able to do with folks who didn't like AC), but anyone who liked last year's entry is going to like this one as well.  It's more, and sometimes more is better.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Violence. This game can also be found on Xbox 360.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood on Blogcritics.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The US Version of Top Gear has Arrived

To know me is to know my deep and unabashed love of Top Gear.  Since I first discovered it several years ago, I have watched every episode BBC America has made available, I have read up on it, and I have made sure the DVDs are in my collection.  I have also followed with great enthusiasm (and sometimes consternation) the progress of the American version, which finally premiered last night on the History Channel.

This new US Top Gear is hosted by Tanner Foust, Rutledge Wood, and Adam Ferrara.  I think that those guys – and the producers of the series – have a tough job.  Top Gear, even if it isn't huge in the States, is an incredibly popular show worldwide and has a devoted following here.  So, how close to the formula should the new show stick, and how much should they diverge from it?  Beyond that, the British series is blessed with great chemistry between the three hosts, how can any spinoff possibly hope to achieve that right out of the gate?

I did my best to watch the series premiere last night and to not compare it with its big brother, but found that task nearly impossible.  The US series sticks pretty closely by its British counterpart, but just isn't as good… yet. 

Obviously the hosts simply don't have the rapport with one another yet that Clarkson, Hammond, and May have, so let's ignore that little bit.  It just wouldn't be fair to expect it of the new show.

The series has opted to go with a very similar look and feel, and I think that's a good call – one of the reasons British Top Gear is so great is because it looks incredible.  The cars are shot beautifully, the camera work is fantastic, and the editing is equally brilliant.  Whether or not you enjoy cars, you can enjoy watching the show because of how it looks and so it is a great idea for US Top Gear to mimic that.  On the other hand, much like the chemistry between the hosts, the look British Top Gear has takes an awfully long time to work out and perfect.  Consequently, while the new version tries to ape those aspects, it again comes up a little wanting.  The camera work isn't a crisp and the filmed pieces feel as though they aren't quite as polished as on the big brother version of the series.

Beyond that, every bit of stand-up dialogue in the studio and much of the voiceover simply didn't work.  It is absolutely fine that the show renamed the "star in a reasonably priced car" segment "big star, little car," but every single time Ferrara said that the segment was coming (or upon us), his copy had the exact same wording, "a segment we like to call…"  There are probably thousands of variations on that wording, but every time Ferrara had the exact same line of dialogue.  That's troublesome.  Why would the producers not edit it just a little?  If they did and he repeatedly said it the same way, why would someone not talk to him about it?  It is that sort of thing that could have – and should have – been better for a series premiere. 

British Top Gear is also big on tape pieces, and last night the new show gave us two different ones.  The first was a car vs. helicopter thing, and was distinctly disappointing.  The basic concept was that a car had to make a loop in a town without the helicopter firing three virtual missiles at it.  The idea was perfect Top Gear, the execution wasn't.  Frankly, by about  a third of the way through it, I was bored.  I didn't see a world in which the car was ever going to win, even if Wood and Foust hadn'tCredit:  Jeremy Cowart been acting like a bunch of clowns.  So, if they were going to lose, they needed to lose big, and they didn't, they just sort plodded along until it was finished.

Wood claimed that they shot the segment in his home town because it was the only place they found that would let them do it.  Well, that's great, but then why did it look like you followed the rules of the road every single second?  If the town was letting you shoot the segment under the condition that you abided by the law, they weren't really letting you do it and you needed to do it elsewhere (which, I think, is why when British Top Gear does such things they do it in the middle of nowhere).  And, not to harp too much on the voiceover again, the segment featured some of the worst puns I have ever heard on television.  There were definitely moments when I was thinking that the whole tape piece should have been buried in the graveyard they mistakenly drove through (seriously Rutledge Wood, you grew up there and couldn't figure out how to take a loop that consisted of what, a dozen streets?).

The second taped piece focused on Lamborghinis, and comparing three different ones.  We actually got to hear the pros and cons of each different type and each host seemed to truly be rooting for his car and wanting to see the other two hosts lose.  It was far better than the car vs. helicopter segment.  There was a race, there were great shots of the cars, and it seemed as though the hosts had – or could definitely develop – a little bit of chemistry.  Honestly, that segment was enough to convince me that if these guys (both in front of and behind the camera) are given the opportunity to work out the kinks, they could make a great television show.

I will leave it to others to discuss the pros and cons of the US Top Gear test track and to delve into the more technical aspects of the car discussion; I don't yet know enough about the track and the cars to speak knowledgeably about either.  I will however say one last thing that troubled me greatly – the apparent redoing with the new hosts of segments that Clarkson, Hammond, and May have already done.  In the piece on what to expect this season we saw that there will be a segment where the cars get filled with water and the hosts have to drive them around until all the water leaks out.  We've seen the British guys do that already and it was great.  I think that redoing such pieces make it all too easy to compare this show with that one, and I just don't know that at this point it's a wise move to push that comparison.

We'll see, it could be that Foust, Wood, and Ferrara do it better than Clarkson, Hammond, and May, and then it will be a great moment for the new series.  If they don't do it as well, however, they're really just asking for trouble.

In the final summation, there were definitely some good moments last night.  There were also some that were distinctly mediocre and others which were downright poor.  With time, with patience, and with an audience that doesn't turn too quickly on them, the US Top Gear could prove itself to be a worthy addition to the franchise.  Who knows, maybe they'll even invite me to drive around their track.

Article first published as TV Review: US Top Gear on Blogcritics.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Scooby Doo 1 & 2 Both on Blu

Scooby Doo is different things to different people, embracing a large overall audience, and that is one of the reasons that the myriad versions of the cartoon have been so successful.  A young audience can be amused by the surface level jokes and the ridiculous mystery, while an older one can laugh at the recycled plots and the potential hidden meanings in the dialogue. 

The two big screen, live-action, adaptations of Scooby DooScooby Doo (2002) and Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (2004) – definitely opt for the more self-aware, self-referential, potentially older crowd, version.  There is certainly a lot for youngsters to like, and they still won't get many of the unquestionably intended double-meanings, but they are more obvious and purposeful here than they have ever seemed in the cartoon.

Both films feature the same actors portraying the main characters, with Freddie Prinze Jr. as Fred, Sarah Michelle Gellar as Velma, Linda Cardellini as Daphne, Matthew Lillard as Shaggy, and Neil Fanning voicing a CGI Scooby.  Both films are also directed by Raja Gosnell and have all the mystery-loving, goofy hijinks we have come to expect from those meddling kids of Mystery, Inc.  Essentially, for better or worse, both movies are everything that one would expect from a Scooby Doo film.

In the original, the gang breaks up to go their separate ways only to be brought together again by the rich owner of Spooky Island, an amusement park of sorts for college students, Mondavarious (Rowan Atkinson).  Mondavarious is concerned that the rowdy college students who arrive on the island leave incredibly well-behaved, seemingly well-rested, and with preternatural strength.  Certainly that is not what one would expect from college students at a spring break-like location.  The gang ends up working together, solving the case, and everyone, except the evildoer, goes home happy.

Monsters Unleashed finds the gang back home in Coolsville, where a museum is opening an exhibit in their honor.   On display are a multitude of costumes worn by the villains Mystery Inc. has unmasked.  The entire event is a happy one until one of the monster suits comes to life.  Coolsville soon turns on Mystery Inc., the other costumes come to life, and the gang has to figure out just what is going on and thereby save their reputation.

While the first film may be more amusing overall, Monsters Unleashed brings to live action a ton of classic Scooby Doo cartoon villains.  Fans of the franchise might actually prefer this second film in the two-pack for that nostalgia factor, and they won't necessarily be wrong.  It is cool to see Miner Forty-Niner, the 10,000 Volt Ghost, and Captain Cutler come to life.  The second film also features a larger supporting cast, with Seth Green, Alicia Silverstone, and Peter Boyle all co-starring.  It is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a "bigger is better" sequel, and in this case it works wonderfully.  Monsters Unleashed is like a "greatest hits" Scooby Doo episode as opposed to the first film which is simply the introduction of a new villain and a new case for the gang to work on.

The other place the second film succeeds far more than the first is with this particular Blu-ray release.  Both films, as you would imagine, are effects heavy affairs, and in the first title, many of those effects come off looking unintentionally poor.  Additionally, dark scenes feature incredible amounts of noise and the definition simply isn't what it ought to be.  The second film cuts down noticeably on the noise, the effects look far better, and the definition levels are higher as well.  Both films sport very colorful comic-come-to-life visuals, but they are much more vivid in the second film.  The sound is also a far larger affair on the blu-ray for Monsters Unleashed.  The surrounds are better used, the range of sounds is larger, and it is far more immersive.  The first doesn't sound bad, but the second sounds very good.  The first film only has a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack whereas the second has a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, and if you ever wanted to show your friends the difference between the two types of audio track this would be a great way to do it.  The discrepancy is most likely due to the fact that this is the first time that Monsters Unleashed has been available on Blu-ray, whereas the original film came out in the format in 2007.  This is probably the issue with the difference in video quality as well.

In fact, the older-style also carries over to the menu system.  The second film features a regular looking menu, with the usual choice of feature film, bonus features, options, etc.  The first film immediately boots to the movie not a menu, and when the menu is accessed there is no pretty front-end picture, it is simply a single-screen array of choices.  The first film comes with commentary tracks, one by the main stars and another by Gosnell, Charles Roven (producer), and Richard Suckle (producer).  It also has several featurettes – one on the Mystery Machine, another on Daphne fighting, a third on the production design, and one on a rain storm that occurred during filming.  There are also trailers with the first movie.  Oddly, the second movie comes with no commentary track on the main feature and no trailers.  It does however have its share of featurettes, including one on how they got a CGI Scooby to dance, one general behind the scenes piece, and a third piece which is actually a mockumentary about some of the villains.  Both films contain music videos and deleted scenes (both sets of deleted scenes contain a Gosnell commentary track).

The live-action, big screen adaptations of Scooby Doo may not work as well for people at the younger end of the cartoon version's viewing audience due to its increased realism.  However, when considered as live-action expanded episodes, they fit perfectly within the franchise's mold.  We are clearly not talking Shakespeare here and there is minimal (if any) character growth, but would you really want that from Shaggy, Scooby, and the gang?  If the cartoon is your cup of tea, you're going to enjoy the movies (especially now that they're in a two-pack).  If you think the cartoon is juvenile and foolish, you will only find the movies more so.  Whether you like them or not, whether you enjoy them or not, they are exactly what you expect them to be.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Scooby Doo 1 & 2 Collection - Family Double Feature on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

GoldenEye 007 Comes Around Again

I distinctly remember the first time I saw GoldenEye 007 being played on an N64.  It was in my sophomore year in college and while I had owned consoles when I was younger, I had not purchased the N64 for a number of reasons.  It was expensive; I was in college, would I have the time; I was perhaps a little old for such a thing; and my TV was a mere 13" model.  Seeing GoldenEye played on a big screen (someone had hooked their N64 up to a TV in a common room) made the N64 a must-have.  It singlehandedly reinvigorated my love of gaming to the point where on Columbus Day weekend I went to Blockbuster, rented GoldenEye and an N64 and stayed in my room for much of the weekend getting 007 through the game.

If that seems extreme to you, let me suggest that I was not alone in the reaction I had to the game.  In his book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Tom Bissell writes GoldenEye is "the greatest licensed game of all time and one of the greatest games of all time."

Yes, the original GoldenEye 007 is just that good.  The game is a shooter which, unlike Doom and the shooters that came before it, prides itself on requiring more of you than just blasting your way through enemies.  You need to place your shots; you need to consider your tactics; you need, in short, to be James Bond.  Plus, let us not forget that the film the game is based on was Pierce Brosnan's first in the role, a smashing success, a movie that helped spur the franchise to even greater heights, and is a damn good movie (if anyone tells you that the franchise was "in need of a reboot" when Craig came on board simply point them to the box office numbers from Brosnan's era).

When I heard that Activision was going to be updating the title I felt both joy and no small amount of trepidation.  Updates that are essentially a new game can work beautifully (see New Super Mario Bros.), rereleases with tweaked graphics and other enhancements can also work (see Prince of Persia), but you can't quite say that they will unquestionably work, there are still a whole lot of potential pitfalls.  For GoldenEye to get a rerelease was, for me, touching on sacred ground.  The Bond franchise holds a special place in my heart, the film GoldenEye holds a special place in my heart, the videogame holds a special place in my heart.  Whether or not the new game worked as a whole, it was entirely possible that I simply wouldn't enjoy it because of what the original meant to me.

Reading more and more about the new title, saw videos and screenshots, I became increasingly concerned.  The game doesn't feature a Pierce Brosnan Bond, it features a Daniel Craig one.  I don't just mean the voice acting, I mean that James in the new title looks like Craig (he also does do the voice).  Surely if they rereleased the film they wouldn't digitally remove Brosnan and insert Craig, so why do it in the game?  The story is also somewhat different from the original game and not just in terms of expanded levels (which one would expect), the actual tale is somewhat different.  The "Han shot first" within me instantly balked upon hearing that – you have a great game that works based on a great movie, why change the story?

Well, the anticipation and trepidation are now over.  I have played the new GoldenEye 007 extensively and I can't lie about it – there are definitely moments in the new game that disturb me greatly, changes that seem to have been made solely for the sake of making changes, not for improving anything, but it is still an excellent game. 

Let's take a quick run through some of those potentially unnecessary changes.  Why should Valentin Zukovsky have a scar on his cheek instead of a limp as his identifying feature?  Why should the EMP hardened helicopter (Tiger Eurocopter if you prefer) appear at Arkhangelsk at the opening of the game instead of needing to be stolen later?  I understand changing the look of the computer database files to those that appeared in Quantum of Solace and all subsequent Bond games, but some of the other changes just feel as they were created to be different, not to improve anything.  The story for the new game has been written by Bruce Feirstein (who also co-wrote the screenplay for the film), and should he and I ever met I have loads of questions.  If one of the iconic moments in that movie (which is repeated in the original game) is the bungee jump off the dam – it was touted in previews, it was the source of much ballyhoo, it was the opening of the film, it was a lesson in my high school physics class – did that really have to be pulled for the new game?

As for the game designers, they seem to have very much stuck with an "if it ain't broke don't fix it" mentality.  Outside of level design and health that replenishes automatically, much of the actual mechanics play out as they did in the original.  Plus, if you like the need for armor as opposed to auto-replenishing health you can play on the über-hard 007 Classic difficulty level which not only puts the game at the highest difficulty setting, but reinstitutes the armor/health HUD of the original title.

The graphics for the new game have certainly been updated, but they manage to retain the feel of the original GoldenEye.  It is actually very similar to the changes in the story – they are different, but it is unmistakably based on the original.

One of the other things that made the first game so hugely brilliant is the fact that it not only puts out a great single-player story, but incorporates tons of split-screen multiplayer modes as well.  Running through levels taking on other players and seeing some classic Bond baddies is something that I think everyone loves about the original.  That is back here – not only is there local split-screen multiplayer available, but you can go online and play against people (up to eight) around the world as well.

Happily, the game also eschews most "shake the Wii-mote like this and like that" silliness.  You can play with the Wii remote and nunchuk and there is a little bit of shaking required, but you can all play the game with a GameCube controller, Wii Zapper, Classic Controller, Classic Controller Pro, and if you buy 'suped up version of the new GoldenEye it includes a special golden controller.

I can't help but question some of the choices made in the new GoldenEye 007, and it doesn't fully satiate my desire to play the original version once more, but it is still an excellent FPS.  Perhaps I should be happy that the game is different, that it has chosen to be a great game by itself instead of simply trading on the name of and nostalgia for the original.  However, it just seems to me that if the first one worked so well, perhaps a true sequel to that title would have been more appropriate than a re-envisioning of it.  Enough of the tale is different already, enough of the levels have been changed, that it may not have been that much more difficult to make an entirely new game.

Unquestionably, if you have to choose one of the two newly released Bond games, GoldenEye 007 is the way to go.  It proves that an older idea can still hang with the big boys and that there is more than just a little life left in the franchise.  No, I don’t agree with everything that was done to update the title, but the mechanics, intrigue, and action are still there and the game is still a great experience.

GoldenEye 007 is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Blood, Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, Violence. This game can also be found on: Nintendo DS.

Article first published as Nintendo Wii Review: GoldenEye 007 on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Takin' it to the Monopoly Streets

Monopoly is an incredible game, a true, timeless leader in the board game genre.  The notion that Monopoly can be improved upon by making it a console, PC, or mobile game is just silly.   That's not to say that it hasn't been put on such platforms before and that it won't be done again, it is just hard to imagine a world in which I would rather play Monopoly on an electronic device rather than on a board.

That caveat out of the way, let me tell you that Monopoly Streets is nearly as good as the board game version in every way.  It manages to retain nearly all fun and excitement of the board game version and even has some major advantages over the original.

First, the good.  Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the biggest advantage Monopoly Streets has over the board game version is the ability to play against computer opponents.  While Monopoly can be played with two people, it is more enjoyable with more individuals, and putting together a group for a rousing round of the board game can be difficult.  With Streets you can play with up to four players, only one of which needs to be human (that would be you).

There is also a slight negative here, the AI comes in several different levels of difficulty, and the Easy AI is just a joke.  Anyone who has ever played Monopoly before ought to be able to beat the low level computer player with no difficulty whatsoever.  Medium AI presents a slightly greater challenge, but a semi-skilled human Monopoly player should have little trouble with as well (bad luck can of course destroy you, but if you don't find yourself on a cold streak, a win should still be in the bag).

While there are numerous issues with the way the Easy and Medium AIs play, the simplest illustration lies in their use of the auction.  While Monopoly Streets does allow play by a number of rules (discussed below), one thing that cannot be altered is that once an unowned property is landed on, it must end up in the possession of a player (human or computer).  In a traditional game this is determined by either auction or purchase – it is up to the player who lands on the property to determine if they want to own it or if they wish to allow others to bid on it.  The Easy and Medium AIs have an affinity for auctions that will make you scratch your head.  Should one or more properties in a single color group be owned by the computer it makes no sense for the computer to offer up for auction another property in that group instead of simply buying it.  And yet, they will offer them up for auction… and then not bid enough to win them.  The computer will even put up for auction properties that will allow other players to gain a monopoly should they win the auction. 

Such a stance is ludicrous of course, but the foolishness doesn't end there.  Oftentimes auctioned properties will go for below regular value – even when it gives a player a monopoly.  The auction system allows people to both raise and lower their bid, and the computer on Easy and Medium (and a little on Hard) has a tendency to raise the price hugely only to drop it when there is little time on the clock, leading to properties being sold for insanely low prices.  In short, if you own Park Place, the computer should never allow Boardwalk to go up for auction (especially when they have the cash to buy it), and if somehow it did go up for auction it should never sell for less than the $400 it normally costs.  Both of these travesties can and do occur regularly in Monopoly Streets if the AI isn't set to a high level.

Making bad trades is one thing, but to have the Easy and Medium AIs dismiss obvious logic so completely is disappointing.  The Hard AI isn't perfect, but it is certainly better than the Easy and Medium versions.  The best solution to this problem is to simply not play against the Easy and Medium versions (or to make sure to throw a Hard into the mix to balance things), but those versions still ought to be smarter than they are.

Should your skills be up to it, you can humiliate human players around the world by going online on the PSN and playing.  Both ranked and unranked, quick and custom matches are all available.  However, it must be noted that should one of the human contestants quit the game in the middle, you will instantly be knocked back to the lobby.  It would be far more satisfying – and far less frustrating - if the computer just took control of the player who leaves.

As for the aforementioned rules options, Monopoly Streets comes with several different sets of rules and styles of gameplay.  As every household I know plays the game with a slightly different set of rules, this is a fantastic addition to the title.  You can play to a maximum number of turns (with whomever has the greatest net worth winning), play to get a set number of monopolies, play with more cash available, only auctions, etc.  The game also comes with the ability to tweak the rules to a "house" set of your own which can be saved (in fact, many different sets of house rules can be saved).  Like to play with cash on Free Parking?  That can be done.  Like to earn double when you land on Go?  That can be done.  Want more houses and hotels available?  Done.  Want to build houses and hotels without owning a monopoly?  That too can be changed.  I have often played with all money from house repairs, Income Tax, Luxury Tax, etc., going to Free Parking, and that too is a choice; almost anything you want to alter can be altered.

Monopoly Streets also features trophy support and several different unlockables.  There is a shop section within the title that allows you to purchase more pieces (and thereby characters as each piece has a different character associated with them), and more boards.  The initial game only starts with two different boards available – the traditional one and a three dimensional "Monopoly Streets" board which has the tokens and characters actually going around a city.  By playing games you earn Monopoly bucks (associated with your net worth at the game's conclusion), and it is with those dollars that you buy the new boards and new tokens.

The graphics sported by the title are fun, but not quite as good as they perhaps ought to be.  There is a definite problem with the shadows characters throw – they are jagged (as are the character models) and have a tendency to flicker.  Additionally, too many of the characters make annoying sounds when they go around the board.  It may be best to turn down the volume as you play.

Shortcoming aside, the fact remains that EA Games has done a fantastic job translating Monopoly to consoles here.  If you're looking to hone your skills or try various experiments before your next game night, Monopoly Streets is a great place to do that.  Or, if you're like me and simply can't find anyone who will play against you as your real estate trading game skills are known far and wide to be exemplary, Monopoly Streets can provide hours of fun (plus, the game autosaves up to three files if you have to leave in the middle – no writing things down or setting the board aside). 

No, it doesn't replace the board game version, but it is certainly the best electronic edition of the game I have seen to date and may be well worth thinking about.

Monopoly Streets is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB. This game can also be found on: Wii and Xbox 360.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

James Bond 007: Blood Stone - I Really Want to Love it, But...

There are probably few reviewers out there who want the new James Bond game, Blood Stone, to be good as much as I want it to be good.  I have been a fan of the character, the films, and the books for much of my life (when the games began I quickly became a fan of those too).  There is something about James Bond which energizes me, which captures my emotion, and which – as much as anything – makes me swoon.  A good James Bond movie is a thing of beauty, and a good James Bond game equally so.   However, with every step you take in James Bond 007: Blood Stone it becomes more and more clear that this is not a good Bond game.

In truth, I am not quite sure where to begin discussing the problems with the title.  Consequently, do not mistake their order of appearance for their order of importance; the below simply seems the best way to structure the piece, not to state the game's faults.

The plot is certainly straight out of a middle of the road (or slightly lower) Bond flick – there is a megalomaniacal villain who, for reasons of his own, is producing vast quantities of biological weapons (and doing some other not so nice things).  Bond's job is to stop the villain and his henchman at all costs, but as Bond's the good guy, preferably he should proceed with no civilian casualties.

That is our first problem – there can be no civilian casualties.  You will absolutely see ordinary joes walking around in Blood Stone, but you can't interact with them in any way – no talking; no pushing; no interrupting their mundane, brief, and repetitive conversations; and certainly there is no shooting them. The game simply doesn't allow that.  The civilians in Blood Stone are little more than animated pieces of scenery.

As for the multitude of enemies you will face, they do not go much beyond that definition.  The AI employed in the game is a throwback to something you would have expected to see years ago, not on a current generation system.  The game employs a decent cover mechanic (although the ability to crawl, or at least run in a crouch would be nice), and when there are multiple bad guys you are forced to use cover.  However, when facing that multitude, the enemy closest to you almost always opts to close the distance, doing so to the point where he is within arm's length but before he has an angle from which to fire.  That means that all you have to do is press your takedown button to eliminate him.

I understand that dead bad guys can't tell living ones in future levels that they ought not run right up to the pillar you're behind because you're going to snap their neck, but when there are a dozen bad guys in a room and the first one dies via that method, others shouldn't blindly go down the same path.  Plus, if we're being honest here, why that first guy would get that close to you when they have a massive tactical advantage and the ability to flank you (which they never utilize) makes no sense.

Outside of it looking cool and being advantageous bullet-wise to take down a bad guy with your bare hands, Blood Stone provides some other reasons for utilizing takedowns as well.  First, there is trophy support for eliminating people via stealth moves, in hand-to-hand combat, and a couple of other ways as well.  The other reason is that taking someone out by hand gives you what are called "focus aims."  You are allowed to have up to three focus aims at a time, and each focus aim results in a one-shot kill of an enemy – press two buttons, one to initiate the aim and one to fire, and a bad guy across the room goes down.  That is actually one of the cooler elements of the game even if it eliminates some James Bond-realism (as opposed to real world realism).  In terms of the takedowns themselves, all you have to do to execute such a move is press a single button and the game performs the takedown, but that isn't a real complaint. 

As for the level design, it is a relatively standard affair.  There are some larger levels, but there are few, if any, moments that really allow you to choose a direction in which to head.  That by itself is disappointing, but it is all the more distressing when it is clear that you're being forced to head in an unnecessary direction because the game would rather you reach point B via a certain path when another ought to be available with a simple jump.  The game just won't let you make the jump because it would rather you travel the way it wants you to instead of a sensible one.  Jumps are certainly allowed – as are other less obvious ways to traverse obstacles – when the game wants you to be allowed to utilize them, they're just not always available.

Rather than featuring some sort of heads-up display (because Bond doesn't whip out a little GPS map on a regular basis), 007's cell phone finds itself in heavy use in Blood Stone.  A true Q-Branch item, Bond's cell not only allows him to scan objects, but also tells him when there are guards around the corner, whether the guards are alerted to his presence, and what sort of weapons the guards are holding.  All of the information is good and it does add to the game's stealth and surprise element, but it feels a little tired.  One gets the sense with the cell phone that the developers simply weren't sure how to make it so that Bond has the information they want him to have and decided that a cell was almost plausible within 007's world.

Blood Stone also contains a number of driving sequences.  While the driving mechanics are good, the use of non-partisan vehicles is highly questionable.  Why exactly so many vehicles upon seeing a shootout taking place on the highway would choose to follow alongside and jostle the cars involved as opposed to getting out the way is never quite explained.  Certainly if they were enemy vehicles riding alongside your car you could expect gunfire to erupt from them, but that doesn't happen.  They aren't enemy vehicles, they're just innocent bystanders who sort of hang out near you and stop you from going where you want and don't seem to mind the spray of bullets near them.

Graphically, the game will neither wow nor will disappoint.  That is, it won't disappoint except for when you get really close to some walls and turn, in which case you'll see through the wall.  There is also an issue when some enemies are standing to close to a wall with their hands outstretched – their arms will sometimes go through the wall (though oddly this doesn't seem to bother them).  The voice performances by Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, and Joss Stone are a little uninspired, but it is still nice to have Craig and Dench there doing their respective parts in the game.

On the upside, Blood Stone is continuing the recent Bond trend of honestly trying to make the games more like a movie (in this case though not like a good one).  From the pre-title sequence to the opening song (done by Stone), and through the game, it is beginning to feel much closer to a movie than the titles have previously.  Blood Stone is even based on a story by Bruce Feirstein who wrote screenplays for GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, and The World is not Enough.  It may not all work out quite as well as fans and gamers would like here, but it shows a dedication and desire to do it the right way and for that they should be given points.

Lastly, Blood Stone does feature several of your typical multiplayer modes  While there is nothing outstanding or truly special about them, playing against human opponents does provide for a far more engaging battle than the computer AI.

Truly, I want to love Blood Stone.  I want to be able to sit here and tell you that it's everything that not just a Bond game but any videogame ought to be.  It isn't.  Too much of it feels poorly conceived and/or poorly executed; it seems more like a rough draft than a polished, final work.  Bond fans shouldn't completely despair however, the new version of GoldenEye 007 just came out as well and we'll be bringing that review to you next week.

James Bond 007: Blood Stone is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Alcohol and Tobacco Reference, Blood, Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, and Violence. This game can also be found on: Xbox 360 and PC.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: James Bond 007: Blood Stone on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

One Last Goonie Adventure: The Goonies Find Blu-ray Treasure

How could a story about a bunch of misfit youths doing their best to save their families' homes not wind up as an incredibly touching, potentially oversweet, film?  The notion of a bunch of outcasts fighting the good fight and trying to scrape together enough cash to save the only way of life they've known and protect their parents is the exact sort of fodder that makes for a Hallmark Hall of Fame tearjerker.  Well, it can make for a tearjerker, it can also make for one of the best comedy-adventure flicks of the 1980s, The Goonies.

Produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Richard Donner, The Goonies is about a group of pre/early teenage kids, one older brother, and a couple of girls thrown in for good measure trying, as mentioned, to save their homes.  The youths go after long-lost pirate treasure, running into a family of murderous bank robbers, and even making a new friend on the way.  Chris Columbus' screenplay, based on a story by Spielberg, finds not only high adventure, but is full of laughs.  In fact, the movie only stops the laughs when it needs to ratchet up the adventure (and not always even then), and only slows the adventure when it's time for more laughs (and again, not always even then).  By all accounts, The Goonies is unquestionably a cult favorite, but anyone who ever dreamed of adventure as a child will find a lot to love in the film.

The main character in the movie is Michael "Mikey" Walsh (Sean Astin).  Mikey is the unofficially leader of his outcast pack of friends known as the Goonies, so called because they live in an area known as the Goon Docks in Astoria, Oregon.  Sadly, the rich families in town want to destroy the Goon Docks so that they can expand their country club.  The families in the Goon Docks have been completely unable to come up with the cash they need to save their homes and are a day away from having to sign the papers handing over the property and moving out.    Mikey, along with this friends Lawrence "Chunk" Cohen (Jeff Cohen), Clark "Mouth" Devereaux (Corey Feldman), and Richard "Data" Wang (Ke Huy Quan), on their last day together end up doing a little exploring in Mikey's house and finding an old treasure map.  The map purportedly points to the location where the pirate One-Eyed Willie buried his loot.  Despite the protestations of Mikey's older brother, Brandon (Josh Brolin), the gang opts to go on one last Goonie adventure to find the treasure.

The Goonies really is a classic mash-up of comedy and adventure, and it's all done through the tried and true 1980s' haves vs. have-nots lens.  Brandon ends up coming with Mikey and his friends on the adventure as do Brandon's would-be girlfriend Andrea "Andy" Carmichael (Kerri Green), and her friend Stephanie "Stef" Steinbrenner (Martha Plimpton).  And, as promised above, along the way the friends meet up with the dreaded Fratelli family – Jake (Robert Davi), Francis (Joe Pantoliano), Mama (Anne Ramsey), and Sloth (John Matuszak).  In order to save their families and way of life, the Goonies not only having to avoid One-Eyed Willies' traps, but also have to stay one step ahead of the Fratellis who in turn know that not only can the kids finger them to the cops, but that the young ones are also on a treasure hunt which could make the Fratellis fabulously wealthy.

Oh, don't get me wrong, the plot is absolutely ludicrous; it is one impossible sequence of events after the next after the next, and there is more than one plot hole readily apparent to anyone who chooses to look for them.  That being said, looking for the problems and focusing on the nonsensical aspects of The Goonies absolutely destroys the incredibly fun and funny ride.  In the end, the Goonies live a dream adventure that virtually anyone would want to have had in their youths.  They stand up to rich snobs, low-life criminals, prove that kids can make a difference, and save their homes.

Looked at from another angle, it may be best to think of The Goonies as an Indiana Jones adventure (and not Crystal Skull) taken on by a younger crowd.  The comparison works not just because Ke Huy Quan played Short Round in Temple of Doom, but because the kids are on a quest to find an ancient treasure of historical importance (like the Ark of the Covenant, the legendary Sankara Stones, or the Holy Grail) and are chased by the worst baddies they can imagine (like the Nazis or Mola Ram and his brainwashed minions).  Just as with the Jones flicks, The Goonies has the same Saturday matinee feel as well as use of set pieces, humor, and action (and Steven Spielberg).  And, just like those Indiana Jones movies, The Goonies is a film that everyone ought to see at least once.

As for this new Blu-ray edition, visually speaking, one won't find any major complaints with the release.  The transfer is a good one, and it certainly looks better than previous DVD releases.  There is some noise in a few scenes, but by and large the detail and clarity is good and the colors rich.  The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio track is equally good.  There is little background noise and good use of the surrounds and subwoofers.  The music and effects, while sharp, balance well with the dialogue track (no need to sit there with the remote and continually adjust things).

The new Blu-ray 25th anniversary edition, even if it doesn't come with a ton of on-disc special features, does come with a lot of bonus ancillary material.  As for that limited on-disc selection, there are deleted scenes, a making-of featurette from the original release, a trailer, and Cyndi Lauper's "The Goonies 'R' Good Enough" music video.  There is also an audio commentary with Richard Donner and the main cast members.  This commentary track can be utilized simply as an audio track, or with an additional video segment that pops up in the corner from time to time.  The set also contains 10 storyboard cards, a Goonies Souvenir Magazine reproduction, and a reprint of an Empire Magazine "where are they now" article.  There is also a Goonies board game included which will no doubt please fans.  The game is cute and far more complicated (and difficult) than it initially looks. 

Not to put too fine a point on it, The Goonies is more than just good enough, The Goonies is in fact great.  As trite and clichéd as it will sound, it is a movie that your whole family (provided the youngest member is at least six or seven) can sit down and enjoy together.  Plus, now when your family finishes the movie they can all stay together a little while longer and play the board game.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: The Goonies - 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Fling and Smash in the new FlingSmash

Although the Wii has been highly touted for its motion-sensing abilities, the cold fact of the matter is that many out there – apparently even the developers of the system – feel like the included motion-sensing abilities simply don't go far enough.  Hence the birth of the Wii MotionPlus, a little add-on which helps the Wii translate a controller's movements to an even greater degree.  MotionPlus has become an all but essential add-on for Tiger Woods, but the necessity of it being an add-on increases the cumbersomeness of the remote (and adding a nunchuk makes it worse).

Nintendo has now, we're happy to report, worked that out.  They have managed to squeeze the MotionPlus into the basic remote, thereby giving birth to the Wii Remote Plus.  And, just like the Wii MotionPlus being bundled with Tiger Woods when it was first released, the Remote Plus is being bundled with a new title – FlingSmash (but unlike with Tiger, FlingSmash doesn't cost more with the new remote).

That is the good news – the Remote Plus is a great two-in-one and certainly worth buying if you're in the market for another Wii controller.  The bad news is that while the remote may be ready for primetime, it doesn't feel as though FlingSmash is quite yet.  The game is a relatively basic one, and while that is fine, it doesn't seem to accomplish its goals. 

FlingSmash has players control either Zip or Pip, some adorably cute round creatures who have been tasked with saving their island, Suthon, from an evil invader, Omminus, and his minions. The game is a side-scroller (although it does occasionally go to a vertical-scroller) without the ability to move backwards, which is essentially the only real complication in the game – in order to win levels you need to collect pearls, but once the opportunity to get a pearl has past, it's gone.

Zip (and Pip, save for how they look they're interchangeable) moves through levels by, well, flinging him into the blocks so he can smash them (see where they got the name for the game?).  Zip is flung by swinging the Wii Remote Plus in the direction you would like him to move.  Essentially, you play by imagining that you're hitting Zip – if you move the Remote Plus from left to right, Zip moves right; if you move it up to down, Zip moves down.

It is an exceptionally simple mechanic, but even with the Remote Plus it doesn't always feel as though Zip responds properly.  Additionally, despite the fact that you can stop Zip by pushing a button on the remote, you will end up flinging him in the wrong direction as you try to re-center the Remote Plus.  Beyond that, counterintuitively – and to the detriment of the title – the speed at which you move the Remote Plus doesn't affect the speed at which Zip moves.  What that means is that as you get excited or need Zip to do something quickly, you will start to try fling Zip faster and annoying little guide pops up at the bottom of the screen telling you to calm down.  Zip does have the ability to fly through things via a supercharge and doesn't travel at a constant speed, but not tying his velocity to the Wii Remote Plus' makes the game a lot harder for those (like kids) who get truly enthused by such a mechanic.

Over the course of the game's eight areas (with multiple levels per area), FlingSmash does manage to throw in enough changes, additions, and alterations to make the game constantly interesting and fun, but never quite overcomes the not-quite-ready controls.  Additionally, you do receive a ranking on each level and by performing well enough on all the levels in an area you unlock minigames (there are extra levels too).

It also must be said that one of the reasons that FlingSmash is being bundled with the Remote Plus is that it is only playable with either the Remote Plus or a MotionPlus controller.  That means that while two people can play simultaneously, both will need to be outfitted with the new controller or the add-on (I'm not suggesting that's a negative, just making sure that it is clear).

In the end, FlingSmash, with its bright colors and great look, is an excellent idea for a game, it just doesn't feel finished.  There is definitely fun to be had, but not as much as it promises.  The Remote Plus however, particularly as it doesn't feel larger than the original Wii Remote, is a fantastic device.

FlingSmash is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB for Mild Cartoon Violence.

Article first published as Nintendo Wii Review: FlingSmash on Blogcritics.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Listening to (and Watching) The Sound of Music on Blu-ray

Through the years Julie Andrews has had an amazing career on the big screen (I'm not discounting her stage work, just not discussing it here).  From her first big screen starring role in Mary Poppins (for which she took home an Oscar) through The Sound of Music (1965), Thoroughly Modern Millie, Victor Victoria, and even more recent entries like The Princess Diaries, Andrews has proven time again that she is a formidable filmic presence.  Even when she is in a film you don't particularly enjoy, there is something about watching Andrews in it that carries the whole thing through.

It may be sacrilege to say as much, but that last statement is exactly how I feel about The Sound of Music.  Andrews stars in the cloyingly sweet film as Maria, a troublesome would-be nun who ends up working as the governess for the children of a widowed navy man, Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) in 1930s' Austria.

Filled with Rodgers and Hammerstein's fantastic music, the film is about Maria finding her footing in the world, helping the children as best she can, and falling in love with the Captain.  All of this, of course, takes places as Germany is girding up for the Anschluss and probably war. 

In more ways than one in the film, Captain von Trapp gets caught between what is right and what is safe.  He can choose to be with the Baroness (Eleanor Parker), whom he does not feel the same way about as he does Maria, and he can choose to stay silent about Germany's impending take over of Austria.  Both of those are the safe choices, but they are not the right ones.  Plummer ought to have one of the better roles in the film getting to play the difficulty of these positions.  However, at every turn the decisions are either made for him or present no difficulty whatsoever.  There are absolutely reasons to not have one of your main characters show any sort of sympathy towards the Nazi cause, but if he were given a moment or two to show the difficulty of his decisions it would add greatly to the film.

For their part, almost all the children are without any difficulties (save in keeping a nanny).  In fact, the film doesn't bother to draw any of the children, save the eldest, Liesl (Charmian Carr), in a remotely three dimensional fashion.  Yes, the film is based on a true story, but the children solely exist within the context of the film to present easy challenges for Maria to overcome, the Baroness to fail with, and to be used as objects Maria's war over parenting techniques with the Captain.  Yet, for all the issues the film presents, they are almost entirely shown merely in passing  or exist simply as an undercurrent – the film rarely moves away from an overly sappy tone for any reason.

It may be a somewhat difficult position to take to suggest that the film is overly sweet yet the music is fantastic, but every time I watch the film that is the sense I get.  Save perhaps "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," I easily and freely sing along with every song (without even needing the sing-along subtitles the Blu-ray contains turned on), but once the songs finish, I find myself shuddering slightly at Maria's upbeat naïveté and her ability to teach the children everything they may need to know perfectly right out of the gate despite her initial horrific fear and professed lack of knowledge about being a governess.  The children's incredibly rapid turnaround from hating her to needing her desperately is also made with nothing more than a few tears at dinner and a song in the night.  It is almost as though Maria is somehow imbued with Mary Poppins' magical abilities simply because she is played by the same actress. 

Still, due to the music, Robert Wise's direction, gorgeous cinematography by Ted McCord (there are moments which appear almost as a travelogue), and Julie Andrews' presence, more often than not, The Sound of Music manages to bring a smile to the face of anyone in the audience.  If only the songs continued without pause, I would find my feelings about it far less mixed than I do.

The new Blu-ray release of the movie, as with the film itself, is something of a mixed bag.  While scenes that are well lit feature excellent definition, anything in the dark or when people are clothed in black lose nearly all of that definition.  It is not that the textures aren't there, during one transition they are particularly noticeable, it is just that they don't show up. There are also some patterns on clothes worn by characters which cause the picture a great deal of trouble – they result in the same sort of visual fluttering as when one wears certain tie patterns on television.  The visuals are free of defects, but there are simply too many dark shadows in which no details can be made out for it to be considered a superb transfer.  The sound is a far better affair.  With a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, every Rodgers and Hammerstein song rings through quite clearly and in an immersive fashion, virtually making one's home alive with, well, the sound of music.

The Blu-ray release is a three-disc set (one a DVD version of the film which also contains a featurette on a Sound of Music bus tour) is loaded with special features.  The Blu-ray disc with the main feature also contains a commentary by Andrews, Plummer, Carr, Dee Dee Wood, and Johaness von Trapp; a commentary with Wise; the ability to skip to just the songs and to watch the film with picture-in-picture trivia/behind the scenes information; and two BD-Live pieces, one on the restoring of the film and one with Laura Benanti (Maria in the revival) talking about the movie.  The second disc contains much of the standard special feature fare, including some previously released material about the film and Rodgers and Hammerstein. There is a virtual map showing filming locations, screen tests, interviews, and photo galleries.  The highlight of this disc is something titled an "interactive 'backlot tour.'"  This places the viewer within a virtual von Trapp family home with various clickable elements which provide all the normal featurettes (more interviews, behind the scenes moments, information about Rodgers and Hammerstein, etc.) one would expect to see.  It is a cute way of offering the information and far more entertaining than the usual list format.  However, it can also be very difficult to find the various featurettes within the tour if one wants to go back to them.  Even so, the sheer quantity of information will please fans of the film to no end, although those truly in love with the movie may rather purchase the also newly available "Limited Collector's Set" which contains the three-disc Blu-ray set and a whole lot more.

Although it may not be my favorite Julie Andrews film, The Sound of Music certainly has a lot (but mainly the sound of the music) to recommend it.  It remains a good addition to any film collector's library on Blu-ray, though devoted fans will want to pick up the more extensive set than the three-disc one.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: The Sound of Music (45th Anniversary Edition) (1965) on Blogcritics.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Learning Helpful Techniques for the Coming Zombie Apocalypse with Dead Rising 2

I have said it before and I am sure that I'll say it again – at this point in time, the zombie apocalypse seems like a foregone conclusion.  I don't know when it will begin and I don't pretend to know what the impetus will be for the rise of the undead, but it is coming.  The best that we can do now is to learn all we can from the pop culture zombie films, books, games, television shows, etc. with which we are constantly bombarded in order to learn as many survival strategies as we possibly can for the day dead begin to walk the Earth.

One excellent place to begin this search for strategies is with the Capcom/Blue Castle Games title Dead Rising 2.  Picking up five years after the initial Dead Rising and with an entirely new main character, Chuck Greene, Dead Rising 2 showcases all the different everyday objects that can be used to bludgeon, dismember, and generally eliminate the undead.  Much as with the first Dead Rising, there are a plethora of objects than can be used to eliminate threats to Chuck's life.

Dead Rising 2, as with all good sequels, goes a bit further than the original, incorporating the ability to combine weapons to form new, better, deadlier (are they still called "deadlier" if they're being used on the undead?) ones.  For instance, combine a baseball bat with a box of nails and you get a spiked bat which is quite useful when being attacked by multiple zombies.  Combine an electric drill with a bucket and you can place it on one of the walking dead's heads with astounding results.

The game certainly has its freakier moments, but as should be apparent from the above, it falls more into the comedic zombie apocalypse mold than the terrifying one.  This remains true even when you're taking on crazed humans (bosses) instead of the undead.

This time out, the franchise has moved to the fictional Fortune City, which is a Las Vegas-like city in Nevada (though Vegas does exist in the Dead Rising world) full of gambling halls, malls, hotels, eateries, and the living dead.  It is also home to the pay-per-view spectacle show Terror is Reality VII: Payback, which is where Chuck starts out.  The former motocross star is taking part in the zombie killing show in order to get some money so he can by Zombrex for his little daughter, Katey (Zombrex being the uber-expensive drug that will prevent an infected human from turning into one of the mindless maneaters).  

It will come as a surprise to no one that things don't go as planned, the zombies escape, and much like the first game you need to figure out how to stay alive for 72 hours (which is when help will arrive).  Unlike the original title, you can't just sit around on your duff and do nothing waiting for the clock to expire.  No, Katey needs her Zombrex every 24 hours and Chuck is fresh out which means that you need to go out and find some in Fortune City.  Oh yeah, and you quickly find out that you're being blamed for the zombies getting free and need to clear your name before the authorities arrive.

Chuck Greene's life is quite clearly a frustrating one, and unfortunately, you're playing of the game will be marred by frustration as well.  Dead Rising 2 has most definitely gone for a "bigger is better" ideal, but it doesn't always work out for the title.  The number of locations you can visit is far more extensive here than in the original Dead Rising, and the number of zombies far more plentiful.  Whereas the first title you could end up with hundreds of zombies on screen at any point, here there can be thousands.  The upshot of all these baddies and all these locations coming together are a ridiculous number of load screens (at least, that's what we're attributing the load screens to).  Missions will require you to go from one part of Fortune City to a second to a third, and between each there will be a long load screen.  That might be okay if the locations felt far apart, by if you're running from one to the next due to a time limit, you're going to see a load screen somewhere around once a minute or even less (which means you'll spend more time on load screens during that segment than playing the game).  Even if you stop to bash zombies before heading from a mall to a casino (zombies like to hang out by doors leading from one area to another), you're going to see a load screen regularly.  These screens seriously hurt any sort of flow the game tries to build. 

The frustrations with Dead Rising 2 go far beyond that however.  Unlike a survival horror game (Resident Evil), the goal is not simply to live, but to put down the undead once and for all and to do so as much as possible.  You get experience points for killing zombies (more for doing it in creative ways), and that means that the game has to find a way for you to be able to keep picking up weapons.  The solution is a highly unsatisfactory one.  Not only do zombies respawn in the exact same spots any time you leave an area, weapons do too.  That means that every time you head from the safe house into Fortune City, you can pick up not one but two spiked bats (and if you're smart you'll already have picked up two heading back to the safe house at the end of the last mission).  It becomes a little monotonous, and that feeling is made worse by the fact that the game requires you to continually build the spiked bats in a maintenance room which just feels like a waste of time.  The building of weapons is a good mechanic, but something ought to have been to randomize where weapons spawn so it doesn't feel like you're constantly doing the same thing over and over and over again.

Then there's the clock issue.  Each mission has a set time at which it can first be accomplished and a set time by which you have to start it, and there are a lot of things to do in your 72 hours.  While that gives you some choices, it also means that you're going to regularly feel like you've made the wrong choice or haven't allocated your time properly.  It is here where the game feels like it wants to be a dramatic one despite all the humorous shenanigans.  Missing a mission very well may mean that people are dying in Fortune City, people you could have saved.  That should carry some weight to it, and it almost feels like Dead Rising 2 wants it to, but it the game doesn't seem to know how to make that happen, it's just another mission you didn't complete which means that you'll not get a 100% completion and may want to go back through the game again… if you don't mind redoing all the required tasks and aren't bored by the respawned undead and weapons.

Where the game fails again is with its cutscenes.  Ignoring the not terribly sharp graphics and bad lip-synch, Dead Rising 2 does a poor job of translating in game choices to the cutscenes, and the fact that it tries just makes the mistakes more glaring.  For instance, as with the first Dead Rising, you can go around trying on different outfits in stores and what you're wearing will be reflected correctly in a cutscene.  However, let's say that you opted to try to rescue an old lady and on your way back tot the safe house you had to do a story critical mission.  Naturally, you've thrown the old lady over your shoulder so that she shouldn't fall behind and get her brains sucked on.  She won't be there in the cutscene for the mission you've opted to start while doing the sidequest, she'll be back on your shoulder once the scene ends, but she won't be in the scene.

Do not fear though, young adventurer, the game doesn't just fail, you will too… repeatedly.  Seriously, you're going to die, you're going to lose missions, and you're going to have to go back to a previous save point or start the story over (a nice convenient option every time you fail in a critical area).  There are some advantages to your inadequacies however, namely that while your kill count will drop back to where it was the last time you saved, your experience points and level you've achieved won't.   That means that any new combos you've learned, strength you've gained, larger inventory, etc., will be available to you once you've taken your two steps back.  That does make it a lot easier on subsequent playthroughs (which, again, there will be).

Dead Rising 2 also offers a cooperative multiplayer mode in which you and buddy can go through Fortune City hacking, slashing, and weed-whacking (or portamowering more specifically) the undead.  The two of you do need to spend all your time in the same area, but you can certainly take down more zombies together than alone.  There is also a competitive multiplayer mode where you take part in various Terror is Reality games, and the money earned there translates back into the single player story as well.  The games get boring quickly, but they are available.

It almost feels as though if at this point I told you that the controls simply aren't as responsive as they need to be when you have 50 zombies attacking you it would be overkill.  It almost feels as though I should leave out the fact that Chuck doesn't always recock his bat quite as quickly as he ought and that when you do a special kill (worth more experience), you get a nice close-up, but then when the game goes back to the main view, the camera angle changes just enough to be disconcerting.

Those, however, are the facts.   What they ignore is that for all the game's flaws, it still manages more often than not to be a frustratingly enjoyable (or maybe enjoyably frustrating) experience.  Despite the zombie apocalypse, there is a lot to see and due in Fortune City and if you're headed there, the best advice to you that we can offer is that you ought to visit the bathroom and do so regularly (that's how you save your game).

There may be better ways out there to learn how to fend off the hoards of undead we are sure to find attacking us in the coming years, but Dead Rising 2 is certainly a good, everyman place to start one's quest for knowledge.

Dead Rising 2 is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Language, Sexual Themes, and Use of Alcohol. This game can also be found on: Xbox 360 and Windows PC.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Dead Rising 2 on Blogcritics.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Oh Chitty You Chitty Pretty Chitty Bang Bang Chitty Chitty Bang Bang You're on Blu

Ken Hughes' 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is undeniably a film much-loved by children of all ages.  With songs by the Sherman brothers, a screenplay based on an Ian Fleming novel, Dick Van Dyke in the starring role, Albert Broccoli producing, and Ken Adam as the production designer (among other things) the film does have a lot going for it.  It also features a script by the children's author Roald Dahl (along with Hughes), but it is that screenplay more than anything else which lets the film down.  There is truly a lot to like about the film and if you're the type of person for whom the songs and dances are far more important than the story  you will enjoy it wholeheartedly.  If you want a film with more of a well-crafted story you may find Chitty Chitty Bang Bang a little wanting.

It all starts off well enough, with two young children, Jeremy (Adrian Hall) and Jemima Potts (Heather Ripley) falling in love with an old beater of a car and then nearly getting run over by a nice lady (Sally Ann Howes) out for a drive.  She would be the love interest for Jeremy and Jemima's father, Caractus Potts (Dick Van Dyke), not that either of them know it yet even if it is apparent to even the smallest member of the audience. 

For the first half of the movie we see Caractus Potts fail with one invention after the next after the next and slowly, so slowly, become more friendly with the nice lady, Truly Scrumptious, whose father owns a candy factory.  Everything is actually wonderful about the first half of the movie, it is a small cute would-be love story and the inventions Caractus comes up with may not quite work but they're quirky and great to watch.  The only thing Caractus does (outside of raising his kids) with any success is restoring the car his children fell in love with, which they all name Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Things do start to head downhill though just prior to the intermission when, for no reason in particular, the film decides to introduce a bad guy.   With Potts' need for money, need for a female influence with his children, and desire to actually be successful as inventor there is certainly enough conflict in the film.   Prior to the introduction of the main villain, the film in fact can be considered more of a series of vignettes organized around the various inventions Potts is trying to make work.  After the introduction of the villain, there is only a single tale and while it's a good enough story, there is still something distinctly odd about it taking as long as it does and being given the level of importance it is given. 

The change is, in short, a jolting one.  The film has gone one far too long at that point for that which came before it to be merely an introduction, but apparently it is little more than that.

The problem is worse than that however, as the main thrust of the movie, the second half simply isn't as well fleshed out as it needs to be in order to be successful.  As another vignette it would work but when it's given more than an hour of screen time more is to be expected.  As an example, the villain, Baron Bomburst, is played with great comic effect by Gert Frobe (as Broccoli produced the film it is loaded with folks who worked on the Bond franchise), but Bomburst's motivations for anything – including his wanting to murder his wife (Anna Quayle) – are never explained.  And, if Bomburst hates kids to the point where he has outlawed them, why exactly has he kept around a toymaker, even if the toymaker is played by Benny Hill.

Enough of the issues with the Swiss cheese plot, such a discussion, while relevant, destroys any enjoyment one will have watching the movie, and there really is a lot to enjoy.  Dick Van Dyke, as he did in Mary Poppins, proves once again that he can sing and dance, and the Sherman brothers prove for the umpteenth time that they can write a catchy tune.  Chitty Chitty Bang Bang may be best for the undemanding, but anyone who likes child-friendly musicals will like what they see and hear.

What everyone will be able to agree on, demanding or not, is that FOX has done a fantastic job restoring the movie for this Blu-ray release.  The picture looks excellent, with lots of detail and little noticeable noise and no scratches.  There are moments when it appears to flicker a little, and there are certainly thick lines visible around all the foreground objects during any scenes with green screen work.  The sound too will leave folks with little to complain about.  The biggest issue with the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is that it can be slightly jolting when dialogue segues into music. 

The Blu-ray release is a two-disc set, with the second disc containing a DVD copy of the film.  In terms of special features, beyond some previously-released material, it contains a sing-along version of the movie, two different games, demo audio tracks of the Sherman brothers singing songs, a photo gallery, and the ability to simply skip to the musical numbers.  There are also two featurettes, one which spends its time with the owner of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and another in which Dick Van Dyke talks about the film.  All the features are relatively standard things, but hearing the Sherman brothers sing the songs is really very good. 

In the end, no matter how poor the plot actually might be, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang does do a lot of things right.  From the music to the acting to the dancing and nonsensicalness of everything that takes place, it is an enjoyable film for everyone (except maybe if you're a young child and fear the Child Catcher who tries to kidnap the kids).   The plot problems may stop it from being a great movie, but it certainly is a timeless one.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on Blogcritics.