Tuesday, March 29, 2016

I Came, I Saw, I Entered, and I Conquered: Reflections of Black Belt Grading

For the past seven years, I have trained under the Purple Dragon Don Jitsu Ryu Martial Arts system; at the time, I was an everyday, somewhat reckless twelve year old who was forced by stepmother to join or else she would find something else for me to get involved with.  Me, my sister, and my two stepbrothers joined the local dojo in Hattiesburg, early on, the stepbrothers dropped out, and a few years later, my sister.  I am the only one out of my family still involved with Purple Dragon; it's been a long and sometimes bumpy ride, but in the end I'm glad I've stuck with the system because of how much it has benefitted me both physically and mentally.  On March 23, 2016, I, along with my father and sister, traveled to Boca Raton, Florida so that I could partake in an event that had been a long time coming: black belt grading.

Leading up to this major event, I never really had any thoughts of nervousness or doubt regarding how I would do, all I knew was that I needed to do my best and succeed.  The grading itself was a three day process in which the candidates were tested in the different areas of the system, including katas, self defense techniques, and sparring, among others, interspersed between these sections were long discussions regarding Purple Dragon and life as spoken to us by the founder of the system, Professor Don Jacob.  While my legs may have been aching from the long periods of sitting in a lotus position, I was nevertheless compelled by what he explained to us.  As he pointed out at one point, some people will understand the significance of what he might be explaining, but others not as much until they get older.

I'm glad that I came to my classes to train and performed different exercises outside of the dojo because some of the things we were put through were quite challenging; by far, the hardest one was holding a horse stance for nearly a count of one thousand.  The legs got really sore holding the stance but at the same time I knew not to give into the pain and that everything would be alright.  One things for certain, though, I'm going to be staying away from salads for a while after eating them for lunch and dinner every day of grading. 

After three days of punching, kicking, salad eating, and yelling "Kiya!" like the hardened warriors we are, the results were announced.  There were surprises, shocks, and while I was sitting there waiting for my name to be called I was mildly nervous about what rank I would get, but I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I jumped up and I heard one of the judges say, "Jet black belt."  I was relieved but at the same time excited knowing that all of those years with Purple Dragon resulted in a monumental success.

We have a book in Purple Dragon that allows us to write down all of the various ideas and goals in life we come up with.  In my copy, I wrote down that I should do or still be involved with in the five year period between now and 2021, one of which was that I should still be with Purple Dragon.  In one of the lectures, Professor discussed how some people leave the system after getting their black belt but others stay; personally, I want to stick with the latter and continue training because of how much the system has benefitted me.  I have witnessed many people come and go in our local dojo in Mississippi, yet one of the constants was myself, until the next major step of my life takes place, I plan on sticking with the system.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Tomb Raider Review

A few months prior, I wrote an article discussing the dangers of going in blind to a game or movie, and though I focused on the negatives in that article I briefly mentioned the positives; Tomb Raider is an example of the latter.  Growing up, the series was one I knew about primarily because of the protagonist, Lara Croft, and not much else; despite this, I never played any of the previous games in the series before this one.  Fortunately, Tomb Raider is a reboot, scrapping away the history and stories of the original games in order to show the origins of the Tomb Raider herself.

Tomb Raider's story centers on a group of archaeologists, one of which is Lara Croft herself, who are searching for a lost kingdom called Yamatai.  During the search, the ship they are on gets torn apart by strong storms and the group ends up on a mysterious island; unfortunately, the members were separated from each other during the ship's destruction, and when Lara makes it to the island she is by herself.  It isn't before long that she finds one of her friends, Sam, who is with a mysterious man named Mathias, but when Lara passes out, she wakes up to find out that Sam and Mathias are gone.  As the story progresses, she reunites with other members of the team, who are focused on getting off the island, meanwhile, Lara discovers that something or someone might be preventing them from leaving the island, and there might be a connection between the kidnapping of Sam and the mysterious force holding them back from escaping.

When it comes to pacing and intensity, Tomb Raider is one of those games whose narrative is equivalent to that of a rollercoaster ride, the game does slow down events often in order for players to catch their breath, but you are constantly engaged over what is happening onscreen most of the time.  The story, though mature in tone, utilizes a supernatural element which gives the island a sense of mystery and intrigue to the place.  As for the characters, they're fairly compelling with the exception of one character whose actions and motivations were rather predictable, but the highlight of the cast is Lara Croft.  Her role in the story reminded me heavily of Jason Brody from Far Cry 3, both characters find themselves in a "fish out of water" scenario where they are in a hostile environment and they have to learn to survive, which lets them develop into determined individuals as the story progresses.  However, the point at which their personalities shift is where the two characters differ; in Far Cry 3, Jason Brody's shift from confused to confident was rather quick, he got used to having to kill in order to survive fairly quickly.  It takes a couple of hours into the story before Lara Croft realizes that is she is going to survive and help her friends, then she needs to wise up and be ready to handle difficult situations, which she does as the game progresses.

Whereas previous games in the Tomb Raider series were focused on platforming and puzzle solving, this game shifts the focus to platforming, combat, and exploration while puzzles take a back seat.  In terms of control and mobility, Lara Croft controls well and is quite flexible in her movements, which is good, because there is a lot of platforming and climbing.  An interesting thing regarding Lara is that during combat or stealth she will dynamically stick to walls and other cover without the need of pressing a button; fortunately, this works quite well and it never becomes an issue during the game.  Speaking of which, combat and stealth are excellent; in most situations, you are given the option of either using stealth or being loud and noisy.  The selection of weapons Lara can wield includes a bow and arrow, handgun, shotgun, and assault rifle, these weapons can be upgraded at campsites, but more on that later.  Out of all the weapons, I used the bow and arrow the most because the polished gunplay makes using this weapon quick and easy; even during firefights, the selectable flaming arrows still allow the weapon to be a good choice if the action heats up.

To benefit the intense action, the level design keeps a great balance between linearity and openness.  Although Tomb Raider is a linear game, certain sections of the island contain wide, sandbox-esque spaces that act as reprieves from combat and other intense parts of the game.  Each of these zones contains a wide variety of collectibles to find as well as hidden tombs; additionally, in these areas and other parts there are campfires that act as upgrade stations, allowing players to upgrade their gear and weaponry, plus spend skill points obtained from earning XP.  These skill points can be put towards one of three skill trees filled with different attributes and abilities to unlock.  If there are enemies present in the open spaces, mobility and utilizing the environment to your advantage are strongly encouraged, and staying in one spot during combat is not the best idea as enemies can easily flush Lara out of her current hiding spot with either Molotov cocktails or dynamite.

Though the platforming, combat, and stealth are great, the puzzle solving is the weakest aspect of the game.  Aside from a couple of puzzles near the end, a majority of them are fairly easy; also, despite the name, Tomb Raider doesn't put much of an emphasis on the tombs that can be discovered.  They are treated as optional side missions, meaning it's possible to avoid most, if not al, tombs that are hidden on the island; secondly, the tombs aren't too hard to figure out and solve, though the rewards at the end of the tomb are greatly beneficial.  Another issue, though not as significant as the one mentioned prior, involves the enemy AI, while they put up a good fight sometimes they have trouble navigating tight corridors or entryways, and seeing five bad guys huddled into a doorway trying to attack Lara is like watching clowns trying to get out of a clown car.

Visually, Tomb Raider looks great with detailed and at times, breathtaking environments, and solid character models.  Complementing the excellent visuals are equally excellent voice performances and music, which is either quiet ambiance or more dramatic and tension inducing depending on the current situation at hand.

Tomb Raider is one of those games that is a great experience from start to finish.  With a strong protagonist, intriguing story, and an entertaining mixture of platforming and combat, this is a game certainly worth your time, regardless of your own history with the series.

Final Score: 9/10

Friday, March 18, 2016

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Batman: Arkham Knight Review

During the previous generation of consoles, one of the biggest surprises was the Batman: Arkham series; prior to the release of 2009's Batman: Arkham Asylum, the Caped Crusader had a mixed track record when it came to his video game adaptations.  For every Batman, Batman Returns, and Batman: The Brave and The Bold, there was a Batman: Dark Tomorrow, Batman: Vengeance, and Batman and Robin, yet the release of Arkham Asylum ushered in an era of good Batman games, and the later releases of Batman: Arkham City and Batman: Arkham Origins led the series to become one of the biggest hits of that console generation.  Fast forward to 2015 and we have Batman: Arkham Knight, which is not only Batman's first foray onto next-gen systems, but also the last installment in the Arkham series.

(WARNING: MILD SPOILERS ARE AHEAD) After the events of Arkham City, crime has dropped significantly and the citizens of Gotham City enjoy not having to worry about criminals running loose.  During Halloween, however, Scarecrow shows up threatening to spread his fear gas all over Gotham; this results in most of the city's population evacuating, leaving the criminals and other scum to run loose.  As a result, Bruce Wayne dons the batsuit once again to Scarecrow and his evil plan, but early on in the game it's revealed he is working with a mysterious villain called the Arkham Knight, who has a personal grudge against Batman.  The Arkham Knight and Scarecrow unleash an army onto the streets of Gotham, and Batman must stop both Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight before they can spread terror across Gotham and other cities.

Arkham Knight's story significantly raises the stakes both in the narrative as well as in character development; Bruce Wayne finds himself going up against innumerable odds that test him both mentally and physically.  Out of all the games in the Arkham series, this game significantly delves into the psychology of Bruce Wayne, showing the vulnerabilities he faces since the events not only threaten Gotham but also affect his closest allies, particularly Commissioner Gordon, Oracle (a.k.a. Barbara Gordon), and Robin.  Additionally, the psychological element of the story is made more intriguing by the presence of the Joker.  Despite dying at the end of Arkham City, the Joker is still around, metaphysically speaking; after Batman exposes himself to some of Scarecrow's fear toxin to prevent an explosion, the Joker shows up, acting as a demon watching and remarking over the events and decisions Batman makes.

Although the story is quite good there are a few problems, the biggest one being the game's uneven pacing.  This is in part due to the game's side quests; too often, Batman is contacted by Alfred or Oracle in order to inform him about side quests that need to be completed; from a gameplay perspective, it's understandable because in order to see the entire ending, you have to beat the game, 100%; yet, as a result, there are too many abrupt stops in the story.  Another issue involves a certain moment in the game, a very powerful scene, I might add, but the impact this scene leaves is diluted as it's discovered later on that the character who supposedly died is still alright. This is disappointing because for a majority of the game, Batman feels guilty over not being able to save this person, and the reveal later on makes his guilt feel rather pointless.

Before I move onto the gameplay, I have to discuss the Arkham Knight; this character has split opinions down the middle, some people like him, others don't, and it's because of who he is revealed to be later on.  Personally, I don't think he is a bad character, in fact, the game does a good job at building up suspense over who this person really is; the problem is that when it's revealed who this character is you realize this villain is just an alternate interpretation of a character that already exists in the Batman mythos.  Before the game was released, the Arkham Knight was touted as being an entirely new creation; when in reality, it's only a partial truth.

Batman: Arkham Knight's gameplay is a mixture of returning elements, plus new ones; similar to Arkham City and Arkham Origins, there's a massive open world for Batman to explore and complete different tasks within; in Arkham Knight, the setting is Gotham City, which is composed of three interconnected islands.  Also, the combat and stealth the game are known for have been greatly refined and expanded tremendously.  Combat is fast and intense; Batman can still punch, counter attacks, and utilize special takedowns and his gadgets against enemies, but new moves have been added for him to use.  Batman can now attack thugs that are lying on the ground, so you don't have to rely on the ground takedown option to finish them off, though that is still an option.  In addition to this technique, he can throw enemies by pressing the counter button and pushing the analog stick in a direction, as well as utilize environmental objects to dispatch foes; also, he can briefly wield their melee weapons sans knives in order to deal more damage.  On the flip side of things, bad guys will now try to tackle Batman or grab him and there are also new foes to face during combat.  New to this game are medics who can revive fallen allies and give them a special electrical shielding, and the brutes from previous games now wield swords, shock gloves, or shields in addition to using their fists.

Similar to combat, stealth has also been polished greatly and expanded upon; to begin with, the level design in these encounters is more varied, there aren't as many easy to grapple to vantage points to use and instead the stealth sections encourage you to move around in a level while sticking to the shadows a' la Splinter Cell: Blacklist.  A new move to use during stealth is the fear takedown; when prompted, Batman can take down up to three enemies quickly and efficiently; this move can be upgraded to allow for up to five bad guys to be knocked out; however, this move can only be used once you have performed a silent takedown and even then, you'll want to utilize the environment and Batman's gadgets to knock out enemies.  As expected, enemies are equally aggressive during these parts, if they realize you're relying heavily on the vents they will throw out firebombs to prevent you from using them again.  In addition to dealing with medics, there are also drone operators, foes who can pinpoint Batman's location if detective vision is active, plus sentry gun operators and minigunners, the latter of which must be dealt with last if they show up.  Because of the increase challenge, Batman: Arkham Knight is the most difficult installment out of all the games in the series, yet there's a great sense of satisfaction that comes from beating up a room filled with a large group of thugs or stealthily taking out enemies in a difficult stealth section.

There are two ways of navigating the streets of Gotham City, either by grappling onto ledges and rooftops and using the glide boost or driving the Batmobile.  After three games, players can now utilize this vehicle for driving, combat, and puzzle solving.  In terms of handling, the Batmobile controls well, but the most unique mechanic of this vehicle is its alternate tank form, activated by holding L2.  This mode is used to fight the Arkham Knight's army of tanks and helicopters; don't worry, though, they are unmanned, which means it's perfectly okay for Batman to shoot tank shells, launch missile barrages and EMP blasts against them.  Despite being somewhat far-fetched for the standards of Batman these fights are enjoyable, even if they can get repetitive.  In addition to fighting enemy vehicles, the Batmobile is used in various obstacle courses set up by the Riddler, and since he is in this game then you can expect to hunt down a large amount of trophies and riddles in addition to completing the puzzle rooms.

Speaking of which, Batman: Arkham Knight features a wide assortment of side missions to complete, including stopping Firefly, who is trying to burn down Gotham's firehouses, preventing Two-Face from robbing banks, or taking out the various watchtowers and militia checkpoints scattered around the city.  Unfortunately, most of these side missions are tedious to complete or they end on an anticlimactic note; for example, the Man Bat encounters boil down to latching onto him and watching Batman trying to get a blood sample or apply a cure he develops as the missions progresses.  On that note, a major disappointment is the lack of boss fights, after the solid boss encounters of Arkham City and Arkham Origins, you think the developer, Rocksteady, would try to raise the stakes; unfortunately, that's not the case.  In the previously mentioned Two-Face side mission, Two-Face shows up during the last heist attempt and he can be taken out with one silent takedown.

From a visual and audio perspective, Batman: Arkham Knight features top notch production values.  The visuals feature highly detailed character models and environments; Gotham City's architecture is a mixture of old and modern designs and the constant rainfall gives the city an ominous atmosphere; with that said, there were a couple of minor glitches.  Said glitches included weird body movements whenever an enemy was finished off but a more annoying glitch involved getting stuck in a room and unable to leave, which was fixed by quitting the game and restarting it; aside from those technical quirks, the game ran fine.  Audio-wise, Kevin Conroy reprises his role as Batman after not voicing the character in Arkham Origins, and his performance as the Caped Crusader is easily his best to date, but Mark Hamill steals the show voicing Joker once again in this game.  The other returning actors such as Nolan North, Tara Strong, and Steve Blum are joined by newcomers Jonathan Banks and John Noble, who voice Commissioner Gordon and Scarecrow respectively, and they both give strong performances.

As a conclusion to one of the best franchises from the previous console generation, Batman: Arkham Knight is a solid effort.  In spite of some of the story and gameplay problems, this is still a well-made game with a good and engaging story, great gameplay, and excellent visuals.

Final Score: 8/10

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Gears of War 3 Review

In any trilogy from movies, games, or books, the finale not only concludes the ongoing story told in the prior entries but it also raises the stakes in some way or form.  An example would be the original Star Wars trilogy; Return of the Jedi is the final entry in the original series of films and the movie brought closure to the story; however, the film also brought into play a new threat which the characters had to figure out how to destroy, which was a second Death Star that was still in construction.  Similar to Star Wars, Gears of War 3 is the conclusion to the story of super buff men and women trying to defeat their persistent foe, the Locust; yet, in addition to their recurring enemy they also have another threat in the form of the Lambent, who threaten to eradicate not just the humans but also the Locust as well.

After the events of Gears of War 2, the remnants of humanity are trying to eradicate what's left of the Locust race in order to try and return things back to normal; unfortunately, that's not an easy task.  A deadly parasitic race known as the Lambent has sprung up from emulsion, a fuel source utilized by humanity, and they have been rapidly spreading all over the planet Sera, wiping out and consuming the remnants of life on the planet.  On one of the ships housing survivors, series protagonist Marcus Fenix receives a cryptic video message from COG commander Prescott revealing that his dad Adam Fenix is still alive.  However, the ship Marcus, his allies, and the civilians are on gets attacked by the Lambent, but after escaping him and his squad decide to go search for his father, who knows how to get rid of the menace threatening to eradicate Sera.

As a conclusion to the events that started in the first Gears of War, Gears of War 3 wraps things up nicely.  It's very similar to the plot of the last game in that Marcus and company are searching for a solution to an ever-growing problem that wants to eradicate humanity, but it's still enjoyable thanks to likeable protagonists as well as some surprising story moments.  Since this is the final chapter of a trilogy, the story does kill off one of the main characters in the series but the way the eventual moment is handled is strong and you feel both shocked and sorry for the decision the person decides to make.

Gears of War 3's gameplay doesn't stray too far from the cover based shooting mechanics that the series is known for, which is both good and bad, but first, let's start off with the good.  The gunplay is rock solid and there is a wide selection of firearms to utilize, including weapons from the previous games along with new ones.  Returning weapons include the lancer, Gnasher shotgun, hammerburst, and the longshot sniper rifle, among others.  A couple of the returning guns have undergone slight modifications; for example, you can now look down the sights of the hammerburst by clicking the right analog stick, and the gorgon pistol, a sidearm from Gears of War 2, has been converted from a burst fire peashooter into a submachine gun.  New weapons include the retro lancer, which has ridiculous recoil but there's a bayonet at the end that can be used as a melee attack; there's also a sawed off shotgun and a weapon called the digger that fires a creature that burrows underground before popping up and exploding. Additionally, every weapon has their own special execution that can be performed on near dead enemies by pressing the y button.

Returning from the previous game are the Locust, who are relatively the same in terms of enemy variety and attacks, but new to this game are the Lambent. Although certain types of Lambent wield firearms, these creatures are capable of mutating during the heat of battle, sprouting additional appendages that can spew damaging substances.  At a certain point in the game, Marcus and his allies confront humans that have been turned into zombie-like creatures due to exposure from emulsion.  These enemies are capable of running and overwhelming you with their numbers, so crowd control is vital during those parts.

While combat is satisfying it leads into the penultimate problem facing Gears of War 3, which is a severe lack of variety in the story mode.  For a majority of the campaign, you're shooting either Locust or Lambent bad guys, and though there are set piece moments interspersed throughout to break things up, there aren't enough of these events.  I will confess, there were times where I felt bored playing the game due to the constant shoot-outs; that's right, a game that allows you to saw enemies in half with a chainsaw attached to a gun started to get monotonous during play sessions.  Because of this, Gears of War 3 also has a more uneven pacing when compared to Gears of War 2, which had a better balance of shooting and variety.

Despite the campaign taking a step backwards in pacing and variety, one mode that has been improved is Horde mode.  The goal remains the same: fight off multiple waves of enemies until you die, but there's more depth to this mode; now, money can be earned from killing enemies and completing optional objectives that appear during certain waves.  Money that is earned can be used to buy new weapons and to purchase different means of defense such as barriers and turrets to hold off enemies.  In addition to Horde mode, there's a new mode called Beast, which is similar concept to Horde only here, you play as one of the different types of Locust and Lambent in order to eliminate the human resistance before time runs out.  Unfortunately, this mode feels unbalanced in single player as trying to beat a round without partner is quite challenging, and not in a good way.

As expected from the series, Gears of War 3 features top notch visuals and sound design; the graphics showcase visceral carnage during firefights, plus great character models and environments large in both size and scope. The voice acting is great but Ice T, who makes a cameo in the game voicing a survivalist billionaire, is laughably bad in his performance as his near constant swearing whenever he speaks feels out of place and makes his character feel very cartoonish.  The music reflects the intensity and scope of the game by being epic and large scale.

As a conclusion and a game in its own right, Gears of War 3 is good, but not great.  The uneven pacing of the campaign results in more of an emphasis being put on gunplay instead of an event balance between shooting and set piece moments, and though the combat is solid, the large amount of shooting causes feeling of repetition and monotony to develop while playing the game.

Final Score: 7/10