Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Yogi Bear Makes a Big Boo Boo

There is often a complaint leveled against Hollywood that they have "run out of ideas" and it is because of Hollywood's lack of ideas that we get a fairly consistent stream of remakes. I don't think that's accurate, I prefer to believe that the powers that be realize that by updating classic efforts they can not only gain a new audience but snag the old one as well and not have to spend as much time, energy, and money in the process is what has caused the glut of remakes.

Watching last year's Yogi Bear big screen adventure though it is easy to understand why those on the other side of the argument feel the way they do. Starring Dan Aykroyd as the voice of Yogi, JustinYogi Bear Timberlake as the voice of Boo Boo, and Tom Cavanagh as Ranger Smith (unlike Yogi and Boo Boo, he's not CGI), the film is as big a calamity as any of Yogi's schemes. It is not, in short, smarter than the average film… it's not even smarter than the average children's film.

The basic plot revolves around the evil Mayor Brown (Andrew Daly) and his Chief of Staff (Nathan Corddry) trying to sell the logging right to Jellystone Park in order to balance the city's budget and help convince the populace to make him governor. Don't bother asking how a local mayor is allowed to close a national park, it's a question that I am not convinced ever even struck director Eric Brevig (2008's Journey to the Center of the Earth) or any of the other people involved in the film.

Ranger Smith, of course, has a brilliant scheme to save the park, a scheme actually provided by his love interest for the film, Rachel (Anna Faris), but Yogi Yogi Bearruins it and the park closes… at least temporarily. By the end of the film the good guys win; the bad guys are exposed; and one poor junior ranger (T.J. Miller) learns a really valuable lesson about doing the right thing and paying your dues.

From start to finish, just about every joke, every scheme of Yogi's, and every slow burn on Ranger Smith's part is telegraphed. The CGI Yogi and Boo Boo may look good, and Aykroyd and Timberlake may do good approximations of the voices from the cartoons, but that's about as far as it goes. Even the Road Runner cartoon which preceded the film in theaters and which is on the Blu-ray as a bonus feature fails to offer much fun to those over the age of 12 (roughly).

It would actually be unfair of me to suggest that there is nothing at all redeemable about the film – it unquestionably impresses the youngest members of the audience. My four-and-a-half year old thinks the film is outstandingly fun and wonderful, every time I have seen it with her (twice in the theater and again at home on Blu-ray), I try and look at it through her eyes so that I too may laugh uproariously at Yogi's shenanigans. I have been unsuccessful in this endeavor, outside of the exceedingly smooth CGI and some of Yogi's schemes (like a picnic basket catapult), there really is little that an older crowd will enjoy. Perhaps it is just a case of what works as a brief cartoon failing to work as a full-length feature, but I think the problem lies more in the script and execution than the concept.

One of those other "little" things that does work here is the film's Blu-ray presentation. Excluding some obvious green screen shots during a water rapids sequence, the film really does look astoundingly good on Blu-ray. Yogi BearThe black levels are great and the level of detail exceptionally high. You can make out every piece of fur on Yogi and Boo Boo and lots of details on trees, rocks, and shrubs in Jellystone. The colors are rich and vibrant, particularly the greens which are abundant. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is equally good. The same rapids sequence that doesn't look all that it might, sounds wonderful, featuring plenty of use of the surrounds to really put the audience in the middle of the action. The entire track is also well-mixed so not only will your hear every thud and thump clearly, but you won't have to adjust the volume for dialogue scenes.

The extras include the aforementioned Road Runner short as well as a digital and DVD copy. There is also a memory game aimed at the younger crowd and a "mash-up" that runs about four minutes and combines footage from Yogi cartoons with scenes from this movie and EPK interviews from his current adventure. The rest of bonus features, which are actually nominally interesting, are all crammed into a single interactive section called "Spending a Day at Jellystone Park" where you can visit (by clicking on them) different areas in the park and then watch a couple of featurettes in each area. The featurettes are all pretty standard behind the scenes items, but still manage to maintain one's interest level… when the viewer isn't sick of having to search them out. Placing these featurettes within this single section of the Blu-ray proves exceptionally annoying as the load times to get from one part of the park to the next are overly long when all that you're treated to in each section are a few brief looks at the making of the movie. And, why exactly the Yogi mash-up and memory challenge weren't included is exceptionally puzzling as they seem a perfect fit.

I don't mind saying it again – I do not believe that Hollywood has run out of ideas, I think that once they have a property they believe will be successful they milk it before trying to come up with any new plans. I also think that there's nothing at all wrong with that basic concept, I just wish that more effort were put into some of these endeavors. For all the clearly expensive and great-looking CGI work done on Yogi Bear, it still has the feel of an exceptionally slapdash effort made with little consideration of what might actually make for an enjoyable experience. I believe that there are certainly good ways to adapt Yogi for the big screen, ways that would make for a really likable film. None of those ways were (successfully) employed here.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Yogi Bear on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters: Mulligan!

When it was announced that the new version of Tiger Woods PGA Tour would feature the Masters and the Augusta National Golf Club, no one was more excited than I. As a golfer, a watcher of golf, and a gamer, I had hoped for years that somehow EA would manage to convince the powers that be at Augusta that it would be beneficial for everyone involved to have one of the premiere golf courses in the world included on the premiere golf simulation franchise.

EA Sports' tagline has been "if it's in the game, it's in the game," and as one of the four Majors of the PGA Tour, not having the Masters in the game was a problem. After playing the new version of Tiger Woods, which is burdened with the somewhat unwieldy name of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: the Masters, I am now a little worried that having the Masters in the game is something of a problem.

For this latest version of the franchise, the career mode—the meat and potatoes of the game—has been revamped and retitled, it is now "The Road to the Masters" and everything that you do as a golfer in the game is about getting to the Masters. As a huge fan of the simulation aspects of Tiger Woods, I haveTiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters loved the versions which featured a nice calendar and where, once you made your way up from the Nationwide Tour to the PGA Tour you would play in events that mimicked those the pros were playing in on any given week of the calendar year. For several iterations, EA Sports seemed to make sure as best they could that whatever courses the US Open, British Open, and PGA Championship were at that year were included in the title and so when you went to play those Majors you were playing at the correct course. Add to that the fact that you could go online during those weekends and simulate the real world weather conditions at the event and have your score compared to those of the pros, and it was simulation golf heaven (even if I could belt a 320 yard shot down the middle of the fairway, which is nothing I could ever hope to accomplish in real life).

While you can still go online this year, the calendar is a thing of the past. In career mode you do still work your way up from an EA Sports Amateur Tour to the Nationwide Tour, through Q School, and then onto the PGA Tour. You get to progress by completing certain objectives (finishing in a certain position or better for a number of matches), and once you're on the PGA Tour and have your rank crack the Top 100 you're allowed to play in a major (including the Masters). Each tournament is presented to you as the next that you're allowed to play and within that course you then can play a round against a computer player in one of a variety of golf games (skins, match, battle, etc.) and in sponsor events before finally entering the tournament proper. You can also earn an exemption to get to play in the Masters by completing a nine challenges which simulate historical moments at the tournament.

It is all very well presented, and Augusta National looks absolutely beautiful as a course, but the Masters is but one of four Majors in the world of golf, and to have the entire game focus itself on getting to this single tournament—which isn't even the tournament that decides who wins the FedEx Cup—inaccurately skews the whole simulation. The Masters and Augusta should be represented in Tiger Woods PGA Tour, and it should be represented because it is one of the four Majors, not because it is the be all end all of the PGA Tour. However, this version of the game gives the impression that it just might be.

Moving away from the career mode, also new to Tiger Woods this year is the addition of a caddie to help you choose your shot before each and every swing (except if it's a really long putt in which case the caddie Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Mastersmysteriously walks off to get a hotdog or a soda without informing you that he's chickening out of helping). Prior to each shot, the caddie will step into view next to your golfer and offer up some shot choices and the landing area for those shots along with giving you an idea of just how difficult the shots are to hit.

In my playing of the game though, I found his choices to rarely mimic what my own would be, and while the AI used to create the caddie may be good, the fact that the caddie can't add into his computations the personal preferences of the golfer he is going out with, no matter how many rounds you play with him, makes him that much more frustrating. He is easy enough to turn off, but you still see him when setting up your shot, and he's just taking up space there on the screen. He may help folks unfamiliar with the game or the course make better choices, but the fact that there is no dialogue, no back and forth, really hampers his ability to help more experienced players. Beyond that, EA states that "as the user's course mastery improves, so does the quality of the caddie's shot recommendations." I can't say that I saw such a change in my experimenting with him, but if I'm reading the statement correctly, that seems to mean that the recommendations you get early on from your caddie may not be so good, and that wholly undercuts the idea that beginners should use him to gain a feel for how to approach a course and a hole.

As for the graphics, they are, unfortunately a mixed bag. The vast majority of the time courses look utterly fantastic and the way nearly everything is represented is beautiful. However, there are certainly moments when elements of a course—I most often noticed the problem with the edges of bunkers—shift repeatedly between the correct image and a static-y, indistinct one. When this occurs, it isn't only while the ball is in flight or on a flyover of the hole, but rather the entire time you're at that part of the course – before, during, and after the shot.

Additionally, none of the edges around your golfer are well represented. There is a distinctly murky area around your golfer nearly the entire time they are on the course. This area is noted by large, blocky pixels and sometimes a thick outline and gives the impression that where they real they would be standing in front of a green screen with the course CGI-ed in behind them. Simply put, they don't always feel as though they are present on the course.

Included again this year is the EA Sports GameFace which allows you to upload pictures of yourself to the EA website and then import them to the game so as to better simulate your own likeness. As the game itself acknowledges with the numerous humorous statements that run across your screen as the Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masterssystem processes your face, it takes an incredibly long time. That would be perfectly satisfactory if it then presented you with a version of yourself which was again fully customizable should it make an error in animating you. That isn't the case though and the first time I uploaded my pictures, the entire right side of my face was covered with what appeared to be severe scarring that I do not actually have (at least as far as I can tell). As that sort of problem can't be corrected once it's there, I uploaded new pictures, waited again, and was eventually rewarded with a far better result. GameFace is, without a doubt, a completely fascinating potential addition to EA Sports' titles as a whole, but it still doesn't feel quite ready for primetime.

As for the audio, Jim Nantz and David Feherty provide the play-by-play and color commentary. They both do so with the insights that are at times interesting, at times informative, and at times just plain wrong. One year maybe we'll see a version of this game where the broadcasters are able to always correctly state where the ball will end up or be smart enough if they are unsure to say nothing at all. This is not that year.

One other thing which has always puzzled me about the Tiger Woods franchise must also be mentioned – the way the game handles balls that end up in hazards. New this year is the fact that dropTiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters zones on par threes for every course (16 on the disc, 18 downloadable with PS3 and 360) are accurately presented in accordance with what they are in reality (unless the course is a fantasy course). What the game still doesn't do however is offer on any hole is the choice of dropping on the correct line by no nearer the pin or rehitting your shot (a choice you are offered on a real course). As other golf titles offered this choice more than a decade ago it seems inconceivable that EA Sports can't somehow include it in Tiger Woods.

Perhaps I am being nitpicky. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters does a whole lot that is right and a whole lot that is wonderful. Perhaps it is because it handles so much so well that when it makes a mistake its errors are that much more apparent, that much more glaring. While that certainly may be partially true, it is hard to contemplate a world in which the revamping of the career mode to one which focuses so heavily on a single golf tournament could have been a good idea. That is, it's hard to contemplate such a world unless this was what EA had to sacrifice for a single year to get Augusta National included in its course lineup, in which case I suggest you wait until next year to buy the title. It is my hope that come Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13, we are back to a more realistic footing for the career mode and that Augusta is still present. The course should be a part of the game, but in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12 the cost of its presence is simply too high.

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB. This game can also be found on: Wii and Xbox 360.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters on Blogcritics.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Getting Tangled with Disney's Latest

Not always with the most positive of reactions from fans, historians, critics, and the world at large, Disney has a way of making classic tales uniquely their own. The talents of the Disney animators and producers are again on display with their latest feature, the 50th full length theatrical feature from Disney Animation Studios, Tangled, which hits Blu-ray and DVD tomorrow.

A retelling of the classic story of Rapunzel, Tangled features Mandy Moore voicing the role of Rapunzel and Zachary Levi as Flynn Rider, Rapunzel's knight in shining armor/prince/good guy come to rescue the damsel. Or, that's the character that Flynn turns into, initially he's in with a pretty bad crowd and something of a thief.

The film is actually told through the eyes of said thief as a flashback, with him informing everyone right up front that he will in fact perish in the piece. He opens the story by telling us the tale of how a single drop of sun once reached the Earth and caused a special flower to grow, a flower used by the evil Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) to stay young forever. Mixing the old with the new, Rapunzel comes to be born after the king's wife falls ill and he sends men out to find the magic flower to heal the queen. Gothel takes umbrage with the procuring of the flower that was keeping her alive and upon realizing that Rapunzel's hair now has the same properties as the flower, kidnaps her and brings her to a tower to live.

As with so many a fairytale, things in Tangled rely on the highly improbable. Flynn randomly finds Rapunzel's tower on his escape from stealing the crown of the missing princess from the king and queen and happens© Disney. All Rights Reserved. to do so right as Rapunzel is itching to leave the tower and discover what the lights in the sky that appear every year on her birthday are (the king and queen hold a vigil/party every year for their missing daughter). It is, in short, a preposterous confluence of events which push the story forward, but they occur, the story gets going, and the laughs and enjoyment keep on coming.

The truth is that no matter how ridiculous everything which occurs in the film is, and it is all rather ridiculous, it is still also all hugely amusing and wholly pleasing to watch. Flynn is nothing but empty bravado with a heart of gold and Rapunzel wholly over-exuberant and naïve. It is a match made in heaven and as Flynn takes Rapunzel on a trek to see the lights (as part of an agreement to get back the crown which Rapunzel grabbed when Flynn appeared in her tower), the two fall madly in love with each other. Of course, Rapunzel doesn't know who she is, can't really trust Flynn as he hasn't been entirely honest with her, and has a whole lot of mother issues tied up around her case of Stockholm Syndrome. But then, the course of true love never did run smooth.

On top of all of that are several fun-at-the-moment but not always terribly memorable songs; excellent CG animation; and larger than life voice performances by Moore, Levi, Murphy, and the rest of the cast which includes Richard Kiel, Jeffrey Tambor, Ron Perlman, and Brad Garrett. There is one particularly beautifully animated scene near the end of the film during the lantern festival for the princess which will stay with the viewer—any viewer—long after the final credits have rolled.

I am only semi-convinced that the dizzying animation, storytelling, jokes, and amusements that the film offers make Tangled a film for the ages and in the same class as so many of the studio's other works. That is a question only time can answer, but it is not outside the realm of © Disney. All Rights Reserved.possibility. What the film certainly is however, is proof yet again—as if anyone but the naysayers needed it—that Disney animation doesn't wholly rely on the wizards at Pixar in order to keep itself alive. There are a number of great moments in Disney's fractured fairytale, from a scene at a local bar named The Snuggly Duckling to the aforementioned festival sequence with the lanterns, and a whole lot to love in the film.

With the Tangled Blu-ray release, Disney also proves yet again that they know exactly how to deliver a film to homes in high definition. The colors, detail, and imagery in the film as a whole is absolutely spectacular. The palette is bright and rich, and the colors pop off the screen here. You'll notice no issues in the transfer, and again, the lantern sequence at the festival is truly mesmerizing in high definition. The 7.1 DTS Master Audio soundtrack is equally good. The sound is rich and full, with music all around you and during crowd and action sequences the surrounds are used to great effect (even if they don't come into play as much at other times).

As for the extras included on the two-disc Blu-ray release (the second disc contains a DVD), that is something of a mixed-bag. The film is also being released as a four-disc set with a 3D Blu-ray, and that is the only set to include a digital copy of the film as well. It is unfortunate, but if you don't need the© Disney. All Rights Reserved. 3D Blu-ray, you'll still have to pay for it if you want the digital copy. The two-disc release does contain the relatively standard set of bonus features including deleted scenes, extended songs, two alternate openings to the movie, an exceedingly brief look at all 50 of the films to come from Disney Animation Studios, and a making-of piece hosted by Zachary Levi and Mandy Moore. Entitled "Tangled: The Making of a Fairy Tale," the featurette has a highly produced feel but Moore and Levi still manage to be jubilant enough about their lines that it not only successfully imparts some (but not a ton) of information but remains enjoyable for audiences of all ages.

Tangled is unquestionably a unique spin on the story of Rapunzel, but is a spin which works very successfully. It isn't exactly your classic prince-and-princess-fall-in-love fairytale, but it is fast-paced, at times dizzying, and actually fun for the whole family to sit and watch together. You can't ask for much more than that.

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

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Drinking (Lots of) Tea on The Amazing Race

For me, tonight's episode of The Amazing Race was all about attitude and outlook. We saw whining, we saw crying, we saw complaining, and we also saw some really positive moments too (spoilers below).

At least five teams at the start of the episode complained about staying in China. Now, they weren't actually staying in China (not that they knew that initially), but I couldn't figure out why exactly they were so upset about the prospect of not flying to another country. Did I miss where China was so horrible for them? Was everyone just tired because of the double-leg they did there?

If that's the case, I'm moderately disappointed. These people have been on the race before, they should have expected a difficult time of it for this second outing. If Phil and the producers had given the teams a simplified version of they race, they would have blown through it and we all would have been massively bored with the whole season. Let them suffer for our amusement, isn't that kind of the point of a reality show like this? And, whatever their problem may have been with what they did in China, was it really such a terrible country for them to have to visit?

Well, all their whining about China aside, they can't have loved what they found in India. Their first task there—after waiting outside overnight—was to taste tea and find, out of 400 different cups, which was the same kind they had drank the day before in China. Yes, multiple cups of tea were correct, but it still looked like an incredibly difficult task. I was amazed that Ron got the right one so quickly, but a whole bunch of other teams had a lot tougher time with it.

Now, I don't want to think that the racers we have this season are a bunch of whiners, but between the complaining about China and then the complaining about the tea task, it certainly seems like they mightPhoto Credit:  Monty Brinton/CBS be. Luke actually broke down into tears over the whole thing which, I'm not going to lie to you, was moderately ridiculous.

It was a hard moment to watch because I felt for him – if he hadn't paid enough attention to the tea when he first had it in China, he would have had no basis from which to find the correct cup in India. On the other hand, crumbling to the floor in tears was probably overselling it. It was stupendous when he finally guessed right and got the correct cup. The fact that everyone in the place seemed to applaud him and that he got a bunch of hugs as well was a pretty special moment even if everything that had preceded it for Luke was anything but good.

So Luke was a little happy, mostly sad, and semi-ridiculous, wholly ridiculous was Zev breaking a tea cup on purpose when he found out that he was wrong in his choice. He got it right the next time out, but I wonder if that wasn't just because the guy running the challenge was a little worried that if Zev was wrong again he'd smash something bigger than a cup.

I'm not going to even get into Jen & Kisha's not opening the Snapple bottle to find the clue and that moment's place in the realm of ridiculousness tonight. We've focused on whining, crying, complaining, and stupidity enough. Instead let's turn our attention to something more positive.

You know who I most liked this week? It was Flight of the Globetrotters for giving Margie & Luke a hug after seeing that Luke had fought through his troubles with the tea. Perhaps not surprisingly, as professional athletes the Globetrotters recognize when to congratulate an opponent on a match well fought. Sure, the last time the basketball players were on the show they quit and that kind of undercuts that whole professional sports thing, but that was giving up on themselves, not unsportsmanlike conduct towards someone else.

I am curious to know what the teams thought of India. Guess we'll find out at the start of the next episode (though Jet & Cord did say tonight that it was "great"). Whatever they thought, I do hope they express themselves in a way which doesn't make me cringe and feel embarrassed for them, which is how I felt for a bunch of tonight's episode.

Article first published as Tea Time on The Amazing Race on Blogcritics.

The Sims 3 on the 3DS: See you in the Next Life, Jack

The Sims 3, as a franchise, is a massive success. It has been ported to system after system, updated, expanded, and tweaked. Now, it's a launch title for the Nintendo 3DS, but it may not be one that you're going to want to leave the store with at the same time as you pick up Nintendo's latest handheld. Obviously the problems with the title have nothing to do with the game's concept and despite what you may be thinking, the problems are also unrelated to the graphics (3D or otherwise) and unrelated to there being "missing" components from previous releases. The problems are with the layout, and we'll be talking about them more later.

By now, we all know what The Sims is all about – you create people, create a home for them, and take them through their hopefully not too mundane lives. Your Sim will make friends, have a job, cook dinner, and learn to play chess. It is almost entirely brilliantly fun. I have been known to spend hours building my Sim the perfect, expandable,The Sims 3 dream house at the start of the game, before I've ever laid a single finger on my Sim in the game world. The Sims is a tested, tried, and utterly brilliant. Who knew that controlling the lives of someone else could be way more fun than controlling your own, but let's face it, it can be.

While the version of The Sims 3 that was released to the Nintendo DS was a semi-sanitized E for Everyone game, for the 3DS, the folks at EA have given you a T for Teen version, similar to the console and computer releases. Also included back in the game is stuff like the ability to put in landscaping.

Listen, we don't want to insult you by giving you 500 words on the overall generic stuff that could be used to talk about The Sims 3 on any platform. The Sims franchise has been around for more than a decade, it's a life simulator and each successive entry into the series has given you more options, more tweaks, and more to do. It is also one of those titles which has traditionally worked better on a PC or Mac than it has on a console or handheld because there is so much to control and so many possible tweaks and a keyboard and mouse offer the ability to manipulate the extensive array of choices you're provided in greater detail, with greater finesse, and with far greater speed than any console or handheld controls we have ever come across.

On the Nintendo 3DS you're faced with that same issue all over again. If you've ever played the title on a computer you're going to feel pretty handicapped playing it on the 3DS, and, even if you haven't played it on a computer, you're still going to get a sense that it's all very stilted when it shouldn't be.

In this version of the game, the top screen, the 3D one, is useless at least 75 percent of the time. You're almost only ever changing things or manipulating anything based on the bottom screen, which is a shame because the graphics on the top screen and the title's use of the 3D technology is great. But, great or not, your life, menus, and choices, are almost all thereThe Sims 3 on the bottom, not the top. We in fact got so focused on the bottom screen that at one point when we needed information and pressed the correct icon we fumed that nothing appeared to tell us what we wanted to know. Yeah, the information was up top and the game trained us so well to not look there that we didn't check it.

The other major problem – the one outside of ignoring the pretty 3D graphics – with the bottom screen-centeredness of the title is that there is, unlike on a big TV or computer monitor, an exceedingly limited amount of real estate on a handheld screen. Necessarily, bringing up readable menus and sets of choices on the bottom screen takes up nearly all of the bottom screen every time. You can't focus on the top screen however to see what's happening because you're constantly needing to read all the monitors, menus, and choices the bottom screen offers. That leads to incredibly erratic and frustrating gameplay, no matter how many options you have for your Sim.

As for one nice 3DS inclusion, you can take a picture of yourself and have your Sim look like you (think of it similarly to the EA GameFace option which appears in many of the EA Sports titles). Additionally, new to the 3DS is the ability to send butterflies out into your world and set off an earthquake via Karma Powers. You earn these. There is also a StreetPass inclusion for the title – be close enough to someone else with the game and Sims will transfer between the two 3DS systems, so you can turn on the game one day and find all-new folks in your town.

In short (relatively speaking), on the 3DS you find a version of Sims 3 which contains great graphics, excellent use of the system's 3D capability, lots of customization options, fun sound effects, and a whole lot to do, all of which is completely hampered by a disappointing interface which will seriously mar your enjoyment of the title and may just make you wish you'd stuck with a computer version.

The Sims 3 is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Crude Humor, Mild Violence, Sexual Themes. This game can also be found on: Nintendo DS, PC, PS3, Wii, Xbox 360 and Mobile Phone.

Article first published as Nintendo 3DS Review: The Sims 3 on Blogcritics.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Super Monkeys, Super Balls, Super Monkey Ball 3D is a Super 3DS Launch TItle

In our review of the Nintendo 3DS, we highlighted Super Street Fighter IV as one of the top titles available at the system's launch. We found ourselves hugely impressed by the graphics, use of the dual screens, and controls. Of course, fighters are not for everyone, some people like just a wee bit more insanity and hijinx in their 3D handheld titles, so if you're looking for another great launch title when picking up your 3DS, may we humbly suggest Super Monkey Ball 3D.

There is almost nothing about Super Monkey Ball 3D which doesn't impress. Critics out there may point out that the game is, essentially, a whole lot like other Monkey Ball titles, but that's not a bad thing,Super Monkey Ball 3D and may actually be one of the reasons the title works so well. We are of the opinion that it's going to take some time for developers and publishers to work out the best way to utilize the 3D aspects of the new handheld, and what better way to allow your team to spend time on the 3D bits than to take a franchise and concept you already know works?

Super Monkey Ball 3D contains three main game modes – there's the monkey rolling inside the ball to pick up bananas mode (the classic one, Monkey Ball), the kart racer mode (Monkey Race), and the bash the other monkeys to get more bananas than they have mode (Monkey Fight).

In the classic mode, you are offered two different control schemes – you can either utilize the analog pad to control your monkey through the course from start to finish, or you can use the 3DS' motion sensor. And here would be our one main complaint with the title – it is nearly impossible to use the motion sensor and keep the 3D turned on without losing your mind and/or getting a headache. Simply put, you can't keep your eyes in the sweet spot to get a single 3D image and successfully move your monkey from point A to point B. We tried to do it sitting, we tried to do it standing, and we even tried to do it lying down, but no position that we could possible contort ourselves into allowed us to maintain the correct visual line while using the motion sensing controls. Of course, turn the 3D off and the motion sensing works perfectly and adds a great dimension to the game.

Really though, that's a pretty minor quibble in an otherwise brilliant game. SMB3D features bright, beautiful graphics, and in puzzle mode as you're roll your monkey-in-a-ball to all the bananas and then to the exact Super Monkey Ball 3Dbefore the clock expires, you may have to keep telling yourself to pay no attention to what's going on around you.

The same is true in Monkey Race, which operates like any Mario Kart-style racer. There are power-ups, crazy courses, unlockable characters, and karts with different attributes. The sense of speed you get in the game may not be the greatest, but whimsy is certainly at a maximum with the difficulty level somewhere in the middle.

It is Monkey Fight which, along with Monkey Race, can be played either in single-player or multiplayer mode. The goal of the mode is, ostensibly, to beat up other monkeys and gain their bananas. However, after our demo of theSuper Monkey Ball 3D game a month ago and sitting to play it again, it appears to be far easier to obtain a win by ignoring all the other monkeys entirely and just grabbing any bananas that pop into existence within the mini-world. We certainly wouldn't classify this as a major disappointment with the title, and the multiple rules variations allowed in the Monkey Fight add to the amusement, but winning ought to be tied in more with the actual fight mechanic (which simply amounts to bashing the other monkeys, the result of which is to stun them and cause them to lose a few bananas) than it is.

We don't believe that Super Monkey Ball 3D is necessarily the killer title that will convince everyone and their uncle that they need to go out and buy a Nintendo 3DS, but it is certainly one of the best games we've played thus far on the system. It isn't the longest title either, but it is an excellent continuation of the franchise and an amusing game that can stand on its own be it played in 3D or 2D.

Super Monkey Ball 3D is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB for Cartoon Violence.

Article first published as Nintendo 3DS Review: Super Monkey Ball 3D on Blogcritics.

Ridge Racer 3D- The Franchise Nitros onto the 3DS

Arriving just in time for the launch of the Nintendo 3DS is Namco Bandai's latest entry into the venerable Ridge Racer series, titled, not surprisingly, Ridge Racer 3D. If you've read our review of the system, you know that we think many of the launch titles less than stellar – not bad, just less than stellar – and Ridge Racer 3D falls squarely into that category. Essentially, it's like the majority of other Ridge Racer titles but, you know, in 3D – not eye-popping cars coming out of the screen 3D, but 3D.

First the bad. Where the game really falls flat is with its graphics, there simply isn't enough going on in the background nor along the sides of the courses and, even if the cars themselves are pretty, very few other visuals are as fully realized. Don't get us wrong, some backgrounds and environments look beautiful, but not all of them. Reflections which appear on your car are blocky and indistinct, and the majority of the buildings you whiz by on courses are little more than large rectangular shapes with smaller rectangular shapes standing in as windows. Pass a spectator stand on a course and confetti flies down—large rectangular bits of confetti—some of which, annoyingly, stick to your windshield (the 3D screen) as you race until they magically disappear. They don't fall off or fly away, they just disappear, but as they don't look real to begin with, you'd probably wish they weren't there at all. Leaves which do the same thing look better, but still feels kind of gimmicky.

Then, and this really isn't good, you're probably going to want to play with the sound turned off. There are tons of music choices available and some of them are actually quite fun to listen to, but the woman who provides the "encouragement" as you're racing is more than a little annoying. The problem isn't simply that she repeats the same phrases over and over again (although she definitely does do that), it's that the way she is everything is grating the first time out (not that the Ridge Racer franchise is really known for great commentary).

Where the game succeeds is with the sense of speed you get from most courses. Go fast enough and your tail lights get blur trails. And, while the game starts out on a far too easy difficulty level, play a few sets of courses in Grand Prix mode (the game's main mode) and things start to ratchet up to the point where its enjoyable.

Ridge Racer 3D features a whole lot of unlockable and customizable (in terms of look) cars, and several different ways to race them. The game, as with all Ridge Racer titles, focuses heavily on drifting in and out of corners, and now not only is there the regular drift mode, but a one-button drift as well. Racing newcomers will definitely like the addition of this one-button mode which will begin a drift when you press the designated button and end the drift when you release it. Nitros are still present in the game too, and there are several different methods of setting your nitros depending on your race style.

There are also a lot of different courses. The goal each time is simple – go flat out in straightaways and drift into and out of corners. Keep going flat out, use your nitros appropriately, drift well, and use you opponents slipstream and you'll do very well in the game early on. Planning an appropriate racing line into and out of corners becomes more important as you go, but Ridge Racer 3D isn't one of those titles where you feel as though you need to stick to a line or even understand what one is in order to succeed. That is to say, this is arcade racing, not simulation.

The game also uses the new StreetPass system to download other players' ghosts for you to race against. That is certainly interesting, but not really a reason to go out and buy the game or the system.

As with so many of the 3DS launch titles we've seen, and even the 3DS itself, we're convinced that Ridge Racer 3D is a great start – it shows some great highs of what racing on the system can be all about, but it also has some significant issues. From the uneven graphics (which really do range from excellent to hugely disappointing) to the amount of time it takes to get the game to a significant level of difficulty, there are certainly things we look forward to seeing change in any follow-up that might get released down the line.

Ridge Racer 3D is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB for Mild Suggestive Themes.

Article first published as Nintendo 3DS Review: Ridge Racer 3D on Blogcritics.

An In-Depth Look at the Nintendo 3DS

Just about four and a half years ago, Nintendo got a big win in terms of the "cool" factor with the release of their current generation home console, the Wii. The system, with its incredibly unique and wholly intuitive control scheme, impressed nearly everyone and certainly brought those who weren't traditionally considered "gamers" into the fold.

Now, with their latest handheld release, the Nintendo 3DS, the company again takes home a massive "W" in terms of cool. The portable system is not only backwards compatible with DS and DSi titles while sporting better graphics' capabilities, it features glasses-free 3D play.

Okay, unless you don't follow anything about gaming at all (and have a tendency to ignore all technology stories in general), you probably already knew that glasses-free 3D bit. There has been talk about the 3DS since before Nintendo released the latest updated to the DSi, the DSi XL, in March of 2010. But, while buzz has been at a maximum for the system, visibility hasn't. Now that is all changing, the system is releasing in the United States this Sunday, March 27, with a suggested retail price of $249.99, which happens to be what a Wii cost when it was first released.

Before we delve into what it all works like, let's take a look at some facts about the new handheld. The 3DS most closely resembles the look and feel of the DSi, not the DSi XL. The two systems (DSi and 3DS) boast nearly the same length (5.3 inches for the 3DS and 5.4 for the DSi), are both 2.9 inches deep, and closed a 3DS is .8 high whereas a closed DSi is .74 inches high. In terms of weight, the DSi is 7.5 ounces and the 3DS a negligible half-ounce heavier.

The screens on the DSi are both 3.25 inch displays boasting 256x192 resolution (and the bottom, of course, is a touchscreen). The 3DS does not sport such uniformity of display – the 3D top screen is wider than the DSi one, measuring 3.53 inches on the diagonal with aNintendo 3DS resolution of 800x240 (3.02 inches wide x 1.81 inches high). The bottom touchscreen (which is not 3D) is in roughly the same proportion as the screens on the DSi, but only measures 3.02 on the diagonal. However, the 3DS' bottom screen resolution is greater than either of the DSi's screens (320x240 on the 3DS) and whereas the DSi only supports 260,000 colors, the 3DS touchscreen has the same 16.77 million color capability that the 3D top screen can produce.

In terms of controls and other doodads on the 3DS, the system comes with a motion sensor and gyro, a telescoping stylus, a 3D front camera (which means that there are two lenses on the front), and an analog pad for your left hand. Gone from the DSi is the incredibly annoying sound toggle on the left side of the case, it has been replaced here by a slider, and another slider exists on the edge of the top screen so that you can adjust the level of 3D you're seeing (it goes from full-on 3D to perfectly flat 2D). There is also a home screen button on the 3DS so that you can instantly be brought back to the console's main menu.

Available in two colors, aqua blue and cosmo black, the handheld comes with a 2GB SD card (for all your save file needs), and a charging cradle (you can also connect your AC adaptor directly to the system). Plus, better than that, it can be charged with your old DSi/DSi XL AC adaptor, and that's a good thing because you're going to need to charge it… a lot. Battery life, sadly, is relatively short, approximately five to eight hours if you're playing in 3D. The device also supports wireless, allows you to create a Mii, and has good old stereo sound (which is still a little tinny, but really not bad) as well as a headphone jack.

There are a couple of games and other fun things included in the box as well. We'll get into them more later, but as a basic rundown, there's a sound application that lets you listen to music and sound effects as well as play with them, something called AR Games (AR standing for "augmented reality") which has a little game pop up in the real world based on your pointing the camera at an included card, a game called Face Raiders, and perhaps most notably StreetPass. When activated, StreetPass can send your Mii to another 3DS should you get within a certain distance even of other 3DS systems even if your device is in Sleep Mode. Some save data from games can also be transmitted using StreetPass.

So, that's what it is – sleek and pretty and with some really fancy updates from the traditional DSi. Well, it's that and it's an incredibly cool idea, but is it functional? Mostly.

The way that glasses-free 3D works, essentially, is by creating a "sweet spot" where the two images the display is producing converge. The method Nintendo is using to create the image is apparently a "parallax barrier," but we're not going to get into the specifics here about just how the technology works, Nintendo 3DSinstead we're taking the Arthur C. Clarke quote "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" and referring to the technique by which Nintendo has made the device function as "Nintendo Magic." So, with the Nintendo Magic being employed, in order to see a single 3D image, the user needs to be positioned at that sweet spot. If they are not in the right spot the user either gets a fuzzy image (because it's a little of both but not exactly in the right proportion or not converging at the correct spot) or entirely one or the other of the 3DS' pictures and not 3D.

That all sounds complicated, but it isn't. The truth is that with just a few minutes of practice, and figuring out where that 3D slider ought to be positioned for you, you'll know exactly how to hold the 3DS comfortably and so that it produces the correct effect.

Okay, big question time – does it work; does the new 3DS produce an enjoyable gaming experience? Yes and no. As with the Nintendo Wii, while the company has proven themselves hugely adept at creating a great, new, different, and potentially wonderful way of gaming, they've left a whole lot in the developers' hands as it relates to the games themselves.

No one would suggest that producing a videogame is an easy thing to go about doing – there is far more than you might think required to produce a "good" game (or even a bad one). Developers and publishers though know and understand the requirements to put out a game for a traditional, 2D, regular old controller setup. As we saw however with the Wii launch (and the original DS one with its touchscreen component if we're going to be honest), it took some time for everyone to really get up to speed on how best to utilize the motion sensing controls so that it didn't simply feel like a gimmick.

Now, with the 3DS, there's going to be a whole new learning curve for developers and publishers. And, if the half-dozen titles we have checked out on our 3DS are any indication, while it is unquestionably possible to make a really great title on the 3DS, Super Street Fight IV 3D Edition is a must-have if you're anything close to a genre fan or simply want to really see what a 3DS can do, whereas other titles like Pilotwings Resort and even Madden Football prove wholly unremarkable.

Super Street Fighter IV looks utterly fantastic, with several different depth levels, crisp images, and smooth action. It also doesn't require you to change your focus between the 3D top screen and the 2D bottom screen that much, games which required a lot of up and down—like if you want to choose your plays in Madden—proved less successful in our initial testing.

Super Street Fighter IV also, as a 2D fighter in a 3D world has characters moving left and right, as opposed to in and out of the screen, which the majority of other titles we saw opted to do. Not having seen a ton of titles, we don't yet know if the reason SSFIV works better is simply Super Street Fighter IV 3Dthat it's a better game or if there is something inherently more enjoyable about playing games on the 3D screen which don't constantly bombard you with in-and-out of the screen movements (please note, do not consider these proper reviews of the titles, just first impressions based upon our experiments with the 3DS). SSFIV also sports better graphics and creates far more background images than any of the other launch titles we saw which too may be the reason it succeeds to a greater degree than the others. There are, in short, any number of factors which may result in a better or worse 3D gaming experience and it will take time to work out the best ways to go about making a title.

Moving on, while the inclusion of the motion sensing controls and gyrsocope may initially appear puzzling when one considers just how small the sweet spot for viewing is, as the included game, Face Raiders, actually proves that the concept is workable (as does AR Games which is based on the same idea). Face Raiders, while not truly a stellar title, simply shows the capability of the cameras and the ability to stay in the sweet spot while moving. The game requires you to take a picture of a face and then superimposes that face on a little floaty alien creature. You then shoot at the creature before they destroy your reality (rendered using a live feed from the cameras on the 3DS.

The question of whether or not developers will be able to use the gyroscope and motion sensing in order to create a real, full-fledged game is slightly more murky. Face Raiders and AR Games are more a proof of concept than full titles.

On the whole, the issue in combining a motion sensing or gyroscope controlled game with 3D images is this – the user's head will have to stay perfectly aligned in the exact relationship and attitude to the screen at all times in order for them not to get a fuzzy image so they can actually play the game.

If it doesn't make sense why that might be difficult, we've concocted a little at home experiment for you. Grab a book, pick out a single word on a single line and then spin, tilt, and otherwise manipulate the book while keeping your head in the exact same position in regards to the book as it was when you started all the while maintaining your eye focus on that single word. You'll find that doing so can be exceedingly difficult. Hopefully developers realize the exact same thing and do not ask more of the gamer or the system than it is possible for either to successfully achieve. AR Games and Face Raiders show that such an interactive experience is possible (and AR Games is truly an amusing time), but how long until the principles displayed in them can be successfully recreated with a dungeon crawler or RPG or FPS or sidescroller or sports title remains unclear.

We hate to be so middling about it, but what we see right now is an incredible amount of potential that hasn't yet been fully harnessed in a game. The 3DS has a ton of stuff going for it and could certainly be the next big thing. If developers are able to successfully utilize what the system has to offer, the handheld could be just as groundbreaking, and just as successful, as the Wii.

What we can say about the 3DS unequivocally at this exact moment is the following – the screens look great and can produce exceptionally pretty graphics, the move to a sound slide over a rocker is a wonderful change from the old DS, the inclusion of an analog control and a telescoping stylus too are good changes, and the 3D effect works provided that you're sitting in the right spot.

Oh yeah, and it's cool, the 3DS is exceptionally cool. We said a while back after the first time we held a 3DS that it was going to be on your kids' Christmas list this year (although we're told you should speak to your doctor before you allow a child under seven to play with 3D turned on) and now that we've been able to examine it more, we'd like to amend that – the Nintendo 3DS may just end up on the Christmas list of every kid, no matter their age.

Article first published as Console Review: The Nintendo 3DS on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In Which I Again Suggest that Neil Patrick Harris Deserves an Emmy for HIMYM

As I noted back in January with the "Bad News" episode of How I Met Your Mother, as they continue in their runs, sitcoms have a tendency to become more dramatic. My favorite example of this, and the one which pops most readily into my head, is Mad About You. As that series progressed, Paul and Jamie suffered serious marital strife and at one point it actually looked as though their relationship may be coming to a close. Eventually they worked it all out and the show continued, but there were some awfully dark episodes.

How I Met Your Mother, while it does do dramatic things, rarely ends up going towards a dark place (except, of course, for that episode back in January where I discussed their potential turn to the dramatic, but let's ignore that). Last night's episode where Barney finally met his father is another perfect example of how HIMYM balances the funny and the serious without having to go dark.

I have long argued that Neil Patrick Harris is deserving of more than just an Emmy nomination for his role as Barney Stinson (hePhoto Credit:  Sonja Flemmming/CBS ©2011 was nominated in 2007, 2008, 2009, & 2010 and for a Golden Globe in 2009 & 2010). With any luck, voters will see his work in last night's episode, "Legendaddy," and he will finally have the recognition that he deserves for his work in the series.

For those unaware of his history, Barney Stinson was raised by his single mother and didn't know his father for an extensive number of years. Initially, in fact, he kind of believed his dad to be Bob Barker (his mother misled him) which inspired Barney to perfect his Price is Right knowledge and go on the game show where he performed stupendously in order to impress dear old dad… not that Barker was actually his father.

No, as we learned last night, Barney's dad, a one time roadie, is actually a driving instructor in White Plains, NY—roughly a 30 minute train ride north of New York City—who looks something like John Lithgow. He also looks something like the DMV tester I had in White Plains, NY when I took my road test, but that's neither here nor there and the guy who administered my road test was far more like Lithgow's character on Dexter than HIMYM. We also learned in this episode that driving instructors in White Plains, NY are well paid (either that or Barney's dad purchases expensive clothes second-hand).

Learning the truth about his father wasn't something that was easy for Barney to deal with and NPH played it all beautifully. There was Barney, desperately trying to do anything for his father's affection one minute and pushing the man away the next. Barney was, as I think is only natural, hugely conflicted about his feelings for this man who, despite not being able to parent Barney, went on to a nice life in the suburbs with a different family. Harris was deftly able to slide between playing the funny Photo Credit:  Sonja Flemmming/CBS ©2011 moments in the situation to playing the more dramatic ones, providing the perfect example to anyone who cared to see it of just how versatile an actor he truly is.

Credit must also, of course, be given to the writers for constructing the situation and for managing to incorporate the story of Marshall losing his father into that of Barney finding his. Although moments last night were unquestionably absurd, the episode's heart and soul (and a good deal of the humor) were squarely placed within the real world which made Barney's situation both happier and sadder than it otherwise would have been.

I have to admit that I found myself questioning some of the larger Barney mythology last night - I thought Barney never knew his father which is why he believed (mostly) the Bob Barker story. There were however definite indications in yesterday's episode that he remembered his dad from back in the day. I am not saying that the show has altered its history, I just couldn't put the pieces of the puzzle together as well as I would have liked.

As How I Met Your Mother continues on into the future (it was just renewed for another two seasons), I look forward to seeing more of Barney's story with his father unfold. I imagine that many of my lingering questions and doubts will be answered and that eventually Harris will get an Emmy for his role.

Article first published as Barney Meets his dad on How I Met Your Mother on Blogcritics.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Talking Baseball, Baseball and MLB 11: The Show

A little bit more than a month ago, we had the opportunity to check out MLB 11: The Show at a demo day. We stood there with our Move controller and after a couple of minutes became truly adept at bashing the ball out of the park in the home run derby (the only portion of the game which supports the Move). The other big innovation to the title for this year is the addition of analog controls, something we got to see but weren't terribly proficient at during the demo day.

We left the demo impressed with the graphics of the title, liking the utilization of the Move for the home run derby, and being somewhat befuddled by the "Pure Analog Control System." We were pretty sure that it would add a great dimension to gameplay, but without having the opportunity to really sit down for hours and get used to it, we couldn't be certain.

Well, now that we have sat down with the final version of MLB 11: The Show, we can say unequivocally that the Pure AnalogMLB 11: The Show Control System, while it may not be an unbridled success, does in fact add a lot to the game. It will also, as we discovered at the demo day, take a whole lot getting used to. The system is all about timing and until you work out the timing, you're going to have a lot of trouble doing anything right.

Starting at the beginning, what this analog scheme lets you do is utilize the right analog stick of the PS3 controller in order to pitch, swing, and throw. The throwing and pitching takes a whole lot less time to get used to, it's getting that hit timing right that will take most of your energy.

For pitching, after selecting a pitch and a location, a meter, well two meters but they're attached, appear on screen. One of these meters shows how far down and then back up you need to move your right stick in order to release at the correct time and the other monitors your side-to-side movement during the same period (so you know if the ball will go left or right of your intended target). Different pitchers have different timing, and pitching from the stretch also times out differently than with a big wind-up, all of which means that you're going to have to pay attention to what you're doing and that your warm-up throws before entering the game are important.

Hitting is both more simple and more complicated. It is far more of a back and forward motion on the stick (back to cock the bat and forward to swing), and getting the timing right proves far more difficult than it does with pitching. With pitching, even if you don't hit your exact target you can be okay. You can also give up a massive homerun, but that's not a guarantee whereas with hitting, if you're not timing it perfectly the best you can really hope for is a foul ball that doesn't get caught (outside of whiffing, the worst you can hope for is an embarrassing little roller and being an easy out).

Yes, there's fielding too with the analog system, but we'd be lying if we said that we'd been able to work out any drastic changes between your movement of the control stick MLB 11: The Showin one way versus another as it relates to throwing. Some balls were thrown hard, others lightly, and while there is an indicator to let you know how hard your throw will be, it's exceptionally difficult to get the indicator where you want it. Whether it's there or not though, the ball still goes to the right base. There are unquestionably nuances that are supposed to exist with the throwing scheme that don't, but it's certainly a good first effort.

The analog settings definitely takes some time and some practice (less practice if you lower the difficulty setting), but do add a lot of fun to the game, making the title more interactive than just pushing a button. For those who prefer the traditional button-pushing that is still available as an option.

As for game modes, MLB 11 brings back its signature Road to the Show this year. The new iteration of the create-and-improve-your-own-player mode is deeper than previous versions. Amongst other things, there is some new training stuff and you no longer are required to get help with fielding. But, as you don't actually play a full game in Road to the Show – you just get to be your guy during "pivotal" moments – it has never really intrigued us all that much.

While Road to the Show is obviously one of the highlights for many people, if you're like me what you really care about is the franchise mode. I play sports titles so that I can take over the reins of my favorite team and make things work the way I think they should work, and MLB 11 sports a great franchise mode. You are put in charge of everything and control your own destiny. If you start that franchise mode without having worked out the analog system and get blown out in those first few games because of it, you are going to hear about in the papers the next morning (you're also going to hear about it with the in-game commentary, but that's a different story).

Then, of course, there's the true meat and potatoes of the title – playing a baseball game. We've talked about the controls already, but the truth is that even when you don't have the control scheme down, a game is a whole MLB 11: The Showlot of fun. MLB 11 does absolutely everything it can to bring you into the heart of the game, the graphics are truly outstanding and while you can customize camera angles to your liking, we really loved the stadium specific broadcast cameras. For this year they've actually gone out, looked at the camera angles you get in each stadium during a broadcast, and replicated them within the game. It's an odd level of realism to think about, but it makes for a great inclusion.

The biggest problem we ran into in terms of actual gameplay is the length of each ballgame. Games can regularly run about 45 minutes for nine innings which means that it takes a whole long time to progress from April thru October. By our rough estimate, if you play 45 minutes a game, 162 games will take over 121 hours… and that's if you're not making lineup changes, altering the price of popcorn, and trying to get a great deal just before the trade deadline. Start doing lineup changes, swapping out a lot of pitchers late in the game, or tweaking the price of a soda and you're looking at a really long season. It's going to take dedication for folks to get through a full season, and while individual games are fun we do wish the overall season could be executed more swiftly (without having the computer manage games).

The new version of MLB 11: The Show also features the ability to play a co-op game (offline or online), as well as being able to have A.I. manage your online team. There are also weekly online challenges which put you into specific situations to see how you fare and an online leaderboard to keep track of how well you do in them.

But, we'll say it again, the meat and potatoes of any sports game is how well actual games are played, and MLB 11 does an absolutely fantastic job on that score. The play-by-play team of Eric Karros, Matt Vasgersian, and Dave Campbell actually manage to sound intelligent and like the player animations, don't repeat themselves on an all-too-frequent basis.

If you've been a follower of MLB 11: The Show for years on end, you're not going to notice a ton of new stuff this year, obviously the big MLB 11: The Showhighlight is the not quite ready for primetime analog system (we can't wait to see what it morphs into next year), but you are still going to enjoy the game. For those few folks out there with a 3D TV, the game is 3D compatible, but even without that, The Show really makes you a part of a baseball game, delivering an excellent in-game experience and what more could you really ask for than that?

MLB 11: The Show is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB.

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

Friday, March 18, 2011

Megamind Proves to be Mega Good

The question of whether the existence of a superhero necessarily leads to the existence of a supervillain is not exactly new to the super-people genre.  However, it may never have been dealt with in quite as fun and amusing a way as it is within the DreamWorks' animated comedy Megamind

Directed by Tom McGrath (Madagascar), Megamind is a satiric take on the superhero genre, focusing—as has been done occasionally but certainly not with regularity—on the villain, in this case, the titular Megamind (voiced by Will Ferrell).  Opening with a spin on the Superman legend, this feature starts off with Megamind leaving his about-to-be-destroyed home planet as a baby, right around the same time that another alien child is leaving his planet for the same reasons.  Unfortunately for our villain, this other child—who grows up to be known as the superhero Metro Man (Brad Pitt)—bumps poor Megamind into a prison while taking for himself a posh, comfortable upbringing, all of which leads Megamind to a life of supervillainy. 

The film really turns everything about the genre on its head early on when Megamind actually succeeds in defeating Metro Man and is left with that ultimate question about what to do next.  The screenplay by Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons is not only highly amusing, but intelligent as well.  Both Megamind and Metro Man recognize their yin-yang-ness, that one cannot happily exist without the other to play off of.  Of course, with Metro Man gone, Megamind, after growing bored with life, opts to create a new superhero so that he will again have a purpose. 

Things don’t go hugely well with that villainous plot though and rather than choosing a worthy human to become his enemy, he ends up saddled with Hal Stewart (Jonah Hill), a camera man for the local news who has been smitten by reporter Roxanne Richie (Tina Fey) for ages.  Richie is the Lois Lane of the tale, the oft kidnapped by Megamind, oft rescued by Metro Man, damsel in distress who still manages to file a report no matter the catastrophe befalling her.

The film succeeds for a number of reasons, from the excellent voice performances given by the cast to the outstanding animation, but much of its triumphs truly lie within the script.  Satire is not easy to pull off, particularly when said satire is aimed at an audience of all ages, but Megamind makes it look incredibly easy even if life for the lead character is always stupendously difficult.

Will Ferrell's sometimes over the top comedic buffoonery is a perfect fit within the film, especially as he is paired with the more understated David Cross who voices Megamind's henchman, Minion.  In fact, just about everything in the film comes together and meshes perfectly.  From beginning to end, Megamind not only manages to be the perfect satire, but still to engage in the exact sort of superhero action sequences that one would want from a film in the traditional version of the genre as well.

Perhaps the perfect example of the film's managing to both be straight and humorous is Megamind's lair and his nefarious inventions.  His hideout is Bond villain-esque (as he is well aware when he goes so far to spin in his chair while petting one of his creations Ernst Stavro Blofeld-style) and yet most of the torture devices within it—like a wheel with a bunch of spiked shoes—are clearly a joke.

It is hard to find fault with Megamind and its brand of super-hero and –villain insanity.  Even the film's Blu-ray presentation is exceptionally good.  From the smallest crease in Megamind's latest cape to dangling spiders to the tassels on Metro Man's super-suit, the level of detail is tremendous.  The colors are incredibly rich and vibrant, popping off the screen in a HD presentation that is sure to impress any fan of CG animation.  The film sports a 7.1 channel TrueHD soundtrack which equals the visual presentation.  So many films with big action sequences have a tendency to make those portions exceptionally loud while the dialogue ends up muddy and indistinct, but there are no such problems here.  You will find yourself fully immersed in every battle that takes place, smack in the middle of every musical montage, and yet hear at perfect volume and clarity every line of dialogue.

The Blu-ray also comes with a very good set of bonus features and a DVD.  The younger set will certainly most appreciate a new Megamind short which retains all the wit and charm of the main feature.  Also appealing to that group will be a video comic book and a comic creator.  The latter of these two takes scenes from the film and allows one to include comic book-style sound effects bubbles over the action in a scene.   There are also two different extra tracks to accompany the main feature, one of these simply offers background information and basic insights into the film while the other is a full on picture-in-picture track with McGrath, producers Lara Breay and Denise Nolan Cascino, and Schoolcraft and Simons.  This is available also as an audio track alone, but as a picture-in-picture track you get some behind the scenes segments as well as looks at various levels of storyboards and animation (this does cause you to lose some of the commentary though).  There are also pieces on the cast, Megamind's gadgets, and one on his lair.  Finally, there is a look at how animators sometimes need to perform live action scenes in order for them to correctly construct expressions and look as well as a piece on how to draw Megamind, a deleted scene, and a short animated rap.

Megamind is the perfect example of how to take a classic genre and brilliantly spin it into something new and incredibly enjoyable.  With a smart script, great visuals, and excellent performances it is the exact sort of film that one will want to sit down with the whole family and watch.

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

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Contemplating the Hereafter

Should this review be looked back on in five years the following initial statements may appear wholly irrelevant, but in light of current events it is an idea impossible to ignore.  Clint Eastwood's latest directorial effort, Hereafter, opens with a massive tsunami wiping away a town and providing one of the film's main characters, Marie Lelay (Cécile De France) with a near-death experience.  While due to the realism of the depiction it will never be an easy scene to witness, following the earthquake and tsunami that just occurred in Japan, it becomes an exceptionally difficult one.

Hereafter, while it does postulate on an existence after this one, isn't really about devastation and death, it's about those who get left behind and how they find ways to cope, understand, and move on.  Lelay's life is forever changed by how close she comes to death andstill from Hereafter the visions she had of people in the afterlife.  It's something she can't shake from her mind and which prompts her to leave her post as a news anchor in order to try and come to grips with, and understand, what it was that happened to her and what she has seen.

The film doesn't only focus on Lelay, rather it is a drama with three distinct stories all of which overlap, if only briefly.  The second story in the film is that of Marcus (Frankie & George McLaren), a young man with an alcoholic/drug addict mother who loses his twin brother—the good brother—in a car accident.  Always on the verge of being put in a foster home prior to the event, after it, that which he and his brother struggled so much to avoid comes to pass and Marcus must attempt to move on without his constant companion or mother.

As for the third story, that is of George Lonegan (Matt Damon).  George, as a child, suffered a near death experience due to an illness and has since found himself with the ability to communicate with the deceased loved ones of any living person George touches. 

While for George his trauma is much further in the past than that of either of the other two leads, his ability hasn't made it any easier to get past what happened still from Hereafterto him.  He views what he can do, rather than as a blessing, as a curse.  By communing with the deceased and by constantly taking part in other people's tragedies, George has become mired in death, depression, and upset.  The distress has led him to removing himself from that life and from any number of social interactions.

Even outside of the current events in Japan, Hereafter is not an easy movie to watch, particularly the opening sequences for Lelay and Marcus, scenes where the audience knows exactly what is going to take place and is simply waiting for the horror to occur.  Eastwood doesn't milk the issue, he is certainly not purposefully pursuing a course to upset any member of the audience, he is simply deftly constructing a sequence of events that allow the rest of the film to take place. 

Hereafter is quite a contemplative movie, pondering what it means to live, what it means to cope with both life and death, and even what it means to die.  It is the sort of movie which, once the credits roll, will make you want to turn to the person next to you and discuss exactly what it is that you have witnessed.  Much like the larger questions of live and death themselves, while you'll want to think by yourself on it for a little while, you won't want your thoughts to remain within forever.

The film represents an interesting departure for Eastwood.  While he has taken on an incredible number of projects spanning multiple genres over the course of his career as a director, none focus quite so heavily on such weighty issues.  And, while certainly a movie that will make you wonder, it is not as engaging as some of his other work.  The three different storylines all still from Hereafterprove interesting, and though it runs for more than two hours, you still don't quite get as much on each of the characters and their stories as you might like.  For the majority of the time it feels as though the characters are headed on a collision course, destined to have their lives intersect and be changed forever.  While they do all meet and their lives are altered as a result of the meetings, that entire ending portion of the film feels more of an afterthought than anything else.  It is as though Eastwood and writer Peter Morgan have the characters meet solely because the format of the film virtually requires it, not because they felt any true impetus to make those meetings occur.

The blu-ray release of Hereafter, much like the film itself, is good, but not outstanding.  A significant portion of the film takes place in dark, shadow-laden areas, and all too often the Blu-ray does not pick up any details within those shadows (this may be a case of directorial intent but is still frustrating).  It is also an inconsistently grainy transfer.  The muted color palette is wholly appropriate to the subject matter, and detail in better lit scenes is good.  The opening tsunami is, perhaps unfortunately at the present time, unquestionably the most showy scene and best highlight of the high definition transfer. It looks exceptionally good, but that only serves to point out the unfortunate timing and horror of it all.  The same is true for the 5.1 DTS-HD MA presentation – the tsunami sequence brilliantly places you right at the heart of the tragedy with water swirling all around you.   City noises and ambiance are the main uses of the surround speakers and are effective but not heavily utilized save in the tsunami sequence, an explosion later in the film, and the visions of the afterlife.

Hereafter has been released with two special features.  The first, entitled "Focus Points," are individual behind the scenes featurettes discussing various aspects of the filmmaking process.  They are available to be watched directly from the disc's main menu or can be accessed via onscreen cues during the feature.  Although some do have a little more of an EPK feel than one might like, they are informative and interesting.  The second special feature is an extended edition of a  full-length retrospective on Eastwood's career entitled The Eastwood Factor.  It is narrated by Morgan Freeman and completely engrossing.  It is one of those special features that is well worth the time it takes to sit down and watch it.

Hereafter may not be Clint Eastwood's best work to date, but like so much of what he creates, it is still worth the time it takes to sit down and watch.  Perhaps its best aspect is that rather than presenting a fully realized vision for what occurs after death, it gives but the merest sketchy outlines and overtly eschews answering such questions, leaving the viewer to wonder and think rather than rage against an idea they don't accept.

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

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Fighting on (and About) the Homefront

What exactly is it that you look for in a first person shooter?  Is it a plethora of weapons with which to exterminate your opponents?  Is it a good fighting mechanic?  Is it a great story?  Eye-popping graphics?  Is it just multiplayer goodness?  The latest release from Kaos Studios and THQ, Homefront, attempts to be all of these things, and as with so many games/movies/books/stories that attempt to be everything for everyone, Homefront ends up falling a little flat on all counts.  Kaos is clearly swinging for the fences here, and while they didn't strike out, what they have is little more than a ground-rule double.

Highly touted with Homefront is the fact that its story is penned by film legend John Milius (Apocalypse Now, Red Dawn, Clear and Present Danger, and Medal of Honor: European Assault are among his writing credits).  Unquestionably there is a great background story at play here, but it's a background story that doesn't really ever make a difference in terms of the game.  As the tale goes, the year is 2027 and the Greater Korean Republic, led by Kim Jong-Il's son, Kim Jong-Un, has managed to take over a substantial portion of the world.  They have even successfully detonated an EMP in near-Earth orbit over the United States, destroying anything with an electrical circuit (GoldenEye-style), and taken over much of the U.S. 

There is, naturally, a resistance, and that's where you come in.  You are the new guy in the resistance's Northern California arm, and you go out on a bunch Homefrontof missions designed to aid the good guys in various ways (steal the plans, hijack the device, that kind of generic thing). 

It's quite the in-depth background tale and there are even various "hidden" (they glow so they're not terribly well hidden) papers you can pick up as you go through the game which provide even more information about the world.  Should you perish for whatever reason, while the game reloads to the closest checkpoint (it's an autosave title with no option of creating multiple save spots), you get a still image of some moment from the Korean occupation.

That is all great, that background tale of how the world went from where we are today to its version of 2027 is fantastic, it's just also completely irrelevant in terms of the actual game.  Homefront is an FPS which sends you, almost without exception, down a single navigable path, asking you to kill anyone who may get in your way, and if you're good at what you do, you do it without ever getting close enough to see the whites of their eyes.  That means that it doesn't matter who the enemy may be and what background story may have been created for the game.

Homefront funnels you down this single pathway by placing debris everywhere it doesn't want you to go.  The U.S. is in tatters in the story so there ought to be fallen objects blocking your path everywhere you turn… Homefrontkind of, but not really.  It's really just an excuse to keep you going where they want you to go.  Very few titles offer you the opportunity to actually dig into a clearly moveable pile of debris and forge your own path, and the fact that Homefront doesn't break this mold is certainly not a knock against it that can't be applied to any number of games.  No, the related specific knock against the title is the fact that it removes your agency as the player on a regular basis, not just by forcing you in one direction. 

Although there are voiceovers provided between missions, the missions themselves don't really feature cutscenes – everything takes place from your perspective.  Early on in the game this is used to shock you as innocents are murdered on the streets and you're helplessly tied up on a bus.  This would indeed be shocking if we hadn't seen this sort of thing repeatedly in movies and games – here it just feels like a poor attempt to convince you of the severity of the U.S.'s plight.

Within most missions though, Homefront doesn't bother handicapping you from helping folks by placing an object (like a bus) between you and them – it simply decides that you ought not be allowed to help.  When the game wants to deliver a little bit of plot (and within the missions there really is a only a little bit of plot), it tends to—oh so helpfully—remove your gun from your hands so that you can't actually do anything but listen.  On the occasions that it doesn't bother removing your guns from your hands, your bullets pass through everyone without affecting them.  It's as though the game is telling you, "Don't you get it, if you kill this guy who is about to tell you to keep heading straight and to fight the Koreans ahead of you and then steal the plans, you won't possibly know what to do.  You need him to drone on right now and that's why we're going to let that bullet you just put right between his eyes leave him unfazed."   

Whether I'm right or wrong with my potentially indiscriminant in-game killing, if I'm playing a first person shooter, I like the idea that my bullets actually do something all the time within the title.  If bullets can't hurt good guys as much as they hurt bad guys (and they can't), to me that removes a whole lot of realism to whatever the story may be.  Once you remove that level of realism you can't then ask me to accept that anything taking place is remotely real, and Homefront certainly wants you to buy into the mythology its creating wholesale.

Moving on before I find myself too bogged down in the story and agency problems of Homefront… time to discuss the actual firefights.  They're not bad.  They're not great, but they're certainly not bad.  As you would expect as a member of the resistance, you're hopelessly outmanned and outgunned on a regular basis, and that forces you Homefrontand your NPC buddies to come up with ingenious tactical maneuvers to defeat the enemy.  If only the game required ingenious tactical maneuvers to be used or allowed you to in any way coordinate your attack with said NPC buddies rather than having them just yell out to pull a flanking maneuver as they run from one bit of cover to the next without purpose.  Gosh, and then if there was some sort of cover mechanic that allowed you to just peak out a little bit from behind whatever sort of barrier your crouched behind, that could prove truly useful.  Yes, you can crouch in the game and you can even go prone, but you can't lock yourself into a spot behind a barrier and just peak out to shoot. 

Heading back to this "outmanned and outgunned" thing for a minute, it is wholly possible in Homefront to run out of ammunition… when the game wants you to and only when the game wants you to.  To be fair, that is most of the time, but it is exceptionally odd that should your mission require you destroying something with a grenade you are, for that moment, provided with an infinite number of grenades.  Yes, your HUD will only read as you're having a set quantity (we saw up to four grenades at a time), but if you run out they automatically refill. 

This may not be so hugely disappointing if there weren't terribly obvious ways around the problem of requiring something to be blown up when the player has, moronically, used all their explosives.  In fact, every gamer knows how you solve the problem of getting a character more weapons when he's exhausted his supply and there is no cache available – just spawn enemies with the weapons you need the player to use, the player can then kill the enemies and grab the necessary weapon.  It's not as though Homefront doesn't regularly spawn enemies either – if you happen to be looking in the right direction during certain fights you can see bad guys magically appear out of thin air.

The graphics, too, aren't really everything you'd want them to be.  There is certainly a lot of detail, but if you take a moment while you're trying unsuccessfully to shoot a friendly NPC, you're going to notice the jagged lines that make up the edges of their body  As for the voiceacting, it gets really old really quickly.  NPCs tell you the same things over and over again during a firefight and those who minimally advance the plot but take forever to do so very well may cause you to waste ammunition on them.

Homefront does feature extensive multiplayer capabilities, which will certainly add to the title's life and your enjoyment factor while playing.  The two main online modes are Ground Control and Team Deathmatch.  HomefrontWhile the latter plays out exactly like a deathmatch ought (and is a good deal of fun), Ground Control asks you and your team to control a set of objectives – hold them for longer and you win (again, it's a lot of fun).  Win, kill folks, and play well and you level up, allowing you to purchase new and better stuff.  Folks buying Homefront used should be aware that you won't be able to pass the fifth experience level if whomever owned the title previously used the included "battle code."  It is possible to purchase a new battle code on the PlayStation Network, but to expect to incur an extra out of pocket cost if you're buying used.

Lastly, it should be noted that there is an entirely different, potentially more important discussion about this game which didn't take place in this review as it is somewhat, but not wholly, outside a review's scope.  The story, with its near-future time period and basis on real people and events from today verges on fear-mongering.  Obviously FPS games need bad guys and interesting settings, but there are more than a few uncomfortable moments in Homefront when the story is unfolding and it is ascribing negative characteristics to the in-game avatars of real-world individuals.  Potentially valid arguments exist on both sides of the representations offered in the title and they are certainly things one ought to consider before, during, and after gameplay.

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

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Homefront on Blogcritics.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Trying to Flip The Switch

In reviewing Love & Other Drugs last week, I suggested that it was difficult to make a romantic comedy that really stood out and made you want to watch it because everyone knows what's going to happen in a romantic comedy from the minute the opening credits role.  I noted that Love & Other Drugs succeeds because Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway's performances are outstanding.  The 2010 Jennifer Aniston/Jason Bateman starrer, The Switch, has no such strength on which to recommend it.  To be clear, I don't think that Bateman or Aniston turn in subpar performances in the film, instead, they're just run of the mill ones in a perfectly run of the mill romantic comedy. 

The Switch opens to find two long-term friends, Wally (Bateman) and Kassie (Aniston), going about their typically self-centered lives –Wally is worried about the potential for a disease when Kassie drops the bomb on him that she wants to become pregnant and wants his help finding a sperm donor.  Wally isn't exactly okay with that, particularly as he's been in love with Kassie for years, not that she knows it.

With or without his help though, Kassie is determined that she wants to have a kid and finds a donor (Patrick Wilson) on her own.  A drunken Wally though pulls a "switch" and then the movie fast-forwards seven years, the seven wholly irrelevant years that cover the actual pregnancy Kassie desired, her complete change of heart about living in New York (she moves back home to Minnesota) ,and her next complete change of heart where she moves back to the city with a boy in tow who looks suspiciously like Wally and who has each and every idiosyncrasy with which Bateman imbues his character.

Rather than sticking with a discussion of the plot, a discussion which perhaps need not occur because anyone who has read the above can suss out the rest for themselves, let us move ahead to some of the other problems with the film.  First and foremost among the issues is that Josh Gordon and Will Speck's directing of Allan Loeb's screenplay (based on a story by Jeffrey Eugenides) fails to really convey the sense that this is a romantic comedy at all.  It unquestionably isn't a drama, but as there really is no humor present in the film one very well may question the category into which the piece falls.  While Bateman and Aniston may have the ability to do dramatic work, they both appear to believe that this is a comedy.  In a supporting role, Juliette Lewis as Kassie's friend Debbie is unquestionably hamming it up, and Jeff Goldblum as Wally's friend/boss Leonard is certainly in full comedic mode as well (and the best part of the picture if only because Goldblum is nearly always great to watch).

There is also a huge question about character motivation and believability.  Kassie's son, Sebastian (Thomas Robinson), is so clearly Wally's child from the moment we meet him that it seems implausible that Wally doesn't instantly recognize it.  Even if we hadn't seen the switch take place and even if Wally was drunk for it, our knowledge of what occurred would be immediate and Wally's ought to be as well.  As for Kassie, after returning to New York, she starts up a relationship with the donor, Roland, who is so totally and completely unlikable that it is simply impossible to believe that Kassie can find something remotely attractive about him.  Wilson's portrayal of this man causes one to question exactly what he was told about this character in his discussions with those working behind the scenes, and is another of the few clues we are given that this is a comedy – it would have to be a comedy for anyone to think Roland a potential love interest.

There is unquestionably a sort of horrific humor in the idea of someone swapping their sperm for another's, but that horrific humor is limited to exactly one scene in the film.  In a romantic comedy with a runtime of greater than 100 minutes, there has to be more than one funny scene, and in this particular case, the scene's humor is moderately lessened because the title of the film tells us precisely what is going to take place during it.  There isn't even a good deal of chemistry between Bateman and Aniston to make you really root for them to get together, the whole thing just plods along from opening credits to the closing ones, never really involving or intriguing the audience.

Among the special features included on the new Blu-ray release are a series of alternate and deleted scenes as well as a blooper real which, must like the rest of the movie, isn't terribly amusing.  There is also a standard behind-the-scenes featurette on the making of the film, but that is all.

Without question, the highlight of the film is its Blu-ray presentation.  The transfer looks good, there is a large degree of detail and while the colors are generally muted, there are some, the greens in particular, that really pop.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack won't wow you in any way (this is a romantic comedy), but is it still well-mixed, crisp, and clear.  The surrounds mainly come into play with the musical accompaniment and to provide a better sense of location, as one would expect, and perform well in that regard.

If you are a huge fan of Aniston or Bateman, you will most likely find something in the film of which to approve – neither actor delivers anything markedly different from their usual performance here.  If, however, you're simply looking for an enjoyable romantic comedy with which to spend your evening, you're going to be greatly disappointed – there is nothing terribly romantic nor comedic about The Switch.

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