Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015: A Year of Improvements

In 2014, I accomplished something that I had wanted to do since I was fourteen years old, and that was to write reviews.  A few attempts were made prior to my initial decision, but they were scrapped as I didn't feel confident in my opinions and writing.  This changed in 2014 when I decided that if I was going to start writing reviews then I would either have to commit to it or not, but I decided on the former.  Unfortunately, the best laid plans can always get messed up, which was the unfortunate case.  Simply put, I wasn't following the schedule that I had set up; I was slacking off, and it showed in my output and in my writing quality.

Most of the reviews I had planned for the first half of 2014 were either scrapped or delayed to the latter part of the year, and the delaying and scrapping of planned reviews carried over into the other half of 2014.  It reached a point where I stopped writing and posting to my original blog, as well as Gamefaqs, because I had to rethink everything I was doing.  2015 rolls around and I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to continue writing, then I would have to: A. Improve my writing/reviewing skills, and B. Plan a schedule and stick to it.  And I did, though one of the things I chose to do before jumping back into writing was delete my old blog, since I wanted to create a new blog that reflected the improvements I was striving for.  Since I started writing again, I would have to say that the new blog does reflect those goals I was aiming for, but there are still some areas that I want to improve on.

Since I started writing reviews again, my writing skills have greatly improved and I better proofread my reviews in order to get rid of any grammatical errors that may have popped up.  Granted, I have noticed a grammatical error, or two, or three that I overlooked when publishing the reviews, but otherwise, I've managed to do a good job at avoiding and correcting grammatical errors.  Also, I better explain the different aspects of what I'm reviewing, as well as what works and what doesn't work, so that I'm skimping on the information.  The normal length of my reviews is three to five pages, the only review that was not that long was the Aliens: Colonial Marines review, which took seven pages, but looking back, I probably could have narrowed it down to five or six pages.

While I would say that this year was a great improvement for me in terms of my writing, the one issue that I want to avoid in 2016 which was still a prevalent, but not major issue this year was the occasional slaggy content output.  While my output has much improved from before, there were a few reviews that got scrapped, such as reviews for Mass Effect 2, Resident Evil 4, Back to the Future, and LEGO Marvel Superheroes.  However, in 2016 I aim to make sure that every review that I plan to write and publish next year will get written and published during their respective month.  If something comes, for example, a black belt grading that I will be attending in March, then I'll just work my way around such occurrences in order to get the review finished and published.

With a new year encroaching upon us, I want to expand the blog by introducing some new things.  I can't hint at everything new you can expect to see next year, but I will say that during the summer and winter there will be more movie reviews published because my gaming schedule tends to slow down during those times of the year.  I'll also be writing reviews of TV shows next year as well; specifically reviews of anime, but I will review live action shows and American animated shows in the future.  These reviews, much like the movie reviews, will be published during the summer and winter times.  Don't worry, though, even though there will be more reviews of movies and TV shows starting next year, the primary focus of my blog shall and will always be game reviews.

One of the reasons I first started writing is because my future career is to become a journalist; specifically, a gaming journalist.  The point of this editorial is to show that I do care about my writing and I want to improve and get better at what I do, as well as keep the content output consistent and avoid any scrapped reviews or other plans I come up with.  2016 marks the year that I fulfill both of those aspects instead of one over the other, and next year I aim to make it an interesting and entertaining one for the blog.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

William Lowery's Favorite Games of 2015

Another year has passed, and during that year I played a lot of games, which is why I'll be discussing my favorite games that I played this year.  Keep in mind, this list does not pertain to games that were released this year, since I am normally not able to play most of the titles that came out during the year until later down the line.  Secondly, unless it's a game that I have played before, such as Ghostbusters: The Video Game or Dead Island, then it was not considered for the list.  For now, however, it's time to start the countdown.

9. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel
In recent years, I have become a huge fan of the Borderlands series; what appeals to me most about the games are their sense of humor and First Person Shooter meets RPG gameplay, which is quite fun.  The latest installment, while not bringing any major changes to the franchise, still managed to be very enjoyable thanks to solid gameplay that does introduce a few new concepts to keep things varied; namely, the addition of zero gravity, which manages to make firefights more fun with the enhanced mobility offered by this mechanic.  In addition to solid gameplay, the game's story showed the rise of the man we came to love to hate in Borderlands 2, Handsome Jack.

8. Call of Duty: Black Ops
Even though I have not played many of the games in the Call of Duty series, I was still pleasantly surprised by Black Ops, and this is largely due in part to the story.  It's a conspiracy filled narrative with many twists and turns, and a main protagonist whose mind is gradually degrading over the course of the game, and I found myself very interested in the events going on.  While the gameplay was nothing new, it was nevertheless enjoyable thanks to various moments strewn throughout the campaign to help break up the shooting.  Besides an interesting story mode, there was also the highly replayable zombies' mode, which never gets old.  Regardless of your own experience with the franchise, I still think Black Ops is a title both fans and non-fans of Call of Duty will enjoy.

7. Earth Defense Force 2025
Earth Defense Force is a series with a simple concept: you and/or a friend, versus a race of aliens called Ravagers that will be killed or blown up with a variety of different weapons that can be acquired over the course of the game.  The latest installment in the series keeps this concept intact but this game shakes things up by featuring four different character classes to choose from and play as, plus a lengthy campaign to beat and a wide variety of enemies to face.  Although repetition is still an issue in Earth Defense Force 2025, it never becomes a huge problem due to two of the reasons I mentioned prior.  As a whole, Earth Defense Force 2025 just might be my favorite installment in the series to date due to new concepts introduced that keep things fun and entertaining.

6. Transformers: Fall of Cybertron
Transformers is a massive franchise with everything from toys to TV shows and movies; yet video games were an area the franchise was never successful in until 2010's War for Cybertron, which was followed up by the excellent Fall of Cybertron  The biggest strength of this game is that it keeps you on your toes; nearly every level in the campaign has you playing as a different member of the Autobots and Decepticons, and each one brings something new to the table.  Whether it's relying on the assistance of the massive robot Metroplex when playing as Optimus Prime, or laying wasted to enemies as Bruticus or the Dinobot Grimlock, there's never a dull moment in this game.  Much like the Arkham series, this game is an example of taking a license and creating something that is very enjoyable for everyone, even if they aren't a fan of the particular series.

5. Splinter Cell: Blacklist
As I mentioned in my review for the game, Blacklist was my first foray into the stealth genre, and I'm very glad I played this game.  While the story was quite lackluster, this was made up for by the gameplay, which encourages you to stick to the shadows, but at the same time be mobile and take advantage of your surroundings.  Also, the game's Ghost, Panther, and Hunter playstyles encourage you to use your own methods when dealing with enemies, either keeping it sneaky or very loud, thus encouraging experimentation.  The game can be challenging, yes, but when you do succeed, it is very satisfying.

4. Far Cry 3/Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon
When deciding on how to rank my favorite games of this year, trying to rank these two was rather tricky, but then I decided to just include them both in the same rank.  With Far Cry 3, you have a game with a solid story and gameplay that is very engaging; with  Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, you have a game that takes the original game and turns it upside down and inside and out by having a story that feels like it was ripped from a science fiction/action B-movie, a main character who's a parody of action stars from the 80's, and weapons that can be outfitted with ridiculous attachments such as a quadruple barrel for the shotgun and explosive rounds for the sniper rifle.  Far Cry 3 and Blood Dragon are both great games, but Blood Dragon gets brownie points for having an awesome soundtrack and a powerful laser weapon called the Killstar.

3. Super Mario Galaxy
Sometimes, setting your game in space can lead to positive results; it worked well with Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, and it works great in Super Mario Galaxy.  By having the levels consist of different galaxies, this means that each level brings something new and interesting through creative level design and unique ideas for each galaxy.  The result is a game bursting with creativity and one that is hard not to put down.  Combine the creative gameplay with strong visuals and a great soundtrack, and you have a game that is a surefire must-play.

2. Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2 and I had a rocky start; initially, I picked up this game in April of 2014, played it for about an hour, and didn't touch the game again until December of that same year.  When playing the game again I decided to restart from the beginning, and I got hooked.  Three aspects of what made this game great were its characters, strong writing, and good sense of player choice.  Each of the crew members Shepherd recruits as part of his team is interesting and the excellent writing does a great job at making you care for the crewmates of the Normandy.  Then you have the choice system, which allows you to either make Shepherd a heroic captain or a complete jerk. I went with the former, but the choices you have to make are significant, as they can change the outcome of a given situation.  As for the gameplay, it's a solid mix of third person shooting and exploration.  Although I do have a couple of minor issues with the game, these are overly linear level design during combat sections and a final boss that is very easy, yet such issues are outweighed by how good the rest of the game is.  Even though I started in the middle with the series, Mass Effect 2 was still an excellent game.

Before my number one pick, here are two honorable mentions:
  • LEGO Marvel Superheroes
  • Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit
1. Grand Theft Auto V
To be honest, I could have chosen this game or Mass Effect 2 as my choice for favorite game of 2015, but I decided on this game, but why?  For me, its two reasons: a strong story and gameplay that will constantly keep you entertained through its varied missions, fun side activities, and just the great thrill of exploring and discovering new areas  The story is very compelling, featuring three protagonists who each have their own personal life problems but also realizes they work together as a great, if sometimes distraught, team.  The gameplay of this fifth installment raises the stakes by offering three different characters to switch between and play as for most of the game.  Besides the huge amount of activities to do, the game also has fun and exciting story missions, which never suffer from the feeling of repetition.  In short, Grand Theft Auto V is an amazing game.

That was my list of favorite games for this year; now to get ready for next year's batch of games that I'll by playing.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Grand Theft Auto V Review (Fixed)

2015 is almost at an end but before this year wraps and we move ahead into 2016, I present a review of a game that is of some personal significance to me.  In honor of graduating from high school and ending the final semester with all A's, I picked this game up as my personal graduation gift.  During the summer, when I wasn't working or studying martial arts, I was playing this game.  The game was thoroughly compelling and hard to put down for different reasons that shall be explained in this review.

Grand Theft Auto V focuses on three different protagonists, starting with Michael Townley, a former thief who is rich, living in witness protection, and someone who misses the days when he was robbing banks and committing other crimes and not trying to keep his dysfunctional family intact.  Next, there's Franklin, a repoman and part-time gangster who wants to do more with his life but he can't due to his friend Lamar, who has a penchant for getting himself and Franklin in hot water with rival gangs, and his aunt that is more focused on other things besides her nephew.  Rounding out the three protagonists is one Trevor Philips, a man who lives in the backwoods area of San Andreas, spending a large portion of his time running drugs and doing his best to tick off everybody that he sees.  Through a series of events, the three end up working together to help various corrupt individuals get what they want while also trying to manage their own individual lives.

Grand Theft Auto V's compelling story does a great job at keeping the right pace, shifting the story back and forth between the characters' own lives and the multiple times they have to work together on a job for someone.  The story is filled with many twists and turns; secrets about the main protagonists are revealed, some of which tie into the history of Michael and Trevor, as the two of them used to work together back when Michael was still a crook.  Although the game is serious in tone, the excellent pacing of the game knows which parts should be serious and when to punctuate various moments with humor.  Said humor largely comes from a character's actions or through their dialogue and through the satirical portrayal of America's culture and society.  Besides having a great storyline with strong pacing, Michael, Franklin, and Trevor are memorable protagonists.  The game's sharp writing does a great job at highlighting dilemmas a character may be facing, like Michael and his attempts to keep his family together.  Of the three protagonists, Trevor is the highlight as his schizophrenic behavior and actions make him unpredictable, since you don't know when he might get ticked off by somebody or what he plans to do to said individual.

While Grand Theft Auto V's story and characters are excellent, one problem with the pacing is that of the three characters, Franklin has the least amount of screentime.  It's not that he's a uninteresting character, but as the story progresses you notice that it becomes more focused on Michael and Trevor while Franklin ends up acting as assistance to the characters when needed; though at the end of the game his role in the story is more significant as he has to make a penultimate decision regarding Michael and Trevor.

Much like the previous games in the series, Grand Theft Auto V is an open world game, but this installments raises the stakes by offering three characters to switch between and play as.  For a majority of the game, you can freely switch between the three, and while none of them necessarily control differently, each does have their own set of various stats and their own special ability, as well as their own bank accounts, friends, and people they can encounter in the game's side missions.  In the game's HUD, there's a yellow meter that gradually fills up; when filled, either of the three characters can perform their special ability.  Franklin can slow down time while driving, which is useful when driving through busy streets.  Michael can also slow down time but only during combat, and Trevor has a rage mode that makes him nearly invulnerable and increases the damage of his fists and weapons.  The various stats a character has are for different things like driving, shooting accuracy, and stamina, and if you keep performing in these different aspects, then they naturally get better.

When it comes to things to do in Grand Theft Auto V, the world of San Andreas is filled with many different activities and various side quests.  Each of the three characters can participate in side missions called Strangers and Freaks, in which one of the characters you're currently playing as encounters a person who corrals you into getting involved with the thing they're about to do.  For example, Franklin encounters a photographer who's trying to get pictures of celebrities in embarrassing situations.  As you drive around San Andreas, a random event may pop up that you can choose to partake in or not; these events normally involve stopping a thief or escorting a stranded bystander to safety.  Besides the side missions, there are also various activities to participate in as well, including different sports like golf and tennis, street and sea races, skydiving, and many other activities.  Of course, you can choose not to do the side missions or the activities and just cruise around San Andreas, or go on a rampage and blow everything to kingdom come.

Should you attract the attention of the police, evading them isn't much of an issue, even on higher wanted levels.  If you manage to avoid their attention, then the cops will start to look for you, getting near the field of vision means the wanted level still remains and they know where you are.  If you stay out of their sight long enough, then the wanted level drops.  As such, avoiding the pursuing cops isn't too hard, especially when you compare police evasion in the older entries like Grand Theft Auto III, and getting rid of your wanted level is usually as easy as driving really fast or if you're roaming the countryside, go up into the hilly areas where their cars can't reach you.

Much like how the side content is diverse and interesting, the story missions are equally varied.  There are sixty-nine story missions total, and since each one is varied in their own way then it means repetition never becomes an issue, given the massive amount of missions.  In fact, the diversity of these missions surprised me, one of my favorite missions involved one of the characters trying to track down another character that was being held captive, and the person looking for the other one had to rely on a tracking device within their phone to pinpoint where exactly he was being held.  An earlier mission in the game had Trevor posing as a dock worker to retrieve important information, and during the mission you have to operate a crane in order to load shipping containers onto an eighteen wheeler before Trevor could proceed.  One type of story mission, however, that does stand out are the heists; although there are only about four in total these complex missions involve planning, finding the right members for your team, and determining the best method to use in the heist.  The payoff for a successful heist?  A large sum of money

Grand Theft Auto V, from a technical standpoint, is great.  Rockstar Games did a great job at making the city feel like a lively and active environment with pedestrians who will go about their daily routines until you start acting aggressive to them, in which case they'll either flee or try to fight back.  The voice acting is top notch, but one issue I do have with the acting is that the dialogue can occasionally be overreliant on swearing or ethnic slurs if Franklin and Lamar were talking; while I do understand that this is a game intended for mature players, the overusage of swearing can come off as childish.  The radio stations that are available to listen to when driving encompass a wide selection of different music genres; including classic rock, old school funk, country, modern pop, among other genres.  The composed music used during the missions is good and its ambient nature helps set the tone of a mission.

In short, Grand Theft Auto V was an amazing title and one I'm glad I spent so much time with.  It's a game with a memorable story and characters, as well as gameplay that will keep you playing through the varied missions and diverse selection of activities.  If you haven't played this game yet, I strongly suggest you do.

Final Score: 10/10

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Dead Island Review

It's that time of the year again; a time in which families get together to celebrate Christmas and everything that is good about the holidays.  Yet, some families do things differently than other families, like travel to a place during the holidays, and just somewhere in America, but to a destination elsewhere.  If your family is choosing a place to travel to, my best recommendation would be anywhere that isn't the island of Banoi.  Recently, a terrible outbreak has struck the island and most of the citizens have changed, and not in a good way.  For the poor souls still trapped on the island and trying to find a way out, they're going to have to fight in order to escape; this is Dead Island.

Dead Island's story centers around the island of Banoi, a premiere vacation choice for travelers until an outbreak caused most of the people to turn into zombies.  The remaining survivors are either trying to find help and maybe a way off of the island, or have resorted to desperate measures in order to survive.  As one of four characters that are immune to the infection, since it is a video game, you must help the different groups of survivors that you encounter while also finding a way off of the island and a possible explanation for the infection that has swept over the island.

Much like the previously reviewed The Conduit, Dead Island's story is forgettable and predictable; heavily relying on tropes and clichés seen in other zombie movies or games, without adding anything interesting to the established material.  The characters are equally forgettable and the main characters are fairly stereotypical; there's Sam B., the angry black guy who says the f word a lot, Logan, a former football player from the South, Xian Mei, a Chinese woman who's an employee at a resort in Banoi, and Purna, the Aussie whose eyes look like they're on the verge of falling out whenever she is in a cutscene.  The game's tone is pretty inconsistent; the story takes itself way too seriously, featuring many moments that try to tug on your heartstrings, but fail to do so, as well as a forced message about how man is the real monster of the situation and not the zombies.  This is in stark contrast to the gameplay, which is fun and filled with plenty of laugh out loud moments, such as when you activate Sam B.'s Rage Mode, which makes him nearly invulnerable and allows him to throw punches that can send zombies flying into the air and their body parts splattering all over the place.

Speaking of which, Dead Island's gameplay is best describe as a mixture between the RPG elements of Borderlands and the melee combat of Dead Rising; however, Dead Island uses a first person perspective and not a third person perspective.  Since melee combat is the main method used to deal with enemies, it can be a little tricky at first when trying to tell if your hits are connecting with the zombie or not, but you quickly adjust to the usage of melee weapons in the first person perspective.  Like Borderlands, Dead Island has you earning XP to level up by killing enemies, or by completing main and side missions.  The four characters you can choose to play from each specializes in their own types of weapons; for example, Sam B., the character I played as, specializes in blunt weapons like axes and sledgehammers.  Each of the four characters also has their own skill trees that skill points, earned from leveling up, can be put into that benefit your character or their weapon types.

Similar to Dead Rising, there is an emphasis on using melee weapons against enemies, while there are guns, such weapons don't show up until the city section of the game and even then, ammunition is scarce and guns are best recommended for use against the human enemies you'll occasionally encounter in the game as they're more effective against them than the zombies.  When the game first starts, you'll have to rely primarily on disposable weapons such as paddles and wood planks, but it isn't before long that you start finding real weapons to keep and use like the previously mentioned axes and sledgehammers, as well as knives, katanas, and crowbars, among other weapons to find.  These weapons have a rarity scale, similar to the one seen in Borderlands; white is common, green is less common, blue is somewhat rare, purple is very rare, and orange is highly rare.  Weapons you find and use have a durability meter, meaning you have to be careful when attacking zombies as weapons can degrade and potentially break if you're not careful.  Fortunately, there are work benches scattered across the island that allow you to upgrade weapons, repair damaged ones, or create specially modified weapons.

Modified weapons are similar in concept to the combo weapons of Dead Rising, by collecting blueprints found from either completing quests or by exploring, as well as making sure you have the right materials necessary, you can create these weapons that can devastate zombies.  Modified weapons consist of nails or barbed wire surrounding a weapon, or a weapon mixed with a certain element like fire, electricity, or toxicity.  Using these special weapons feels satisfying against zombies, especially when you land the one strike that ignites them or electrocutes them.

You'll use these weapons against the zombies and human enemies scattered around Banoi; the locations are varied, ranging from bright and sunny beaches to rundown cities and lush jungles.  Speaking of enemies, you'll face other types of zombies besides the typical, slow moving zombies seen in movies or The Walking Dead; there are fast running zombies, suicide zombies that explode when you get near them, and big zombies that can deal massive damage with their strikes.

Dead Island's combat is fun, as is leveling up your character and finding new weapons for them, but the biggest problem of Dead Island is its repetitive nature.  Nearly every single quest in the game, be it main or side, is a fetch quest; "Go find this item for me," "Hey, I need X amount of items."  Because of this, playing the game can feel like a grind, especially in long play sessions, and often, I would just sprint as much as possible in order to find the item or items a quest giver needed so I could get the missions finished quickly.

Dead Island, visually, is very uneven; the environments look good and some locations like the resort and jungle areas give a false sense of calm and peace, since you know zombies are nearby; however, there are a number of graphical issues.  NPC character models are repeated frequently, even when the game tries to hide this by swapping clothes and facial features around, and most of them have laughable facial animations.  Pop-in is also frequent as you explore the island and some of the cutscenes look unfinished due to poor lip-syncing and missing textures.  Voice acting is forgettable, aside from the zombie sounds, which are good, and Steve Blum as the voice of the lifeguard Sinamoi, the remainder of the voice acting is nothing special; however, the ambient nature of the music does a good job at making encounters with the zombies feel tense.

If you overlook the flaws of Dead Island, there is a fun game.  Combat is fun and riotous and leveling up your character and finding new weapons is enjoyable as well; though, the issues with the story and repetitive quests do sour some of the fun this game offers.

Final Score: 7/10

Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope Review (Fixed)

2015 has been an interesting year for cinema due to the revivals of different film franchises from the past.  Jurassic Park got a new sequel in the form of Jurassic World, the Mad Max series returned after thirty years with the movie Mad Max: Fury Road, and now Star Wars, which hasn't had an official film follow-up in ten years, not counting the movie based off of the Clone Wars TV show that was released seven years ago, is returning to cinema with The Force Awakens.  The hype for this movie has been huge; ever since the film was first announced, people have been waiting in anticipation for this film.  This has been an interesting experience for me, since this new movie has helped rekindle my interest in Star Wars.  The last time I watched any of the original six films was about seven years ago; after that, I lost interest in the series.  While I played some of the games that came out during that period of time like The Force Unleashed games and the LEGO games, I otherwise stayed away from the franchise.  Yet, in honor of the release of this new film, I decided to revisit the original movie that started it all, and see how the film has held up since I last saw it seven years ago; fortunately, this is still an excellent movie.

A New Hope follows a young man named Luke Skywalker, who lives with his aunt and uncle on the desert planet Tatooine.  His uncle purchases a pair of droids from traveling scavengers known as Jawas; unbeknownst to Luke, these two droids, C-3PO and R2-D2, have come from a Rebel space cruiser that was fleeing one of the Empire's Star Destroyers, which was trying to hunt down plans the Rebels had stolen from them regarding their superweapon, the Death Star.  The plans were stored into R2-D2 by Princess Leia, who also put in a message for Obi-Wan Kenobi, a former Jedi master who may be able to help the Rebellion.  The only Kenobi Luke knows about is an old hermit named Ben Kenobi, who lives out in the desert, away from civilization.  Luke inadvertently encounters Ben after he saves Luke and the droids from an attack by the Tuskan Raiders.  Ben takes them to his place and reveals to Luke that he is Obi-Wan Kenobi and that he knew Luke's father back when he was a Jedi master, and he gives Luke his father's old lightsaber, while also revealing to Luke that his father died at the hands of a man known as Darth Vader.  The message put into R2 reveals that Leia wants the plans to be taken to her home planet, Alderaan.

Ben asks for Luke's assistance in this since Ben is old, but at first, Luke has doubts about being involved with such an ordeal.  After Luke witnesses the loss of his aunt and uncle, he decides to go with Ben who has promised to train Luke how to become a Jedi.  Luke, Ben, and the droids head to the city of Mos Eisley in order to find someone who can take them to Alderaan, and they find a smuggler named Han Solo, who agrees to take them to Alderaan.  After encountering Stormtroopers looking for the droids, the group escapes aboard Han's ship, the Millennium Falcon, and they head to Alderaan, yet when they get there the planet is not there.  Alderaan has been blown up by the Death Star after Leia give Darth Vader and his advisor, Grand Moff Tarkin, misleading information about the location of the plans.  Luke, Han, and the others follow one of the Empire's TIE Fighters to the Death Star, and after sneaking in, they discover Leia is being held in captivity.  Luke, Han, his partner Chewbacca, go search for the princess, and Ben goes off on his own for personal reasons.

One of the interesting aspects of A New Hope is how it borrows elements from different genres of film and merges them into this one movie, while also putting an interesting twist on these elements through the film's sci-fi setting and characters.  Scenes in the movie where the Rebels' X-Wings engage in dogfights with the Empire's TIE Fighters are very reminiscent of dog fights between planes in war movies and real life events, and the sequence where Ben and Luke go into the Mos Eisley Cantina to find a pilot is similar to that of the bar scenes found in westerns, complete with an encounter between Han and a bounty hunter named Greedo that is inspired by the showdown duels of many westerns.  Additionally, the opening text crawl of the Star Wars movies is very much inspired by the text crawls of film serials from the 30's and 40's.

A New Hope and the other two films of the original trilogy are known for their memorable characters and the arcs some of them go through over the course of not just this movie, but the other two movies as well.  This is best exemplified by Luke Skywalker; when he is first introduced, he is initially skeptical about being involved in such a big conflict, but over the course of this movie Luke gradually becomes more confident about being involved with this huge ordeal, and in the following movies, he becomes a wiser and nobler person.  Similar to Luke, Han Solo is initially a cocky and overconfident person, and he only decides to help Luke and Ben because Princess Leia is rich, but by the end of the movie Han changes as well and he decides to switch his efforts from smuggling to helping the Rebels fight the Empire.

Besides featuring memorable protagonists, A New Hope also features one of the most iconic villains of all time, Darth Vader.  When he is onscreen, you feel his foreboding presence; he's cold, calculating, and determined to bring an end to the Rebels' efforts to try and bring down the Empire.  Although it's Vader's advisor, Grand Moff Tarkin, who is the one that gives orders to the Death Star's men, and Vader complies with his orders most of the time.

Another thing this movie does right is the way it establishes a universe filled with interesting worlds, creatures, and a history the audience wants to know more about.  The previously mentioned cantina sequence is a great example of showing off the diverse array of creatures in just one, small setting; there are plenty of unique creatures in this sequence, besides the regular humans.  Additionally, the movie establishes a history we want to know more about through certain dialogue exchanges in the movie, such as when Ben explains to Luke about his years as a Jedi knight and how Darth Vader came to be.

Effects-wise, this movie's effects have held up well, mostly.  It's a little hard to believe that A New Hope was made on a budget of $10,000,000, considering the impressive work the filmmakers did.  The fight sequences between the X-Wings and the TIE Fighters stand out as the highlight of the strong effects of this movie, but where the effects falter are through some glaring alterations, a.k.a., the Special Edition changes. For those who don't know, in 1997, in honor of the 20th anniversary of this movie, the original three Star Wars movies were re-released in theaters with added-in effects and altered scenes; since then, when the original trilogy was released on DVD and Blu-Ray, more changes have been made.  I'm not going to go into great detail on what changes were made in all three films, all you need to know is the additions and changes made were mostly unnecessary, and they stick out like a sore thumb.  To me, the worst change that was made in A New Hope was the outcome of the encounter between Han and Greedo.  In the original cut, Han shot Greedo, but in the Special Edition, they both shoot simultaneously, and it's quite laughable, seeing Han casually shift his head over to the side to avoid blaster fire.

According to George Lucas, the director of A New Hope, his reasoning behind the changes is because "films never get finished, they get abandoned."  However, due to the decisions Lucas made for the additions and alterations, most people give Lucas a lot of flak, both for this and for the heavily divisive prequel trilogy.  Regardless of his own reasoning behind why he made these changes, it's always a matter of how the public will respond to it.  Now the alterations and additions aren't as prevalent in the movies as most people make it out to be; in fact, I would say only about five percent of A New Hope has been altered through the changes and additions, while the other ninety-five percent is the original film, but can't overlook the fact that these alterations alienate the original film, rather than improve it.

In addition to having great effects, A New Hope also features iconic music, which is the work of renowned composer John Williams.  He does a great job with the music, which is instantly memorable and can easily get stuck in your head, and his excellent music quality carried on throughout the remainder of the films he has composed in the series.

Any issues people have with this movie are just minor nitpicks, besides the problems of the Special Edition changes.  Such nitpicks include why the Death star, a powerful superweapon, has such a bizarre weak spot, a ventilation shaft that leads directly into the core of the Death Star, or why Stormtroopers, despite being an iconic military force, can't hit anything with their blasters most of the time?  We overlook such minor problems because of how great this movie is.  The plot, characters, locations, vehicles, and weapons have all become icons of not just science fiction, but film in general.  Not only that, but the movie borrows elements from other genres of films in a way that is unique and not retreading old ground.  Long story short, A New Hope shall, and will always be, an iconic movie.

Final Score: 10/10

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Conduit 2 Review

In movies or games, follow-ups to first installments are generally considered to be an improvement over the original, but what about when the first installment was rather mediocre?  This is the case of the Conduit 2.  The previous game was a run of the mill, first person shooter that had great controls and solid graphics, but the story and characters were dull and forgettable, and the gameplay, while not terrible, was pretty formulaic and suffered from a lack of variety.  With the sequel, it seems like the result of developer High Voltage Software taking a long, hard look at the problem the original had, and fixing nearly every single problem the story and gameplay of the first one suffered from.  The result is a sequel that is a huge improvement over its predecessor.

(Spoiler warning for the ending of the Conduit!)  Picking up where The Conduit left off, protagonist Ford and new ally Prometheus, whose conscious was transferred into the ASE, give chase after John Adams, who manages to escape via a portal.  They follow Adams into the portal he escaped through, and the two end up on a oil rig in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  Said oil rig is owned by the Trust, who are awaiting Adams so they can send him off elsewhere through the portal.  In the midst of this, a giant sea serpent is attacking the rig, but Ford and Prometheus are unable to stop Adams before he can enter the portal and escape.  Ford and Prometheus then deal with the giant serpent, which swallows and regurgitates them in Atlantis.  Navigating their way through the place leads them to a chamber where Ford gets a suit of armor referred to as Destroyer armor, and then they head into another room where they find a woman named Andromeda, frozen in a stasis chamber.  Ford uses the ASE to wake up Andromeda, who at first is skeptical about Ford since he is wearing the Destroyer armor, but when Ford tells her about Adams, she agrees to help Ford find Adams, who is revealed to be part of a race of beings called Progenitors, which Andromeda and Prometheus are also members of.  Now Ford and Prometheus must travel around the world to try and stop Adams, before he can take over the world.

In many ways, Conduit 2's story is an improvement to the first game's story; though the story does falter in a few spots.  The best aspect of the story, by far, is that it reveals a lot more about the world the previous game hinted at, but never fully showed.  The idea of the Progenitors is rather interesting, as are the connections to real world events that happened, which involved the Progenitors in some way.  Said nods to events are revealed through collectibles found in each level, but more on that later.  Additionally, the main protagonists, Michael Ford and Prometheus, are much more likeable than they were in the first game, due to the better and more humorous writing.  Ford and Prometheus have a Kirk/Spock dynamic; Ford makes a lot of humorous one liners and quips, while Prometheus is rather uptight and direct in his dialogue.

Despite the improved story and leading characters, the story has its flaws.  Even though the story is more in depth in regards to revealing more information on the world of the Conduit games; this is a pretty basic story, and while Ford and Prometheus are better characters, John Adams is still a clichéd bad guy who spends most of the game absent until the last level.  Andromeda is also wasted as a character; there are a couple of moments in the story involving her which are somewhat interesting, but ultimately, she's someone who spends most of her time standing in front of a terminal typing away rather than actually giving Ford assistance.  Pacing is also an issue with the Conduit 2; story events come and go so quickly that before you know it, the finale will be here, even though you feel like there should have been more to the story.  Also, much like the last game, Conduit 2 ends on a cliffhanger, a cool cliffhanger yes, but an unnecessary one nonetheless.

Much like before, Conduit 2 offers great controls and a huge amount of options to choose from when customizing them.  The only new additions are support for the Wii Motion Plus, which makes aiming more accurate, plus support for the Classic Controller.  Although the greatest improvements this sequel offers come from the gameplay, which is more enjoyable, fun, and varied than the gameplay of The Conduit.   As I said in the previous review, the main issues with the gameplay were a lack of variety in the campaign, overly linear level design, and bad enemy AI.  All of these issues have been rectified, but the developers have also added in new additions and have made some minor adjustments to other parts of the gameplay.

Even though the campaign is mainly focused on shooting, each level in the game now has various moments to help break up the shooting.  In the Siberia level, for example, there are security cameras placed around a military installation Ford infiltrates in the game, and should Ford get spotted, robot dogs, a new enemy type in the game, are sent after him, so in order to avoid getting spotted, you need to shoot out the security cameras.  By far, though, the biggest addition that has been added to the campaign is the introduction of boss fights, which are all quite fun.  In the first game, the only real instances of variety came from the ASE, a cool concept, but the potential was wasted as it was mainly used to open doors and though there were hidden collectibles to find, that was about it.  While the device is still used to open doors, there are a lot more hidden objects for the ASE to find; such collectibles include objects that have connections to real world events, blueprints that unlock upgrades and weapons, which I'll get to, and crystal shards that give currency when scanned.

New to this game is the ability to create and equip your own character with their own loadout for usage in multiplayer.  Besides finding blueprints in the campaign, weapons and upgrades can be unlocked by purchasing them with currency obtained by finding collectibles in the campaign, or by playing multiplayer or the Horde mode-esque Invasion.  You can also create a custom loadout for Ford to use in the campaign via the Arsenal Replicator found in Atlantis, which acts as a hub in between levels.

Going back to what the sequel improves upon, the level design is much more varied.  Levels are less reliant on cramped corridors and more on open and spacious areas.  These levels are also more interesting to look at since Ford is traveling around the world, and he's not relegated to one location; although there is a level set in Washington, D.C., which is in a state of ruin due to the Drudge invasion.  Additionally, the enemy AI has been greatly improved; enemies rely more on cover and they will dodge thrown grenades.  This may not sound like much when compared to enemy AI in other shooters, but it's much better than when enemies wondered round in the open, absorbing bullets and explosions, in the first game.  New enemy types have also been introduced, which include the previously mentioned robot dogs, but there are also heavily armored Trust soldiers and stone warriors, which appear in the China level, that are slow, but can deal a heavy amount of damage should they come near Ford.

Gunplay is largely unchanged from The Conduit, but some minor adjustments have been made.  All of the weapons from the first game are in the sequel, but now they either have iron sights or an alternate firing mode.  For example, the TPC Launcher now has an alternate firing mode that allows the proximity grenades to be used as proximity mines, and the hive cannon, also from the first game, can fire a lure which the insectoid creatures shot from will follow.  A few new weapons have been introduced; these include a deployable turret, a sniper rifle that can shoot through walls, and a gun that can fire a miniature black hole once the alternate fire becomes active.

As a whole, the gameplay is a great improvement over the first game, but an issue that wasn't fixed from the first game was the short length of the campaign.  Due to the rushed nature of the story, beating the campaign can take about four to five hours, depending on how much of the collectible finding you do.

Visually, Conduit 2 looks as good as the first game, but the art style is a lot more interesting than the generic look of The Conduit.  The environments are more varied, ranging from a stormy oil rig to bombed ruins of D.C. and the ancient temples of China.  While I didn't run into any glitches during gameplay, a glitch happened during a cutscene that resulted in Ford falling through the level and getting stuck in limbo once the cutscene was over.  The voice acting has improved as well; none of the original voice actors from the first game returned, so instead, there are new voice actors voicing these characters.  This change is especially noticeable with Ford, who is now voiced by Jon St. John, better known as the voice of Duke Nukem, and his voice fits Ford's more humorous personality; though the music is still mostly forgettable.

Despite some story problems and a short length, Conduit 2 is still a huge improvement over the first game, and a solid game in its own right.  This is mainly due to better and more creative gameplay, a much more varied campaign, and a better art style for the visuals.  If you're curious about the Conduit series, its best recommended to skip the first game and play the sequel instead.

Final Score: 8/10

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Conduit Review

Here is the other review that was supposed to be published in November, The Conduit.  After this review is published, the reviews for December will go up starting next week.

Nostalgia is a tricky concept; I say this because there are titles that people have grown up with, whether it be movies or games, which can still be said to have held up well even to this day.  However, there are also titles that people may have liked when they were younger, but now that they are older and their tastes have matured, they realize that a particular title that they may have liked when they were younger has not held up well.  That was a realization I had replaying The Conduit for the purpose of this review.  When I was fourteen, I really liked this game, as it was one of the first FPS's that I had every played, but since I have gotten older and have matured both as a person and as a gamer, playing this game now made me realize that The Conduit is not as good as I remembered it too be; rather, the game is mediocre.

Conduit's story follows Michael Ford, a Secret Service agent who has been enlisted into a mysterious organization called The Trust, led by John Adams, in order to find and stop a terrorist known as Prometheus.  In the midst of this hunt for the terrorist, Ford runs into many strange things; a mysterious gas that can resurrect fallen soldiers, Trust agents who have gone rogue in order to help Prometheus, and worst of all, an alien invasion by a race of aliens called the Drudge.  Yet, nearly a third of the way into the game, Prometheus contacts Michael Ford and tells him that Adams is the one responsible for the gas, the rogue Trust agents, and the alien invasion that is gradually taking over Washington, D.C.  With no other choice left, Ford decides to work with Prometheus in order to stop Adams from taking over Washington and possibly, the world.

The Conduit's story is uninspired and generic; the story feels like it was largely pulled from The Big Book of Science Fiction Clichés, and the writers did not do anything interesting with the familiar territory that the plot treads.  At times, there are glimmers of uniqueness in this predictable story, but such moments don't happen until late in the game, and it isn't helped by the abrupt, cliffhanger ending, which deliberately hints at a sequel.  Characters are also forgettable as well; Michael Ford is a dull protagonist who spends a large portion of the game asking Prometheus why these events are happening, and Prometheus either gives him a response or none at all.  John Adams is an equally uninteresting bad guy; his reasons for wanting to take over Washington are predictable and he remains absent for most of the campaign; not reappearing until near the end of the game.

In spite of the weak story and characters, one of The Conduit's biggest strengths are the controls, which are great.  The most impressive part of the controls are the large amount of options you are given to adjust them to your liking.  You can swap buttons around, alter the aiming speed, and even adjust the placement of the game's HUD.

Despite having impressive controls, The Conduit's other big issue, besides the lackluster story and boring characters, is the gameplay, which isn't terrible, just uninspired.  The main issues with the gameplay are a lack of variety during the campaign, very linear levels, and bad AI.  Most of the campaign is spent heading from one point to another, shooting any human or Drudge forces that get in your way.  The few instances of variety in the campaign come from a device, the All-Seeing Eye.  In the second level, Ford acquires this sorely underutilized device.  I call it that because this device is primarily used to open doors; though the ASE does have a few other functions.  Most of the levels contain hidden messages that can only be seen and deciphered by using the ASE; there are also floating discs hidden in each level that unlock concept art, but my favorite usage of the device is when it acts as a puzzle solver for hidden symbol puzzles that when solved, reveal a secret room containing ammo and a special prototype weapon.  However, this device could have been used for more creative purposes besides for unlocking doors and finding hidden secrets; if anything, there should have been hacking puzzles that could have been solved using this device; unfortunately, such possibilities were wasted.

As for the shooting, it's good.  Ford gets access to a large variety of weapons over the course of the campaign.  He can use standard human weapons like assault rifles, shotguns, and SMGs, but he can also acquire interesting weaponry used by the Trust and the Drudge.  Drudge weapons include the Strike Rifle, which can fire regular shots, but by holding the fire button, this weapon can launch a more powerful shot that can instantly kill most enemies, and the Warp Pistol, which functions a lot like the Strike Rifle, yet when the fire button is held down, it can fire shots that can bounce off of walls.  With the Trust weapons, there's the TPC Launcher, which launches plasma grenades, and the Carbonizer MK16, which can launch powerful beams of energy that instantly decimate any enemy types.

Going back to the issues with the gameplay, the levels are very linear and only a few sections of the levels are more open areas.  The last problem with the gameplay is the bad AI.  Most of the time, enemies stand out in the open, rarely relying on cover; it makes sense when the smaller enemies like the mites, both normal and explosive, run and charge at Ford to attack him, but when the regular human and Drudge enemies are rarely relying on cover and instead are absorbing bullets, then it means the game is a relative cakewalk, even after raising the difficulty up.  However, in the last two levels there's a sharp spike in difficulty and soon I'm facing multiple, unfair deaths, which surprised me, given how easy the game had been prior to those levels.  In addition to lacking variety and having very linear levels, The Conduit is also very short, taking me about four hours to beat the campaign, and it could have probably taken me three hours weren't it for the multiple deaths I encountered during those last two levels.

However, while the gameplay may be functional, but largely unspectacular, the visuals of The Conduit are quite good, almost near HD, but even the graphics have a few problems.  Even though the game is set in and around Washington, D.C., with some of the levels set in iconic landmarks such as the White House, the Pentagon, and the Library of Congress; the levels all feel alike and aside from the novelty of fighting humans and aliens within such landmarks, nothing else about these levels stands out.  Also, a common glitch in this game is when enemies, particularly the small enemies like the mites, get frozen in time either before or after they've been killed.  It's a little amusing seeing an enemy frozen in time, occasionally flinching if you go near them.  The sound is nothing to write home about; while the guns sound good, the voice acting and music are fairly average.

Time has not been fair to The Conduit; from a technical standpoint, the game is good due to its solid graphics and great controls, but the story is predictable and weak and the gameplay could have been more fun and varied.  When this game was first released, one of the aspects of The Conduit that was praised a lot was its online multiplayer, but since I never got the chance to try it out, and for that matter, Nintendo shut down online multiplayer functionality for the Wii and DS, I can't say for myself what it was like.  Then again, my reviews focus on the single player content of the game, and rarely have I mentioned the multiplayer aspect of a game.  In the end, the best way to describe The Conduit is that it had potential to be something great, but that potential was wasted and instead, we got a mediocre game.

Final Score: 5/10

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Bad Titles: How to Control Frustration and the Dangers of Going in Blind

Ever watched or played something that was so bad that by the time you finished the title, you were so angry and frustrated by how bad it was?  That was the case for me last night.  I had finished watching an anime, Burn Up Scramble, and after finishing this twelve episode stinker I was frustrated by how bad the anime was, but  the frustration was also because I went in blind.  I picked up the anime in August, a week before college started, out of sheer curiosity, hoping that maybe this would be a decent show, but I was wrong.  In spite of this, watching the anime served as a lesson for two things: how to control frustration and why going in blind on something can sometimes lead to bad results.

My anger and frustration over the title reminded me that I had been in a similar state before, about six or seven years ago.  Our family used to have a Wii that we got in about 2008 as a family Christmas gift.  A little while after getting the system, we were at a Circuit City (remember those), looking for some new titles for the system.  One of the games we picked up was a game called Kawasaki Snowmobiles.  A few days after getting the game, I decided to try the game out, keep in mind, I was about twelve at the time, and as it turns out, the game was awful.  Poor controls, especially the controls, muddy graphics, and AI that was leagues ahead better than you in a race gave me a realization: this is a terrible game.  To this day, I often cite it as the worst game that I have played, and I haven't played a game that awful since then.  Cut to seven years later when I find myself in a similar state of anger and frustration after finishing this anime.

Fortunately, I managed to calm myself down rather quickly, and then I started to think about what I had finally finished up.  Initially, I was going to review this anime next year in November but I have decided not to since I wanted to take this experience and use it as a lesson to learn from.  As a reviewer, you are expected to review not only good titles, but also bad titles, but what about when you watch or play something so terrible that it made you so frustrated and you didn't know whether to review the title or not?  Sometimes, there's a line to be drawn, and for me, that line was drawn with this title.  It's dull, unfunny, the story set-ups are forgettable and the anime's attempt at an overarching story within the last few episodes feels unnecessary and forced, the animation is lazy, and the characters are either forgettable or just plain unlikeable.  However, now I know that if I ever do watch or play something really bad later on in life; I need to control the frustration and remain calm and relaxed.

The next lesson that I learned from this experience was that going in blind on something doesn't always lead to positive results.  As I stated earlier, I went in blind with this series, I had heard of the previous entries in this franchise, and yes, this anime is part of a line of anime that dates back to the late 80's, but I knew practically nothing about Burn Up Scramble, and look what happened.  This is why you may want to do a little research on a title you've never heard of if you plan on picking it up.  Now going in blind doesn't always lead to negative results; as the results can also be positive.  An example of a positive result would be a game that I picked up a few weeks ago at an estate sale, Flatout.  I had heard the name before somewhere, but that was about all I knew about the game.  After getting the game, along with a few other things at that estate sale, I tried it out the next day and from the time I have spent with this game, it has been a surprisingly decent game. 

That's all I have to say, watching the anime was an interesting learning experience for me, personally.  It made me realize that when watching or playing something that's bad, don't let frustration and anger caused by the title make you very angry, and if you're going in blind on something, make sure to at look up a little information on the title, whether it be reviews or other information, so you know what you're dealing with.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Super Mario Galaxy Review

Apologies to the minor delay; this review, along with a review of The Conduit, were both going to be released around the week of Thanksgiving.  However, relaxation told me to take a little break during my week of from school, which I will not allow to happen again.  Regardless, here is the review of Super Mario Galaxy and a couple of days later, the review of The Conduit will be published.

Even though I have owned a Wii for the past three years now, one of the titles that I did not own but do now was this game.  This game is the first console Mario game that I have beaten.  Even though I own the three original Super Mario games, Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2, and Super Mario Bros. 3, I only tried them out once years ago and have not gone back to them since then, and I own Super Mario 64 DS, which was a good game, but that game is a port of an older Mario game that was initially released on a console, the Nintendo 64.  With all of that said, however, Super Mario Galaxy is a great platformer and one that should be played by everyone.

On the night of a celebration in honor of a comet that passes the Mushroom Kingdom every one hundred years, Mario has been invited by Princess Peach to come and enjoy the festivities.  Shortly after arriving at Peach's castle, archrival Bowser shows up with an armada of airships and a UFO that lifts the castle off of the ground and into space.  Bowser grabs Peach and despite Mario's efforts to try and stop Bowser from kidnapping her, he fails and gets launched into space.  Fortunately, Mario is saved by a mysterious creature called a Luma who takes him to an observatory run by Rosalina.  She explains to Mario that Bowser stole the power stars, which act as a power source for her ship, and he plans on using those power stars to take over the galaxy.  Now Mario must collect the power stars back from Bowser and his minions as well as save the princess from his evil clutches.

Even though Super Mario Galaxy's story is pretty basic, it does have a bit more depth than usual when compared to the simple set-ups of a story found in prior Super Mario games.  The first reason is because Bowser's plan in this game threatens the entire galaxy and not just the Mushroom Kingdom.  The other reason, and what is also my favorite aspect of the story, is the introduction of Rosalina.  When Mario firsts meets her she comes off as mysterious, but she is more than willing to help him save Peach and stop Bowser; yet as the game progresses, chapters of a short story can be unlocked for viewing which explain her backstory, and this gives us a better understanding of who she is.

Since Super Mario Galaxy is a game for the Wii one would assume that motion controls would be used, which they are, but sparingly.  By aiming the Wii Remote you can collect star bits, more on those later, and shaking the Wii Remote causes Mario to spin, which can be used as a means to stun enemies, but this move can also be used to briefly extend Mario's time in the air when he jumps, which can be a life saver should you narrowly miss a platform or ledge.  There are a couple of levels which solely rely on motion controls.  In one level, Mario must navigate a ball containing a power star; this level requires the remote to be held upward and tilted like a joystick.  In another level, you steer a manta ray by tilting the remote.  As a whole, the controls are very good and the motion controls feel fine, with the exception of the controls for the manta ray as the steering felt too loose.

Super Mario Galaxy's biggest hook is its setting, space.  In Rosalina's observatory there are different rooms that act as gateways into the different levels, or galaxies, of the game.  Each of the game's galaxies offers up something new for the player either through new power-ups or through varied level design.  Some galaxies do have recurring themes to them, like tropical, desert, or winter motifs, but there are plenty of galaxies that offer up something interesting with their level designs.  For example, there's one level early on in the game that is set on a giant war machine that Mario must navigate his way to the top of in order to shut down the machine and retrieve the power star being used as a power source.  Another level late in the game looks like it was constructed out of toys normally found in a young boy's room.

Power-ups play a prominent role in Super Mario Galaxy and they are used for different purposes.  The power-ups are used to progress onwards in a level or to help retrieve a star within the level.  The power-ups include the fire flower, which allows Mario to throw fireballs, but the power-up only lasts about thirty seconds, meaning you have to be quick when using it as soon as Mario picks it up.  The ice flower is similar to the fire flower in that Mario can throw projectiles with this ability, but when it's active the ice flower allows Mario to run over, which instantly freezes beneath his feet.  The spring suit allows Mario to reach high areas if his jumps are timed right, and finally, the power star makes Mario invincible for a brief period of time, and this power-up is the rarest of the bunch.  With the exception of the fire flower and the spring suit, the other power-ups are fun to use.

Each level initially offers three stars that can be found; though some galaxies only have one star for Mario to earn, but most of the levels with three stars to find also offer an additional three or four stars that are found either by discovering hidden areas or by completing a specific challenge.  Whenever you pick a galaxy there may be a comet passing near it, and choosing the level with a nearby comet automatically puts you into a challenge, and the conditions of the challenge varies depending on the type of challenge comet.  These challenge comets will have you defeating a boss with only one health point, racing against a shadowy clone of Mario, beating the level within a certain time limit, or collecting one hundred purple coins.  There are a total of 128 stars to collect in this game, but only 64 are required in order to defeat Bowser and beat the game.  Afterwards, you can go back and collect the remaining stars.  What happens when you collect all 128 stars?  I'm not mentioning.

Rosalina's observatory acts as a hub for Mario.  The different areas of her observatory where the galaxies can be found will only become accessible after you collect a certain number of stars and defeat the major boss, which is either a confrontation with Bowser or his son, for the area with galaxies currently active.  Also, as the game progresses, new NPCs will show up on the observatory that Mario can interact with, which may result in extra lives.

Every galaxy contains coins for Mario to collect, but new to this game are star bits.  This new form of currency serves two purposes.  In certain levels and in the observatory there are hungry Lumas that can transform into something, usually a launch star that launches Mario to a hidden galaxy, but only after Mario has fed the Luma a certain number of star bits.  Star bits also act as a means of defense against enemies; aiming the Wii Remote and pressing the B button launches star bits that can stun some, but not all, types of enemies.  Additionally, for every fifty star bits Mario collects he earns an extra life, and since star bits are plentiful in each galaxy, Mario will never run out of lives.

Super Mario Galaxy is very fun and entertaining, but it's also not a difficult game.  The game's difficulty falls in between easy and hard by being acceptably challenging.  Some of the galaxies in the game will test your platforming skills, especially the comet challenges, but the game is relatively fair in its challenge.  Unfortunately, the boss fights of Super Mario Galaxy aren't that challenging; they're fun to fight, but the simple methods that are used to defeat them means you really shouldn't die during these encounters.

Super Mario Galaxy's bright and colorful visuals make this title one of the best looking games on the Wii.  Even though the Wii wasn't as visually powerful as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3; this game, along with other titles for the system such as Sonic Colors, the Legend of Zelda games, and the Goldeneye remake showed that you can work with the hardware limitations to produce strong visuals, and Super Mario Galaxy is a testament to that.  Voice acting, though minimal, is good, but the highlight of the sound design is the music, which successfully fits the tone of each level by either being fun and light hearted or grand and orchestral is the level calls for such music.

Regardless of your own personal history with the Mario franchise, there's no denying that Super Mario Galaxy is a great platformer that succeeds due to the introduction of the new setting, space.  This allows for level design that is creative and unique, and thus, the game is a fun experience from beginning to end.

Final Score: 9.5/10

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Spectre Quick Movie Review

This past weekend, I went to the movie theater to see the latest entry in the James Bond franchise, Spectre, and here are my thoughts on the movie.

Spectre's plot follows James Bond, who is on a quest to discover information on a mysterious organization known as Spectre.  Said search leads him to the mysterious organization, led by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who has a personal connection and vendetta against James Bond.  Additionally, it is revealed that his organization was secretly involved in the efforts of the previous films' villains.  While this is happening, MI6, the organization Bond works for, is facing its own problems as a new organization is seeking to shut down the 00 program and instead have MI6 rely more on technology in their efforts instead of actually using people to get their work done.

Spectre's plot is enjoyable and the biggest strength of the story is Bond's personal quest to find out who Spectre is and what involvement they had in the previous Bond movies, specifically Casino Royale.  Bond's search for Spectre leads him to finding out that one of the films' previous villains had a daughter who Bond promises to protect him.  When she is introduced, the movie does hint at a potential relationship between the two, but nothing ever concrete comes out of the relationship.  While Spectre is a lot like the previous Daniel Craig Bond movies in its tone and direction; this movie does incorporate some elements of the older Bond movies into this film.  There's a lot more humor than in the previous films and the gadgets, which were a staple of old Bond movies, do have as stronger presence in this movie as well.  There's an entertaining car chase during the movie where Bond is being chased by a henchman of Blofeld's, who I'll get to later, and Bond is driving an Aston Martin DB 10 which has a couple of gadgets he uses to throw off the henchman in the chase.

The characters are enjoyable and the actors who play them all give strong performances.  Daniel Craig, in his fourth film as James Bond, gives a great performance as always, and the girl Bond protects also gives a good performance.  My favorite performance, however, has to be Dave Bautista as Blofeld's silent but deadly henchman.  Even though his character speaks only one word in the movie, Bautista still makes the character feel like a threat, and when he and Bond have their big fight later in the movie; it's a brutal but entertaining clash.  Christoph Waltz does a good job as the villain Blofeld, but unfortunately his character is the most disappointing part of the movie.  He doesn't have much screentime and even though his scenes in the movie are great, it feels like the filmmakers are holding back on the real potential this character has in order to save him for the next Bond movie.

Despite this, Spectre was still a really enjoyable movie; it may not be as great as Casino Royale or Skyfall, but it is an entertaining movie.  Whether or not this is Daniel Craig's last movie as James Bond, we don't know, but this is still another solid entry in the long line of James Bond films.

Recommendation: See It

Now you might be wondering, a quick review of a recently released movie, what is this?  This is something I plan on doing more often next year.  For this year, though, you can expect at least one more quick review later on.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel Review


Ever since Borderlands 2 came out it has been somewhat unclear when the third installment in the series is happening.  Until the developer, Gearbox Software, officially announces Borderlands 3, developer 2K Australia, with assistance from Gearbox, are easing the wait with Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel.

As the title suggests, the game is a follow-up to Borderlands 2, but storywise, it is set in between the events of the first and second game.  Before the villain of the second game, Handsome Jack, made his rise to power and tried to destroy Pandora; he was just an employee at the Hyperion Corporation that wanted to be known for something more.  When the Hyperion Corporation's space station is taken over by General Zarpedon and her forces, Jack sees this as an opportunity to become a hero if he manages to stop Zarpedon before she can use the space station's laser to try and destroy Elpis, the moon that the space station orbits.  He contacts four vault hunters, each of which was a side character in either the first or second Borderlands, to help him stop Zarpedon.  However, over the course of the story Jack's plans change and he goes on a downward spiral, and by the end credits he will become the man that will try to bring an end to the planet Pandora.

The best part about the Pre Sequel's story is arguably Jack himself, as he initially wanted to be seen as a hero, but by the end of the game he becomes the one thing he was trying to stop at the start of the game.  In fact, the end credits song "What Makes a Good Man?" perfectly fits Jack in this game.  In previous Borderlands games, the vault hunters were basically silent protagonists, however in the Pre Sequel, the new vault hunters actually speak with other characters and as such these vault hunters feel more involved in the story.  One problem I do have with the story, however, is that at times it can feel like story events are just flying by, and while the game doesn't have a short length, the feeling that the story is just coming and going will happen during the game.

The gameplay is largely the same as it was in previous installments; in particular, this game is based off of Borderlands 2's gameplay as a number of improvements and additions that were made in that game have carried over into this game.  However, the Pre Sequel does introduce some new concepts that help differentiate the game from previous installments.  The biggest addition is the concept of zero gravity.  Since the game is set on Elpis, Pandora's moon, zero gravity has been introduced and it makes traversing the environments rather fun as you can make some long distances by jumping off of cliffs or by using one of the many jump pads scattered around the environment.  You can also perform a slam attack by pressing the crouch button when you get up in the air, which will cause your characters to slam down with extreme force.  Plus, there's something fun about getting up in the air and picking off enemies from above, and then slamming down right on top of a foe with a press of the crouch button.  However, you do need an oxygen tank if you want to avoid dying of asphyxiation.  Fortunately, having to maintain a supply of oxygen never felt tedious as enemies will drop oxygen canisters and there are numerous beacons scattered around Elpis which can be activated to generate an oxygen dome.

Two new types of weapons have been introduced in this game; laser weapons and cryo weapons, and they easily fit in with the series' massive amount of guns.  There are also two new vehicles introduced as well, a lunar rover and the Stingray, which can hover briefly and slam back down.  I mainly used the Stingray for transportation as the lunar rover's steering felt too loose and often I would slam into walls.  Of the four characters that you can choose from to play as in the Pre Sequel I chose Athena the Gladiator.  Her special ability is a shield that can she deploy to protect herself from gunfire and it can store up damage from bullets and explosions that can damage or kill an enemy when it is thrown.  She is a fun character to play as and her shield was rather useful during boss fights in the game.

The cel shaded art style is still prevalent in this installment and the overall visuals are solid.  At times, some of the locations in the game are quite interesting to look at.  However, texture pop-in was more prevalent in this game, as were some framerate drops that happened during some firefights.  I also encountered a couple of glitches.  The first one happened during one of the round in the Shock Drop Slaughter Pit DLC; I was opening up a locker to loot what was inside only to get stuck to the door of the locker and unable to free myself from it. Yet, I was able to kill most of the enemies in the current wave until one of the remaining ones managed to kill me.  Another glitch that occurred was when I returned to a previously explored area to complete a side mission, and the audio from the story mission that took place in this area started to play for an inexplicable reason.

The voice acting and writing are as good as Borderlands 2's acting and writing.  The most unique thing about the acting and writing of this game is the noticeable Australian influence.  Most of the characters you meet, as well as the citizens of Elpis have Australian accents, which was an interesting change.  The music is also a different change of tone from the music in previous games; there is a strong outer space vibe present in the music; in other words, a lot of synth.

While Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel doesn't really break new ground for the series it is still an enjoyable game thanks to a solid story and fun gameplay with some new concepts that help keep things interesting.

Final Score: 8/10

Link to Gamefaqs Review:

Borderlands 2 Review


The first Borderlands  was a great game due to its strong combination of FPS and RPG elements.  It did suffer from a major problem, the lack of a real story, as well as some minor problems.  However, with this sequel, everything you liked about the first game has returned, but it all has been refined and in the case of the story, vastly improved.

At the end of the first game, the four vault hunters who were in search of a mythical vault hidden on the planet Pandora found what they were looking for.  Instead of becoming rich and powerful, however, they came up empty handed and thus, they have decided to go their own ways.  Since then, a man known as Handsome Jack came in and took credit for the discovery of the vault, tapping into a brand new element called Eridium that appeared after the opening of the vault, Jack has become not only the leader of the Hyperion Corporation but also the ruler of Pandora.  As one of four new vault hunters, your job is to find and reunite the original vault hunters in order to stop Handsome Jack from collecting pieces of a key for another vault hidden on Pandora that contains a creature known as the Warrior which Jack intends on using to eradicate life on Pandora.

Borderlands 2's story is a huge improvement over the first game's story, boasting a strong cast, sharp writing, and a fantastic villain.  If I ever made a list of my favorite video game villains, there's a strong chance that Handsome Jack would make the list.  He has an entertaining personality and a false idea that you are the bad guy and he is the savior to this planet, easily making him one of those villains you love to hate.  Not only that, but the four vault hunters from the first game are much more fleshed out when compared to their presence in the first game.  We get a much better understanding of what they're like and their overall personalities.  The writing in this game is very entertaining; there were a number of times where I found myself laughing at the dialogue in this game.  The only real issue I have with the story is that the new vault hunters feel like shadows of the original vault hunters because they're mostly silent protagonists, save for the one liners they spout during combat.

The gameplay is of the same style of the first game's gameplay but with a number of different improvements and additions that have been added that make the gameplay feel more refined and polished.  There are four different character classes to choose from; though two of the new vault hunters and their abilities are slight variations of two of the original vault hunters' abilities.  The vault hunter Maya has the ability to "Phaselock" instead of having Lilith's "Phasewalk" ability, and Axton can throw out a turret to assist him in combat, much like Roland from the first game.  With that said I played as Axton, who can throw out a turret out onto the battlefield to assist him.  Leveling up by defeating enemies, completing main and side missions, and discovering new areas earns you skill points that can be put to one of three skill trees for a vault hunters ability.  These skills can benefit both the character and their special ability.  For example, after putting in enough skill points Axton's turret now teleports to a spot on the map when it is thrown, and the turret can also shoot a barrage of rockets at an enemy, in addition to bullets.

As I stated earlier, several additions and improvements have been made to the gameplay.  The in game map is much better than the first game's map, you can now move around whenever a vault hunter goes down and into their "Last Stand" position, and a storage system has been added as well, allowing to store any guns or shields that you have acquired but you don't need in your inventory anymore.  There's also been a challenge system added called the "Badass Ranking" where completing in game challenges earns you points, and when you earn enough you get a Badass Token that can be used for one of several stat boosts for your character.

In Borderlands, the side missions could start to become repetitive after awhile; fortunately the variety has been improved in Borderlands 2.  The side missions in this sequel will have you doing tasks such as solving a murder, igniting a clan war between two groups, and helping the robot Claptrap throw a birthday party that becomes really awkward when none of the guests show up because they declined Claptrap's invitation.

The game retains the cel-shaded art style of the first game, but this time the characters and the world they inhabit are much more colorful and varied than in the first game.  Save for some minor texture pop-in that happens whenever you enter another area, this is a great looking game.  The voice acting is entertaining and it backs up the humorous writing, the highlights are the voice performances of Dameon Clarke, Ashley Burch, and David Eddings, who play Handsome Jack, Tiny Tina, and Claptrap respectively.  The music is also very good and retains the style of the first game's music.

Borderlands 2 is a great follow-up to the first game, by offering an improved story as well as refined and improved gameplay, the result is a fantastic FPS that is definitely worth playing.

Final Score: 9.5/10

Link to the Gamefaqs Review:

Friday, November 6, 2015

Killer is Dead Review

The phrase "style over substance" is used to refer to works that are interesting in their design and structure, but when it comes to the actual content of the work there are noticeable problems.  Killer is Dead is an example of this phrase; it has a striking visual style that gives the game a sense of style in not just its presentation, but also in the combat of the game.  However, underneath the stylish veneer there's a convoluted story and certain gameplay mechanics that will raise an eyebrow.

Killer is Dead's story follows Mondo Zappa, an assassin who works for a mysterious organization that carries out assassinations at the request of the client who comes to them.  Generally, the people Mondo is sent out to execute aren't exactly human due to mysterious purple energy that has corrupted both their body and soul.  It also has a weird effect on Mondo's cybernetic arm when he finishes off the target.  The energy is released from their body and absorbed into Mondo's arm.  Even though Mondo knows he works for the organization he doesn't remember much about his past, but when Mondo sleeps, memories of his supposed past reenter into his conscience.

Unfortunately, Killer is Dead's story is a nonsensical, convoluted mess that fails to offer any sort of real explanation for a majority of the events that happen during the game.  Why does Mondo have a cybernetic arm?  Why does his arm have the ability to absorb the mysterious purple energy from the fallen targets?  Why is there a unicorn that shows up twice in Mondo's dreams, and how does it fit into the plot?  While some of the story events are explained, to a certain degree; usually I was left scratching my head as to what was going on.  It doesn't help that the game's short length, clocking in at around four to five hours, means the whole story flies by quickly and before I knew it, I was on the last story mission.  The ending of the game doesn't help things either, as the fate of Mondo Zappa is left on an ambiguous note.

Killer is Dead's story, characters, and even the gameplay share some similarities with No More Heroes, a game Grasshopper Manufacture, the developer of this game, previously worked on.  The main character, Mondo Zappa, is a more stoic version of Travis Touchdown, and his banter with the targets he has to eliminate reminded me a lot of Mr. Touchdown's conversations with the assassins he had to fight in No More Heroes.  Also, the basic premise of the game, an assassination organization that is hired to eliminate people, is similar to the purpose of the United Assassins Organization from No More Heroes.

Fortunately, the game's combat makes up for the shortcomings of the story by being enjoyable.  It's very reminiscent of No More Heroes; Mondo's primary weapon is a katana and not a beam katana, which Travis Touchdown used, and Mondo can perform special finishers on the enemies, just like Travis in No More Heroes.  What makes Killer is Dead's combat different from No More Heroes' combat is Mondo's cybernetic arm, which can morph into four different weapons that are unlocked through completing side missions, but more on that later.  The four weapons require blood in order to be used; blood is picked up from fallen enemies, but that same blood Mondo collects can also be used to heal himself after purchasing a special move from the upgrade section in the pause menu.  As such, some strategy is involved in deciding whether to use his weapons or heal Mondo if his health is running low.  Besides earning blood from fallen enemies, Mondo can also earn yellow crystals that allow him to unlock new moves and upgrade his weapons, or Mondo can earn special XP crystals that will increase the size of his health or blood bars once he's collected enough.  An important part of Killer is Dead's combat is dodging because it allows Mondo to continue building up a combo.  Once Mondo's combo meter is high enough, Mondo can perform a finisher that grants him a different bonus depending on which one of the face buttons is pressed.

While the combat is satisfying, the boss battles in this game aren't too challenging.  Most of the fights rely on Mondo dodging the boss's attacks, then striking at the foe after they've performed their attacks, and repeating the process.  Not only that, but most of the encounters require Mondo to defeat the boss three times, which feels like unintentional padding in what is a short game.  As I mentioned earlier in the review, Killer is Dead is a short game, taking about four to five hours to beat.  At the end of the game, there's a results screen detailing the amount of time you played the game as well as other different statistics, and the screen said it took me seven hours to beat the game; it didn't feel like seven hours.

When Mondo isn't slicing up bad guys, he's romancing the ladies. Besides the story missions there are side missions called Gigolo Missions, or as they should be called, Staring Simulator 2013.  All you do during these missions is stare at Mondo's date, staring at both her face and her lady parts when she isn't looking, in order to fill up a meter that allows Mondo to give the girl a gift that may or may not win her heart over entirely.  When he does win over her heart, Mondo's date will give him a brand new weapon or a currency bonus as a reward.  The issue with the Gigolo Missions is that they're simplistic and dull, and they can be easily beaten in about two to five minutes.  Plus, Mondo only visits three girls during the game, and one of them acts as the game's challenge mode.  This means you'll constantly be going back and forth between two of the girls in order to unlock new items.  These missions also have a creepy nature to them because of the "staring at a woman's lady parts when she's not looking" aspect of the missions.

Killer is Dead's strongest point is its visual style, which is gorgeous to look at.  It gives both the characters and the world they live in an offbeat and stylized look.  Though there was some minor screen tearing during the game and a couple of brief, minor freezes during a couple of the levels, but these problems never became a significant issue.  Voice acting is good, with the only exception being Mika's voice, which will grate on your ears quickly, and like the visuals, the music is also very offbeat but interesting nonetheless.

To me, the confusing story, short length, and dumb side missions of Killer is Dead bog down what is otherwise an enjoyable game.  The combat is fun and the visuals are gorgeous, but the story will leave you confused and constantly wondering what is going on.

Final Score: 6/10
Link to Gamefaqs Review: