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