Sunday, May 1, 2011

Red (2010)

More information here.

The Plot. The story is about a retired CIA operative, Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), who leads a quiet life talking on the phone with Sarah, his pension department representative. One day Frank is attacked by a team of special ops, who he defeats with ease. Since Frank knows that whoever tried to kill him would go after his loved ones and the only one he cares about is Sarah, he goes to Seattle to rescue her. It soon becomes obvious that for some reason a lot of the old operatives are being eliminated and Frank starts contacting his old acquaintances. Together the group begins to unravel a sinister plot.

General Thoughts. This is a really fun movie and I liked it very much. I got a lot of good laughs out of this. What I liked most about this was the cast. They pretty much took the better part of Hollywood oldschool action and drama actors and put them together to form a mix of nostalgic and modern action.
The actors that took part in this were indeed the best of the old Hollywood generation. Bruce Willis has always been a serious action hero and always plays pretty much the same role, from the first Die Hard to the   Sixth Sense, he's always the same. We like that and he's good at it and he's also exactly the way we like him in this one. Morgan Freeman is one of the best actors in Hollywood and also is pretty much the same he's always been - a warm, friendly old man with the hidden capability to do some serious damage. John Malkovich plays a paranoid crazy person in this one, but also stayed to the Malkovich we're used to. Then there's Helen Mirren, who we're used to seeing in drama and not in action. Seeing her handling a 50. cal heavy machine gun is quite different. While being a great action type with blazing guns and ruthlessness, she manages to keep the lady-like appearance we're used to. What all of these actors have in common? They're all quite old and seeing them in an action movie together is a little bit weird and even nostalgic, but it's still great.
When it comes to the plot, this was a pretty standard action movie with a lot of clichés but again, this was not what makes this movie so great. The same plot with a bunch of little known actors wouldn't have been this fun, so this is another one of the movies that depends strongly on the reputation of the actors. It's quite standard for an action movie have a lot of comedic value. Red can even be labeled as an action-comedy. There are loads of one-liners and other funny stuff and it's also quite amusing to see old people with moves like that.

All in all, this is a great blockbuster which mostly feeds on the fame and talent of old Hollywood stars, but at the same time actually works quite well. This one is more suitable for people who have grown up watching stars, like Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich, because for a person who is not familiar with these actors, this would seem like a simple cliché-ridden action flick. Not worth a lot as a movie, but an excellent source of nostalgia. I loved it.

6/10 Flogs

Friday, April 22, 2011

Portal 2 (2011)

More information here.

The Plot. Portal 2 continues the story of Portal (2007), in which you you are a random test subject in a testing facility for Aperture Science Enrichment Center. In Portal 2, the story continues and the same test subject, after completing the first game, is woken in a strange room by a robot named Wheatley. He tells the protagonist, that she is the last surviving test subject after the facility has been shut down. She has been asleep for a very long time (you can see the state of the bed she was in) and the facility is collapsing. Wheatley then proceeds to assist the protagonist in her escape.

General thoughts. Ooh, I've been waiting for this for a long time and let me tell you - the wait was totally worth it. This game is really very good. Funny, interesting and sometimes a bit complicated. The whole Portal series introduced something completely different to the world of gaming. This is at the same time a story-driven first person adventure, an interesting puzzle and also a fascinating solution to thinking differently about the puzzles.
The main thing that differs this game from any other puzzle-oriented games is the portal gun. This is a device that is capable of firing up to two portals that are connected to each-other. As something passes through one of these, it comes out of the other. All of the game mechanics are pretty much related to this. However, to mix things up a bit, the portals can only be fired upon special white surfaces, so the placement possibilities are usually limited. To make things a little bit easier, the protagonist is wearing some sort of leg braces that allow her to fall from great heights and not get hurt. This means that you can focus on the puzzle and not worry about falling to your death. Unless there's nothing to stop your fall, of course.

As I mentioned, the story starts off many years after the first one and since there isn't anyone to take care of the place, it's in a really bad state. The producers of the game did an amazing job on visualizing a decaying modern facility. You are accompanied by a funny little robot called Wheatley (Stephen Merchant). With him you'll go through many of the testing rooms you saw in the first game and you'll see how broken and old it all looks. Don't worry, though, during the game some of it will be rebuilt. There's also a lighting and shadow demo, where Wheatley leads you through a dark place and you can see how pretty all the shadows are. This is more of a showoff than an important part of the game, but it's still nice.
In the first game, you are led and instructed by an artificial intelligence, a robot called GLADoS. This spoils the story for people who haven't played the first part so don't read the next part if you're planning to play the first Portal.

As you know, you, who played the first Portal, in the end you killed GLADoS and she wasn't too happy about it. Now in the beginning of Portal 2, you get instructed by a random robotic voice with some pre-recorded messages and I was honestly disappointed for a moment, that there was no GLADoS, with any sarcastic remarks, but worry not, GLADoS will return not too far into Portal 2. I've never been so happy to hear an angry robot voice before.
[end of spoiler]

Now, if you haven't played the first Portal, I'll assume that you've skipped ahead and haven't read the previous part. Don't read it. It'll totally spoil the experience of the first Portal.

A thing that makes Portal 2 really stand out is a great story. A really captivating story on a game is quite hard to come by these days and that is something Valve is really good at. I'm glad they didn't disappoint on this one either. When in the first game you really saw quite a small portion of the Aperture Science Enrichment Center with a few hints of it being a lot bigger, in the second game you actually get to see a huge part of the facility. Apparently it goes pretty far down. At one point you end up at the bottom of the facility and get to go through the very first testing facilities. You are led by a bunch of pre-recorded messages read by Cave Johnson (J.K. Simmons), the original creator and owner of Aperture. There you also get a sense of the history of Aperture and also how GLADoS came to be. There, at the lower part of the facility, at one point you can see that an old elevator shaft shows the depth of 4000 meters and that's not the very bottom. You also see a lot of impressive vistas of the underground and how huge it really is. However, while the story tells us a lot about the facility and GLADoS, it doesn't really tell us a lot about the test subject. GLADoS tells the protagonist that she's fat, adopted and a lot of other things. I think I even heard a hint of someone with the same last name. It could have been a husband or a brother of hers. I do wish there was a little bit more information on her.

While the basic gameplay mechanics are the same - portals, buttons and boxes - there are also a lot of changes. First of all, even when you are led through the original testing chambers, the elevators you use are nothing like the ones in the first game. There are also a lot of new things that are added as the game progresses. There is a blue repulsion gel, which pushes you back with the same force you hit it with and also pushes you upward a little bit (helpful on the walls), there's red propulsion gel, that gives you the ability to move very fast, there's a white gel that makes it possible to put portals on things that you normally can't put portals on and also a clear gel that cleans off any other gels. You can also cover an item in a gel, but other than the blue repulsion gel, there's no practical use in covering items in gels.
Besides gels, there is also a force field in which you float in one direction. You can sometimes reverse these with a button. There's also a light bridge thing that you can either walk on or use as a shield from turrets. Additionally there's a laser beam, which can hurt you. You can bend these beams with special blocks. The blue force field, the light bridge and the laser can also be projected through portals. There's also a bomb element, which you can lead through a portal and it explodes on contact.
In the first Portal there were two types of turret - a normal bullet turret, which could be knocked over, moved and restored, and there was a rocket turret, which was stationary. In Portal 2 the Rocket Turrets have been removed and just the normal turrets are used. In some places you see broken turrets, but all functional turrets are just the usual white, with the same funny voice-over as the first game. There were, however, hints of larger turrets and ultimately a huge weird-looking turret, but these were never seen in-game. There's also a weird combination of turret and cube, but it's story-related, so I won't dive into that one much.
Also, in the original Portal, there were a lot of hints on the walls and hidden compartments, that there have been others trapped in the facility, sometimes showing you where to go. In Portal 2, I only saw a few places where something was scribbled on the wall and nothing of it was actually anything interesting. That's a bit of a shame. I liked the 'the cake is a lie' conspiracy theory of the first Portal. Also, I could have used a few hints on how to continue, because in large areas I really spent a lot of time searching for the next spot I could place a portal on.

There was a problem with long loading times, but an update cleared that one right up. Also, at one point the game crashed as I dumped some repulsion gel on some turrets. The other time my game crashed, after the update, was right after all the end credits were done and the main menu should have popped up again. At least I saw the conclusion, which was really fun and nice. And yes, as in the first Portal, there is a song at the end of this one, too. Not as catchy, but still really cool.

All in all, this game is fantastic. I think I'll play it again soon. The game isn't short either, like the first one. I think the first Portal was more like an experiment, which people loved, so Valve sat down and made a proper second part. It took me about 8-9 hours to complete Portal 2, so it's quite lengthy, compared to most shooters and adventure types these days. Great job, Valve.
You can have my cake.

9/10 Flogs

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Stargate (1994)

More information here.

The plot. This is a story about an egyptologist, Dr. Daniel Jackson, who has some revolutionary ideas about the pyramids that nobody wants to believe. He is then taken to a secret military compound to decipher some Egyptian. There he finds out that some of the symbols are actually indexes to points in outer space. He then finds out that a weird round gate has been dug up in Egypt and is there, already functional, just missing the address. With the help of Jackson, the gate is opened and he is sent through with a team of military personnel lead by Colonel Jack O'Neil. After going through the gate, the team meets some people who have been living on that planet for a long time, mining resources for the original Egyptian god of sun, Ra.

General thoughts. This is the one that started the whole Stargate franchise.
First of all, this movie is quite nice. It's not really that magnificent, but given that it's from 1994, there's not much to expect, really. This was really weird to watch, since right now the Stargate franchise has had two series, Stargate SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis, a bunch of movies and right now there's also Stargate: Universe, which I've been watching with great interest.
There is a lot of the original story that has been thrown out of the window to produce the series. Before watching this movie, I watched the pilot episodes of Stargate SG-1, which is supposedly the story that happens a few years after this one. Also note that the actor who played Skaara, Alexis Cruz, is one of the actors who appears in the original movie and in SG-1 as the same character. The rest of the cast has been changed.
I personally don't think you can compare the Jack O'Neill of Richard Dean Anderson with Jack O'Neil of Kurt Russel. Richard Dean Anderson has always been more of a ironic funny type of actor, when Kurt Russel's Jack O'Neil is a jock bad-ass with a bad attitude and a melancholic personality. Some would say that Anderson ruined O'Neill, but I wouldn't have had much interest in Stargate SG-1 if it had Russel instead of Anderson. I mean, come on, it's MacGyver we're talking about here. Speaking of MacGyver, there was a quote in SG-1's pilot, where Amanda Tapping as Carter said something in the lines of "you can't just MacGyver this together". Be it said that Richard Dean Anderson spent 7 years being MacGyver, but just the SG-1 series ran for ten years and Richard Dean Anderson is still occasionally appearing on Stargate: Universe. But I digress.
As I already mentioned, a lot of the stuff from the original movie has been forgotten. For instance, the material that the Stargate was constructed from was supposedly mined from that planet. Chances are, that there are more than one planet that had that metal and even that these stargates were built by someone else, but according to the lore of Stargate: Universe, the gates were built by an ancient race, that disappeared long before man came along, leaving behind a vast array of different advanced technology, the most important of those being the stargate.
Another quite important fact is that the movie described the seventh sign as a point of origin of the signal, meaning that for every planet, the seventh symbol in the address would have to be different. In the SG-1 and all other series, every stargate had a specific address, which was dialed from earth and you could simply dial back without ever having to look for the local symbol. This made writing new planets much easier, of course, but sortof messes with the original story a little bit.
Another thing that bothered me a lot was that back on earth, the team of scientists couldn't make the gate work, but were somehow managed to build equipment that would run the gate, dial the symbols and even show the decomposition of the things sent through the gate, not to mention the exact destination on a weird glass two-dimensional map of the sky.
All things considered, this was still quite an achievement. Certainly something new and different.

I don't think Roland Emmerich thought that this simple little sci-fi movie could turn out to become one of the largest Sci-Fi series ever, with 3 different related series showing for over fifteen years. For that contribution to the Sci-fi world, we thank him.

6/10 Flogs

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Black Swan (2010)

More information here.

The plot. This is a story about a ballerina, Nina (Natalie Portman), who is chosen for the most coveted role of any ballerina, the swan queen in "Swan Lake". As she is frigid and strives only for perfection in her act, she makes an excellent white swan, but lacks the emotional depth for the black swan. She is instructed by a ruthless artistic director, who takes on a mission to get her into the desired emotional state to become a black swan. This is a story about a quiet frigid girl, a perfect white swan, transforming into the opposite, a black swan.

General thoughts. This movie surprised me. I knew, that this wasn't just a movie about ballet and just any old inner conflict. This is so much more. This is basically a story of a slightly schizophrenic ballerina, who completely loses it as stress hits an all-time high. A psychological thriller about ballet doesn't sound promising, I know, but apparently there is a lot to it.
This movie starts off as normal and with every passing minute gets more and more crazy. It starts with hints of visions, which progress into a deep psychosis and as the big night nears, she is slowly consumed by it. It's pretty much a text-book example of schizophrenia getting out of control due to stress. As described, Nina has always had problems which indicate something deeper. She is pampered by her mother, who doesn't let her live her life and that is also probably one of the reasons behind her psychological meltdown. There are all sorts of little signs of her pending insanity. Even the texture of her skin shows that everything isn't quite all right.
Natalie Portman was awarded an Academy Award for this performance as the female leading role. I think she deserves it. While for the more technical parts, actual ballerinas acted as body doubles for the actors, a lot of the ballet was actually done by Portman herself, who had ballet lessons as a child and then spent six months preparing for this role. While it is not uncommon for the actor to work hard for the preparation of the role, it is still commendable. She also did an excellent work portraying the emotional breakdown of a young fragile mind.

All in all, this was an excellent movie. One would think that this is the type of movie to inspire their children to do ballet, when in fact this would be a very unsuitable viewing for children. This movie doesn't popularize ballet, it is a story about a person, who breaks down due to stress. It has a lot of really weird and confusing moments and some of them aren't completely explained in the end, but if you're into psychological thrillers, you'll love this one. Ballet is serious business.

8/10 Flogs.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (2010)

More information here.

The plot. This game tells a story about a military special operations unit called Bad Company. It starts off with World War Two and you are taken on a mission to rescue a Japanese scientist. At one point the mission goes wrong and some weird weapon explodes killing the operatives and the scientist. The plot then continues in present day and follows a spec ops unit on a mission to help a CIA agent named Aguire.

General thoughts. This is the second game in the Battlefield series which has a proper single player storyline, the first being Battlefield: Bad Company. This is also the first time I played a single player Battlefield game. This is not exactly different from other games of the same type, like Call of Duty or Medal of Honor when it comes to gameplay, but there are a few little things that make this something a little bit different.
First of all, the Battlefield series has always had a big emphasis on vehicles. In any previous Battlefield games right from the Battlefield 1942 you could drive and fly around with just about any vehicle you could get your hands on. This made Battlefield very different from other multiplayer shooters. Combining the cinematic first person shooter genre with the capability to drive all sorts of vehicles presented a world, where you had to drive around a lot more than in any other games of this type. Not a bad thing, just interesting. There was a proper tank mission, where you got to roll around in a tank and destroy stuff.

This game has a really cool feature where you can destroy pretty much anything. This means that hiding in a house from heavy gunfire and RPG-s just won't work any more. With enough damage, the house could crumble on top of you. The vehicles also broke when shot at, but when a tank blows up, I'd expect a burning husk or a pile of bent metal. At one point I broke a tank and all that was left were a couple of wheels. A bit disappointing.

A big problem in this game is the AI. While I don't feel the AI of the enemies is so bad, apart from randomly popping in front of you, the AI of your teammates sucks. Sure, they can be helpful at times, but in a larger battle they tend to not cover you and just mess about like little children. At one point I saw a teammate standing in front of an enemy, both frozen and neither shooting. I had to shoot the enemy to get the ally moving. The allies tend to get stuck a lot, too. Every once in a while you have to move on to continue with the mission and your teammates will stay in the old spot. After a while, usually in the next checkpoint, they pop next to you and continue like nothing happened. This is a good thing, because with the amount of AI bugs this game has, it'd never end without this feature. The useless allies pissed me off at one point to the level where I closed the game and played something else. I don't usually do that unless the game gets really frustrating. Also, since the autosaves aren't in the most strategic spots, you usually have to re-do a lot of things to get to the hard part at which you fail.

Another thing to whine about are the controls. At this point I would like to have a little bit more control over how I move my character. For this game, aiming down the sight is only toggle and crouch is only hold. This means that when you want to crouch behind cover with the default controls, you have to bend your pinky to the left Ctrl key. Sprinting, while mapped under a key, didn't usually work and you had to double-tap the W button to sprint. I set my left Shift to crouch and Sprint, which was there before, had to be moved. Tab didn't work, so I used 'F' instead.

However, the weapon choice was quite wide. Right off the bat you get to use the H&K XM8, which is also the standard weapon for your teammates. Now, the curious thing about the XM8 is that it was actually never produced on a larger scale. Only a few prototypes were ever created. That being said, I think XM8 is the coolest looking rifle ever created and also the most practical. A lot of game developers seem to agree, because the XM8 appears in a lot of games. One of the first games I saw the XM8 in was Saint's Row.
There are a lot of other interesting weapons also, but only a single handgun and only two types of snipers. Each time you find a new weapon in the game it shows in the middle of a screen, even if you're in a middle of a battle, and after that it can be accessed from the supply drop menu to be equipped. Amongst others you get to use the USAS12 automatic shotgun. For each weapon, you have to unlock weapons with extras separately.

The game had an interesting choice of captivating missions and also, as a tradition for this type of games, a funny character. In this game, the funny one is Flynn, a pacifist hippie helicopter pilot who speaks like a hippie and always cracks jokes at you.
A very interesting mission was getting caught in a blizzard. The protagonist then has to make his way through the cold weather down the mountain to a village to be picked up. Since it's cold outside, the character freezes if he spends too much time outside. This means that you have to dash between houses on your way down to the valley and when you're outside, the HUD begins freezing. Quite an interesting idea.
Another interesting mission was in a desert with ships. Whereas the rest of the game was very linear and you only had one goal to go towards, this mission was multiple choice. You had three places you needed to visit. This gave the mission a sort of sandbox sense. Literally. Although, at one point I figured it'd be a good idea to cut through the desert to skip a village full of enemies and I ended up dead, because if you stray off the map for 10 seconds, you get killed by mortar fire. Stick to the roads, I guess.
This is also one of the first games of this type to let you shoot someone while falling out of an airplane. That was quite cool.

All in all, it's a nice cinematic shooter worth a try for anyone interested in the cinematic shooter genre. It had it's ups and downs. I liked how the Russian soldiers spoke actual Russian instead of the bad Russian with an English accent you usually hear in American games. On the other hand, the story isn't as captivating and epic as the music and the characters would like it to seem. They just didn't feel special. Also, this game pissed me off and if an 7-8 hour shooter pisses me off, it's not a very good shooter. Well, it is, but not at everything.
The ending also gave hints on what would be happening in the future of Battlefield, but from what I hear, Battlefield 3 will not have much to do with the ending of this one. Battlefield 3 should be something very different in the gameplay department also, with a new fancy engine. We'll just wait and see.

7/10 Flogs

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Homefront (2011)

More information here.

The Plot. The story is set in near future United States, which has been occupied by North Korea. The game follows a different idea of a grim future, where North Korea is the one to take over the US instead of the Russians, as depicted in so many games. The story is about Robert Jacobs, a former Marine pilot who is taken into custody by the North Koreans for failing to answer to draft orders from the occupation forces. He is then rescued by the local resistance movement on the order of a man named Boone. Jacob then starts working with the resistance against the oppressors.

General thoughts. First of all, this game is painfully short. I finished it in under 4 hours, which is short even for a shooter. Second, this is probably the coolest cinematic shooter I've played in years. I am a big fan of cinematic shooters and this left me wanting for more.
The setting of the game is very gritty and dark. In the very beginning you are put on a bus and driven through the streets, as you observe people being treated badly. At one point a man trying to escape is shot and the blood splatters on the window right in front of you and stays there for the duration of the ride. Also, this game managed to pull off the saddest moment I've seen in a game, when in that very same scene, you see a man and a woman separated from their son and shot in front of him. The way the boy cries is realistic enough to get under my skin. I haven't seen anything like this in a game before. The driving around to set the mood is a popular choice for cinematic shooters. This is a really good way to let the player sit back and get the feel of what is the setting of the story like.

I saw a trailer of this somewhere and noticed a curious thing. The trailer was pretty much the visual intro of the game, where it was shown that Kim Jong-il has died and replaced by his son Kim Jong-un (which is probably what will happen). In the trailer, Kim Jong-un is shown giving a speech. Now, in the trailer he looks young and skinny, whereas in the game's intro, he has been replaced with an older and larger person.

In the game you get to use the standard 2 weapons of choice, grenades and all sorts of other mission-based stuff. The weapons dropped by the enemy, however, don't get much better as the game progresses. Apart from the last mission, the weapons dropped by the enemies are pretty much the same throughout. There are all sorts of them with different kinds of additions, like four types of red dot sights, holographic sights, grenade launchers and others.
Also, since the protagonist is supposedly a pilot and is rescued because of that, you of course get to fly around in a helicopter. That part is actually quite well done. The controls don't feel bulky and the machine moves around quite neatly. This won't be for too long, though. A lot of stuff to fit into 4 hours of gameplay.

As usual for the cinematic shooters, a lot of the emphasis is on the visual things. Things pretty much happen without you unless you need to push something or shoot someone on command. The game waits for you to reach a certain point and will gladly wait even if the mission is supposedly time-critical. The visual part is especially rewarding at the semi cut-scenes, where you can look around, but the game controls what happens to your character. In one such place you were hiding in a ditch full of dead bodies while observing some people trying to find you. I think this one has been used somewhere already. More than once.
An interesting thing is the atmosphere the game presents. When you die and the checkpoint reloads, you see pictures of how people live under the rule of North Korea. When a new mission loads, you hear a radio broadcast from a person called Voice of Freedom, who talks about what happened in the previous mission, almost like informing the public about the workings of the resistance.
As a tradition, such games usually depict some popular landmark as a battle ground at one point. Usually it's the White House or the Capitol or some other important structure. In Homefront, they used the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco.

All in all, it was an awesome experience and it would deserve a lot more credit, be it longer than 4 hours. It's not like there isn't enough material, the war didn't actually end with the last mission. Maybe this is just to leave room for the second part, but in that case it'd be just another military shooter. I like this type of shooters. There's something about running around dystopia and fighting against the system that makes games much more interesting than the good old military combat. Half-Life 2 series is a good example of the same thing.
I think Homefront deserves it's rightful place in the hall of good cinematic first person shooters alongside Half-Life 2 and Call of Duty. I began playing it and at first figured I'd just try it out for a ten minutes or so, but after a few minutes I wanted more and couldn't stop before I ran out of game. Four hours well spent.

9/10 Flogs

Monday, March 21, 2011

Dragon Age 2 (2011)

Important information here.

The plot. The story continues the first game after the Blight has ended. This story is about a Ferelden runaway, [First Name Here] Hawke, who escapes from Lothering in Ferelden after the Blight has overrun it. The hero escapes with their family to the city of Kirkwall, which is the place where a lot of people have come to seek refuge. Hawke's family has roots in the city, so they hope for a warm welcome. This would, however be boring, so things will naturally not go smoothly. The whole story is told by a beardless dwarf rogue Varric, who also accompanies the hero on their quests.

General Thoughts. First of all, I very much enjoyed this game. I finished the first game, Dragon Age: Origins, some time ago and it was quite good, but this one is, in some parts, a big improvement. The game has an awesome intro, where after choosing your class, you see Varric dragged into some interrogation room, where some unknown woman starts asking him questions about the hero. Varric starts off with a false story, where the hero is fighting the Blight with his brother or sister. This serves as an awesome tutorial of different powers and fighting techniques you get to use in the game. They basically start you off with a high-level character in pretty armor and you can slaughter some baddies in a really cool fashion. Soon you'll find yourself at level one and building your character from nothing, though.

This is a group-based RPG similar to Drakensang and Neverwinter Nights, where you can develop and control all the members of your party and also get to choose who you take on your adventure. Different characters have many different useful skills and putting together a decent team can be quite tricky. Since you can have a total of three companions at once, I've found the best combination to be to have one of each - a warrior to draw the fire, a mage to rain fire on enemies and a rogue to handle any traps and locked chests.
A little bit about each class. The warrior, a classical standard choice, wields either a two-handed weapon or a one-handed weapon with a shield. There isn't a lot of room to play around with the weapon choices as you would expect from an RPG. That's quite enough, but sometimes I'd have liked to impale a dude or two with a spear. Both two-handed and sword-shield fighting styles have separate skill trees, where a lot of two-handed skills work well on brittle enemies and the sword-shield combo involves a lot of bashing.
The rogue can be either a double-wielder, where the only type of weapon is a couple of daggers, or an archer, where you can use bows. The arrows come with the bow so that's nothing to fret about. There won't be any archer companions in the game, at least I didn't find any, besides Varric, whose best weapon is actually his own standard weapon, which upgrades itself as the character levels up. You also need rogues for locked chests. There is no other way to open a locked chest, but luckily there weren't many of those around.
The mage, however, is clearly the most curious class for this game. As opposed to most RPG-s, where mages get to use whatever they can as a weapon and staves are mostly used for beating people and looking cool, in this game staves are actually useful ranged weapons. Each of them throws elemental damage at a good range. However, it doesn't just throw balls of fire and bolts of lightning, a mage is pretty much a martial arts expert with it. This is one of the coolest things about this game. When a mage gets going, he puts Bruce Lee to shame. Of course the weaponry a mage can use is limited to these sticks of hurt, but they come in a variety of different effects and usually look quite cool. The mage was also my choice for this game. I named him Rosarious. Rosarious Hawke. He had white hair, a long white full beard. Truly a look of a magician. Too bad the look didn't go well with the story. He looked older than his mother.

A very distinctive part of this game is the multiple choice dialogue. Where the quests are pretty much the same either way, the direction the story takes will eventually depend on what you say in certain situations. You can be good and you can be evil in these choices, but what I liked the most was the third choice of being sarcastic and funny. Hawke seemed to have a witty pun for every situation. This made the game feel more fun and enjoyable in the midst of the drama and misery. Not all characters responded very happily to you making jokes, though. It's not a very good idea to crack a joke at a father kneeling over the dead body of his son. There are also ways to flirt with your companions, even the ones of the same sex, so there isn't any discrimination there. That was quite creepy at times. Luckily there was pretty much a sex scene with one of the hottest companions, Isabela, who also appeared in the first Dragon Age. That was fun.
In Dragon Age 2, the way your companions see you affects their skills a little bit. Not just making them better if they like you, but also making them better in a different way if they don't like you. In DA2, instead of hate, it's called Rivalry, which makes it sound a bit better.

Compared to the original story, where the main focus was on the Gray Wardens, in this part they are more of a sub-plot. Just some people you run into here and there, but don't have a lot of effect on the story itself. However, Blood Magic, the bad kind of magic and the reason why everybody dislike and fear mages, is a big thing in both the first and this game. More for this than the first, the first was more about the Blight.
The plot of Dragon Age 2 is actually one of the problematic bits about this game. The story divides into three main groups. I won't spoil what they're about, but the problem here is that there is no main storyline to move towards. In the first game, the main story was the Blight and the whole game was about working your way towards the final solution - ending the Blight and slaying the Archdemon. Dragon Age 2 is mainly about survival and apparently about running errands, mostly killing something or someone and collecting a few gold coins for the job. While the main storyline is distinctive, it's not very different from secondary quests. Of course, some of the quests were quite interesting and at times I felt like the story was leading me more than I was leading the story. The multiple choices of how things could turn out gave a sense of control over the flow of the game, but in the end, the story pretty much ends the same way.

A thing that bothered me about this game was the lack of different room designs. The whole game has about maybe 20 different layouts which were re-used for every quest needing a separate area. The layout designers were so lazy that they just sealed off unneeded areas with inactive doors when they didn't need all of the layout. The map displayed all these sealed areas the same way and you always got the feeling that you missed a place or two. I mean, I get that designing layouts is hard work and the existing layouts were nice and detailed and interesting, but going through the same cave twenty times makes for annoyingly repetitive gameplay.
A very neat feature this game has shows all active quests for an area on the travel map. You always knew where to go to continue the quest and I liked doing quests in batches, where I chose to travel to the area with most active quests and do them all with a single run.
Another thing they changed was the way Qunari look. In the first game, Qunari were just large people with dark skin, excellent warriors who you could even team up with at one point. In Dragon Age 2, the Qunari are huge dudes with horns. They look more like animals than people. Huge bad-ass animals.
The way equipment is handled also changed from the previous installment. In all other games of this type, you got to dress up your companions with whatever you could find. You had to take care of everybody's armor and weapons, which was realistic and nice. In this game, however, you only really need to worry about your own armor, whereas your companions have pre-set armors which you can't change. You can buy upgrades for them, but that's about it. You can still change weapons and jewelery, but I'd have wanted to make warriors look like warriors. An elf warrior with a two-hander doesn't look very scary if he's wearing a leather jacket. The other thing in the equipment section was that random loot, like precious stones or any other stuff, was listed in the inventory as trash and the trade menu even had a separate button for selling this trash. This made things easier.
Perhaps the saddest thing to disappear from the original Dragon Age was the Petrify-Stonefist combo. In the first game, you could petrify a baddie and if you threw a stonefist at him, there'd be a chance that he would shatter and die in a cool way. In DA2, you could petrify and make enemies brittle with other spells, but the only ones who could take advantage of this were warriors with two-handed proficiency.

All in all, this was a fun game. I enjoyed it a lot, but I also got the feeling that it wasn't going anywhere. All the repetitive layouts made even the moderately interesting story seem boring and repetitive. Also, this game was quite easy. In most games, even on Easy you die a few times during the game, but in Dragon Age 2, I didn't once die with the whole group. There were a couple of deaths followed by a quick revival, but I never got the 'Game Over' screen. A good thing that the area spells didn't do friendly fire or it would have been a lot harder. Sure, there are more difficult settings, but I was mostly in it for the story, not the hardship.
The game took me a total of 27.5 hours to finish, so it's clearly between 25 and 30 hours, depending on the time you'll spend on secondary missions, but because of the repetition, it felt like a proper 40-50 hour RPG, like the first one. Awesome graphics. Isabela is a sight to behold. You will find her in the Hanged Man pub. You're welcome.

7/10 Flogs

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. 2 (2010)

More information here.

The Plot. Like all Tom Clancy games and the previous HAWX, this one also tells a story about government conspiracy and some great hero who comes in and saves the day. This time it's Russia and a separatist government who seizes power and starts messing about with some nuclear weapons. At one point you'll have to blow up (!) like 20 of them. Yes, Tom Clancy, blowing up nukes mid-air is not a bad thing to do, not at all. Anyway, you get to fly as either a Russian fighter pilot or an American HAWX squadron pilot. Crenshaw from the first HAWX is also present, but here he acts as a commanding officer.

General thoughts. First of all, I liked it. Not because of the flimsy controls or some of the frustrating missions, but because I'm into fly-sims and this one is exactly how I like it. It's not complicated, but it's not too easy either. It's just enough for it to be fun, but still feel realistic enough.
In the first HAWX you could enjoy a ground that only looked pretty 15,000 feet from the ground, but i HAWX2, they put a little bit more effort into actually rendering the buildings and at some point you're even going to do some close-call flyby action. That is quite awesome. So this is something that has been improved greatly.
While in the first HAWX you started and finished all the missions in the sky, in HAWX2, you get to actually take off and land your fighter. Sometimes it's an aircraft carrier, sometimes an airfield, sometimes you get to refuel mid-air. All of these actions are quite tricky at first, but soon you understand, that the arcade assists make all of this quite simple and fun. It just feels a lot more natural, if you get to take off at the start of the mission, return to the airfield if you're out of rockets, flairs or you're just broken and you get to land your fighter once the mission is done.

I did have a lot of problems with controls in this one. I'm using a Logitech Freedom 2.4 cordless Joystick, which is as good as normal joysticks get. It has loads of functions, it's quite sensitive, but the game has to know how to handle it. I mean, come on. If the throttle slider has a million different positions, you can't have only four positions in the game. Even the cheap joysticks have more options there. If you turn the slider half way down, you don't expect the game to turn off your engines. It's realistic enough that if your engines aren't burning, you lose speed quite quickly in the middle of a dogfight, but if the slider is half way, it's not supposed to stall right away. Also, when starting the game, initially the Joystick buttons aren't even set up properly, so the first mission was about me setting the controls to work the way I want them to. I couldn't get some of the sensitivity right until the very end of the game so the last mission was a real pain.
At one point you also get to fly a Harrier, which is known for it's VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) capabilities, but in HAWX2, it stalled just like all the other fighters. Maybe I just didn't know how to turn the burners in the vertical position, but I sure as hell was not instructed to do it. I mean, if you have some cool airplanes, why not make them work like they're supposed to. An A10 Thunderbolt isn't supposed to act like a fighter in a dogfight and no MIG could counter the maneuverability of an F22 Raptor. This was the same in the first HAWX.

It's a bit of a shame that HAWX2 lost some of the perks that HAWX had, like the chance to pick a fighter to use in the mission and even pick the weapons you want to use. I mean, it makes sense that in the Story Mode you just fly what you get assigned, but in some missions I thought that I could do a lot better with a different type of fighter and a set of weapons. It's supposed to be more fun than realistic, right? Another thing that bothered me was the choice in weapons. You got to use all sorts of different weapons against fighters in the first HAWX, but the main thing you'll be using in a dogfight in HAWX2 is a simple HSM (heat seeking missile). Somewhat of a disappointment. I was hoping for a more fascinating arsenal.
An interesting thing they added to the HAWX2 was the chance to use the AC130 Spectre. You didn't get to fly the thing, but you got to support ground action with it, which was way fun. You also got to do pretty much the same with drones. In some missions you used them to guide bombs, in some to listen on the enemy's phone calls and such. Even some of the weapons on the fighter were used like this, where you could aim a surgical strike or a bomb of some sorts in a different perspective.

All in all, I really liked this game. I would seriously recommend this to anyone who is into arcade-style fighter sims like I am, anyone who has a joystick and don't have any games to use it with or just anyone who likes flying. It can get frustrating at times, but in the end it's fun and fast-paced. Now I can go back to playing the Arcade missions.

8/10 Flogs

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Borderlands (2009)

Important info here.

The plot. You are a treasure hunter fresh off the ship on a remote planet, when you're contacted by a mysterious woman, or rather the voice of one, that instructs you to find and open a thing called the Vault, which is apparently what most people in the region are after. The Vault is supposed to be something so awesome, all sorts of organisations want a piece of it.

General thoughts. This one is an interesting game. It is set on a remote planet called Pandora, which is, unlike the Avatar Pandora, a bandit-infested ruthless little place. Most of the planet seems to be desert-like and most of the inhabitants are not too friendly.
You start off as one of four classes (hunter, soldier, siren and berserker). I chose Mordecai the hunter. He is pretty much a skinny dude who prefers snipers and revolvers. And owns a hawk called Bloodwing, which you can use as a special power. Not too useful, but is fun to watch every now and then.

Anyway, you start off as one of these characters (or more than one, if co-op) and you appear to be on a quest to find an ancient Vault which opens once in two hundred years. You are also contacted by a mysterious woman, who appears only to you. She informs you that your task is indeed finding the Vault and opening it.
Now, what makes Borderlands so very different from anything else of the same type, namely open world RPG-s, is the peculiar style it's portrayed in. While the life on Pandora is very complicated and gruesome, the world and everything in it is drawn in a cartoonish style. This is a very interesting approach in a world, where every game is trying to get closer and closer to photorealism. The graphics of Borderlands are not bad, oh no, they're just a little bit on the weird side. It looks almost like the whole thing is drawn with a pen instead of 3D rendering. You get used to it really fast, though, so it doesn't affect gameplay in any way. A lot of the characters you meet are also drawn in this weird style and some of them look a little bit funny, even.
Games like these usually have some sort of funny characters to make an otherwise evil and depressing world a little bit more cheerful. In Borderlands there are a lot of little robots called Clap Traps, who assist you with information, finding loot, activating all sorts of devices and provide amusement. Clap Traps are small robots with two hands and one wheel to move around on. As the story progresses, you will encounter a lot of broken Clap Traps with side missions for fixing them by finding a box of tools. These are usually not very difficult and very beneficial, since every fixed Clap Trap gives you three additional storage spaces and they usually point you to some sort of hidden stash.

A nice touch, I think, is the separation of weapon stashes and ammo stashes, where ammo stashes are usually normal boxes, weapon stashes are more interesting and take a little bit of time to open. This gives a really interesting feeling of anticipation, as the box opens. You never know what you're going to find there.
A weird thing I noticed was the evolution of equipment. Now, the usual approach would be that the equipment gets better as the game progresses, but for Borderlands it peaked more than once. Somewhere around the middle of the game you receive a bunch of really good weapons and shields and then the game proceeds to hand you only bad stuff. I don't know what's up with that.
The ending of Borderlands was a little bit disappointing. I'm not going to tell you what happens, but prepare to be not amazed. At least you can keep playing once you've finished the main storyline.
If some RPG-s tend to feed you a lot of really boring side quests, I found most side quests in Borderland quite interesting. You get to do all sorts of things, mostly 'go kill that' or 'collect 10 pieces of that', but some of these are quite interesting. Also, since you're always on the lookout for better equipment, and side quests sometimes have bosses who tend to drop good equipment, the side quests are helpful there, also. I actually did about 90% of the side quests, which is really rare for me.
You also get to drive around in a weird buggy a lot and you can respawn them for free whenever you're in a car spawning station. Now, I was actually hoping for more of an evolution on the car thingy than just more armor, so if you're expecting to end up riding a tank, prepare to be disappointed. The buggy stays the same. You can choose either a machine gun or a rocket launcher to be the turret. Right from the beginning. No evolution there either.

The whole game took me around 30 hours to finish, so it's not super long for an RPG, but I think it's just long enough. Much longer would probably get boring. This game is definitely something completely different from the standard RPG we're all used to. And yes, Borderlands is a good game. I recommend trying it for anyone who is into RPG-s, shooters or sci-fi. The plot isn't exactly a masterpiece, but the interesting gameplay makes up for it.

8/10 Flogs

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Kick-Ass (2010)

Important information here.

The Plot. This is a story of Dave (Aaron Johnson), a fan of superhero comics, who decides to put on a silly costume and fight crime. Dave doesn't have any superpowers, but he decides to try anyway. First time he does it he gets his ass kicked and ends up in a hospital. His injuries disable some of his nerve endings making him feel less pain. Shortly after his recovery, Dave tries again and is recorded by a group of witnesses and the video of Dave as Kick-Ass becomes viral. After a while, Dave meets two other heroes, Hit Girl and Big Daddy, who are more about killing the bad guys rather than helping the good guys. Soon Dave gets mixed up with some bad people and stuff just gets out of his hands.

General thoughts. This is an awesome movie. The main theme of the movie is a normal teenager, who instead of just fantasizing about being a superhero actually tries it. I'm not saying everybody should dress up and get their asses kicked, but I think this movie inspires people to stand up for the weaker ones and notice people in need. I know this movie has inspired some people to do exactly the same. Somewhere in the US, supposedly someone dressed up as a superhero and called the police on some criminals. He didn't interfere himself, but this is sort of what this movie was aiming for, I think.
This one is also based on a comic-book and it has some comic-book elements. Not as much as Scott Pilgrim, but there were a few elements used, one of which was the sequence about Hit Girl and Big Daddy's history.
Another thing I think this movie teaches is that even if you become this awesome hero, you'll still have to endure a lot of pain and bad situations. This movie had more of a realistic perspective on the whole superhero thing. None of the characters had any real superpowers. Sure, Hit Girl had some impossible moves for a ten year old girl, but they were still just martial arts and weapon handling. Sort of like, if you really really want to be a hero, it might kill you, so think before doing stupid stuff like this.
Well, I liked it. This movie gets your heart beating faster and it has a lot of awesome moments and is really fun to watch. The best hero in the whole movie is a 10 year old girl, so kids of all ages can relate to that.
I'd recommend this if you're into comic-book to movie adaptations, if you like fun action or if you like superheros. Just, don't try this at home. Contrary to popular belief, the police is actually quite capable of handling crime by itself.

7/10 Flogs