Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Interstellar Review

Before this review begins, two things I want to address:  1. Apologies to the minor delay of this review, a lack of motivation and will to write the review did their best to stop me, but I managed to overcome it with enough patience.  The other planned review for this month will come out later this week, and the plan is to have a perfectly running schedule for July.

2. This movie was a request from a good friend of mine, to which I say thanks for recommending this title.

Since the dawn of man, our society has had a strong interest in space and what lies in the cosmos; we ponder over whether there is life out there or not, and hope the day will come when humanity is able to colonize another planet we can call home.  Science fiction has helped fuel that interest, with plenty of titles in print, film, and other media showcasing stories of man and his ambition to explore the galaxy, hoping to discover something that may play a factor in where humanity goes.  Such works can either take a fantastical view on this concept, such as the Star Trek franchise, or in the case of Interstellar, provide a realistic, albeit more dramatic, view of the concept.

(WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS ARE AHEAD) In the near future, humanity faces a crisis, poor environmental conditions have caused most of the food sources necessary for survival to wither and disappear, and the current state of Earth makes living on the planet a challenge to do so.  One of the inhabitants is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former pilot turned farmer who raises crops with the help of his father (John Lithgow), son (Timothy Chalamet), and daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy).  While taking his children to school, a drone flies pass them, and Cooper gives chase, eventually hacking into the machine to gain control of it.  He finds this suspicious as drones are no longer manufactured; meanwhile, Murphy has been decoding Morse code and binary messages left by an unknown presence, which she believes is a ghost.  These messages turn out to be helpful, as one of them is coordinates to a site operated by NASA.

Cooper and Murphy are captured while investigating and Cooper ends up in a board meeting with the group secretly running NASA, which is led by his former professor, Dr. Brand (Michael Caine).  Brand explains to him that they have been running an operation in which they send out astronauts to go and find a planet capable of supporting human life, and he wants Cooper to lead a new team that will explore the planets deemed habitable by the other volunteers, and in case Earth dies, then they one they choose can be used as a catalyst for specimens they have stored.  The catch is that the process involves using a wormhole located near Saturn to reach the galaxy where they are located, and since time moves at a different rate in space, this means that what will seem like minutes or hours on board the ship will be years upon years for the people of Earth.  When Murphy learns of this, she pleads for her father not to leave, but without much hesitation, Cooper agrees to participate.

Interstellar is not a film which glamorizes space travel; instead, the movie approaches it as a risk/reward factor.  If the crew succeeds in finding another planet, then the populace is saved; however, should they try to return, then Earth dies and more importantly, loved ones they knew will either be dead or much older.  This adds greater tension to the events happening onscreen, especially during one sequence where Cooper and two other astronauts travel down to one of the selected planets.  Their choice turns out to be a bad idea as it is entirely covered with water and there are frequent, skyscraper-sized tidal waves.  One of the members dies while fleeing the location, and when Cooper and Brand's daughter (Anne Hathaway) return to the Endurance, they see that the one who stayed behind has aged significantly since he didn't stay in stasis while they were gone.  This twist leads to a highly emotional scene in which Cooper goes through and watches all of the messages left by his children, who are now around his age.

Coincidentally, one of the key focal points in the film is the relationship between McConaughey's character and the daughter.  Cooper, despite being a farmer, is a man gifted with great intelligence, and Murphy wants to follow in her father's footsteps; when she gets older, Murphy devotes herself to finding out a solution to save the world, unaware that her father is still involved in the process.  Though she is older, Murphy is still frustrated by Cooper's decision, but as the story progresses, she realizes the significance of the choice.  At a later point in the movie, McConaughey enters a black hole and ends up in the fifth dimension, a world created by beings heavily implied to be mankind after reaching the next stage in evolution.  This, in turn, reveals to him and the audience that he was the ghost all along.  This revelation has split people, some argue that the twist makes sense while others decry it as predictable; personally, I fall in both camps.  I do agree that Cooper should be the one responsible for pulling the strings, however, the movie could have done a better job at pacing out the clues that it could be him, or try to convince us that it's someone else.

Although the film handles the relationship between father and daughter excellently, the same cannot be said about the son or grandfather.  In contrast to Cooper and Murphy, these two characters don't have the same amount of development.  Cooper's father only exists for the sake of being an additional family member, whereas the son, when he grows up, acts as a foil to Murphy's plans, and his lack of remorse for his family makes him quite unlikeable.  Due to reasons unknown, he decides to stay in the house their family lived in when he was growing up, as a result, his wife and children are put into a near-death situation as the residue from the dust storms threatens to kill them.

Following in the same foot-steps as Star Wars and other titles, Intersellar pulls inspiration from a variety of different works, most notably, 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The most immediate nods to the film are through the robots TARS and CASE, whose designs call to mind the monolith from 2001, if it was able to bend and flex into different shapes.  The usage of pipe organ in the soundtrack occasionally results in tracks that sound as if they are building up the piece that plays in 2001's final scene.  However, the biggest reference to a Space Odyssey comes from the entire sequence of Cooper going through the fifth dimension and being forced out back into space.  Although this implies that the section completely copies David's encounter with the monolith in the film's climax, the outcome and meaning of these moments is where they differ.  In 2001, David's interaction with the monolith leads him to become part of the next step in human evolution, in which he is reborn as a star child who watches over Earth in the last scene; on the other hand, Cooper in Interstellar only gets a brief glimpse at what humanity is capable of by interacting with the past, and when he is forced out of the dimension, he ends up in space and is rescued by a team with only minutes left in his oxygen.  In other words, Interstellar uses 2001 as a means of homage and to provide its own spin on a key moment from the movie.

Visually, the film is quite gorgeous, excellently capturing the vast emptiness of space and its immense scale, occasionally by having the camera pull back to reveal that the Endurance is merely a small speck in the galaxy, and these moments are benefitted by the practical effects utilized.  In an era where computer-generated imagery has become the norm for creating special effects, it's surprising to see how much practicality there is in Interstellar.  For much of the movie, the ship, robots, and space itself are created with animatronics, puppetry, and miniatures, which helps give a sense of realism to these locales and characters.  There is CG, but it's primarily used to show off the gorgeous landscapes of the planets and the fifth dimension, or, if it's a wide shot, to show one of the robots moving.

Interstellar is a well-made science fiction drama that uses its human characters to create an engaging and tragic storyline; although certain characters are weaker than others, each one is supported by great acting from their respective actors.  Also, the journey the astronauts partake in is one filled with tension and breathtaking moments, complemented by the film's top-notch special effects.

Final Score: 8/10

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Godzilla (PS4) Review

Over the past six decades, the Godzilla franchise has significantly grown since the first film was released in 1954.  To date, the King of the Monsters has starred in over thirty movies and the series has spawned a wealth of merchandise, but similar to other franchises discussed prior such as Transformers, Ghostbusters, and Batman, Godzilla has spawned his share of games uneven in quality.  Although the concept of a monster destroying a city or fighting rival monsters shouldn't be hard to translate into playable form, most of the titles released have had trouble capturing the spirit and fun of the films, with a few exceptions.  The last Godzilla game was released over eight years ago, and after it came out, fans were left waiting for another game until this title was released last year to capitalize off of the success of the 2014 movie.

Godzilla doesn't offer much in terms of plot; in 1954, atomic blasts awake a prehistoric beast known as Godzilla, who arrives off of the coast of Japan to terrorize Tokyo.  In the years since his attack, scientists have developed a renewable power source known as G-Energy, which is derived from his life vitality; of course, creating a method of clean power based off of Godzilla attracts him back to Japan in order to feed off the materials and destroy everything.  This simplistic story serves as the basis for the game's main mode, God of Destruction.

Controls are quite unique; forward and backward movement for Godzilla and other creatures is handled with the left analog stick, but to turn them, the L1 and R1 buttons must be pressed.  This set-up is mildly unconventional, but since you are controlling a giant monster, the layout makes sense and you quickly get used to it in no time.  As stated prior, God of Destruction is the primary mode of play; in it, players take control of Godzilla and other monsters in order to destroy generators and annihilate buildings and other structures in an effort to make the kaiju bigger and more powerful.  All of the levels are set up on a grid split up into multiple branching paths; additionally, said levels vary in difficulty depending on the leader currently in charge, and their viewpoint of the monster reflects how long it takes for more reinforcements to arrive.  The difficulty of the stage also determines which monster will be confronted, and the kaiju that may show up is determined by how tall Godzilla or other ilk currently are.

At first, tearing through buildings, the army, and other monsters is fun and true to the films this game is based off of, the military doesn't do much damage, but giant monsters do; however, as the levels progress, it quickly becomes apparent that the mode doesn't deviate too heavily from its premise.  Every stage involves destroying generators and the surrounding environment, harder stages slightly alter the conditions of beating the stage, primarily by adding a time limit, but not much else is changed.  The end result is that the mode becomes tedious to complete, especially when you have to play through the mode multiple times in order to obtain the real ending.

Unlocking the true ending requires two different things: get Godzilla up to one hundred meters tall, and find all of the data collection points.  These are scattered across each stage, and when Godzilla is in the vicinity of one, you can press R3, which shifts the camera into a cinematic viewpoint to show the army recording your actions.  Yet, this aspect of the game is questionable, why would I, the player, help the army to try and stop Godzilla, even though I'm controlling the big guy in the first place?

Besides confronting the military, whose tanks and rocket trucks don't try to move when you get close to them, there are also kaiju to fight.  To the game's credit, the roster of creatures is large and varied, and includes the likes of King Ghidorah, Mothra, Rodan, four different Mechagodzillas, three different Godzillas, and the greatest robot ever, Jet Jaguar.  Though the site of these familiar monsters and others is thrilling, that appeal quickly wears off when you realize the act of fighting these beasts is filled with various problems that drag the enjoyment down.  Combat is fairly simplistic and lacking in difficulty or balance; it's simply a matter of mashing buttons in order to unleash the monster's moves.  Though their move-lists are varied, certain kaiju utilize techniques that can be spammed repeatedly to damage opponents, which severely diminishes the challenge of these encounters, unless you are the one on the receiving end, in which case they can become frustrating to accomplish.  Another quirk that's especially annoying is that when trying to turn and charge away from an opponent, the monster may refocus themselves on the opposition and run the wrong way.  Lastly, the size of the monsters can get inconsistent, levels labeled "Hard" may pit you against fifty meter kaiju, such as Mechagodzilla or a Mothra larva, who are now comically larger than you are, even though they should be much smaller than they are now.

Defeating monsters and destroying generators earns the player materials, which can be used to unlock abilities and new moves for the kaiju in evolution mode.  Unfortunately, this system of obtaining materials is an archaic and complicated process since retrieving the right components may require a monster not yet encountered in God of Destruction; fortunately, there's King of Kaiju.  In this mode, players take their selected monster through six rounds against randomly selected opponents, but the materials you get by beating all rounds are not predetermined and may not relate to the kaiju you are trying to upgrade either.  In addition to these two modes, there's an online versus mode that pits three players against each other; while I have not been able to try this mode out, from what I've read, poor matchmaking diminishes the entertainment, as there's a strong chance for low-ranked individuals to be pitted against higher-tiered people who had too much time on their hands.

There is also the Kaiju Guide and Diorama; Kaiju Guide is an impromptu information source to the monsters from the Godzilla canon, and new entries are unlocked by playing the game.  Although certain kaiju are listed with inaccurate or completely made-up information, a majority of the entries are factual and each one contains interesting trivia regarding suit designs, etc.  Diorama lets you take figurines and position them to take pictures, and as the name implies, this mode is simply a novelty selection.

For a PlayStation 4 release, Godzilla looks and feels more like an early to mid-cycle PlayStation 3 game; although the monsters are film accurate and look good, as do the visual effects for explosions and building destruction, the environments utilize bland and uninteresting designs.  Additionally, there's a feeling of emptiness to each locale; while the game does a competent job at capturing the scale of these creatures, the lack of any other onscreen activity makes the cities and other landscapes feel barren.  Voice acting is deliberately cheesy and replicates the unintentional humor offered by the dubs of Godzilla films, but lines are repeated so frequently that you'll end up turning the volume down.  The music and certain themes recall the compositions of scores from some of the films, but aside from a few tracks, the remainder of the music is nothing special.

At its core, Godzilla does have good ideas, but the execution of these concepts is a sloppy one.  Tearing through cities and beating up monsters is mildly enjoyable at first, but the various issues these mechanics and other aspects have gradually start to seep in, resulting in fun turning into tedium.  There is clearly a love for the series present, as evidenced by the selection of monsters and other factors, but when the product isn't fun, that respect starts to lose its impact.

Final Score: 4/10

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Far Cry 4 Review

There's an age old adage known as "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", which refers to a formula that worked once before and has proven to be a useful method should a later occurrence require it.  This term can also apply to sequels in either films or video games, in which the creators take the formula that made the first installment click, and apply it again for the follow-up, making small changes and additions where needed; Far Cry 4 is a testament to that.

Far Cry 4 follows an everyday man known as Ajay Ghale; originally born in Kyrat but raised in America, Ajay has returned to the country to spread his mother's ashes, unaware of the civil war going on between the ruthless dictator Pagan Min and the resistance group known as the Golden Path.  During his ride, the bus is stopped for inspection by the Royal Army, which culminates in the bus being shot-up and Ajay narrowly escaping, only to land right in front of Pagan, who has been expecting his arrival.  At Pagan's palace, he reveals to Ajay that he is a distant relative and at one point, was engaged in a brief relationship with Ghale's mother.  After Pagan leaves, Ajay sneaks out, only to be rescued by one of the Golden Path leaders, Sabal.  Eventually, Ajay meets the other half of the leadership, Amita, and it turns out that she and Sabal have their own goals for Kyrat, which results in frequent arguments between the two.  With no other choice left, Ajay decides to help the Golden Path take down Pagan Min and liberate his grasp on the nation.

Story in Far Cry 4 isn't as strong as the narrative in Far Cry 3, largely due to the characters, starting with Ajay Ghale.  Whereas Jason Brody from the previous game had clearly defined reasons as to why he was doing what he did, Ajay lacks any real goals, and he comes off as an uninspired, run of the mill protagonist who has no qualms with helping the Golden Path and other people of interest scattered about Kyrat, regardless of the tasks he's given.  This is especially noticeable when at one point in the story, he encounters two bumbling stoners who frequently convince Ajay to take special drugs which get him into situations that put his life in danger.

Speaking of which, the other characters that encompass the story are a mixed bag.  Amita and Sabal's different ideologies lead to interesting conflicts when the two are present; Amita believes in progressivism while Sabal thinks Kyrat should stick to the traditions important to the nation.  Their conflict leads to an interesting story structure; at certain points, players are presented with one character's plans for a particular area of interest, and depending on which one you choose, the result is a different mission with either Amita or Sabal currently in charge of the Golden Path.  Another highlight amongst the characters is a gun smuggler from Africa who uses the Bible as a means to help the resistance but to also help atone for terrible deeds he did back in his home nation, which is heavily implied to be the Bowa-Seko region from Far Cry 2.

With that said, there are those who aren't as memorable; there are the previously mentioned pair of stoners, Yogi and Reggie, whose antics encompass a majority of the game's humor, but the biggest disappointment out of the roster are the villains.  Pagan Min and his fellow generals all had the potential to be interesting individuals, but said potential is wasted because for a majority of the game, these characters are offscreen, only appearing when the story says so.  In particular, the big bad, Pagan Min, disappoints the most; his actions and personality are very reminiscent of Handsome Jack from Borderlands 2, and combined with a top-notch performance from Troy Baker, the result should have been a memorable bad guy on the same level as Vaas from the previous game; unfortunately, that's not the case.

As stated in the beginning, Far Cry 4 doesn't bring anything new to the table; instead, it refines and polishes the formula established in Far Cry 3, while also adding in a host of new diversions to take in and weapons to utilize; the result is an experience still entertaining, even if it's one strewn with a strong sense of familiarity.  To free Kyrat from the clutches of Pagan Min and his army, Ajay will, among many tasks, complete story and side missions, liberate outposts and fortresses occupied by Min's troops, climb radio towers, and amass enough guns to make John Rambo blush.  In terms of control, Ajay moves with the same amount of flexibility Jason Brody did; he can throw rocks to distract enemies, utilize a camera to mark their positions, and he gains access to most of the same abilities Jason did by leveling up and earning skill points, though there are a few new techniques, such as the vehicle takedown and the ability to ride elephants. 

However, some modifications have made which help differentiate Ajay from his predecessor; for starters, he can utilize a grappling hook to climb up ledges and navigate rocky terrain.  Also, players are now able to move bodies and hide them, making it easier to ensure that enemy troops don't find their fallen comrades, and two new throwing items are introduced: knives and bait.  Knives are self-explanatory, but bait, obtained from skinned animals, can be thrown to attract predators, such as bears and wolves, to an enemy's location, and it is an effective tactic when taking over outposts.

In-between story missions, gamers can explore the nation of Kyrat, which is divided into two separate regions, with the northern area becoming accessible later on in the story.  Nearly half of the tasks available to complete are from Far Cry 3, such as deactivating radio towers broadcasting false propaganda, freeing outposts from control of the Royal Army, as well as hunting, assassination, and hostage rescue side missions.  With these activities, however, come a slew of new ones to participate in.  Among these are new quests involving bomb defusals, escorting and protecting Golden Path vehicles, and missions where Ajay destroys the machines used to create posters and other tools of messaging, among others.  Besides the regular outposts, there are fortresses, harder, more complicated outposts which are commanded by Pagan's generals.  While possible to take over during the story, the difficulty will remain high if the leader of the particular fortress is still in charge, but they can be easier to take over if you let the story progress or if one is currently engaged in the game's co-op mode, which deactivates story missions, but allows players to partake in all of the other content available to do in this game.

Simply put, Far Cry 4 is as entertaining and engaging as its predecessor; in fact, compared to Far Cry 3, there's a larger emphasis on doing the tasks as you see fit.  While story missions place parameters on what you can do, such as putting emphasis on stealth over noise, all other content may be engaged by how the players believe it should be handled, such as outposts.  In the previous game, outposts were a risk/reward gamble, do you take the stealthy approach, or risk taking heavy losses by going in loud and riotous?  Far Cry 4, on the other hand, doesn't care what options you decide to take due to the large selection of guns and other firearms at hand, as well as the variety of skills to unlock that can benefit Ajay as players see fit.

Visually, Far Cry 4 looks great; the world of Kyrat is a mixture of Tibetan, Indian, and Thai cultures, resulting in gorgeous landscapes and interesting architectural designs; yet, the highlight of the visuals is the world of Shangri-La.  Accessed by discovering painting fragments scattered across the environment, gamers are transported into a world that is quite beautiful to look at with its varied bright colors and dream-like landscapes.  However, there is some mildly distracting pop-in that is very noticeable when cruising through Kyrat at high speeds or by flying in the air.  Voice acting is executed well, even if Troy Baker is severely underutilized in his role as Pagan Min, and the music is also of good quality.

Though the narrative and characters are weak, the remainder of Far Cry 4 is very fun to partake in.  While this fourth installment doesn't shake up the formula dramatically, instead opting for more of the same, the end result is a game still engaging and entertaining for both returning players and newcomers to the series.  The world of Kyrat is one filled with unique story missions and enough content to keep people playing for a long period.

Final Score: 8/10

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Return of Destroy All Humans?

It's not common for me to write a post regarding news of any sort, but while looking through the latest articles published on Game Informer's website, I came across one that piqued my interest, one regarding a franchise known as Destroy All Humans.

The article explains that on Nordic Games' official Twitter, who is the company currently holding the rights to the series after acquiring the property from THQ, a person asked when another game in the series could be expected, to which Reinhard Pollice of Nordic explained, "There are a few options we are evaluating now.  Hope to get started on one of these soon."  After reading the article, I started to get excited, after all, the series was one of my favorites growing up and even though I moved on from the games to other titles, I still occasionally play them from time to time.

This is good because Nordic has the chance to revive a series that still has plenty of potential, but what they are going to do with the series is still not official, since they are, as mentioned prior, looking at different options.  The strongest possibility is that they could either do a remaster of the first one or all of the games in the series, release a new title, or just not do anything with the franchise, which could also happen.  Hopefully, more information will be provided at a later date, who knows, maybe they could announce something at E3.

Link to article: