Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road - What a Lovely Movie

It feels weird to say this in 2015, but I think a Mad Max movies is my favorite movie I've seen so far this year.

I was never a HUGE fan of Mad Max. One night in college we watched all three movies in a row, and since then I've always said there are about two total good Mad Max movies: the second half of Mad Max, the entirety of Road Warrior and the first half of Beyond Thunderdome. But as much as I loved Road Warrior, it never really stayed with me as an essential viewing.

After watching Fury Road, I want to immediately dive back into that universe as much as I can. Fury Road exists in a weird gray area that's not a remake or a reboot, but rather just takes the world and the main character and just tells another one of his adventures, much like a James Bond movies. The film is structured in such a way that it doesn't require any familiarity with the franchise to follow along. Right off the bat, we get the idea that Max is haunted by the lives he couldn't save, particularly those of his family. It's very clear that he wanders the wastelands as he does because he is hesitant to let other get close to him again for fear of experiencing lose again.

The movie also builds the world extremely efficiently. So much comes across in the names and designs of the characters that the film never really slows down to feed you the exposition. While there are many post-apocalyptic films out there, none of them feel anything like Mad Max. Every single vehicle in the movie (and there are MANY) feels unique and looks like it was engineered from the ground up for style/practicality.

After the film, my wife asked me what my favorite "part" was, and I honestly couldn't parse the film out into "parts." The action in this film feels so non-stop that it's hard to thing of it as anything but one long chase scene where people occasionally pull over and talk. There was a beautiful shot quite a bit into the film where they are driving through a crazy dust-tornado storm where a flare flies out of someone's hands and lands on the ground, only to burn out and fade to black. At that point, I felt myself letting out a sigh of relief. It was really the first time that the movie pumped its brakes in any way, and it took that moment to realize that.

So far in this review I've talked about the world and the action, which may lead you to believe that the story take a backseat in this film, but that isn't so at all. While the dialogue and story may be a bit sparse, it still is fully formed and resonates quite a bit. There are a lot of neat character arcs that run throughout the film, particularly Nicholas Hoult's Nux.

Immediately when I got home, I tried to find details about the upcoming Mad Max video game. The reason I did this: I want more of this world. I want to live in it and breath it in and fight my way through it. I cannot stress enough how awesome this movie is. Go see it out on the biggest screen possible.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Notes from Yharnam - Bloodborne Impressions

It was a really big leap for me to purchase Bloodborne. Years ago, I bought Demons Souls. I tried and I tried but could just not get into it. I don't know if I just didn't like the pace of the combat or if the world just didn't resonate with me, but nothing about it grabbed me and made me want to swim upstream against its punishing difficulty. When I saw previews of Bloodborne, I saw something that was much more my speed. The world was just my type and the monsters all looked like something out of a medieval Silent Hill prequel. As much as it looked like a game for me, all I could remember was that I gave up on Demons Souls and I worried that I would do the same with this one.

And I came close. The first part of the game was great. The world was so interesting and beautiful. The controls and combat were quick and responsive. Everything was going swell.

Then I got to the mob.

There's a street in the game where you find a big group of enemies surrounding a burning werewolf corpse. It's a wonderful sight, but is completely overwhelming. I tried time and time again, but kept getting taken down. Eventually I learned which ones I should take out first and how to draw people away so I could fight them in smaller groups so I didn't get surrounded and run out of stamina.

When I finally cleared the street it felt amazing. Immediately after there was a strange feeling of panic. Where do I go now? Since I would have to do it all over again if (when) I died, the tension was palpable. I explored a bit and then died. I challenged the mob again and was able to beat them. I kept chipping away and getting a little further each time.

Then I took a little break from playing. When I came back, I suddenly was having trouble fighting normal enemies. Things that usually died with two hits were now taking five or six. I could barely take it to the mob. I thought I wasn't remembering things right and didn't know how to proceed. This was the low point.

Suddenly I noticed a little note on the screen when I respawned. "Weapon Broken." Since this game just drops you in, I had no idea that your weapon could break, nor how to repair it. I went to the hub world and found a weapon bench where I fixed up my weapon, and even upgraded it.

I immediately ran right through the mob. I felt reinvigorated. I pushed further than I had before, tore through some werewolves and found myself at the first boss. The first fight with him was not pretty. I got some good hits on him, but ultimately lost. When I respawned, I was nervous. It took me a lot of hard work to get there, so I knew it wouldn't be easy to repeat.

But this time, I noticed I could level up. I leveled up a couple times and was able to kill the boss after a few more tries.

And when I did I felt like a GOD.

After a bit more exploring I was able to find the next boss pretty quickly. This one was giving me more trouble, so I spent some more time exploring.

Eventually I found a side quest where someone wanted me to look for their missing father and mother. The kid gave me a music box and mentioned that it had calmed down her dad, who was a hunter. I knew that the boss was a corrupted hunter, so I tried to use the music box on him, and it stunned him. It was an amazing moment where a little bit of story telling really paid off. A couple more tries and I beat this boss too.

Now the world has opened up quite a bit to me. I found someone who gave me details about the world and the mythology of what's going on in the town of Yharnam. And I'm completely hooked.

I'm struggling with making more progress, but it's so wonderful to learn more and more about the world and how to play, and I keep progressing more each time.

I'll try to keep you posted on my process as I continue.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Review: The Wake

It's no secret that Vertigo hasn't exactly been what it used to be recently. Every once in a while there are a couple glimmers of hope, but mostly the creators that would normally bring their works here are migrating over to Image. About two years ago, one of those glimmers of hope came in the form of a pair of miniseries: The Wake by Scott Snyder and Trillium by Jeff Lemire. I'm not usually one to buy miniseries, but these were too good, so I decided I would buy one of them. Trillium did a lot more interesting things with the form of comics, so I figured that would be the more interesting one to buy in single issues. Now I've finally gotten my hands on The Wake and worked my way through it.

When I heard Snyder pitching this book, it sounded perfect for me. Number one, he talked about it as a claustrophobic horror story set at an underwater research lab. I've always had a bit of a soft spot for stories set underwater, so that was a huge plus. And number two, he talked about how he was going to reinvent various seabound myths, such as the siren and the mermaid. Since I adore the way Snyder plays with vampire mythology in American Vampire, I was glad to see him working with another creature.

The Wake starts off wonderfully. Our protagonist gets a mysterious offer from her ex-employers and is whisked away to an underwater lab populated by scientists in various fields that don't really seem to be closely related. As the story unfolds, we learn that lab houses a dangerous creature, who of course gets free and reeks havoc on the lab. This chaos is awesome. Since the creature is supposed to be the basis for legends such as the mermaid and siren, it has a hallucinogenic effect that lets them play around with reality in the comic. It's all wonderfully tense and moody and really escalates at a fantastic pace.

Then the book enters its second half.

Snyder ditches all the characters from the first bit and jumps the story ahead 200 years. The Wake turns into a post-apocalyptic tale where a slew of mermaid creatures has flood the Earth. It's such a sharp tonal shift from the first half, and it never really comes together for me. There is some neat world building going on, but the I was so into the original premise and characters that I couldn't get invested in this second world and set of characters. The mythology set up in the beginning also expands itself in very strange ways. It's not that it's bad, it's just that it seems to me to be a very weird choice narratively.

The ending of the book really tries to tie things up nicely, but it reaches way too far for me. It's hard to imagine how it went from a simple little claustrophobic tale to something that tries to peal back the nature of mankind. I'm not entirely sure what happened at the end, as it gets really high-concept.

So I guess the real question you are wondering is should you still read it? Even though I'm pretty hard on the second half of the book, I would still recommend it. Maybe that type of story isn't something I was in the mood for. It's not poorly written, it's just shockingly different from the first half, which I was really into. Give it a try. If you don't have any interest in a post-apocalyptic tale, just read the first half, and you should still end up with a pretty satisfying read.  

Fourth Annual CoKR Comic Book Awards

-Daredevil #36
-Fatale #24
-Superior Spider-Man #31
-Young Avengers #15


-Moon Knight
-Iron Fist: Living Weapon
-Captain Marvel
-Silver Surfer
-She Hulk


Best Miniseries/OGN/One Shot
-The Remains
-The Wake


Best New Series
-Southern Bastards
-Rocket Raccoon


-Thor: Last Days of Midgard
-Superior Spider-Man: Goblin Nation
-Uncanny Avengers: Avenge the Earth
-Captain America: The Iron Nail
-X-Force: Dirty/Tricks


-Declan Shelvey - Moon Knight
-Javier Pulludo - She-Hulk
-Jason Latour - Southern Bastards
-Skottie Young - Rocket Raccoon
-Jock - Wytches


-Dan Slott - Superior/Amazing Spider-Man / Silver Surfer
-Charles Soule - She Hulk / Letter 44 / Death of Wolverine / Thunderbolts
-Jason Aaron - Thor / Southern Bastards / Original Sin
-Scott Snyder - American Vampire / Batman / Wytches / The Wake
-Matt Fraction - Sex Criminals / Hawkeye


Best Moment
-Return of Peter Parker - Superior Spider-Man #30
-"It is you" - Superior Spider-Man #31
-Gods offer assistance - Thor: God of Thunder #24
-The "Baby" reveal - X-Force #5
-Coach Boss vs Earl - Southern Bastards #4


-Green Goblin - Superior Spider-Man
-Dario Agger/The Minotaur - Thor: God of Thunder
-Dr Mindbubble - Captain America
-Coach Boss - Southern Bastards
-Kegelface - Sex Criminals


Best Digital
-High Crimes
-The Remains
-Private Eye
-Subatomic Party Girls


Best Superhero Title
-She Hulk
-Thor: God of Thunder/Thor
-Superior/Amazing Spider-Man
-Captain America


Best Nonsuperhero Title
-Southern Bastards
-Sex Criminals
-Rat Queens


Best Overall
-Sex Criminals
-Thor: God of Thunder/Thor
-Southern Bastards


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Sixth Annual Russells

"Woah, Norris Was the Thing?" - Biggest Surprise of the Year
-Obvious Child
-Grand Budapest Hotel
-Edge of Tomorrow
-Blue Ruin
-The Lego Movie


"The Jack Burton" - Best Action Scene
-"Time in a Bottle" - X-Men: Days of Future Past
-Lights Out Fight - Snowpiercer
-Prison Break - Guardians of the Galaxy
-Nick Fury Assassination Attempt - Captain America: The Winter Soldier
-Gun Fight in the Club - John Wick


"Kurt Russell of the Year" - Best Actor
-Noah Wiseman - The Babadook
-Michael Keaton - Birdman
-Ralph Fiennes - Grand Budapest Hotel
-Macon Blair - Blue Ruin
-Edward Norton - Birdman


"Goldie Hawn of the Year" - Best Actress
-Scarlett Johannson - Under the Skin
-Jenny Slate - Obvious Child
-Tilda Swinton - Snowpiercer
-Essie Davis - The Babadook
-Emma Stone - Birdman


"Call Me Snake" - Best Hero of the Year
-Peter Quill - Guardians of the Galaxy
-Baymax - Big Hero 6
-Angel of Verdun - Edge of Tomorrow
-John Wick - John Wick
-Lucy - Lucy


"Is It My Scar?" - Best Villain of the Year
-The Babadook - The Babadook
-Winter Solider - Captain America: The Winter Solider
-Howard Howe - Tusk
-Ronan the Accuser - Guardians of the Galaxy
-Archibald Snatcher - The Boxtrolls


Best Animated Movie
-Big Hero 6
-The Lego Movie


Best Screenplay
-Blue Ruin
-Grand Budapest Hotel
-Obvious Child
-The Babadook


Best Score
-Under the Skin
-Only Lovers Left Alive


"The John Carpenter" - Best Director
-Johnathan Glazer - Under the Skin
-Christopher Nolan - Interstellar
-Jim Jarmusch - Only Lovers Left Alive
-Bong Joon Ho - Snowpiercer
-Alejnadro G. Inarritu - Birdman


Best Movie I Haven't Seen, But Know I'll Like
-The Raid 2
-A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
-Inherent Vice


Most Anticipated of 2015
-Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens
-Avengers: Age of Ultron
-Crimson Peak


"The Golden Plisken" - Best Picture
-Captain: America: The Winter Solider
-The Babadook
-Under the Skin
- Snowpiercer


TOP 10:
10. Blue Ruin
9. Boxtrolls
8. Interstellar
7. Big Hero 6
6. Guardians of the Galaxy
5. Captain America: The Winter Solider
4. Snowpiercer
3. The Babadook
2. Birdman
1. Under the Skin

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Top Video Games of 2014

While definitely catering to the YouTube screaming Let's Play crowd, at least this game tries to craft something different than another Slender clone. While the premise of the location's set up is a little flimsy (why would you have to use power to keep a door closed?), it creates a tense game of resource management. The setting is perfect (because who doesn't find animatronics kinda creepy already) and the art direction really drives it home. It's a jump-scare machine, but at least it's a unique one.

I had quite high hopes for this one, but it ended up falling a bit short. I loved a lot of the elements of the story of this one. Setting it in an insane asylum with constantly shifting reality is a a great place to start, and the monster design was pretty gruesome. The only problem is that even though they look different, the enemies all feel kinda similar. I also wasn't a huge fan of the combat. It seemed to take way too many shots to kill things no matter where you hit it. I really wanted this to be a new Silent Hill, but it was more like the more recent Resident Evil games.

This game certainly is a pressure cooker. It feels a bit like choice based adventure games like Walking Dead, except it's more concerned with survival mechanics than story. Gods Will Be Watching is basically a series of scenarios where you have to manage a whole bunch of different things going on. It's tough, but immensely satisfying when things finally go your way.

The game that set the bar for Kickstarter projects finally came out this year. It was pitched as "Double Fine Adventure," and that's exactly what we got. It's a beautiful and whimsical point and click game that fits in perfectly with Tim Schaefer's previous output. The writing is clever and the art style is unique. I can't wait for the second part to drop this year.

The third point and click adventure game on this list, and this one is definitely the most in my wheelhouse. This game was released episodically for free throughout 2013, but was released in a collector's edition at the beginning of 2014. The Last Door's pixel art style somehow perfectly melds with the Lovecraftian inspiration of the story. The lack of definition in the things fits in with the themes. While not outright horrifying, the game definitely knows how to ramp up the creep factor. Another one that will be continued this year.

The video game industry needs more games like Octodad. While so many games are obsessed with upping the intensity and creating a more realistic experience, Octodad just wants to be goofy. You play as an octopus who is trying to maintain his cover as a totally normal human being so his family doesn't find out his secret. The game is purposefully difficult to control, and hilarity ensues. The great part is, among all the fumbling through supermarkets, there's a heartfelt story in there about accepting your family. The game is pretty short, but its gag never gets old and it wears its heart on its sleeve.

There are few games out there as addictive as Hearthstone. This is one of my go-to games for right before bed. It's a digital version of a collectible card game like Magic the Gathering set in the Warcraft universe. While none of those things have historically appealed to me, there's something about this game that's fantastic. I've played tons of matches, but I still feel like I'm learning new strategies when I play and am always tweaking my decks. Blizzard seems like they will be supporting this game for a long time, so I'll keep on playing!

Supergiant, the team behind the wonderful Bastion, took everything that worked about their previous game and created something that was more in line with my interests. They drop you in a beautiful sci-fi setting and begin introducing a combat system that is both chaotic and strategic. The way they set up the upgrades and attacks is nothing short of genius. To me, this game exceeds Bastion in every way and shows that they are a unique and powerful voice in the indie game market.

Who would have thought that this would end up being Irrational Game's swan song? I guess if you have to go out, this is the way to do it. This DLC did an amazing job of tying their vastly different Bioshock universes together in a way that was surprising and satisfying. The second part of the DLC where you play as Elizabeth particularly shined. Her gameplay focused a lot more on old-school FPS stealth with limited resources. I absolutely loved the circle created by the ending. I'll miss this world, but I can't think of a better way to send it off.

This game feels like it was built for me. The Alien franchise is one of my favorites in all of science fiction, and they finally created a game that perfectly captures the mood of the first one, which remains my favorite. And that isn't hyperbole, this game IS Alien to a tee. The space station you are on in designed with the sort of retro futuristic look the movies feature. What really stands out about the game is the tension. You always feel underpowered, but never unfairly so. The android and human enemies are a nice challenge, but the real star of it all is the xenomorph. It's designed with an AI that will track you and behave differently on each playthrough. You truly feel like you are being hunted. I can't tell you how many times I've freaked out at small noises and frozen in place when I see it in the corner of my screen. I'm so happy with this game and can't wait to see what Creative Assembly does next (I kinda hope they get the chance to do their own thing rather than getting forced to make another Alien game).

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Silent Hill 2 - Silent Heaven

It's always a little intimidating going back to revisit something you consider your favorite in a given medium. What if it doesn't hold up? What if it looks dated and silly and all that time you spent telling people why you love it is called into question? This is especially true in video games, where technology evolves at a rapid pace.

This was my worry about starting to play Silent Hill 2. In a world with HD graphics, where people have gotten a chance to really experiment with the storytelling strengths of the medium, how can a 13 year old game stack up? I was recently going through my stuff and finally found my power cord for my PS2, so I thought why not brave it and fire the game up.

Right off the bat I was struck by how good it still looked. While you can definitely tell the game is dated, they use what they have wisely. The fog in the game looks lightyears better than in Silent Hill 1, where it was really just a creepy gimmick to explain draw distance. Weaknesses in character models are hidden well by superb animation. Just the way the monsters move is unsettling, especially the mannequin leg monsters and the evil nurses. All of the environments have such strong design that went into them that I couldn't even pay attention to the technical aspects of it.  Everything visual comes together to create an atmosphere like no other game out there.

That atmosphere is something that is matched in very few games (Bioshock's Rapture and portions of Fallout 3 are the only things to come close). There is so much that is off putting about the world you experience. Finding a room that has a box chained to a bed with four heavy locks on it, only for it to contain a piece of hair is just one example of the type of strange environmental storytelling that goes on. There are so many notes and pictures that you find throughout the game that don't really end up having anything to do with puzzles or the main story, but just go to further the mood of the game. Not only is there such an eeriness created, there is an overwhelming sense of loneliness as well. You do run into a handful of character throughout the game, but between the fog and the dark hallways, you really feel alone for much of the game. That's not really a feeling that you are used to in video games, so it's refreshing to see something strive to capture that.

The characters that you do meet throughout the game are very interesting, as they all have their own reasons to be trapped in this hellish town. Since the game is over a decade old, I don't feel bad spoiling the ending of the game, but if you haven't played it, I'll give you a chance to stop here. The reason that James is in Silent Hill is because his dead wife sent him a letter telling him to meet her there, and it's revealed by the end of the game that you are the one that killed her. Silent Hill drew him there to force him to face what he had done. Other character in the game seem to have the same fate. Angela killed her father who sexually abused her, and now battles constant suicidal thoughts. Eddie killed someone for making fun of him, and he sinks further and further into fits of violence. They both represent different ways your path could lead if you give in.

The most interesting character in the game is Maria. James finds her in the park, and she is a spitting image of his wife, but more sexualized. Throughout the game, he is confusing her with Mary, and she either snaps at him for it, or tells him that she'll be his Mary if he likes. She represents what James wishes he could have had with his wife. The reason he killed her was because she was ill and bedridden. Depending on how you interpret the game, it could either be seen that he killed her as a mercy, or that he killed her because he was frustrated that she was holding him back. There are also undertones of sexual frustration in the latter choice, as they obviously could not be intimate during her illness. There are some very surreal scenes in the game with Maria that drive home this point. This idea is one of the most mature I've ever seen explored in a video game. Even without the sexual frustration portion of the theme, there's a very relateable notion of being upset at someone who can't hold up their end of a relationship, even though they have it much worse off than you.

These themes are also explored in the enemies. There are not a ton of different enemy types in the game, but the ones that exist all have a purpose. From the creepy nurses, who represent Mary's time in the hospital, to the double leg creatures, which are just two sexualized sets of lower halves, all of the monsters are meant to disturb the player. The infamous Pyramid Head is easily the best example of this, and possibly one of the finest creatures in video game history. He fully represents that sexual frustration I spoke about earlier. The first time you meet him, he is raping another monster, and both his giant weapon and his helmet suggest a phallic form. The encounters with him are all wonderful, including a battle where you can't kill him and just have to avoid him for a certain amount of time. 

Despite having the same setting, this game feels like a different beast than the rest of the Silent Hill series. While the other games have a very large focus on the mythology of the town, this one is a very personal journey that doesn't tie into anything else in the Silent Hill series. It feels more like a story of a man who descends deeper and deeper into his own personal madness on a mission of self destruction. One review I read of the series recently mentioned that you do a lot of things in this game that you absolutely would not do in real life, like jump down a series of holes in the ground, but pointed out that this made sense in the context of the game, since James seems intent on punishing himself for what he has done.  

To wrap up, I'll share one of the smallest details of the game that terrified me the most. It's doors.  I remember when I played it when I was younger, I found it maddening that there were so many doors that you couldn't open. Why even program them in if they were functionally the same as a wall? But I realize now that all the doors that are broken make it scary when they do open. I get so used to finding them unopenable that I shudder every time I hear the noise of a door opening. I'd rather be frustrated and stuck in the same room than have the door open and be forced to face some unknown horror.

And that is why Silent Hill 2 is brilliant.