Monday, February 28, 2011

HIMYM's Barney may be Growing Up

Now, I may not write that much about How I Met Your Mother anymore, but it isn't because I don't love the show and wonder about it on a regular basis.  For instance, there I was watching tonight's episode and Barney was sick and his new would-be girlfriend, Nora, was there nursing him back to health.

That's all well and good, I have no problem with a girl doing everything she can to help nurse Barney back to health (even aiding him in his use of a neti pot which did make me wonder whether HIMYM's writers have been watching Cougar Town).  I just have a problem with the fact that Nora was taking on this task in lieu of a second date.  Imagine yourself in that situation for a moment.  Here, let's do it together… 

You're due to go out with someone  you're just, maybe, starting a relationship with.  That poor soul is looking a little ill when they show up at the restaurant.  Do you a) have the date anyway; b) offer toPhoto Credit:  Sonja Flemmming/CBS postpone until they're feeling better; or c) go back to this person you don't know's apartment, hold their head as they vomit, point out the correct use of a pot that you shove down your nostril so that water can run from one side of your brain to the other, and generally hang out at this half-comatose person who you don't know's place? 

Those would be the basic options, and I just don't feel like "c" is the greatest choice.  I know that I've been off the market for years, but that doesn't seem like SOP in this day and age.  Surely options "a" and "b" above are better (as, potentially is the non-basic choice, "d," which amounts to saying that you're going to postpone and then never seeing the person ever again).  Isn't going to the home of someone you don't really know kind of wrong and more than a little stupid?

It seems as though the point of the whole thing was to really humanize Barney, to get us to see Barney more as a person rather than just a legendarily awesome joke machine.  I think we probably got that already when he was in his relationship with Robin, didn't we?  He was a pretty good boyfriend at that time, wasn't he?  Yes, I can see the need to expand Barney's decent-guy attitude past his only providing it to someone he's known for a long time and on to women he doesn't know as well, but I don't think that the interlude at his apartment accomplished that.  No, the apartment interlude was there because it was funny.

Okay, funny is good, no one can fault the funny, but I'm not a fan of humor getting wedged into a more serious story simply because the show is a sitcom.  There was a whole lot of other funny going on tonight (Lily hitting Barney, the doctor hitting Barney, Scooby… although they did miss a Scooby Snack joke) that we didn't really need the trip to Barney's apartment.

I would like to see Barney in a serious long-term relationship.  I don't think that his being in one necessarily hurts the character or destroys the humor of the series.  Neil Patrick Harris has done a fantastic job with Barney through the years, the character needs to grow and change (kind of like real people), and I see no reason why NPH can't be equally successful bringing a slightly more grown-up version of the character to us on a weekly basis.  I just want to see it all gel in a slightly more sensible manner (and I kind of wish that Barney had gone into the café at the end of the episode).  Plus, come on, going back to the apartment of a guy you don't know, even if the guy is a friend of a friend, is major stupidity (Major Stupidity).

Article first published as How I Met Your Mother: Is Barney Growing up? on Blogcritics.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Jet and Cord try to Keep Their Business Unfinished on The Amazing Race

As we began tonight's The Amazing Race, I was exceedingly worried about my good friends Jet & Cord, the team affectionately known as the Cowboys (because they're cowboys in real life).  Now, when I say "good friends" I mean the team I rooted for the last time they were on TAR and think I'll root for again this time.  When I say "exceedingly worried" I mean semi-worried because while they were way behind at the beginning of the night, we saw in last week's preview of this week's episode Mel (of Mel & Mike) go down with some sort of exceedingly painful injury.  It was the kind of injury which, if CBS wasn't playing it up, looked as though it could cause them to leave the race, thereby saving my good friends and meaning that I didn't have to be so worried.

Now you see, there are two ways that I can read that situation – one which makes me happy and one which makes me sad (and to be clear in advance, the happyPhoto Credit:  Robert Voets/CBS one is not rooting for anyone's injury, I never root for anyone to get hurt).  The happy one goes like this – well if Mel & Mike are eliminated that will save the Cowboys who can make up the time that they'll still be behind at the next inevitable airplane trip bottleneck.  Giddyup!  The sad reading goes this way – how dare CBS show us in a preview a potential game changer like Mel getting injured?  I don't want to worry about my good friends for the entire episode, but to show us how one team ends up dropping out of the race in a preview is just wrong.  Wholly and completely wrong.

So, it was with those mixed emotions that I went into tonight's episode (and it would be at this point that the SPOILERS start). 

Yeah, I didn't have to be so worried.  The bottleneck came before the first elimination and Jet & Cord, despite being way behind, were able to catch up to folks by that point so the CBS' reveal of Mel's injury didn't ruin what was going to happen (and happily it wasn't a bad injury anyway)

There are, as you may have guessed, two ways to see the Cowboys being able to catch up.  The first is the simple one – I can just be happy that the Cowboys did catch up at the bottleneck, that they weren't automatically eliminated despite their being on autopilot last week.   Then there's way number two to see things, and this is the part that really pains me, it involves me being consistent in my world view.  I have, regularly, railed against the bottlenecks on The Amazing Race (I may or may not have thrown in a quick dig against them last week).  I hate the bottlenecks on the Race.  I completely understand the need to keep the teams relatively close together, but they seem to occur all too regularly and having one before the first elimination really tweaked me.  Bottlenecks destroy the flow of the game and level the playing field far too much.

Then, unfortunately, I kind of have another problem with Cowboys tonight.  Despite their managing to come in third tonight, it still felt like they were just coasting.  I may be wrong, but I just didn't feel like they were firing on all cylinders, did you?  I felt like they were looking too much to other teams (to be fair though, almost every other team seemed to be relying on every other team a little too much for my liking).  I want my pick for the season to stand tall, to take help when they need it, but not to hang back and follow what others are doing.  I'm not getting that from the Cowboys this season and it pains me.

You know what I can be happy about though – the clues we've seen thus far on the race this season have been pretty tough and that I love.  I want to see the teams challenged (it goes hand-in-hand with hating bottlenecks) and hard clues are a great challenge.  Hard clues and puzzled teams are exactly what I want from The Amazing Race and in terms of that, this young season has been hugely successful. 

Plus, they made the teams dress as kangaroos tonight and that was awesome.

Article first published as The Amazing Race: Jet and Cord Fight to Survive on Blogcritics.

Friday, February 25, 2011

New Address, New Look, Same Us

That's right, in keeping with our week of changes (follow us on Twitter - @tvandfilmguy), we have not only given the site brand new look, but a new address as well. The old Blogger address ( will now forward you directly to the snazzy new site, What we promise won't change as we keep moving forward is our dedication to bringing you the world of entertainment as we see it.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Look at Sega's Upcoming Titles

Attending PR events for games' publishers can be an odd experience.  Wherever the showcase is, the room is full of monitors playing the latest iteration of not yet released titles and now with the PlayStation Move and Xbox Kinect there are people swatting at thin air either with an ice cream cone in their hand or holding nothing at all.  Frankly, I love it!

At Sega's Spring Showcase yesterday things were divided into more than one room which helped lessen the madness, but there were still people swinging their arms and flailing wildly, so that's where we started.  We got to check out Virtua Tennis 4 both on the 360 with Kinect support and on the PS3 in 3D and with the Move.

There has been much debate above whether the Move or the Kinect is the better system – and no small part of that debate centers on whether it's better to be able to play without holding a remote in your hand.  I think that there are certainly times when the ability to goes hands free is better, but if you're playing a sport where in real life you'd be holding a racquet or a club or a bat in your hand, it seems only natural that you'd want to do the same in a game.   It is, hypothetically, possible to hold something in your hand while playing the Kinect to improve the simulation (we'd have to see how a game actually registered that to be convinced it was truly a possibility).  With the Move you already have your controller in your hand and while it doesn't have the same weight as a racquet, bat, or club, it is a better simulation than having nothing. 

Playing Virtua Tennis 4 on both systems, we can say unequivocally that we were better with the Move and found the title more appealing on the PS3.  As opposed to getting a whole lot of hard fought losses as we did on the Kinect, with the Move we wiped the floor with our opponent.  Hitting shots on the Kinect was a little harder to judge, and backhands nearly always resulted in horrifically weak shots which didn't make it back over the net.   That was a problem we didn't experience with the Move, and with the Move it was also far easier to charge the net – just hold the controller in front of you and point it towards the screen and you were on your way.  On the Kinect, charging the net required a step forward at just the right time and that too was harder to judge.   

To be very clear – both experiences were enjoyable, we can imagine playing on both systems for hours with friends, but we definitely preferred the Move.  Perhaps the most important part of that last sentence was the "with friends" bit – as much fun as the Move and Kinect may be, they don't allow for the same degree of control as using a traditional gamepad.  People going through the career mode—which has been expanded for this latest outing—are probably going to want to do it with an old-school gamepad instead of on a Kinect or Move so that they can have much more control over the ball.

Slightly winded from humiliating Andy Roddick in Virtua Tennis 4, we moved on to Yakuza 4 where we saw some of the minigames in action and got a glimpse of the world in which the title operates.  As has been highly publicized, unlike Yakuza 3, Yakuza 4's North American release will contain the minigames which were in the Japanese version.  Now, as for the specifics of the minigames we saw, we can say that the title certainly earns its M rating and that those people who detest the appearance of adult themes within videogames will not particularly enjoy Yakuza 4's offerings.

As for the game's world, it seems to be of very good size and offers a whole lot of details – shops sell real world brands; loads of sidequests exist; and if you head down the wrong street, gangs of thugs will try to give you what-for.  Playing through everything in the entire title, including all the sidequests, we're told will take somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 hours. 

From the mature to the ridiculous, the next title we saw was Super Monkey Ball 3D.  Never having gotten our grubby little hands on a Nintendo 3DS until yesterday, it took a little time for us to get acclimated to the 3D-ness of it all.  Once we did, we quite liked what we saw.  Monkey Ball's graphics, running at 60 frames per second, were really impressive – fluid, bright, and beautiful.  Trying to hold the system perfectly still so as to not move the screen from the 3D sweet spot proved a little difficult, but we eventually get the hang of it and grabbed our fair share of bananas.

Well, we did in single-player, but playing local multiplayer was a different experience.  We saw two different multiplayer modes, the first of which had us bash one another repeatedly, something which we spent more time doing than grabbing bananas (it's the bananas which determine victory, not the bashing).   The second multiplayer game was a kart-style racer and even though we ran our first lap rather slowly, we picked up the pace for the second and third laps and finished respectably (low overall but in spot two of the four humans playing). 

The kart racing was great, and we look forward to seeing just how deep that mode is upon the game's final release.  In fact, Super Monkey Ball 3D pretty much convinced us that the 3DS is going to be this Christmas' hot item (despite its release in late March).  Seriously, put your order in now for one – we're excited and once you see it we think you will be too (more on the 3DS from us closer to launch).

With our time at the showcase winding down, our next stop was Shogun 2: Total War… or is it Total War: Shogun 2 (seriously, even their Facebook page says it both ways).  It looks like a real time strategy game for the ages, with an incredible amount of depth, beautiful graphics, and depth… a whole lot of depth.  Did we mention that there is a whole lot going on in the game?

Although it looked like nearly all of the game was available, we spent a ton of time going through the tutorial.  As with other Total War titles, what you're looking at here is a serious real-time strategy game, one where you're going to want to employ tactics beyond just "defeat the enemy by sending wave after wave after wave of humanity at them in order to crush them with sheer volume."  We actually did employ that strategy in one battle and it worked, but the losses we took were significant and upon finishing the battle, the game suggested that the cost of the victory was too great (we felt very special when we were told that such a response from the game was unusual). 

Beyond being deep, Shogun 2 looked fantastic and it was easy to get the game going even if we didn't have a perfect feel for all the nuances.  It's clearly a game that you're going to be able to spend a ton of time playing over and over gain.

The last title we saw yesterday was Conduit 2, a Wii-exclusive sequel to the original Wii-exclusive The Conduit.  The new game picks up immediately on the heels of the original and features a greatly expanded game world.  Rather than being a linear title, Conduit 2 operates on a Hub system (at least it does once you get to the Hub in the game) and you can go through a lot of it in an order of your choosing.  The new Conduit also sports boss battles (with monster-sized bosses), more guns, more bonuses, MotionPlus and Classic Controller support, and more types of baddies.  It definitely feels like they took a decent title and have expanded it enormously. 

The graphics of the original Conduit were pretty impressive, and we liked what we saw of the second one as well.  The game still operates on the Quantum 3 engine which is obviously further along now than it was nearly two years ago when the original was released.

We played a co-op multiplayer level (several competitive games are also available) set to a low difficulty level which gave us a great feel for how to move around utilizing the Wii Remote and Nunchuk.  Sadly, that low difficulty meant there were few enemies out there and those that were there were weak, but it still felt satisfying to blast them away.  Conduit 2, unlike the original, sports regenerative health as opposed to requiring medipacks or the like, and High Voltage told us that they felt as though regenerative health would help with pacing in the main storyline.  Perhaps more than with the other titles we saw yesterday, it will be interesting to check out how the final game functions upon its release and whether the changes to the original are for the good.

There were no throwaway titles at Sega's event and seeing their offerings got us incredibly jazzed for the Spring.  Obviously we're not saying that all the games will be brilliant—until final versions are available to be scrutinized that determination can't be made—but there was nothing we could instantly dismiss as not having a chance.  Sega is clearly trying to make good use of the ever-expanding game technology available and looks as though they may have some hits on their hands.

Article first published as Games Galore: Sega's Spring Showcase on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Amazon Launches Unlimited Streaming Video

In April of last year, I wrote an article about the increasing choices one had with on demand viewing.  At the time I said Amazon's service, Amazon on Demand, offered a plethora of shows and really high quality viewing.  I also said that the biggest problem with their model was that it wasn't a flat monthly fee – it was all a la carte viewing, which could easily make it the most expensive choice by far.

For months now there has been speculation and rumors that Amazon would launch an unlimited service, and today Amazon announced that they were doing just that.  Even better than an announcement in general however, is the fact that they've done it at a price that undercuts Netflix and incorporates an Amazon Prime membership.  Or, more accurately, anyone who pays for $79 per year for an  Amazon Prime membership (which offers free two-day shipping) will have access to Amazon's unlimited streaming service.  Those people who currently have a free Prime membership (for being in college or a part of Amazon Mom, etc.) do not have access to the free streaming videos, but not surprisingly, Amazon has made it quite easy to "upgrade" to a paid membership.

To break down the math a little, Netflix's streaming only option costs $7.99 per month, whereas Amazon's Prime for $79 per year comes out at just over $6.58 each month.  It will be interesting to see if Netflix will drop their price in response to Amazon's announcement.

Whether or not Amazon will reap profits from this inclusion of a service at no additional fee, it is a strong shot across Netflix's bow.  A lot of people already have Prime memberships, and the inclusion of free streaming will certainly make those people think twice about having Netflix in addition to Prime.  After all, if you cancel Netflix you can still stream tons of shows for free, but if you cancel Prime you can't get free fast shipping on your purchases.

In the coming days we'll get a far better idea about where Amazon or Netflix offers more/better selections, and if the quality of video on Amazon's service has been affected, but for now it certainly appears as though Amazon has made an excellent inroad into a market already heavily dominated by one player.

Article first published as Amazon Goes Unlimited with Streaming Video on Blogcritics.

Monday, February 21, 2011

And so we Join Twitter...

That's right folks, The TV and Film Guy's Reviews has succumbed to peer pressure and is now on Twitter. Follow us at: @tvandfilmguy

2010's Unstoppable - Relentlessly Disappointing

Watching the special features on the Blu-ray release of Unstoppable (2010), one gets the impression that a whole lot of time both during pre-production and production was spent on character development, figuring out who these two main characters were and why they would what they do.  In piece after piece we get to hear about how they were researched, how their story changed, and how elements of the final tale are true to life.  As you watch the film though, none of that comes across.  Instead, what we get is a final product that is about a couple of non-entities trying to stop a runaway train, and that is just one of the reasons the movie is disappointing.

These two non-entities are played by Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, one of whom has proven himself versatile for years on end, and the other whom has shown that he can be incredibly compelling and a draw in his own right in a in a big-budget, special effects driven blockbuster.  Washington is Frank, the grizzled train-driving veteran with a couple of weeks left on the job before a forced earlier retirement and Pine is Will, the ne'er-do-well from a rich family and with problems of his own. 

As the story unfolds, it seems inconceivable that these wholly stock characters were constructed from the meticulous research that went into crafting the film, but the research certainly didn't go into creating any of the other characters either.  Again here, the supporting cast isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination, it features Rosario Dawson, Ethan Suplee, Kevin Dunn, Kevin Corrigan, and Lew Temple, but no one is given a real character to play, just words to yell out in an agitated and out of breath fashion as the unmanned train continues to roll.

Directed by Tony Scott and with a script by Mark Bomback, Unstoppable is "inspired by true events" and rather than being the story of any character in the film, is the story of a train accidentally sent down the tracks at high speed with no one aboard.  It is a film entirely about collisions, near misses, and the force that a half-mile-long freight train has when doing 70mph. 

Unfortunately, even here, the tale of the train's power is given short shrift.  Unstoppable would kindly be called a "taut" action thriller, it's 98 minute runtime only long enough to show the train going down the tracks and people being shocked by it.  Scott's direction of Bomback's script may place on emphasis on how things actually work on board a train and (maybe) in a rail yard, but none of that is ever conveyed to the audience.  Literally from the moment the train starts going, you'll sit there wondering to yourself "Wait, why didn't they just…?" and "huh, why are they doing that?"  I'm not convinced that Scott and Bomback don't have great answers for why anything—like a bunch of armed police officers deciding to try to shoot a tiny button on the train to make it stop, a button located right next to a fuel tank—occurs, but the audience is never let in on any of it.  There simply exists a scene where the officers start firing at the train with nothing before it or after it to really give it context.  Well, nothing except a brief news report which immediately follows the scene and which says what the officers were shooting at (because the scene itself doesn't even make that clear).

In fact, much of the film is filled with these news reports about what may or may not be happening on the train and it could be that the goal of the film is to give it a "film at 11" feel.  Perhaps with its desire to not tell a story about the characters, merely to create heroes, and to give us no real context for anything that occurs, what Scott and Bomback have cleverly done is to craft a 98 minute indictment of newsgathering and news reporting in this country, but somehow I doubt it.

Unstoppable is a film that you want to like, it's a movie that should have some excellent action, some spectacular crashes, and a whole lot of tension.  While it does sport some decent action and there is a spectacular crash or two, there is no sense of tension whatsoever.  Despite great quantities of humanity being placed in the train's way (children of a field trip, a heavily populated town), not for a single second is it possible to believe that a large number of people will be killed.  Yes, there's certainly some destruction and a couple of casualties here and there, but the big potential disasters will clearly never actually take place.

There are so many possible ways that Unstoppable could have been made to work, that it could have been made into a wholly engrossing action film.  None of that happens, and listening to Scott discuss the film in the extras it seems like he was so caught up in doing everything for real and understanding all the nuances of train life that he didn't stop to consider whether or not he was doing anything worth watching for those who aren't steeped in rail lore.  He wasn't.

As for those aforementioned special features, the Blu-ray comes with a digital copy as well as two commentary tracks, one with Scott and one of talks between Scott and Bomback about the script (the latter is quite interesting).  There is also a decent behind the scenes documentary about the movie as a whole; one on the stunts; another on the work that went into a derailment caused for the movie; and one with Pine, Scott, Washington, and Dawson discussing the film together.  While none of the features is particularly brilliant, they are all far more engaging than the film itself and lead you to believe that the end result ought to be far better.

Where the release truly excels with its look and sound.  The visuals sport some grain (which assuredly is intended); great detail with the textures on clothes and other objects quite evident; and although the palette is mostly a muted one, what colors are there (like the red on the train, green of the trees, or orange-yellow of an explosion) are rich and great to look at.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is excellent.  There is a ton of bass as the trains roar down the tracks and the surrounds are very well used for locating you in the middle of the fracas, particularly as helicopters swoop around the train.  And, unlike many an action film, it is also well-mixed so that dialogue isn't overpowered by special effects or music.

There is a great movie somewhere within Unstoppable, a movie about a brutal fight between man and machine; a movie about the incredible things we have created and how they could actually be our doom if we don't respect them.  It wouldn't be a new tale by any stretch of the imagination, but it would still be a compelling one.  That story could also take a backseat to one about the men involved in the rescue and the movie could be about these men overcoming their own demons to do something incredible.  That too wouldn't be particularly new, but could still make a for an outstanding movie.  Instead, Unstoppable is nothing more than a tale about a train going really fast.  It fails to give the audience any reason to care about what's happening and you may quickly find yourself rooting for the train to crash in a fiery wreck not only because it'll look really cool but because the credits will start rolling that much sooner. 

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Unstoppable (2010) on Blogcritics.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Amazing Race Looks at Some Unfinished Business

Since I first heard what this newest edition of The Amazing Race would feature—folks who didn't win but nearly did or lost for horrible reasons—I've been referring to it not by its correct title, The Amazing Race: Unfinished Business, but rather as The Amazing Race: First Loser Edition.  That is of course unfair, only three of the teams racing this season came in second in their original runs, but the title also signifies my increasingly negative feelings about the show.

For a number of years I recapped the series on a weekly basis and I really enjoyed the show both before and during much of that time.  I thought it was fun and different and I completely understood why it took home so many Emmys.  Then, a funny thing or two happened – the number of teams who were shrill and annoying seemed to multiple, the number of bottlenecks seemed to increase, and the tasks seemed to get easier and easier.  At first I couldn't decide whether I had simply outgrown my love of the show or if it was in fact kind of coasting on past success.  After The Amazing RacePhoto Credit:  Monty Brinton/CBS failed to win an Emmy last year, I decided that even if it wasn't the show, I wasn't alone in how I felt about it.

I pointed out in my review of the fall cycle of the series that The Amazing Race excels at throwing types of teams at us—engaged, parent/child, friends, coworkers—the show also seems to give us nearly the same mix of nearly the same type of people every season.  While that makes it easier for the audience to get a handle on which team is which, when you see the same types year after year, it's easy to lose the distinctions between them. 

Think about it, how many dating/engaged teams have we seen where the guy is a wholly inconsiderate jackass?  I've grown to hate every dating/engaged team because after watching so many seasons I've lost the ability to differentiate between them and just as I start to think that maybe this new team is different, the guy starts yelling at the girl about how she's incompetent and how if she would just focus they might not lose.  Then I have to swear off the dating team for another cycle.

Hope, however, springs eternal.  I have started the past few seasons of The Amazing Race thinking to myself that maybe, just maybe, this season will stop the series' slide, that this season will be the season that the show manages to turn it all around and make it fresh again.

Perhaps counter intuitively I wonder if a season which features previous contestants couldn't actually succeed in fixing the problems with the show.  If the problems lie both with the contestants and with coming up with new, different, and difficult tasks & twists, maybe the second half of that could be tackled here.  What we're getting this year are folks who have already been on a race, who already know exactly what is expected of them not because they read a handbook, but because they've Photo Credit:  Monty Brinton/CBSalready experience first hand what to do.  The producers can now think outside the box far more than they they've actually been on the race.  That ought to give the producers some more leeway with tasks and twists than they've had in recent seasons.

I don't know that it will all actually play out that way.  I was hopeful at the beginning of the fall cycle that we were going to get a harder race and I don't think that we did.  Phil told us we would, just as he said that this cycle's race would throw a whole lot more curveballs at the teams.  Once bitten, twice shy.

We did, however, see some interesting things tonight on the first episode.  We saw teams forging strong alliances early on.  Answers to clues were actually given from some teams to others and yet denied when teams from a different season asked.  Beyond that, we saw an extra U-Turn thrown in and an underwater task which seemed like a whole lot of fun.  Unfortunately though, we also saw a number of teams performing dismally on a task, performing so badly that they just pressed forward and hoped that someone down the line would be in a position to give them an answer. 

That is most definitely not the way I want to see the race run.  It doesn't violate the rules, but it seems to be against the spirit of the game – it's one thing to work with another team to get an answer and a completely different thing to ask someone who has already completed the task to share their work and the fact that teams did that in droves was troublesome.

After watching the premiere episode, I hold out hope that we're looking at a strong season of the show – we already know that some (and only some) of the teams are very good teams.  But, even if the show has decided not to coast, what now worries me us that it appeared during the premiere that some of the teams have.  If the show can step up its game, make all the teams work to the best of their ability, and show us a few new tricks I think The Amazing Race could be as good as its ever been.

If you want to talk about unfinished business—going incredibly far in something only to falter when you're pretty far along—and needing a shot at redemption, well that's something that The Amazing Race knows about.  This season is going to be as much about the show's redemption as the redemption of the teams on it.  I hope they get what they're so desperately searching for.

Article first published as TV Review: The Amazing Race: Unfinished Business on Blogcritics.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Romance of Rome - It's Like Where's Waldo, but Roman

I like the notion behind hidden object games.  That probably comes out of my old-school love of Where's Waldo – there's a sense about finding that which is hidden in plain sight which I find quite satisfying.  What I don't need with a hidden object game is a half-baked story placed on top of it, particularly when the half-baked story isn't something you as the player control in any way.  G5 Entertainment's latest hidden object title, Romance of Rome, combines all the fun of a hidden object game with the great disappointment of a half-baked story.

Let's dispose of that story first, shall we?  You play as Marcus, a young lad who is heading for Rome in hopes of finding… let's say fortune and glory.  Marcus ends up visiting sites in Rome, making friends, doing favors, and falling in love.  But, none of that is anything you have any effect over – most of the story is told in a between levels-comic or as you enter a new location where someone will ask you to find an object.  It really doesn't add to the flavor of the game, but at least the conversations are skip-able.

The actually hidden object finding works very far better.  Each level contains several different sites for you to visit and in each you need to find multiple objects.  Some of these objects are then utilized to alter things in one of the locations on the level (using a key to unlock a treasure box, a knife to cut a loaf of bread, or something to mop water, etc.).  The locations, set in Rome, are numerous, although once you get far enough into the game, some of the objects you need to find do repeat.

Going through the title I found two main gripes with the gameplay.  First, on the bottom of the screen you get to see five different objects that you're searching for in a location.  Only by finding one of these objects does it disappear from the screen and allow you to search for another new object (it isn't uncommon to have 15 to 20 objects to find in a single location).  This proves hugely frustrating when you find an object that you're positive the game is going to want you to search out later but which you can't get at that moment.  There doesn't seem to be any reason for the order the game selects to show you the objects you need to find, so why it requires you to follow it becomes a matter of no small frustration.

The second real complaint I have revolves around how the objects are hidden.  Some of the things you are to find are hidden within the picture in a way that makes them a part of the scene – you need to find an apple in a bowl of fruit or a knife among swords, or something just lying around on the floor.  With those objects you can believe that they are actually present within the scene, but then there's the second type of object that couldn't physically exist where it is; the object can only be placed as it is because it is a drawing and not real.  I think that both types of objects are valid, but that it confuses the issue somewhat to have both present in a single game or single location within a game.

Those issues aside, the scenes themselves are pretty, there is a ton of stuff to find, a hint system for when you get stuck, and Romance of Rome also makes good use of a zoom function so that you can really focus on a single location.   You can certainly spend a number of hours going through the title from beginning to end, and those who fancy hidden object games will almost certainly want to do just that.  It isn't a perfect title, but it can be an enjoyable way to pass the time.

 Romance of Rome is not rated by the ESRB.

Article first published as iPhone Game Review: Romance of Rome on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Road to the (MLB 11) The Show

At an event this week in New York City, we were able to take the newest iteration of Sony's baseball franchise, The Show, around the block and we certainly liked what we saw.  Outside of outstanding graphics and what seems to be an excellent presentation, what impressed us most about MLB 11: The Show is the Home Run Derby and its Move compatibility.

Okay, it's difficult to suggest that you should buy a baseball game because the Home Run Derby is great, but we're not suggesting that you buy the title at this point, we're just saying that swinging the Move controller and knocking balls out of the park in the Derby is a great experience.  While Nintendo has had motion-sensing controllers with the Wii for several years, having motion-sensing on an HD system is a different thing entirely.  And, while some may prefer the Kinect because it doesn't need a controller, if you're swinging a baseball bat in a game, you really do want to be holding on to something in real life that you can at least pretend is a bat.

Both in the actual game—which we'll get to in a minute—and in Home Run Derby, timing is utterly essential in MLB 11: The Show.  Before we got our chance to step to the plate, we watched person after person end up way behind the ball, slicing things off into right field and ending up with an embarrassingly low home run total.  We're happy to report that we schooled those who came before and those who came after us in the Home Run Derby, and it was all about timing – you have to swing far earlier in this game than we've seen in other baseball title, but once you get the hang of it you end up with some really pretty shots (seriously, the game looks beautiful and the camera angles for the home runs are great).

MLB 11: The Show also sports analog controls as an option for actual games, and you'll end up utilizing the right analog stick to both pitch and swing.  Happily there are apparently several difficulty levels available for those controls, because it could take you an awfully long time to get the hang of hitting.  Pitching is far easier to control because there's always the potential for your opponent to swing at a bad pitch or swing badly at a good one, with hitting it's all on you.  By the end of the third inning we had the hang of it and were able to, semi-regularly, get a few decent swings, but expect it to take a while to work out the timing and exact controls.  Button control is also available, but we found using the analog stick a lot more engaging.

Once we get our hands on a final copy of the game we'll be sure to let you know exactly how the new version of The Show plays out, but as of this moment, it's looking pretty good.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Preview: MLB 11: The Show on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Mustachioed Plumber Takes to the Court in Mario Sports Mix

No stranger to sports titles, the famed plumber Mario Mario along with his friends (and enemies) from the Mushroom Kingdom and beyond are now part of a new Wii release, Mario Sports Mix.  Consisting of four main games and several mini-games, Mario Sports Mix is certainly on the arcade side of the simulation-arcade sports spectrum and can provide hours of enjoyment, but maybe not as many hours as you'd like.

The four main sports included in the game are basketball, hockey, volleyball, and dodgeball.  Games across the sports are played in two-on-two or three-on-three format, with up to four people being able to play locally at once (Wi-Fi Connection play is also available).  The controls are exceptionally simple, but the tutorials for each sport make them appear way more difficult than they actually are.  And, wisely, the controls are similar from one sport to the next (shooting in hockey is the same as in basketball, as is passing). 

A great way to conceptualize Mario Sports Mix is as a mash-up between Mario Kart and a traditional sports title.  There are tournaments with unlockables, the games are fast, and you're able to use turtle shells, bananas, and other Mario paraphernalia in your quest to become champion.  Rather than sitting in karts and going around a track though, you're playing hockey…. or basketball… or dodgeball… or volleyball. 

As with Mario Kart, you're able to select one of several playable characters (more get unlocked as you win) from the Mario universe (with a couple of other guys thrown in as well) or a Mii.  Each character has different strengths and weaknesses from being fast to being powerful to being accurate, etc.  Characters deliver short happy and sad utterances as they win or lose, and the entire endeavor certainly has a very Mario feel.  They also each have special moves in the various sports which prove virtually unblockable and which are therefore a rather poor addition to the title as they suck the competition right out of it when used.

It must also be noted that while the game is exceedingly enjoyable in short bursts, it isn't as good as an entry in the Mario Kart franchise and you won't be able to sit and play it for as many hours straight as you can any of the Kart titles.  There are multiple locations available for each sport and differing locations does affect the game—water washes up on Koopa Troopa Beach if you're playing basketball there and the line you can't cross in dodgeball shifts with sprinklers at Peach's Castle—but there simply isn't enough difference to keep things exciting for a long time.  When a new Mario Kart title is released I can sit there for a few weeks playing hours every day trying to improve my times, and not just earn the 1st place cup in every tournament at every speed, but get first place in every single race along the way.  That same depth of challenge simply isn't present here with Sports Mix and for a game that feels so similar in so many other ways to a Mario Kart title, that's unfortunate. 

The game does have a lot going for it though – I did spend hours with my four-and-a-half year-old playing all the sports and she loved every single minute of it.  Playing that way did add a certain degree of difficulty to the title as well since I couldn't swap characters to be near the action at any given time and was forced to cover a whole lot more of the field than I would have in a single player game.  The title is also playable with Wii Remote and nunchuk and Wii Remote alone, which provides flexibility for those who simply aren't into shaking things like a mad man. 

Beyond that, while the title often simplifies how the sports are played, it does have some odd—and decidedly excellent—inclusions from the sports that you wouldn't necessarily think would be present.  The best example of this is the fact that if you check someone a little too hard or a few too many times in hockey, you will start a fight.  No one goes to the penalty box and there's no blood, but Mario and Luigi could very easily end up throwing down on the ice.

In the end, what Mario Sports Mix is, is a good game – an enjoyable title with lots of different things to do and characters we all know and love to do them with.  Sports Mix has all the whimsy we have come to expect from a Mario game and it's exceedingly easy to pick up and play.  What Mario Sports Mix isn't, is as good a game or as deep a game as a Mario Kart title, and with that high bar already set in place, playing Sports Mix one can't help but feel a twinge of disappointment.  With Mario Sports Mix, the mustachioed plumber finds himself something of a victim of his own success.  I wouldn't say don't buy it, I wouldn't say that it's not good – it is good, it just isn't great.

Mario Sports Mix is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB for Mild Cartoon Violence.

Article first published as Nintendo Wii Review: Mario Sports Mix on Blogcritics.

Monday, February 14, 2011

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and You Will do so on Blu-ray

Perhaps oddly, there is for me a certain comfort in sitting down to watch a Woody Allen film.  While the stories he tells are different, while the characters (more so when he's not present) differ, and while the genre (or at least sub-genre) shifts, Woody Allen films are all built around true characters, great dialogue, and usually a certain cadence that makes them instantly identifiable as being written and directed by the man himself.  Even if the film isn't his finest work, there are insights into people and the world which Allen imparts in all of his films which prove wise, humorous, and familiar all at the same time.

Woody's Allen's latest movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is again, as with much of his recent work, a film which takes place in London.  And, as with virtually all of his work, the story centers around love, longing, and lust in a group of people.  Less funny than many of Allen's features, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger still manages to impart a chuckle or two over the course of it's 99 minute look into the lives of a single family.

The family in question here is that of the Shepridges.  The father, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) has left his wife of 40 years, Helena (Gemma Jones), in pursuit of a younger lifestyle, whatever that might mean.  At the same time, their daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts) is dealing with a crisis in her marriage to Roy (Josh Brolin) as Roy's writing ambitions haven't worked out and she begins to feel an attraction for her boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas).  That is all to say that it's a relatively typical sort of Allen plot which somehow manages to take what sounds like the storyline for a daytime drama and turn it into so much more.

Again, as you would expect from Allen, each character meets a potential love interest and for all of them things either work out for the better—at least as long as the film runs—or the worse.  In Allen's films there is never really a sense that the story has finished when the credits roll, simply that our window into the characters' world has closed.  Life has existed for them before the film starts and life continues to exist once the film ends, but our part as the viewer has finished.

I certainly don't wish to get into which love stories may continue once the last frame has been shown and which ones conclude despite our narrator paraphrasing Shakespeare, telling us that life is full of sound and fury but signifies nothing.  It may be nothing, but ruining that nothing seems wrong.  In fact, I think that Allen would probably argue for living that nothing as well as you can – his films seem to say that not everything will work out and that you're going to make a load of bad decisions (perhaps more bad ones than good ones), but that you can't win if you don't play.

Certainly in this film, the characters are playing.  Alfie meets a much younger woman in Charmaine (Lucy Punch) whose professed love of the man seems a rather dubious claim.  And, as much as Alfie may obviously be making a fool of himself with his desire to act younger, Roy's potentially foolish notions of love—he falls for an engaged woman played by Frieda Pinto—life, and career may actually, at least partially, lead him to good results.

The ensemble cast here all feel as though they're at the top of their game, even if there are moments when you wish that they were given more to do.  The older man falling for the younger woman—the woman who may or may not be with him for his money—is rather clichéd and yet Hopkins is given little besides that cliché with which to work.  Gemma Jones gets more to do as the spurned wife who is not only working through her own issues but also finds someone, but Alfie does feel as though he's written a little on the thin side.  As Alfie seems to be the character Allen would play himself were he in the movie, one can't help but get the sense that should he have been in front of the camera, Allen may have been able to bring more of the viewer's relationship and history with Allen's characters to the role, thereby filling it out somewhat.  However, that is not the case and we are left with one character in the film who should have been more. 

The Blu-ray release is exceedingly sparse on special features.  There is a trailer for this film and an extended one for Barney's Version, but that's all. 

As for the technical aspects, the visuals are outstanding and the LCR (left, center, right) DTS-HD MA soundtrack is more than adequate.  The colors are rich and vibrant, the detail sharp, and the black levels quite good.  There are a couple of close-ups on people's eyes which appear astoundingly blue or green (or whatever color said actor's eyes may be) and which truly help you see into the characters and their joy or sorrow.  The soundtrack mainly exists in the center channel, and while there is certainly a lack of city noise to set the tone in outdoor scenes because of that, you're watching the movie to hear what the people are saying (and to listen to the music), not to hear and see things explode (which Allen is never big on).  You won't have any trouble hearing the dialogue and gleaning its meaning with the track.

I don't think anyone out there would classify You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger as one of Allen's best films, but it is another view into his world and characters, and well worth watching.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger on Blogcritics.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dead Space 2 - Do you Enjoy Impaling the Undead with Their own Limbs?

Every once in a while—not often, but once in a while—I come up against a game which is in a genre I enjoy, has great graphics, sports a decent plot, features a good system of upgrades, and contains a fair amount to do and see and yet which completely fails to capture my imagination.  For one reason or another, and it's not always something I can put my finger on, while I end up admiring the title for all that it does right, while I appreciate the title for all the effort that is so clearly evident in it, I am just not captured by it the way so many other games capture me.  It's this exact reaction that I've had and have been considering with Dead Space 2.

Please, before you start ranting and raving in the comments down below about how Dead Space 2 is one of the greatest videogames in years and perhaps the best one we'll see in 2011, let me be clear – the game does a ton right and if you enjoyed the first one (or any of the other Dead Space titles), you're almost certainly going to like this one.   As a sequel, it's not all that original (and even if it wasn't a sequel it wouldn't be all that original), but I think it's a really well put together title with, well-spaced upgrades and save points and more than one spot that will make you jump.  The problem is that after about an hour or two playing it I just didn't care what was coming, I just wanted to reach the end so that I could be done.

The story picks up three years after the first Dead Space, with Isaac Clark in a mental hospital in The Sprawl (it orbits Saturn) trying to come to grips with what happened on the Ishimura in the original.  It's a task that Isaac has had some issues with, especially as the doctors in the hospital have been running some sort of freaky experiment.  As the game opens though, what you know is that Isaac has been in the hospital and that now there are Necromorphs everywhere. 

That leads to a whole lot of running away from said Necromorphs, the villainous Marker created creatures who want nothing more than to tear you limb from limb (literally).  Your goal as you start the game is definite but rather small in scope, survive.  As you continue, your goal grows and changes somewhat… but if I tell you what it becomes I'll just be ruining what little story the game actually throws out at you.   Oh, there's a very definite tale, but there isn't a lot to it – this is still survival horror in space and so the key first and foremost is simply to survive.

Dead Space 2 seems to mainly exist so that you can have fun dismembering creatures and then utilizing your kinesis abilities to impale them with their own dismembered limbs.  It is a bloody, semi-horrific process made that much more disturbing when you choose to stomp on dead humans so that you can free up some of their limbs for the purpose of impaling the Necromorphs.

I think that part of my problem with the game is that once you overcome the initial shock about how you proceed (a shock substantially lessened if you played the original), there's just not much after that.  The game tells you exactly where to go, there is really no need to backtrack, no alternate routes, and no need whatsoever for you to make any decisions except for which limb you're going to try and shoot off a Necromorph for impaling purposes.

As you find credits (buy stomping on corpses and containers) you can buy new weapons which does provide a new thrill as you learn exactly how the new weapon functions and how precisely you can remove an appendage with it.  But, that thrill, too, is short lived.

It may be that one of the reasons that you're given so little choice about what to do in the game is that Isaac Clarke is losing his mind and that were he set loose with options no one quite knows what would happen.  Clarke, it seems, has something of a conscience about the people he's killed, and that conscience balks at the notion that he simply has to keep on doing it.  Or, it balks sometimes, Clarke seems perfectly content to shoot at Necromorph babies when they appear.

Dead Space 2 does little to convince you that it's anything other than Resident Evil (a franchise I do love) in space.  However, this is survival horror – limited ammo, tons of creatures jumping out at you, and dark surroundings are really par for the course and Dead Space 2 delivers all those things in droves.  It really is a solid survival horror game, one which plays into the tropes of survival horror almost perfectly, but I can't help get the sense that it, perhaps like the Necromorphs, lacks a soul.

Boy, I've made it sound like it's a bad game and I really don't think it is.  Dead Space 2 is a big, brash title that provides one visceral thrill after the next.  In that age old question about whether or not a videogame can be considered art, Dead Space 2 most likely falls into the non-art realm, but it's beautiful graphics and excellent sound design balk at that categorization. 

If running around killing things in space is your idea of a good time, you're almost certainly going to love Dead Space 2.  Of course, I would have thought that I would have loved running around killing things in space, but I all too soon felt relatively bored by the experience, which is completely at odds with what the game is telling us about Isaac.  Or, it would be at "complete" odds if the other potential way you could feel about it wasn't enjoyment.  I can't get away from the fact that the game tells us that Isaac doesn't like what he's doing, what he's being forced to do, but that we're supposed to just love every possible second of it.  The desire to put the player at such a far distance from the character we're playing as is one that lessens the experience – either we can see things from Isaac's point of view and hate what we're doing or we can wholly ignore what little story is there and the feelings of our entry point into the title.  That's a weird choice for the game to force upon us and unquestionably one of the reasons I have some trouble with it.

The game does come with online multiplayer (you can play either as a Necromorph or a human) and the limited edition features the full Dead Space: Extraction.  The multiplayer isn't really as well developed as you might like, there are just a few maps and a single game mode, but more fully fleshed out could prove hugely enjoyable.

In the end, I really do have trouble calling Dead Space 2 a bad game, I think that it does a whole lot right and that most people who like the genre—or any action-based title—will almost certainly have a great time with it.  I'm just not one of those people.

Dead Space 2 is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language . This game can also be found on: Xbox 360 and PC.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Dead Space 2 - Limited Edition on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Truth is, You Don't Know Jack

Once upon a time there was a quiz videogame that, rather than being based on a television show made itself appear as though it actually was a television show, and a rather crass one at that.  From sexual innuendoes to slamming the competitors to asking just plain weird questions, You Don't Know Jack became a massive franchise, spawning an incredible number of iterations on the same basic premise – you're playing a game show.  Now we're getting an all-new You Don't Know Jack for 2011 and it's the first Jack title for the current generation of consoles.

First off, let's be very clear, while the graphics are sharp, this is still a quiz game and it doesn't rely on graphics, it relies on the quality of questions involved.  Is it great to be able to play Jack on a current system?  Yes, but there's not really a whole lot of new here requiring a current system (outside of the disc format).

Okay, now that we have that out of the way, let's talk about how a game actually works.  The title is playable with one to four players, either local or online.  There are multiple choice questions given and right answers earn you cash while wrong answers cost you.  Each game is divided into three rounds, with the first five questions being in round one, the second five making up round two are worth twice as much, and the final round is known as the "Jack Attack" and right answers there earn $4,000 a piece (which is certainly more per question than you'll pick up in the other two rounds).

Jack features a host, Cookie Masterson (who has appeared in previous Jack titles), who really is just a disturbed disembodied voice.  Except for the upper portion of a bald head, Jack doesn't provide visual characters, just audio ones and Cookie is a great character – he's not afraid to share his disturbing secrets nor to mock you should you get the question wrong.  There are also a whole bunch of minor audio characters in the background who help run the television show you're allegedly on.

 As for the questions—because it really is all about the questions—they're harder to describe.  The vast majority of them are multiple choices and attempt to get at your knowledge in odd ways.  For instance, one question in the title asks you which classic toy Georges Seurat would most enjoy.  Among the four choices is the right one, Lite Brite.  The question is actually asking if you know that Seurat developed pointillism (and what pointillism is).  In the non-multiple choice questions area you get what are known as "DisorDat" questions which ask you to do things like identify whether a word appearing on screen belongs to group A or group B (sadly no gibberish questions this time out for the franchise).  For instance, one DisorDat we saw asked whether words were the name of a Pope or a Britney Spears song (boy, I can't wait for there to be a Pope Toxic III).  Finally, there's the last round, the Jack Attack, where you're given a one-sentence clue to help you match a series of upcoming words (like characters to the type of hair they have).

With 73 episodes included (and 40 more downloadable on 360 and PS3), there is a whole lot of trivia present.  However, as each game only takes about 10 or 12 minutes, you may go through them all relatively quickly.  Of course, you may not, because one of the things Jack lacks is computer players – you're absolutely allowed to play a one player game, but it really will be a one-player game, there will be no computer opponents to defeat and as a one-player title the game runs out of steam relatively quickly.

The other thing I'd quibble with about the game is the setup – that Jack Attack at the end is worth way too many points and too easily alters the outcome.  In other versions of You Don't Know Jack there are, sometimes, more questions before the Jack Attack and that can provide a little more separation before that final round starts. Beyond that, more questions before the end of a game makes the title as a whole more enjoyable — as it is here, the entire affair feels quite rushed; by the time you feel comfortable with the question style the game is over.

It should also certainly be noted that there are in fact a number of subsets in the multiple choice question arena and that two player games allow you to "screw your neighbor" where you force them into answering a question without their needing to buzz in.  There is some other fun stuff too, but part of the enjoyment of the game is figuring out exactly what's going on.

As has been the case since its inception, this latest You Don't know Jack title is filled with an incredibly wide array of questions.  One question will ask you about Shakespeare, the next about Avogadro's Number, and the next about Avatar.  There is no question out of bounds, and no lewd comment that Cookie won't make.  If you're a parent playing with a teen or vice versa, it's virtually guaranteed that at least one of you will end up blushing over the course of a game.

Retailing for approximately $20 less than a full-priced title, 2011's You Don’t Know Jack manages to retain all the fun of the original title from 1995, but really fails to add anything new or different.  As stated above, what the game is, is playable on today's systems and in the end, what good is game software if you don't have a system it'll work on (but I do miss those gibberish questions).

You Don't Know Jack is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Crude Humor, Drug Reference, Language, Mild Blood, Sexual Themes. This game can also be found on: Nintendo DS, Wii,and Xbox 360.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: You Don't Know Jack on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Glee Does Valentine's Day

During their second season, a good number of shows tend to suffer a dramatic decline in their quality of storytelling, or at the very least a perceived decline in their quality of storytelling.  It's a little hard to know exactly why this occurs, but I always wonder if some of the problem is that writers use up a great number of their best storylines in order to help ensure a second season and then have trouble coming up with something equally good when said second season rolls around.  I have no scientific evidence to back up this rumination, but I definitely like the sound of it.  Then again, it really could just be that people expect bigger and better for the second season and then when they get more of the same in season two they're disappointed.

Reasons aside, the decline or appearance thereof, occurs rather regularly and this year can be seen with Glee.  The fall portion of the season seemed rather lackluster even if some of the songs and dances were great.  Two nights ago, following the Super Bowl, Glee returned in highly publicized form and certainly put out great songs… I just had trouble telling if it was a great episode due to the number of commercials that went with it (seriously, it felt like every two seconds there was another break). Either way, hope springs eternal that the episode is going to usher in a resurgent second half of the season for Glee (even if that resurgence is, just like the decline, only in our minds).

Now, right on the heels of the post-Super Bowl episode, Glee is doing a Valentine's Day, love-themed, one and the fit seems perfect.  The number ofPhoto Credit: Michael Yarish/FOX love songs that exist in this world is tremendous, the amount of time that high schoolers spend focusing on love is ridiculous, and romantic entanglements—potential and otherwise—on the show is stupendous. 

Having seen the episode, I will say that I think it's a strong one for the show, although it still doesn't really live up to the first season.  Without spoiling anything, one of the reasons the episode doesn't work for me is because it gives off a feel that they're resetting some of the characters and situations, returning them to where we saw them either last year or earlier in the season.  I understand that high school is a great place for backsliding, but I'd rather the show didn't participate in it.  Rather than many of the current stories existing because the show wants the stories to go somewhere, I feel like they're there so that characters can later actually be where the writers want them.

The songs that are featured on tonight's episode are, mostly, excellent selections, particularly Puck's rendition of the Queen classic "Fat Bottomed Girls."  If you ask me (and, as I often say, clearly you do because you're reading this), that's the exact sort of curveball that the show should—and often does—regularly throw into the mix in with more traditional choices like Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs" (which pretty much had to appear in the episode as it's entitled "Silly Love Songs").

As I've said before, for me Glee still lives and dies by the songs sung on the show (be they sung by New Directions or someone else) and so when the set list is good, I tend to be happy.  When the set list is lackluster, I'm disappointed.  I actually think that the fact that my feelings haven't changed about this for more than a season now is something of a problem for the show; that is, it's a problem if I'm not the only who feels this way.  There are an incredible number of songs in the universe, so Glee doesn't have to worry about running out of good selections, but if they never craft characters that we really care about, simply tuning in to watch the cast sing is going to get old much more quickly.

So, I say forget the sophomore slump stuff, the character problem has bothered me since the first season and is much more serious.  The  show needs to do more than live and die by the music being sung, they need to convince us that we want to see these people sing, and until they do that on a regular basis rather than in an episode here and there the series will never hit its full potential. 

Maybe they'll work on that in season three.

Article first published as Loving a Valentine's Day Glee? on Blogcritics.

Monday, February 07, 2011

That's Right, I'm Also Picking my Favorite Super Bowl Commercials

I am always vaguely shocked the morning after the Super Bowl when I read about what commercials others thought were the best.  There tends to be this moment when I think to myself "What is wrong with those people?  That wasn't funny at all."  That thought  is immediately followed by another one which is infinitely worse as I think to myself "Oh man, it's me. I'm wrong.  I have no idea anymore about what's funny and what isn't, what works and what doesn't."  That's not always the case, I loved the Terry Tate commercial instantly, and think just about everyone loved that the moment they saw it, but it just doesn't usually work out that way.

Look at last night.  Okay, the VW "The Force" spot was awesome (and I think everyone out there pretty much had the same opinion on it), but it didn't impress me all that much after having seen the longer version on YouTube earlier in the week.  Check it out, the longer one is far better.

Then there are the various movie spots.  I know that summer blockbuster films are always heavily represented in Super Bowl ads, but I can't recall truly loving any of those commercials.  Yes, they may get me excited to see a film (or, conversely, convince me that there's no way I would ever spend money on it), but I don't ever recall sitting back after watching one of the movie spots and thinking to myself that the commercial itself was brilliant.  They're all just trailers, and some trailers are better made than others, but they're not the sort of clever thing I want from a Super Bowl commercial. If I had to have a top pick there though, I think it would be the one for Super 8.

You know what I did love though this year?  I loved the Android getting thumbs in a back alley operation spot so he can play videogames on the new Sony Ericsson.  Who wouldn't want opposable thumbs so that they can play games on their phone.  Isn't that why we have thumbs?

Perhaps however my favorite commercial from last night is one I didn't see on any "best" lists.  I'm sorry, call me ridiculous, but I just loved the Coke "Siege" ad.  Watch it again and tell me that it's not funny. 

I also liked the Doritos sniffer guy, but why when the cheese dust was on the other man's pants did he rip off the pants and go at them that way?  Wouldn't it have been so much better if he just started licking the guy's pocket right then and there?  That can't be too racy or risqué for the Super Bowl and for my money would have made a far better commercial.

Then there was the Timothy Hutton Groupon commercial.  I can understand why people would find it hugely offensive, but I actually found it moderately funny.  The opening, before the joke reveal, was too over the top to possibly be serious which may be why I wasn't taken aback when the pitch finally came.

There was a moment last night when I thought that the Chevy Facebook status thing was going to be my favorite commercial, but then I realized that they weren't joking, that you can actually check status updates from your car.  All that commercial needed to win the day was some great tag about how clearly your friend's status from four hours ago is more important than the fact that there's a huge 18-wheeler who isn't going to be stopping at the red light and who will therefore be plowing into you because you're too busy hearing the computer voice say "LOL" to pay attention to the road to be the funniest commercial of the night.

Now that would have made for a great commercial.

Article first published as The 2011 Super Bowl Commercials - My Picks on Blogcritics.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Two Worlds II - Orcishly Good Fun

Some games like to hold your hand, slowly introducing you to the interface and the options and the story.  A subset of these games go far past the hand-holding-during-training phase, they tell you quite specifically that you need to head from point A to point B and then on to point C, making the path obvious, the deviations minimal, and that set of goals the only ones worth your time.  Two Worlds II isn't one of those titles.  Not even close.

A truly massive open world RPG, Two Worlds II does have a basic introductory mission that it sends you on so that you get a feel for the title, but it barely scratches the surface in terms of what's available and how the game will actually unfold.  As you run through this intro mission you'll be picking up book after book after book which you then have to read so that you know how to manage your skill your tree; craft weapons, spells, armor, and clothes; and handle all the other various elements in the game.

Starting from the top, this sequel picks up immediately after the events of 2007's Two Worlds, with you (as "The Hero") and your sister being held by the Dark Lord Gandohar who still kind of wants to rule all of creation and have ultimate control over the dark powers.  Gandohar would be, to use Buffy parlance, the Big Bad.  The game opens with some nice Orcs (whom you as The Hero didn't really like in the last title) rescuing you from Gandohar's clutches, but not freeing your sister.  So, your overarching goals in this game are to get back your sister, find Gandohar's weak spot, and bring an end to Dark Lord.

It is a pretty generic and not completely impressive story, but it quickly falls by the wayside once you finish the prologue and get sent off on your own.  At that moment, the sheer size of the world you're in becomes apparent (the original also featured a massive world) and the number of sidequests and diversions proves staggering.  As you wander around the world you can quickly lose the main narrative thread (which is made all the easier by the fact that it really isn't that great to begin with) and join guilds, battle bad guys, invest in the economy, find secrets, slay wild animals, and do just about anything else you might want (but don't swim too far out to see, because even if you think you're getting close to the next landmass you still might drown…. trust me).

One of the things that makes the game great is the fact that these sidequests can be quite intricate, and as you embark on one you find yourself picking up more and more in your attempt to finish the first one (just because they're there).  TWII keeps track of all the things you've agreed to do in a log for you, so there's no need to write it all down yourself, and once you've begun a sidequest you can just ignore it for hours on end before going back to pick it up again.

The title certainly intends for some of these sidequests and tasks to be accomplished later rather than earlier as they pit you against foes that you ought to have no prayer whatsoever of  beating until you've leveled-up significantly.  And it is here, with this "you ought to have no prayer" that the game sports its first real weakness –  the monsters tend to be stupid.  For instance, progress far enough in one sidequest and you'll have to enter a cave that has a huge number of Giant Scorpions.  Without loads of HP, the right armor, and good weapons, a Giant Scorpion can take you out with two swings.  But, that's only if you're dumb enough to get up close.  The cave has stalagmites which you can stand behind and which the scorpion will try and swing at you through without ever thinking that if it took two steps to the right it could hit you without the stalagmites getting in the way.  If that wasn't bad enough, other Giant Scorpions in the same cave will give chase after you fire at them with arrows, but all too soon hit what seems to be a programmed point which they refuse to move past.  Once you're past that magic invisible spot, all you have to do is stand there and fire away as the scorpion gets frustrated  and then heads back to its patrol area (you can then repeat the cycle and after a few go rounds kill him without ever taking any damage).

Perhaps the reason that the first Giant Scorpion mentioned above is baffled by the stalagmites is that his claw can in fact swing straight through them without seeming to touch the protrusions.  The claw can't hurt you as the physics of what is taking place suggest that it has been stopped by the stalagmites, but the claw certainly appears to go through them. 

This is to say, the game has some graphics issues.  While the level of detail is great, things like the claw appearing to go through the stalagmite happen on rare occasions.  What happens far more frequently is the appearance of an object in the background during the middle of a shot in a cutscene.  The background objects that randomly appear are things that probably should have always been there (be it landscapes in the distance or things in the room), and they play no role in the cutscene, but their random popping into existence adds an unnecessary—and presumably unintended—Douglas Adams quality to the title.

Then there are the sound issues, and there are most definitely sound issues.   At the push of a button you can end whatever current line of dialogue is being spoken and advance to the next one, but sometimes the game chooses to cut the dialogue short in the middle of a sentence with no input from you.  Additionally, when characters talk they have a tendency to stand still (you can move The Hero a little, but never in realistic fashion) and repeat the same arm gestures no matter what it is that they're saying (okay, that's back to graphics, but the point remains).  Plus, we encountered one instance where the guy we were talking to—the guy who was giving us crucial information for the main quest—had the volume of his voice drop to almost zero as he was speaking.  He wasn't trying to not be overheard, he certainly thought he was speaking at an appropriate level and The Hero did as well, but his voice just didn't make it to the speakers.

Would it be too much to now mention that during combat there are severe camera issues?  The enemies you're fighting have an incredible knack for heading to a spot where they are off screen in the default camera position despite their being close enough to hit you with a hand-to-hand weapon.  You can swing the camera around, but then you're trying to control the camera at the same time that you're fighting off a half-dozen baddies.  It becomes far easier to simply hack-and-slash the off screen enemies and keep an eye on your health to make sure that you're doing okay.

The honest truth of the matter however is that the depth and breadth of Two Worlds II makes up for all of those shortcomings.  There is so much to do, so much to tweak, so much to see, and so many people—both good and bad—that you can interact with that any visual and audio gaffs are easy to overlook.  The gaffs are disappointing because they give the game an unfinished feel, but they're not going to take away from your enjoyment all that much.

It is going to take you a long time to work out exactly how to best tailor Two Worlds II for the style of player you are.  Are you a mage?  You're going to love having to create the spells you cast.  Do you prefer to melee or take guys out with a bow and arrow?  If you take the melee route, do you like two-handed weapons or would you rather a single-handed weapon and shield or two single-handed weapons?  Do you want to learn to play music in the game so as to get money?  How closely do you want to monitor the cost of goods in towns and villages so as to ensure that you're not overpaying?  The options really are seemingly endless.

Two Worlds II isn't the only game to go down this route of offering you numerous ways to play through the title, but it is still an exceptionally good experience.  Any fan of open world RPGs will find much to enjoy here.  No, things aren't laid out in an obvious fashion, you have to do far more than simply connect the dots to beat the game, but the sense of accomplishment that goes along with figuring it all out is tremendous. 

Just remember – don't try to swim from island to island, you will drown.

Two Worlds II is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Violence. This game can also be found on: PC, Mac, and Xbox 360.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Two Worlds II on Blogcritics.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Hysteria Project 2 - We Recommend Not

Oh so long ago I put myself on the pre-order list for a Sega CD and got one as soon as possible following its release.  Among the games that came with the add-on system was one called Night Trap which featured none other than Dana Plato of Diff'rent Strokes fame.  It was the first full motion video (FMV) title that I ever played (save maybe Dragon's Lair which I was too young to "get")  and consequently found it all very new and different. 

In Night Trap you basically sat at a computer and had to watch several rooms in a house, trying to trap bad guys and thereby stop them from hurting some innocent young lasses who were at the house for a slumber party (really).  Let too many bad guys escape the traps you controlled and the game would end.  The game was relatively static, you had few (if any) choices because the video clips for the right path remained the same. 

As bad as the acting may have been, as bad as the game controls were, and as silly as the overall plot unquestionably was, the game had something going for it because it was completely different than anything else I had ever encountered.  I played that game at the end of 1992 and if Hysteria Project 2 is a disappointing title on the iPhone it is because it implies that we haven't progressed very far beyond Night Trap over the course of more than 18 years.

Hysteria Project 2 picks up where the original game (now available for free from the iTunes store) left off – there's a crazed axe murderer and you'd rather not die at his hands.  The game features FMV, giving you a first person perspective on the events.  The way it works is that you get to see a little video clip (like of someone giving you a shot as you're strapped to a table) and then you get to take control and execute an action or two (via swiping and tapping the screen)  Usually, if you perform the wrong action or take too long to decide what to do, you die.  Do the right thing in a brief enough period of time and you're treated to the next cutscene and then your next opportunity to take control and die once more.

Let's be clear, you're going to die repeatedly in this game, which is kind of okay because you get to keep restarting from the exact moment you died last time and the game sometimes provides useful hints after you expire about what you should have done.  It's also kind of not okay because having to try to do the same things over and over and over again is just annoying, particularly when you're convinced that you're doing everything right (like tapping in the spot the game says to tap which doesn't always work even though you really think it should).

In the original Hysteria Project while there was some tapping required, more often the FMV would stop and give you a set of options about how to proceed.  HP2's swiping and tapping and not going away from the game scene is clearly meant to be an upgrade, but it doesn't always work out that way.  The original game gave (whether real or not) the illusion of choice in your actions.  In HP2 there's little illusion – you have no choice, do the wrong thing and the crazed axe murderer kills you.  There's not a lot of story behind it all either, mostly it's just stumbling from place to place and keeping your fingers crossed that your swipes will somehow prevent your death. 

I don't think that the problem is that the game is hard; it is hard, but hard doesn't necessarily mean bad.  No, the problem is that the game is hard but doesn't feature any sort of reward for your progressing.  Yes, you do get the chance to die in an all-new situation for every situation from which you escape, but somehow that doesn't quite feel like enough. 

Executing a good FMV is exceptionally difficult – filming a game means that you're completely tied to what you've filmed.  Trying to film every possible eventuality for what a player might want to do is impossible.  Consequently, to execute a good FMV game you need to convince the player that the direction you want to send them in is actually what they want to do.  Hysteria Project 2 doesn't do that, interaction is kept to a complete minimum and it tends to substitute forcing you to do things quickly for creating any sort of suspense. 

Once the Hysteria Project series of titles is completed I think I'll be very curious to see how the story progresses and what exactly the tale that they're trying to tell is.  However, I think I'd much rather have the opportunity to simply sit down and watch the video than actually being forced to play through it.

Hysteria Project 2 does not have an ESRB rating but does carry a 12+ rating at the iTunes Store for:  Infrequent/Mild Realistic Violence; Frequent/Intense Horror/Fear Themes; Infrequent/Mild Alcohol, Tobacco, or Drug Use, or References.

Article first published as iPhone Game Review: Hysteria Project 2 on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Watch TV. Trust me, it's Good for all of us

There are some nights that I sit there and watch TV and just kind of wonder why I do it.  There I was last night watching V and just wondering why I still had the show on my TiVo.  There are unquestionably moments of it that interest me, but by and large it's a show that I just seem to watch because there's nothing else I watch on Tuesdays at 9pm.  

Is that a horrible reason for watching the show?   

Conventional wisdom would argue that it is – that if I'm not really intrigued by what I'm watching I shouldn't bother having the television on at all (and obviously there are those who would state that even if I did enjoy what I was watching I still ought not watch… we're not going to talk about those people).  Not being one for conventional wisdom though, I'm going to take the opposite side of the argument.  I think watching something just because there's Photo Credit:  ABC/SERGEI BACHLAKOVnothing on that you hugely want to watch is still not a horrible reason for watching (provided, of course, that you've taken care of the things you actually have to do).

Look at last night's V – Anna, the head of the evil aliens is on some sort of quest to remove the human soul from the body.  Apparently the aliens don't have souls.  The series, consequently, is asking really big questions about the nature of life, the nature of humanity, and what makes us so different from everything else in the universe (if anything). 

Gosh, isn't that worth thinking about? 

Oh sure, you could argue that you could think about such things and discuss them with others, but would you really?  That's a great discussion to have with others, but others aren't necessarily always available, so why not ruminate about them by yourself for a little.  Isn't that worth watching television for even if you're not hugely into the series?

It strikes me that television can promote discussion on any number of topics, not all of them are quite so weighty as the nature of the human soul, but that doesn't make them not worth talking about.  The television audience may be more fragmented now than it has been in the past, but I'm not sure that a fragmented audience means that television as a whole is any less a part of the our national consciousness and therefore shows raising weighty questions can promote national discussion.  Surely that's a good thing.  Aren't we, as a nation and as a world, facing some pretty big issues and isn't talking about them beneficial?

Even if television shows don't ask questions about the specific issues that we're facing (and I would argue that on occasion it certainly does) isn't opening a channel for dialogue in general a good place to start?  Think of it like an ice breaker, a conversation starter, an opening, a place to begin.  Who knows where your talk with someone we'll go after starting with the latest American Idol contestant, but it has the chance to go somewhere.  To me that makes it worth it.

Article first published as Can Your Watching Television Benefit Society? on Blogcritics.