Friday, December 31, 2010

The First Annual Wherein I Rant Awards - 2010

Well the year is drawing to a close. And you know what that means? Every site on the internet is doing "of the year" awards. So why not join in the fun? I present to you, the first annual Wherein I Rant Awards.

Video Games

Best Indie Game of the Year - Super Meat Boy

Super Meat Boy is so good I can't even explain why it's so good. By all accounts it doesn't seem like it would be any good at all, at first glance. A game which prides itself on being unfairly difficult? Where's the fun in that? But it is. It's really fun. If you haven't played this game yet, you should.

Runner up - Beat Hazard

Beat Hazard! This game is just FUN! You see, this game is Asteroids. Oh, did I mention that instead of blips you shoot visualized light set to the music of your choice? ANY MP3 WILL WORK! It's fantastic, fun, and will probably give you a seizure.

Best Game For Under $5 - Poker Night at the Inventory

Poker Night at the Inventory is the pilot in the new "At the Inventory" series from Taletell games. It's set around a simple, yet ingenious premise. What do our favorite video game characters do in their spare time? The answer? Play lot and lots of Texas Hold 'Em apparently. For $4.99 you can get this game, 4 unlockable items in TF2, and hours of banter between the characters. It's great.

Runner up - The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom

Braid gets tons of critical acclaim for it's difficult puzzles and "great storytelling" (I use quotes because that's a load of crap, in case you were wondering.) However P.B. Winterbottom is a game that has puzzle very similar to some of those in Braid, and I heard no praise for it. It's cheap, it's fun, it has a uniquely awesome visual style, as it looks like an old silent film, and you get to steal PIE. It's pretty darn awesome.

Best FREE Game - Alien Swarm

Alien Swarm is freaking amazing. It's a completely free title released by Valve on Steam (You must have at least one game purchased on Steam in order to be eligible though. Might I suggest Poker Night or VVVVVV?) which is a remake of an old mod released on the source engine. The campaign is nice enough, and there are a ton of weapons, making a fun survival game, but Valve took it to eleven and let

Runner Up - Minecraft Classic

Minecraft is a game that popped up on EVERYONE'S radar this year. The game which is essentially the ultimate sandbox is supposedly quite good. It just entered Beta, and supposedly gets better every day. I wouldn't know. I'm too busy playing Minecraft Classic, the free (and AMAZING) version on the site.

Best Game That Went Under The Radar - The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom

P.B. Winterbottom, again is a game I heard NOTHING about until I purchased a copy on sale for 49 cents and played it. And that's disturbing since it's FREAKING AWESOME. You play P.B. Winterbottom, the dastardly pie thief. There are several things I like about this game, from the art style, as I said above, is that of an old black and white silent film, even applying film grain. The game also insults you and talks about what a horrible person you are, stealing pies. Anyways, you get time manipulation powers (sort of) and long story short, if you liked Braid, you'll like this. If you found Braid's terrible storytelling a barrier to entry, you'll love this as this is both funny and well done.

Runner Up - Worms Reloaded

I didn't hear much press or fanfare for Worms Reloaded when it was released late last august, but it's a VERY good game. It's fun, it's funny, and... Well, it's pretty darn good! The reason this is the runner up is because I at least heard VALVE mention it when they gave you a free hat in TF2 for buying it when it released. Either way, it was pretty under the radar, and I liked it.


Most Touching Movie - Toy Story 3


Best Adaptation - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One was a fantastic way of showing off how you should adapt something. Stay true to the core of it, but understand that some things don't translate well between mediums. Also, cut out a lot of the camping scenes. Oh good grief the camping scenes.

Best Effects - Inception

BRHAAAAAAAAAAM! Inception, like it or hate it, had brilliant effects. Between the sheer beauty of seeing the city lift up on top of itself to the low grav fight scene, Inception's effects, CGI and otherwise, were awesome.

Best Animated Movie of the Year - Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 is, quite simply, a great end to a trilogy. Most trilogies have a weak spot in them if you look. Star Wars had Return of the Jedi, and the Ewoks, Indiana Jones had Temple of Doom, and Toy Story had nothing. Now, while I still love me some Temple of Doom and Return of the Jedi, they were weaker films. The Toy Story films, all three of them, however, are fantastic. Keeping up that trend was enough to earn this my favorite animated film of the year.

Best Animated Movie of the Year Runner Up - Tangled

I praised this movie for every aspect of it in my full review, so if you have read that and are still wondering why this is so good... Uh... l2reading comprehension bro?


Worst Game of the Year - Chime

Ok, understand that this isn't really the worst game of the year, just the worst game I played this year. Chime is a rhythm game which might be fun if it had more than 5 freaking songs on it, but as it is, was just weak all around.

Worst Adaptation - Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lighting Thief

In contrast to HP7Pt.1 Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, took everything that was fun, witty, and charming about the book series, and threw them out the window in favor of a jive talkin' black sidekick. The main character is 16, not 12, which completely throw off the ENTIRE FREAKING POINT OF THE REMAINING 4 BOOKS, every character was changed extremely (for the worse) and worst of all Kronos is hardly mentioned. Luke's motivations are not only weaker for this, they're practically nonexistant. Not to mention the romance between Percy and Annabeth is resolved in the FIRST FREAKING FILM, instead of the FIFTH. It was a movie which might have been decent if it had been titled ANYTHING else.

Worst New TV Series of the Year - The Ev3nt

I saw one episode of "The Ev3nt" after looking forward to it for MONTHS. Let me explain how bad this show is. The first episode was the perfect storm of TERRIBLE. Terrible acting, terrible EDITING, and of course dialogue which sounded like this:
"Mister President sir, should we do something about the... Event?"
"Yes, we must keep the... Event a secret."
"But sir, what if there's another... Event?"
"Then we must be careful. We can't afford to let another... Event happen."
"I don't like... Events, sir."
"Neither do I. I don't think anyone likes... Events."
"Except sir, perhaps... Event planners."

Worst Ending of the Year - Puzzle Agent
Puzzle Agents is a game I got for a buck. I played it for around 4 hours. I really was enjoying it. It was like Professor Layton but... No, actually it was like Professor Layton. But that's a good thing! I had an interesting mystery surrounding a mysterious town... I was solving the puzzles... I was getting into it aaaaaaand....

Credits roll suddenly. What. Nothing answered, no resolution given to any characters... GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH. WHY? HOW? WHO? Are the Gnomes aliens? Monsters? Was the one guy dead or alive?! WHY WAS I SUDDENLY AT A SPACESHIP FOR LIKE 5 MINUTES IN THE MIDDLE OF THE GAME?!

Screw this game, and it's ending.

Stupidest Moment of the Year -
Roger Ebert Opens Mouth, Inserts Foot

I've yelled about this enough by now that it feels pretty redundant talking about this again, but let me sum up the idiotic statement that a man named Roger Ebert made. "Games can never be art." If you need any more information than that quote, click through and read my post. Seriously. Ebert had to make a public apology. That's how bad this was.

Most Depressing Thing This Year - Stupid People Are Stupid, Complete Monsters Are Complete Monsters, -100 Faith In Humanity

I've made it FAIRLY APPARENT over the last year, since I started this blog, that I'm a big fan of games. I view them as a budding art form, am a huge advocate for games as art, and fully advocate games being treated equally to film and books, instead of the double standard that's SO apparent in the industry right now. Unfortunately, it gets pretty discouraging some times. Especially when you hear about MORONS who do absolutely HORRIBLE and UNSPEAKABLE things. Example? A few weeks ago a Korean college student died after a 12 hour marathon gaming session where he did not eat, drink, or otherwise attend to normal bodily functions. I wish I could say that this was the least depressing story this year, but unfortunately, that's the bright and sunny, happy story for this post. Take for instance this monster who commited the UNSPEAKABLE act of killing her child and leaving him on the floor for two days as she played games.

As with every year there are MANY of these stories, and no one of them can be called the "worst" as their all horrific in their own right. We have to keep in mind though that these people were obviously unstable before they began playing games, and the games are not at fault here. After all, the anti-games advocates hands aren't quite clean either. As was the case of the Korean boy killed in a Chinese "video games addiction reform boot camp".

Sigh. Stories like these keep making me lose faith in humanity

Best of the Year

Best Video Game of the Year Runner Up - Fallout: New Vegas

This is tough for me. I really do want to say this was the best game of the year. Fallout: New Vegas is a fantastic game all around. It's funny, fun, creative, and features some of the best examples of storytelling I've ever seen in a game. The gameplay is fun, and while it's essentially Fallout 3 set in Vegas, I actually like it a bit more.

Except for one thing. It's one of the buggiest games I've ever played. It absolutely should not have been released for another 3 months at least. I got it at the end of November, it had been out over a month, and it was still nearly unplayable. Random crashes, characters doing various bad things (like standing with their noses in the corner like they're in a time out) and clipping.

It's just... I can't say that it's ok for a game this buggy to be released. It's unacceptable. Game developers need to stop putting half broken games out there to be purchased. It's just not a finished game yet! The content is fantastic... When it works...

And that's what keeps me from calling it the best game of the year. That title goes to...

Best Video Game of the Year - Mass Effect 2

Another absolutely fantastic game. This is another landmark in game development. Mass Effect 2 is a great game. It has fantastic writing, fantastic characters, and is just all around fantastic. It's simply a wonderful game. Tali, Thane, Mordin... I could write entire articles on any of these characters, and why more game developers need to pay attention to their writing.

It would be very easy for Mass Effect 2 to fall victim to "middle child syndrome" as many games have, having neither a really good beginning, nor a really good ending, since it's simply a connector between the beginning of the trilogy, Mass Effect, and the smashing finale coming out next year (supposedly) Mass Effect 3. Instead though it starts by (spoiler alert I guess, although it happens in the first 5 minutes) BLOWING UP THE NORMANDY AND KILLING COMMANDER SHEPARD.

Not exactly a lackluster start. What follows is an EPIC story which took me around 30 hours to complete. And I loved every single minute of it. The characters are all fantastic, the gameplay is fantastic, and essentially they took everything that was bad about the first game, and fixed it. Then they made more fantastic characters like Thane, Legion, and Jack and... Well, it's just an AMAZING game! Seriously, if you haven't played this game yet, you're cheating yourself.

Best Movie of the Year Runner Up - Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 is a great film. I spoke a bit about it above, but... It's really superb. I can't stress how good it is. I'm not sure if it's on DVD or not yet, but if it is and you haven't seen it, either go buy or rent it immediately. It's the perfect end to a great trilogy.

Best Movie of the Year - Inception
Inception is the latest film by Christopher Nolan, creator of The Dark Knight and Batman Begins, among other things. It's a fantastic, albeit confusing at times, film with tremendous ambiguity and many possible interpretations. Again, if you haven't seen it yet, go do so immediately.

Most Inspiring Moment Of the Year - Brian Wood Gives His Life To Save His Family

If there was one moment that could inspire faith in humanity, in the face of all the tragedies I mentioned above, it would be the story of Brian Wood, the head developer of the game Company of Heroes, who gave his life to save that of his wife and unborn child.

If you didn't follow this story as details arose last September, here's the short version. Brian Wood and his pregnant wife, Erin Wood, were out for a drive one night. Unfortunately, so was 21-year old, Jordyn Weichert. Jordyn was out driving with a few of her friends, drunk and stoned, and decided to take off her sweater, while driving. She asked her friend, Samantha Bowling, to take the wheel for a moment as she did. As she did so, she drove head on into Brian and Erin.

Had it been a head on collision for both cars, Erin and Brian both would have died. At the last moment however, Brian made a split second decision, and swerved, a decision that would save the life of Erin and his unborn child, but cost him his own.

A noble, and inspiring story, to be sure. One which wasn't quite over just yet. You see, not long after, Erin went on The Today Show with her story. (Warning: If you aren't in tears yet, watching that video will cause you to be.)

As many people saw it, either through the TV, or via sites like Kotaku, one of the main news sites reporting on the story, a memorial fund was started for Brian which raised a lot of money for Erin and her child.

Millions of users from the internet, gamers, sent kind words and condolences to Erin. Something that, for the internet, is highly unusual. Something which Erin Wood would respond to shortly after.

" Hello.

My name is Erin Wood, and I wanted to send a request to please pass along my most sincere and heartfelt thanks to the gaming community for the overwhelming support provided to me in the past two weeks. I asked coworkers of Brian how I might best send my thanks, and they recommended sending them to Kotaku - hence this email. Any way you can help share this with the community would be much appreciated.

Brian always told me about how close-knit and wonderful the video game community was, but I had no idea until this tragedy just how special a group it really is. From all the articles and comments, to the emails and donations, I am simply stunned and so touched by the love, kindness, and generosity shown to me and my family. As everyone knows, the last 10 days have been the most difficult, dark days of my life. But this journey has been eased tremendously by the thoughts, prayers, and well wishes received from friends, family, and strangers living all over the world. It is so meaningful for me to hear about how his work and enthusiasm for the industry has touched others. Brian was completely and utterly devoted to the game industry, and was pretty much living his dream every day. He woke up every morning excited to be working in such a creative, demanding field. It was such a joy to be married to someone who was absolutely passionate about his professional life.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for the compassion and support. It is so, and has been a light to me in this impossible situation.

Warm wishes,

A tragedy, yet an inspiring moment to be sure. Happy New Years everyone.

I wrote an addendum to this post, after rewatching several movies again. It can be found here.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Video Game Review - Assassin's Creed 2

Well it's about time. Ok so, recap time CHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIILDREN! (Oh wait, wrong game.) Back in august I did a 3 part series about the original Assassin's Creed, and the major problems with it, ending with my review, where I said despite the games BLATANT problems, I still enjoyed it.

Now last month, during NaNoWriMo I finally finished Assassin's Creed 2. So did I love it? Hate it? Was I completely neutral towards it?

Well... There are a few main points I want to address here, Assassin's Creed 2 as a game, Assassin's Creed 2 as a sequel, and the ending. Now, obviously, the ending portion will be extremely spoiler filled, so I suggest you skip that if you haven't played it yet and perhaps come a read that portion of the review later. Don't worry, I'll mark exactly where that section begins and ends.

Assassin's Creed 2 as a game

Let me start by saying that at first glance Assassin's Creed 2 seems to be much better game than Assassin's Creed. This shows me a series that really learned from it's fault in the first game, simply gameplay wise, and really did improve upon them. For example, the voice acting selection was much broader, and less annoying. You still hear repeated lines, but the commonfolk aren't ALWAYS TALKING ABOUT YOU. Also, you can run all you want now, and people won't instantly know you're an Assassin.

There are now, instead of beggar women, minstrels who run near you and start singing until you give them coin. The only difference is this time the game ACTUALLY HAS A MONETARY SYSTEM.

The game also has a new system where you can get many kinds of weapons and armor. Unfortunately this ended up being a very shoddy and confusing "stat" system, which I never fully understood. It only irritated me. Either way, getting the best armor in the game is easy to get, and available very early on, so it doesn't really matter.

There's also, as I said, a monetary system, which allows you to upgrade your home town to make it bigger and better, and then get more money to... Well... Invest in your town! Aside from achievements and getting rid of annoying minstrels, it's pretty useless.

The combat system also got BETTER between AC and AC2. That is a relative term, however, and by no means is the combat in AC2 good. It's still tedious and frustrating, just... Less so.

Still, this is a STEALTH game, is it not?! So what's the SNEAKING like?!

...Very, very optional. And that's not a good thing.

You see, I would have liked some middle ground. In the last game, if someone sneezed three blocks away from you, every guard in the city would instantly descend upon you. It was a great example of fake difficulty.

In this one though, it's almost impossible to get caught! You see, there's a system in place where guards will basically not even look at you, unless you are "infamous". How do you gain infamy? By doing things like stealing, killing... That sort of thing. But here's the thing. You know what irritates me? In AC2 there is a way to pickpocket random NPCs walking down the street. And you know what? No matter what happens, whether you get caught or not, you gain infamy. That bugs me. The whole system is a mess. It's just... A mess.

Speaking of messes, let's talk about the story shall we? So, in case you forgot, the main character of the Assassin's Creed series is Desmond, a bartender from New York who is a descendant of a long line of Assassins, who was kidnapped and put into a machine to relive "genetic memories" to find out where a secret object was. Now, as I said, the last game didn't have an ending. Oh sure, they'd love you to believe what they gave you was a "cliffhanger" ending, but it wasn't. This was not a cliffhanger at all. This game picks up immediately from the non-ending of AC, and leads to the secret lair of the Assassin's, who are teaching Desmond to be the ultimate Assassin, using a new version of the Animus, the machine which lets you relieve genetic memories, which increases the "bleeding effect" and lets Desmond learn from what he's reliving.

Basically it's a ton of technobabble, but it's mildly coherent esq, so I'll let it slide.

Assassin's Creed 2 as a Sequel

I suppose this is spoilery... So uh... Tune out the next paragraph or so, if you don't want a spoiler. Are they gone? Ok. YOU ARE NOT AN ASSASSIN. THIS ISN'T ASSASSIN'S CREED, THIS IS RENAISSANCE BATMAN WHO KILLS PEOPLE CREED. Seriously, at no point in this game is there a real "Assassination". In the first game it was called Assassin's Creed because you were an ASSASSIN! You didn't just kill people, you hunted them. You watched their routine. You found weak points in their defense. And then? Then you stalked them. Then you followed your prey, until finally they made a mistake. And only then, would you strike. Or, you could just kill them, but that made thing much harder, and less fun. Ezio, the main character of this game, DOESN'T EVEN BECOME AN ASSASSIN UNTIL THE LAST HOUR OF THE GAME!

This is a problem, as one of my favorite bits in the first game was the assassinations. There aren't really assassinations in this one, since you AREN'T AN ASSASSIN. It just frustrates me.

You see, while this game is better, technically speaking, than Assassin's Creed was. The problem is that it's TOO radically different. You see, they pitched out a lot of systems, in favor of better ones. You no longer hold X to walk slowly and blend in, you just walk around in groups. This works a lot better. You can run instead of walk, and not get caught instantly. This works a lot better. There's fast travel. This works a lot better. The combat, while still quite broken, functions differently. This works a lot better.

The problem? There's so many changes, that at times it just feels like you're not playing Assassin's Creed. You see, I liked Assassin's Creed. And I wanted this game to be a sequel to that. And it... Aside from a story perspective, really wasn't. Mind you, the game it was is a lot better than Assassin's Creed... But in a way I still missed a lot of what made the first game fun, even though the first Assassin's Creed was... Well... Fundamentally broken.

Now, speaking as a sequel, story wise this game improved IMMENSELY upon the first. The character of Ezio is SO MUCH MORE INTERESTING than Blandy McGee- Sorry, Altair. The voice acting is better, the characters are more interesting and... Well, in general the game is just a LOT BETTER!

And of course, there's the ending.

Assassin's Creed 2's Ending

*Major spoilers for Assassin's Creed 2 begin here. I will mark where they end.*

WOW. WOW. JUST WOW. I finished this game over a month ago and I still can't get over the ending. Heck, I've started Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, and I STILL can't get over the ending.

So, first let's talk about the ending, the final level, from a gameplay perspective.

First of all let me just say one thing. Whoever decided it was REQUIRED to collect all the Codex pages hidden throughout the ENTIRE FREAKING GAME in order to finish should be SHOT. This is the exact same GARBAGE that angered Wind Waker players. I DON'T CARE. OK? DO YOU UNDERSTAND THIS UBISOFT? I DO NOT WANT TO COLLECT ALL THE DANG CODEX PAGES. YOU ARE PADDING YOUR GAME OUT BY MAYBE ANOTHER HOUR, BUT IT IS A HORRIBLE HOUR OF BOREDOM AND SPITE.

Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about the last level shall we? The last level, the Vatican, is brilliant. Why is it brilliant? Because it asks you to use all of the skills you should have developed by this point in the game in order to complete it. There is an area where you can simply fight through hordes of enemies. But then, there is an area where you HAVE to use stealth. And it's awesome.

The last boss though, is pretty lame. It's basically fisticuffs with an overweight Italian man (Who just so happens to be the Pope. SPOILER ALERT!) who happens to have a magical staff. That he... Doesn't really use.

But the last boss fight is more than made up for by the absolutely awesome ending sequence. As you open the vault door, you enter into something, unsure of what you'll find. So what do you find? A message. Ezio opens the vault, and walks in, to find an ancient HOLOGRAM of the "goddess" Minerva (actually a member of "those who came before" the species that lived on Earth before mankind.) who has left a message. As she speaks, you notice that she's not looking at Ezio. She's looking at the screen. She's looking at you. Finally Ezio asks a question. He asks what she's talking about. She then looks at him angrily and says, "I wasn't talking to you! Silence!"

As she looks at the screen, explaining to you that the Earth, humanity, everything, is in terrible danger, danger that wiped out those who came before, and will wipe out humanity now. And then she says, "The rest is up to you... Desmond."

Fade to black.

Cue Desmond saying "What the ****?!"

Seriously, one of the biggest mindfreaks I've ever seen in a game. Absolutely jawdroppingly fantastic cliffhanger ending.

*Spoilers end here*

Buy this game if:
You like crazy conspiracy stories, filled with nonsensical, but nonetheless fun, technobabble. If you like seeing a historically accurate reconstruction of famous cities in Italy, all against a fantastic backdrop. Oh yeah, and there's a point where you get to hug Leonardo Da Vinci. So that's awesome too.

Don't buy this game if:
Clunky combat turns you off from purchasing things. The fact that the Stealth aspects of the game being very optional will irritate you. You're expecting a direct sequel to Assassin's Creed.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Difficult Subject

Let's not kid ourselves, games today are for the most part, quite easy. Even those games that do provide genuine challenge tend to at the very least have an easy mode. In fact, one recently released, and critically acclaimed, game, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, actually had a "Play it for you" mode which, as you might imagine, played through the game for you if you got stuck.

So modern games do tend to be very accessible with either an easy difficulty curve, an easy difficulty setting, or just plain by being easy. Prince of Persia (the 2008 one) a game which I really loved (but I was in the minority) in fact wouldn't let you die. If you ever screwed up you were ported back to the last solid surface you stood on. Personally I thought that worked well in that game, but I must admit, it did tend to make thing a bit easier.

Why is this? Why is it that video games, a medium which once prided itself on being really difficult, are now made so that anyone can play them? Well, quite simply, games are not for the elite of the elite any more. The industry used to only make money by taking quarters from kids one at a time, and making things hard only made sense. The more time the player dies, the more money you get. As the home console became more popular however, the trend didn't seem to wane as quickly as one might expect. Indeed, there are brutally difficult games from the NES, SNES, and N64 era.

It wasn't until the 00's that the industry really started to notice that the old market of making games long and hard was really not as profitable as it used to be. Indeed, they found they could in fact make MORE money by making short, easy games, so gamers would move on very quickly from one $50 game to the next.

You see, game which are short and easy make many gamers (I don't want to throw out the term "casual gamers" here as that has a bad connotation to it.) happier than bashing their heads against a wall. For the most part (Single player games) this is FINE! If gamers want to spend $50 for a game that will last them 3 days on easy difficulty and then move on to the next shiny object, that's their choice.

However, there is a dark side to this. You see there is another subset of gamers, (Again, I don't want to throw out the term "hardcore" as this has bad connotations) who want challenge. Who revel in the idea of fighting an enormous monster, armed with nothing but a toothpick, and then, after countless deaths, to finally triumph against it, only to find that the next beast is even more difficult.

This leaves game developers with a difficult choice. (No pun intended.) Do they make more money from the ADD masses, or do they please the dedicated, loyal, yet much smaller, fanbase?

The answer many of them found is simple, difficulty settings. Include an "easy" setting for those who want to see the art assets and move on, and include more difficult settings for those who want a bigger challenge.

The problem with this is that not many people understand that there are three kinds of difficulty. Real difficulty, artificial difficulty, and fake difficulty.

Artificial Difficulty

Artificial difficulty is the most commonly used, and to be honest, the easiest form of difficulty to create. You see, artificial difficulty is when a game simply makes things harder to kill.

For example, in easy mode, perhaps the most common enemy has 10 health, and you do 5 damage per hit. Then in normal mode the most common enemy has 15 health and you do 4 damage per hit. Then finally, in hard mode, the same enemy has a whopping 20 health, and you do a mere 3 per hit. You see, things did just get a lot harder, as the same enemy which took only 2 hits to kill in easy mode now takes 7 hits to kill in hard mode.

So technically it is harder. Perhaps it also hits you harder as the difficulty scales up. Well that does make things harder, since now you die more quickly, and it dies less quickly, but it doesn't really require you to pay any more attention than you were before. While yes, it is "harder" and it will take longer to complete a game like this, there's nothing new to see. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed was like this. The harder difficulties were only "harder" because you died more quickly, and they died less quickly. The AI was no better. There were no new mechanics. Everything hit you harder, and you hit things less hard.

This is artificial difficulty.

Real Difficulty

Real difficulty is far more interesting than Artificial difficulty. You see, real difficulty means that something is actually hard. It requires pitch perfect execution to complete the tasks the game lays out for you. Super Meat Boy is a great example of this. You see, Super Meat Boy is probably the hardest game I've ever played. Not because of some difficulty slider, there is no difficulty slider in this game, there is only HARD. Not because things hit you hard, but because it simply requires pitch perfect execution. You have to perfectly jump between the obstacles in order to get to Bandage Girl and complete the levels.

Now, this game is not for everyone. Because it's HARD. Really HARD. That's ok though. Not everyone needs to be able to play the same games. That's why a lot of games are made, so that there's games for everyone.

When it comes to difficulty sliders, real difficulty actually adds new things for you to keep track of within the game. For example, Batman: Arkham Asylum's hardest difficulty, or Fallout: New Vegas's Hardcore setting.

Arkham Asylum (which is a fantastic game) had simple enough combat, you see. Square to punch, kick, hit, whatever, X to run (as always), Circle to stun your enemies... The fourth button, Triangle is where things get interesting. Counter. You see, on Easy and Normal difficulties, when an enemy was about to hit you, a blue flashing light would appear above their heads, and if you instantly hit triangle you would perform a powerful counterattack. The result was that, while I LOVED Arkham Asylum, you could, during most encounters (later in the game you encounter enemies with stun batons that can't be countered, and can only be dodged, and during most the game there are enemies with guns who will kill you if they so much as see you.) you can simply wait until you see a blue light, and then hit triangle to win. While this was far from the quickest way to victory, it would always win, if your reflexes were fast enough.

In hard difficulty though, while you still have counter, there's one vast difference. No indicator. The only way to know when to hit triangle is to keep an eye on each and every thug attacking you. A difficult task later in the game when you're fighting off ten or eleven guys. This provides real difficulty.

Fallout: New Vegas (Also a fantastic game) had perhaps an even better example of this. Anyone who's played Fallout 3 knows how Rads work. You have a small meter that shows how much radiation you've been exposed to, in addition to your standard health meter. It's a good mechanic. The more radiation you get the sicker you become, losing vital stats and such.

Fallout: New Vegas has an optional setting known as "Hardcore Mode" which, in addition to rads, added 3 more meters. Hunger, H20, and sleep. This was a brilliant example of real difficult giving you more meters to watch. Especially considering that in the Mojave Wasteland food, water, or a safe place to sleep can be hard to come by. In addition, all healing items went from being an instant heal, to healing you over time, keeping you from essentially injecting stimpack after stimpack to get past an especially tough group. Plus, crippled limbs could only be healed by a doctor, or one of two special (quite rare) items, "Hydras" or "Doctors Bags", or by a doctor. This, again, gives you more things to keep an eye on, not just increased damage and decreased health. Oh, and ammo has weight, meaning you can't just pick up all the ammo you find and sell it for thousands of caps, as I would in Fallout 3.

World of Warcraft has been experimenting with "Hard Mode" encounters over the past two years with Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm, which have optional "Hard Modes" in the raids which give superior loot. They've made both real and artificially difficult hard modes. For example, Flame Leviathan is, on normal mode, in Ulduar, a loot boss. I have literally never seen any group fail to kill him. He's stupidly easy.

On hard mode however, he adds four new mechanics, which make the fight MUCH more difficult. Beams of all sorts which you have to know to move out of and what each thing does. Adds spawn which must be killed... All sort of bad crap is on the floor you have to move out of... It's a much more interesting, and more difficult fight.

Hodir, however, is the opposite. There is literally not one new mechanic for his "Hard Mode". All you do is kill him, completely the same fight mechanics as normal, in fact you don't even do anything to trigger hard mode difficulty, in under 4 minutes. It's stupid.

Fake Difficulty

Ah yes. Fake difficulty. Have you ever been playing a game, and seen what should be a simple enough task, only to have something completely unfair happen and stop you from achieving it?

For example, the old "one key, two doors, one door opens, the other breaks the key" puzzle that can be seen in places such as Braid. That is fake difficulty. There's no way for you to know which it is. No deduction, no fair way for you to succeed, other than through luck, or experience. (Failing first.)

That is fake difficulty. Fake difficulty is when something is hard, not because of ingenious mechanics, or even just by scaling things up... It's not hard because it requires perfect execution... It's hard because it requires MORE than perfect execution. It requires perfect execution and LUCK. Lots and lots of luck. Will the random energy beams the boss shoots hit me this time? Will the jump button choose to work, or fail this time? Why am I playing a game that's unfair?! These are all questions you will ask yourself which indicate fake difficulty.

Now understand this, Real Difficulty Vs. Artificial Difficulty is a real debate. Neither are, persay, bad. Both have their places. I'm not saying every game should add in tons of mechanics on hard modes, or that games should simply scale everything up. Personally, I like real difficulty being added to games more, but hey, that costs a lot more time and money to implement which could be better suited elsewhere in production.

Fake difficulty, however is BAD. BAD BAD BAD. You see, you can argue about things being as hard as you want them to be all you want, but they must always, ALWAYS be within reach of the player. If they aren't, there's no point in trying. Thus, Real and Artificial difficulty are both perfectly fine, but Fake difficulty is BAD.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Movie Review - Tron Legacy

Tron Legacy is the sequel to the cult classic film Tron, which was released 25 years ago. I'm not exactly sure who thought this was a good idea, but ok. Sure. Tron, for those who don't know, was about Kevin Flynn, a computer nerd getting sucked into a computer system and finding a magical world inside. Lot's of stuff happened, and most people mostly remember one scene.

Cutting edge, back in the day. And still, even though the technology looks dated, a fun scene. It has tension, and is in general a good, fun scene.

So, Tron Legacy takes place in present day. Kevin Flynn went back into the grid in 1989 (the computer world) and vanishes, leaving his son, Sam Flynn, our main character, to grow up an orphan.

Years pass, and Sam is a rebellious, 27 year old who's not yet taken over his fathers company Encom (which is basically a Microsoft expy, in case anyone was wondering.) and does things like break into the Encom building, and do WACKY SHENANIGANS!

As one might expect, before too long Sam ends up getting zapped into the grid himself. And that's where the movie really begins.

So, let me talk about what I liked about Tron Legacy. (Don't worry, this won't take long.)

First of all, the visuals are very nice. For example, the lightcycle scene in this one is a lot of fun. There are ships that look like big space invaders, and the grid looks very sleek and minimalist. Unfortunately, while they excelled in making it seem minimalist, this is not always a good thing, since every solid surface is black in the entire film, that means you have black buildings on black streets in front of a black sky. There are small streaks of color but... The world just starts to feel dull and empty before too long. While the visuals are nice, there just wasn't enough color.

But the visuals were nice. I'll give them that much. The effects are impressive, if not a bit too dark.

The other major success in my opinion was the fact that they got Daft Punk to do the entire soundtrack. Seriously. Daft Punk and Tron are a match made in heaven.

I'm not the biggest Daft Punk fan, but they fit this movie so well it's not even funny.

Ok, so now let's talk about what I disliked about this film. This part may take a bit longer.

Now, I'm going to get a bit spoilery for the first hour or so of the two and a half hour film here, because I seriously can't explain how monumentally stupid this plot is without... Well... Explaining how monumentally stupid this plot is. So uh... Be warned. I won't spoil anything past the first hour or so, but... Yeah. The first hour or so of the film is fair game past this point.

So let's talk about the story shall we? What words can I use to describe the story of Tron Legacy? Hmm... Tedious. Nonsensical. Technobabble. Stupid. Uninteresting. Dull.

Yes, I can use all of these things. You see, the story of Tron Legacy is stupid. Really, really stupid. Now, I didn't have high expectations for the story of a film about a guy finding a magical world inside a computer, but this was BAD. Really BAD.

So. Kevin Flynn has been stuck inside the grid for 21 years (1989-2010). That's what we're getting at here, yes? Ok. First, let's take a look at why he's trapped. You see, the portal in between our world and the grid only stays open for 8 hours. And my favorite part, it can only be opened from the outside. Why? Why would you do that? Why would you not include any sort of failsafe in the device, in case, you know, YOU GOT TRAPPED INSIDE FOR 21 YEARS? Especially if it were a secret that such technology even existed, and you told NO ONE about it.

And even then, are we to believe that the computer has simply stayed online for 21 years? That's a long time! I'm sorry but there's no way that's possible! Let's even ignore the most obvious problem, that the facility is shown to have been without power when Sam first enters it, and pay attention to the fact that to keep a computer running for 21 flame would require constant upkeep!

There are many reasons why this wouldn't work beyond the power, but let's take a look at the first one that popped into my mind.

Do me a favor please. If you're on a desktop, get out of your chair for a moment, and look at the fan vent on your computer. It'll likely be on the back, although if you have a nice case there may even be multiple ones. If you're on a laptop it'll probably be on the bottom of the laptop. Tell me, what do you notice in the fan vent? Likely, the answer will be a lot of dust.

You see, computers and dust are not friends. That's why microchips are made in clean rooms which have been completely sterilized from all dust. That's why laptop fans are designed to be so hard to clean, so that they'll break and you will have to buy a new one.

Caution: Mild language

Now all that dust you see on your computer is just from you running it for, let's be generous, 8 hours a day. How long have you had your computer, assuming you've never cleaned your vents out? (also: shame on you) Probably, in fact, definitely not since 1989.

Now, for a computer to continue running for 21 years, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, and never be cleaned at all (and it's pointed out to us that it hasn't been.) then... I see no way that system could still be running.

So there's our first major plot hole. How far into the movie are we? 15 minutes? How long is it? 2 and a half hours? Oh.

So, we get into the grid, and what do we find? Programs are people too! Lo and behold, a computer is just like a city. Ok. Sure. This is Tron, I'm going to let slide the fact that this is NOT HOW A COMPUTER WORKS AT ALL.

So we get taken to the games, and run into Clu, the resident Evil McBadguy of the grid. He looks just like Kevin Flynn because yes. Apparently Kevin "made him in his own image" by looking in a mirror or something. This is never adequately explained. Get used to it, nothing in this film is adequately explained.

So Sam gets put into the fanservi- excuse me, lightcycle tournament, and... It's a visually striking scene. It takes out a lot of the tension of the original scene in my opinion, because... Well the original scene was shot largely from the perspective of the driver. It was cramped, and claustrophobic, and at the same time you knew what was going on. This one was much more hectic. Still, this is one of the better sequences in the film, so I won't complain.

Before the fanservicemobiles can kill Sam though he's saved! By a GURL! Gee, I wonder if this mystery woman will be some sort of creepy love interest for Sam in this film? (Hint: She is.)


This has to go up there as one of the WEIRDEST romantic subplots in film history. I mean... I just... WHAT?! She's a computer program! It's just... WHAT?! You seriously want to... Well... I'm just saying... THERE WOULD BE PROBLEMS. MANY MANY PROBLEMS.

Don't even get me started on what the children will look like. Because I seriously don't know. It's a mystery.

In any case, luckily this PAINFUL subplot is put on the shelf for MOST of the movie, and if you try REEEEAAAALLY hard you can ignore it.

So Kora, the... Ugh... Love interest... Takes Sam to his father. His father then explains the two worst plot points of the movie, or to be more accurate, mentions the two worst plot points of the movie.

You see, neither of these plot points are ever explored in ANY detail AT ALL. And the worst part is, if either of them were explored even slightly further, they may actually have not been half bad. In fact, they could even have possibly saved the film. Or at least made it better.

The first TERRIBLE plot point is the introduction of the Isos. What are Isos you ask? Well so did I. Isos are, and I paraphrase, "new life forms which began within the computer system". Why are they important? Apparently they hold all the secrets of the universe? Why? How? THIS IS NEVER ADEQUATELY EXPLAINED.

No seriously. All they say is, "Here's the Isos. If we got them into the real world we could cure cancer, change science as we know it, cause world piece, end world hunger, and punch Hitler in the face. Why? That's an excellent question. Allow me to not explain this at all in any way ever."

The Iso's... They're DNA or whatever hold all the secrets of the universe. Why? Because BLAH.


They were all killed by Clu for being imperfect when he overthrew Kevin. Ok. Sure. Why not.

The other STUPID PLOT POINT OF STUPIDITY is the fact that apparently programs will be able to leave the grid using the portal and enter the real world, if they have Kevin's disc. Why do they need Kevin's disc to do this? What's special about that disc? THIS IS NEVER ADEQUATELY EXPLAINED.

They tell you over and over that Kevin's disc is the master key to everything, and never explain why. They don't even give you a technobabble reason why, they just expect you to accept it. NO. I REFUSE. I REJECT YOUR STUPID STUPID REALITY AND SUBSTITUTE MY OWN.

Yes, that's it. It's official. The reason why Kevin's disc can let programs materialize into the real world is because KEVIN IS A UNICORN. OK? OK.

Now, I'll stop here, in case anyone actually can't see exactly where the plot is going. I won't spoil any more of it.

The more observant of those reading this may notice that, for a film called "Tron Legacy" there's a distinct lack of a certain security program called "Tron" in this film. Well you see, that's because Tron himself has all of 15 minutes of screen time. That's right. This is Tron, without Tron. Sure. Why not.

You see, in order to make Clu, which is a younger version of the actor playing Kevin, they actually used advanced technology to make him look younger during the film. Now I gotta say, that's actually really cool. It also looks really good. Although there's a bit of uncanny valley going on, it's still pretty darn cool technology. Unfortunately it's also expensive, so they chose only to make one character look younger, not two, and so Tron is hardly in the film. Much sadness.

There's also a few... Strange moments that seem to be contradicting what we already knew about the Tron universe, and the way the grid works. For example, every program has an identity disc. This identity disc records everything the program does and learns. Ok. Sure. It's Tron logic, but I can accept that.

Up until the scene where we see a program with two identity discs. What? No seriously, what? Is this a program with multiple personality disorder? What are we to take from this?!


The characters are bland and generic, when they aren't having some sort of EXTREMELY STRANGE AND PROBLEMATIC sexual tension going on between them. The villain is generic. He has a generic henchmen. Kevin is a generic wise old man character. Sam is a generic young protagonist. Kora is a generic female lead.

The only character with any, erm, character is killed off after less than 15 minutes of being introduced. This character who shall remain unnamed was the only one who was even semi watchable in the entire film, and even his personality felt over the top and forced. But hey, at least he had a personality.

In short, Tron Legacy is a film which is saved by it's effects, and just barely saved at that. It's a watchable enough film because of the effects, but the story is absolutely idiotic, and the characters are all painful. Also, PROBLEMATIC ROMANCE IS PROBLEMATIC.

Bottom line, Tron Legacy is a film that, while worth seeing, I only recommend being seen in theaters if you are a major fan of the original. If you weren't a major fan of Tron, wait until this hits DVD, and rent it. For now, spend that extra dough, and go see Tangled. Again, if you've already seen it. It was a much better film.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Movie Review - Tangled

Tangled, for those of you who have been living in some sort of alternate universe where you aren't spammed with advertisements for everything having to do with Disney every five minutes (which admittedly actually sounds pretty nice) is the latest Disney film. It is, like many older Disney movies, and like last year's "The Princess and the Frog" is a modernized version of a classic fairy tale. This time, Disney chose the well known story of Rapunzel.

You know the story, girl has a wicked stepmother/witch/whatever who traps her in a tower, and for some reason she grows really long hair and yada yada yada blah blah blah. If I have to tell you the story of Rapunzel... Who are you? Seriously. If you don't know the story this film is based on... Go Google it you strange person.

The major difference, and one that I will admit made me very hesitant of seeing this film, is that this is not traditional animation, this is CGI. And looking back at Disney's CGI track record... Errrr... It's not the best. I mean, on the one hand you have movies which are good but not great like Meet The Robinsons or Bolt, which are both worth seeing... And on the other hand you have Chicken Little and... Well...

Yeeeeaaah... Not a good track record for Disney here when it comes to CGI* thus far. So, while the trailers looked good I've been disappointed by a movie with a good enough trailer before so I've since learned not to trust them. And so I went into the theater hopeful, but skeptical. So what was the verdict? Is the movie good? Decent? Terrible?

Ladies and gentlemen, this movie is absolutely FANTASTIC.

Seriously, I never thought I would say this, but this is a real contender for my favorite animated film of the year, and that's saying a lot considering this year brought movies like "How to Train Your Dragon" and of course "Toy Story 3". In fact, this is one of the best MOVIES I've seen this year. And I saw Inception, so... I was wowed.

But let's back up a minute, shall we? What makes Tangled so good? Well, I'm tempted here to say "everything" and just stop writing, but NO! I shall tell you just what makes this movie so darn good.

First, let me tell you about the plot. As you could see from my statement above, everyone knows the story of Rapunzel, so it would have been very easy for this film to feel repetitive and redundant and repetitive and redundant. But was it? No! Not at all! They introduced many new elements that vastly improved the typical story of Rapunzel. So let me give you a quick outline of the plot. This is spoiler free in my opinion, since everything I tell you is recapped in the first 5 minutes of the film, but uh... If you really care that much about spoiling the first 5 minutes of the film... Scroll down a bit.

Are they gone? Ok good. Now then, long ago there was a magic flower. An old hag found the magic flower, and learned that it had magical properties that would return her to youth when she sang to it. She kept this power to herself and would return to the flower every so often, to return her youth. Centuries passed, and there was a kingdom which sprung up in the area, ruled by a beloved King and Queen. The Queen was pregnant, but unfortunately before the child was born, she became very ill. Dying, the entire kingdom searched for a miracle. And thus, they found the flower, much to the dismay of the old hag, Gothel.

The Queen was restored to health and the girl, Rapunzel, was born. Gothel, unwilling to give up her eternal youth, however, snuck into the castle, and attempted to steal some of the girl's hair, which she knew would have the same magical properties of the flower. However, as she cut a lock of Rapunzel's hair from her head, it turned brown, and lost it's magical properties. Still unwilling to leave her eternal youth behind, she stole the child, and hid away with her in a tower deep in the forest, never to be found again.

Cut to 18 years later, when Rapunzel has grown, and wants to leave the tower. "Mother" Gothel, isn't pleased with this however.

Now, let me say, the writers for Rapunzel did an AWESOME job. She totally feels like a fully fleshed out character, and not a stereotypical princess, which would have been an easy trap to fall into. The voice actress did an awesome job with her lines, and just in general they took a generic princess character, Rapunzel, and made her kind of awesome. Her character feels intelligent, capable, and fun. Also, there's a very interesting dynamic between her and "Mother" Gothel. You see, Gothel raised her, and Rapunzel really thinks she's her real mother.

And so, even though to the audience it's very obvious that Gothel is evil, you can also really feel for Rapunzel, as everyone's had a point where they've been frustrated with a close family member in some way, and can relate to still loving your family, even when you don't particularly like them.

The other main character of the film, aside from Rapunzel, is Flynn Rider, the daring charismatic thief. The best way I can describe Flynn, is if you took one part Nathan Drake (or for that matter any character voiced by Nolan North), one part Captain Mal, and one part Aladdin, and mixed them together into one awesome character.

Flynn, voiced by Zachary Levi the actor who plays Chuck in, well, Chuck, is a LOT of fun. His dialogue is always fun, and well written, and... Well, he's just awesome. He's, again, a really well done character. Major props, again, to the writers for that character.

But what would a Disney musical extravaganza be without music? ...Er... I guess it would just be Atlantis, But that's aside the point. What I was getting at is that the music in this film, written by the legendary Alan Menken, with lyrics by "Glenn Slater" who I've never heard of, is really really good. I could tell you about it, or I could give you an example.

Guess which one I'll pick? (Hint: Both.)

The music feels both modern, and at the same time completely feels like the music from classic Disney movies like, again, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, or The Lion King. Due in no small part I'm sure, due to the fact that it was composed by, well, Alan Menken. The guy who WROTE all the music for those movies.

But, the real big turnoff for most people, myself included, was the animation. So I suppose I should probably talk about that some, right? Right. So is the animation good? HECK YEAH! This is, I don't hesitate to say, some of the best CGI I have EVER SEEN. Avatar has nothing on this movie, not because this is more photo realistic, but because this is more gorgeous.

Let me give you an example. The tower. The tower Rapunzel and Gothel live in. Every surface in the tower has been painted by Rapunzel during her 18 years living in the castle. The result? An absolutely gorgeous set, which, just looking in the background, is jaw dropping. It's visually stunning, seeing intricate designs on every surface. The outside of the tower is also gorgeous, and the sequence about 2/3rds of the way through the movies, during the song "I See The Light" is probably the most amazing piece of CGI animation I've ever seen. It's fantastic, on par, perhaps even surpassing, anything Pixar, the best animation studio on the planet, has put out.

If you get a chance, see it in 3D. Why? Well, while there won't be that many things popping out at you, the 3D adds a depth to the film which makes it even more visually stunning.

The action sequences are awesome, the characters, even the minor ones, are all a lot of fun, the humor is always spot on, and... This movie just rocks! I loved this movie. It was absolutely incredible. You are doing yourself a disservice if you dismiss this film as "just another Disney CGI film" like Bolt, Meet the Robinsons, or Chicken Little (And 2/3rds of those movies were pretty darn good, see if you can figure out which two.), and you should see this film.

10/10. This movie is incredible. The voice acting, the animation, the writing, the music... All perfect. Go see it. End of story.

*For the love of god if I get a single person who tries to tell me I'm wrong about Disney CGI movies because I'm forgetting Pixar I will give that person an internet punch in the face. That's right. I will reach through your monitor and give you an internet punch in the face. PIXAR =/= DISNEY. Pixar is (now) owned by Disney, but this was NOT produced as a Pixar film, and I was speaking of DISNEY ANIMATION movies, NOT Pixar animation movies. Big difference.