Friday, June 30, 2017

Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988) Review

In life, people struggle with finding an effective way of balancing different things which occupy their time, be it jobs, school, or hobbies.  When we do settle into the right groove, there's a strong sense of satisfaction knowing that what seemed impossible has become achievable.  The analogy might seem odd, but it is reflective of the tonal shifts in Return of the Living Dead Part II.  Since the first film made a decent profit on its release, it seemed inevitable that the dead would return for a sequel.  However, writer/director Ken Wiederhorn tips the scale and fills this follow-up with more laughs than frights, but does it work?

On a stormy night in a small town, a convoy of trucks are in route to an unknown destination, and their package is a batch of barrels containing the chemical 245 Trioxin.  One of the drivers, while smoking a joint and listening to music, is too distracted to notice some of the barrels falling out from the vehicle after hitting a bump in the road, which is then followed by one canister managing to roll off the road and into the river below.  The next day, a young boy named Jesse (Michael Kenworthy) is given the chance to visit a clubhouse which belongs to a pair of neighborhood bullies.  Said clubhouse is in the nearby cemetery, and when Jesse tries to flee and hide, the three find the container in a storm drain.

Seeing the number on the drum, Jesse insists that they should call it, but the two roughnecks have better ideas, and lock the kid in the mausoleum.  While this is happening, a trio of graverobbers arrive to dig up and obtain the skulls buried within.  The two men, Ed (James Karen) and Joey (Thom Matthews), head into the graveyard, while Joey's girlfriend Brenda (Suzanne Snyder) stays behind to watch the car.  Jesse escapes and makes a mad dash home, while the two kids investigate the barrel and unwittingly release the gas from within, causing them to develop coughing fits and leave while the gas gets into the atmosphere and causes a storm.  Jesse decides to head back to the cemetery to try and get the number, along the way, he visits the house of Billy (Thor Van Lingen), who is looking much more pale than before.  He returns to the drain and gets the number, only to be confronted by the corpse from the barrel, which he easily dispatches of.

Unfortunately for Jesse, the dead are starting to rise from the grave, and the ensuing mist caused by the rain has seeped into the mausoleum Ed and Joey are at, causing them to get ill.  Once he has returned home, Jesse tries to call the number, but is halted by his older sister (Marsha Dietlin) and a cable repairman (Dana Ashbrook).  One activation of the fire-alarm gives him enough time to run into the parents' bedroom and call the army, who are currently disposing of the other barrels.  However, the calls is cut short as the graverobbers had fled the cemetery and reached the neighborhood in search of help, but in the process, disabled the phone box.  With the dead running loose, Jesse, his sister, the cable guy, the graverobbers, and a neighbor, Dr. Mandel (Philip Bruns), try to seek a way out of town, unaware that Ed and Joey are gradually worsening in their condition.

With multiple jokes and gags that see the undead stumbling on one another as they come out of the ground, among others, it immediately becomes clear to the viewer during the sequence of the dead rising that this is a goofier affair than the original.  In fact, the zombies' mischievous behavior calls to mind the Gremlins rather than a terrifying enemy that seems virtually unstoppable.  In addition to an army of slapstick-fueled ghouls, there are people caught in the middle of it all; unfortunately, the characters, save for a few, are either forgettable or obnoxious.  Jesse, the young boy trying to stop the undead menace from spreading, is very likeable simply because of his resourceful nature.  Whereas the protagonists of the first one waited until the very end to call the army for help, Jesse, upon discovering the barrel with the two boys, makes an active effort to get the number and let the military know about the barrel.  Another favorite is the doctor; although some of his lines are cringe-inducing, his off-the-wall drunken behavior makes him fun to watch, as he's more concerned with finding a bottle of booze than a way to defeat the zombies.

Yet, the rest of the cast is a different story.  Tom, the cable-man, is your standard every-man who finds himself becoming a hero as he works with the others to save the day, a notion which also applies to Jesse's older sister.  Then, there are the trio of graverobbers, who's only purpose is to scream and act like nitwits.  Joey and Ed are nothing more than a carbon-copy of Freddy and Frank, right down to them getting sick from the gas and becoming zombies later.  They may be played by the same cast members from before, but that doesn't necessarily mean they should also go through the same motions and use dialogue they had in the first one as well.  Besides, their contributions to the story, along with Brenda's, are minimal, and if you removed them, the only thing that would change would be the run-time.

Speaking of which, Brenda, Joey's girlfriend, is a textbook example of people who make bad decisions in horror movies, since everything she does jeopardizes the situation even more.  Examples include but are not limited to the following:
  1. Refusing to listen to Dr. Mandel's suggestion of leaving Ed and Joey quarantined at the hospital they're at.
  2. Being the one responsible for the phone getting disabled.
  3. Distracting a soldier long enough for the now-zombified Ed to move in and get a bite.
With such "smart" moves as those, combined with a scream so piercing I'm surprised it doesn't kill the zombies, and you have a woman who's like Willie from Temple of Doom, but more obnoxious and a lot less helpful.

Return of the Living Dead Part II's biggest problem, though, is that it plays it safe, often recycling plot points and moments from the first.  The change of location from a small portion of town to an entire city offers potential, and one can see how its idea of zombies on the loose in the suburbs influenced the SNES game Zombies Ate My Neighbors.  Unfortunately, it doesn't take enough chances with its creative potential, especially considering that the place is a ghost town since the entire population was evacuated off-screen.  The only major new addition is that the undead now have a clear weakness, electricity, which does lead to a thrilling climax as the surviving heroes round-up the zombies, lure them into an electric power-plant, and fry them all.  It's just a shame you must wade through eighty-five minutes of mediocrity and hit-and-miss humor just to reach it.

Effects-wise, the movie boasts well-done zombie make-up and features some inventive effects, such as a severed hand that runs amok in Dr. Mandel's car.  Although the designs of the undead look more cartoony and the recreation of the barrel zombie is rubbery and not as grotesque, they get the job done.  The music is an interesting scenario; when the film was released on DVD and digital media, the original soundtrack and certain licensed tracks were removed and replaced with compositions that sound like a synthesizer farting.  The original score, which can only be heard via a VHS copy, is fine, if a little too dramatic, and the licensed songs are enjoyable, including "Spacehopper," "Bad Case of Loving You," and an incredibly cheesy cover of "Monster Mash," but it lacks the memorability of the original film's score, a notion which applies to everything else regarding this sequel.

Return of the Living Dead Part II is an uninspired retread of the first movie that has its moments, but leaves a lot to be desired.  The film is at its best when it revels in its over-the-top, comedic nature of events, such as zombies driving a commandeered jeep or a Michael Jackson-look-alike zombie getting electrocuted with the others, but it's afraid to commit to that tone.  Instead, the movie offers serviceable, but extremely by-the-numbers undead entertainment.

Final Score: 4/10

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Return of the Living Dead (1985) Review

In 1968, writers George Romero and John Russo crafted a script about the dead coming back to life to devour the living, which would become Night of the Living Dead.  Upon release, the movie was a hit, and set the standard for zombie movies to come; however, legal issues arose over who owned the rights to the picture, since the film-makers had forgotten to put a copyright notice on it.  The result was that Romero could continue making zombie pictures, including Russo, so long as the phrase "Living Dead" wasn't used in the title.  Meanwhile, Russo got control of the moniker, and he wrote a novel called Return of the Living Dead, with the hopes of turning it into a feature film.  Years later, in 1985, writer Dan O'Bannon, best known for writing the script to Alien, got the chance to make the movie, but in the process, he changed what Russo had written and created a zombie picture with more style and flair than the films of Romero.

On a hot, summer day in Louisville, Kentucky, a young man named Freddy (Thom Matthews) has gotten a job working as a shipping clerk in a medical warehouse.  The boss, Burt Wilson (Clu Gulager), is leaving for the weekend, and has left his assistant, Frank (James Karen), along with Freddy to close the place.  While filling out forms in the office, Freddy asks Frank what's the strangest thing that has been in the place.  Frank tells him how years ago in Pennsylvania, the army was conducting experiments when a chemical spill happened, causing the substance to drain down pipes that ran over a morgue.  The leaky pipes allowed the substance to fall onto the bodies below, and they came to life; therefore, the incident was quarantined and the chemicals and corpses were loaded into barrels that were sent off to be researched by a chemical company.  Unfortunately, the shipping forms got mixed up, and they ended up at the warehouse, where they are being held in the basement.

Therefore, the two of them go to check the containers out, but upon checking the durability of one of them, Frank unwittingly releases the gas, which knocks them both out, and the chemical then seeps into the vents, bringing to life a cadaver held in the freezer.  While this is going on, Freddy's friends are heading to where he's working to pick him up and go partying, even though his girlfriend, Tina (Beverly Randolph), just wants to go out with him on a date, away from the presence of the others.  To kill time and have fun, they go into the cemetery across from the warehouse.  When Frank and Freddy wake up, they feel ill, but also realize that the previously dead body in cold storage is now alive, so they call Burt to come over.

Once Burt arrives, the three decide that they're going to open the door and let the cadaver free, then pin it down and kill it by impaling it in the head.  It's released, but it makes a beeline towards Burt, and when they have the body under their control, a pickaxe is lobbed into its head, but it still lives.  Therefore, the corpse is sliced up, with the intent of taking it over into the funeral home, where a man named Ernie (Don Calfa) runs the mortuary, complete with a crematorium.  After negotiating a deal with Ernie, along with explaining what's going on, the body is burned, but as the smoke rises into the air, it kick-starts a rainstorm, and the resulting rain falls onto the cemetery that Freddy's pals are at.  Tina, who went to the medical facility earlier, finds herself trapped in a room with the now-living body from the barrel.  Her friends arrive, but one of them, a punk named Suicide (Mark Venturini), is killed while rescuing her, and when they head back to the cemetery to find Freddy, they notice the dead rising from the graves, ready to eat the living.

Whereas the likes of Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead were grim and dramatic in their depictions of people trying to survive the hordes of the undead, Return of the Living Dead, while serious in tone, also adds an underlying element of comedy and fun into the mix.  The over-the-top nature of many of the events, combined with the terrified reactions of the characters, ends up making the audience laugh at the foibles of the people caught up in the situation.  A headless cadaver running around like a chicken might seem terrifying, but given how ridiculous it looks, one can't help but laugh at such a sight.  Like Gremlins and The Evil Dead, it's a movie that strikes a fine balance between laughs and frights, yet there's the notion that if such an incident did occur, everybody would probably react in a similar manner to Frank and Freddy.

Characters are a strong point; Dan O'Bannon has a way of developing characters through small-talk and their interactions with the environment, as seen through the crew of the Nostromo in Alien.  This tradition continues as the sizeable cast is all fleshed out through their interactions with one another and what they do, which does provide the viewer with concern over whether they will live or not once the dead rise.  For instance, Frank and Freddy, despite gradually turning into zombies over the course of the picture, do come off as sympathetic yet also ignorant for their accidental behavior and not knowing about the dangers that lurked within, but their panicked screams of fear and agony over their illness also makes them a delight to watch.  Yet, out of all the characters, Burt Wilson stands out as the highlight since he takes responsibility for the incident and formulates most of the plans he thinks will help everyone, but they tend to make things worse.

In addition to Ernie, the mortician that becomes befuddled yet fascinated by what's going on, but the people who make up Freddy's group are an interesting bunch.  When first viewing the film, one might wonder why these individuals, each of whom represents a different clique, are hanging out together in the first place, but it's clear from their introduction that they are united by one goal, which is they're desire to party.  From the nerdy Chuck (John Philbin) to the preppy Tina to the punk-rockers Trash (Linnea Quigley), Scuz (Brian Peck), and Suicide, they are each memorable for certain characteristics.  For example, Suicide is a large, burly man who is convinced that his leather-and-chains get-up is representative of his thuggish status, which he believes to be a lifestyle.  The previously mentioned Chuck is nothing more than a geek who handles the boom-box and tries his best to be cool, but more than often fails.  Of the gang, the only "normal" members, besides Chuck, would be Tina, Spider (Miguel Nunez Jr.), Casey (Jewel Shepard), and even Freddy, who are only there for the comradery, or in the case of Tina, her boyfriend.

As a zombie movie, Return of the Living Dead sets up new ideas that would become standard for the genre, while also flipping the notion on many of the established concepts.  They may shuffle, but these zombies tend to run and pounce on their targets to eat brains, which has since been recognized as the primary choice of meat the undead prefer.  These creatures are also intelligent, to a certain degree; while they never drive vehicles in the movie, they are capable of operating machinery and can talk, which they use to bait those who wander into the cemetery.  However, one major shake-up from what we perceive about zombies is how they are killed.  As mentioned before, destroying the head doesn't kill them, not even total dismemberment.  Even if burning does eliminate them, for a price, you immediately recognize that there's a strong probability none of the characters might survive the entire picture.

For all the right this movie does, it does fall prey to some of the dumb clich├ęs horror films are known for.  Throughout the film, characters make plenty of bad moves; for example, after unleashing the gas in the warehouse, Frank and Freddy don't immediately call the number written on the barrel, thinking that bringing the army to the place might jeopardize Burt's business and reputation.  If they had done this early one, the two might have saved a lot of lives and prevented a small nuke from being dropped at the end of the film.  Also, the Louisville Police dispatch is quite easily duped by a moaning, undead voice asking for more paramedics and cops to show up at the graveyard.  What is probably the stupidest moment, though, is Tina's insistence that she stay in the chapel with Freddy even though him and Frank are clearly on the verge of total zombification, so it comes as no surprise to the viewer when he starts attacking Tina, trying to get her brain.

Despite being made on a small budget of four million dollars, the make-up and practical effects have aged relatively well, mostly.  At times, the limited amount of cash does show, namely with how most of the zombies are clearly regular people covered with pale face-paint or mud, but there are other effects that are quite the show-stoppers.  The best example is the corpse in the barrel, who is nothing more than a skeleton being held together by the melting, dripping flesh on his body, resulting in movement that makes him an unsettling sight to watch.  Then there's the soundtrack, which features songs that fit the punk-rock, B-movie tone of the picture.  Even if one doesn't like punk music, there's no denying that the tracks set the mood right, especially the song "Partytime" by 45 Grave, which is heard when the dead begin to rise in masse.

Stylish, scary, delightful; these are words that best summarize Return of the Living Dead.  Like the punk-rockers in the film, it's a picture that strays from the norms of the zombie genre to create an experience that is harrowing, but also fun.  It's not perfect, but for those that want to kick back and relax, alone or with others, and enjoy a riotous time, this is a good choice.

Final Score: 8/10

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions (Xbox 360) Review

Licensed games, a genre that is often a trick risk for any publisher of developer that tries their hand in this area.  The challenge comes from creating a title that stays true to the source material while also being a compelling experience for both the fans of the property and the everyday human who is just looking for a good game.  Unfortunately, the results are often hit-and-miss, leaning more towards the latter.  Ever property, be it a comic book, a film, or even a toy-line, generally has several titles that are of mediocre quality at best, but when the developer gets it right, there is much critical and financial success.

Unlike other franchises covered in the past such as Batman, Ghostbusters, or Godzilla, the Spider-Man games are solid, save for the occasional missteps, but after the success of the video-game adaptation of Spider-Man 2, every title following that game's release was an open-world affair; thus, the spider's webs began to sag.  However, in 2010, developer Beenox, a studio whose credentials beforehand involved making games based off Dreamworks' movies, dug into the vast lore of Spider-Man to create a title that would shake the formula up, conceptually speaking.

On a dark night, the sinister Mysterio has broken into the New York History Museum to steal the Tablet of Order and Chaos, an artifact with the potential to give him unlimited power.  Fortunately, Spider-Man shows up to prevent Mysterio from taking the tablet, but in the process of stopping him, the web-crawler accidentally breaks the tablet, whose fragments then scatter across to different dimensions of time and space.  Mysterio escapes, but a woman named Madame Web appears to inform Spider-Man of his mistake, and that the fragments must be collected before they fall into the wrong hands.  Said fragments are in alternate dimensions, each with different versions of the iconic hero.  Therefore, Spider-Man, along with his 2099, Noir, and Ultimate universe counter-parts, work with Madame Web to locate the fragments of the tablet before it's too late.

Although the plot itself is threadbare in set-up, where it shines the most is in its writing, which does a great job at giving people an insight into the four worlds that are on display here, while also paying tribute to the fifty-plus years of comic lore created in the wake of Spider-Man's debut.  Every world has its own interesting look and feel to it that influences the attitudes of the characters, both good and bad.  For example, the Noir universe, with its muted colors and gritty atmosphere, calls to mind Frank Miller's Sin City, especially with the multitude of mobster-based antagonists.  Additionally, because each world is set in a different time or realm, each villain that appears has had their personality and design altered to reflect the changes.  This keeps the player motivated to see who the next villain is that one of the Spider-Men will confront in the upcoming stage.

Despite featuring four separate protagonists, they are all united by one concept: gameplay.  Instead of being an open-world experience like the last few games, this is a linear brawler/stealth experience that plays to the advantage of its concept.  Each hero controls the same, but there are mechanics exclusive to each one.  The Spider-Man of the Amazing universe, the default one, is the most traditional, but his stages do have a larger emphasis on platforming in comparison to the other worlds.  Ultimate Spider-Man is like his Amazing counterpart, except he wears the black suit, which gives him access to a rage meter that can be activated once it's full that increases his damage.  Spider-Man 2099 focuses more on close-quarters fighting, and he can slow down time to avoid missiles and enemy attacks.  His parts also feature moments that have him free-falling large distances in pursuit of something or because he is evading falling debris.

Lastly, Noir Spider-Man and his levels are about stealth, as there are multiple sections that have him sticking to the shadows and webbing up his foes when they aren't looking.  He's also the weakest of the four, if he gets spotted, bullets will easily rip him to shreds; to compensate for this, he has regenerating health.  Combat is good, if somewhat repetitive; the range of enemies is small, consisting of regular foes, ones armed with shields that must be vaulted over, as well as bad guys equipped with a firearm or melee weapon and large henchman who require multiple hits to bring down.  Their intelligence is also erratic; even on the highest difficulty, they aren't much of a hassle to defeat, but there are times when their behavior is just plain dumb, primarily in the Noir stages.  After Spider-Man is spotted, nearby enemies will start shooting at him; however, once he escapes, they automatically return to their positions like nothing happened.  Additionally, whenever one of the stumbles upon their comrade webbed up, they tend to ignore such sight and if they do notice, nothing is done.

Thankfully, such issues do not crop up in the boss fights, which are challenging and require gamers to look for the right opportunities to stun their opponents before attacking them.  By defeating bosses, beating up enemies, and completing objectives, points can be earned to spend on a multitude of character upgrades, unlockable costumes, or new fighting techniques, which are all unlocked by accomplishing challenges found on the Web of Destiny.  Challenges range from simple tasks such as beating a boss or saving civilians, to more trickier ones such as defeating all the foes in the current area within a certain time limit, or finding eight hidden spiders strewn about each level.

However, the in-game objectives you must accomplish are limited in scope and will grow tedious, which is a problem especially prevalent in the stage where Ultimate Spider-Man confronts Deadpool on an oil rig.  In it, there are cameras set up across the environment which he is using to record his game show.  Once a set has been destroyed, a new batch appears.  Though there is plenty of combat and the level has a light sandbox feel, it doesn't help the fact that for most of this level, you're destroying cameras.  If not for Deadpool's sarcastic, biting commentary heard throughout, then this stage would be both tedious and boring.

Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions is truly spectacular, technically speaking.  The game's art style does a great job at emulating the look of each comic utilized in this game, almost as if they have come to life in video-game form.  However, there are a few technical bugs; occasionally, there are moments where the game fails to register the input of the web-swinging button, causing Spider-Man to nearly fall to his death.  Additionally, enemies can get stuck on something and in rare cases, certain sounds will inexplicably become louder than others.  Meanwhile, the audio is solid; the four actors who play the different Spider-Men, Neil Patrick Harris, Christopher Daniel Barnes, Josh Keaton, and Dan Gilvezan, all do great jobs in regards to bringing these different heroes and their personalities to life, a notion which applies to the remainder of the cast.  Yet, the music fails to reach those same standards, and is forgettable.

Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions excels at showcasing the different takes of a beloved character, and it shows that developer Beenox has a clear love for the web-slinger.  The brawler/stealth gameplay is a nice shift from the open-world formula of titles prior, and though not without its faults, it is enjoyable and features its share of thrilling moments.

Final Score: 7/10

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

007: Blood Stone (Xbox 360) Review

It's no secret that when it comes to video games, the James Bond franchise has had much success in bringing the titular secret agent to a medium in which people can play as him, and not just watch the character.  Additionally, this also allows developers and publishers to create brand-new stories for Bond to partake in, instead of just remaking the films he has starred in.  During the PS2/Xbox/Gamecube era, most of the games, save for 2005's Goldeneye: Rogue Agent and From Russia with Love, offered up original plots in which Bond confronted villains with evil schemes involving cloning, space-age weaponry, or nanobots capable of chewing through structures.  Once the new generation of consoles rolled onto the scene, though, 75% of the games that came out during that time were retellings of films that either featured or didn't feature the current Bond actor Daniel Craig, save for one.

After thwarting a terrorist incident in Greece, James Bond is put on another assignment by MI6 when a scientist presumed to be dead is found alive and being held hostage at a construction site in Istanbul.  Unfortunately, the researcher dies once Bond reaches him, but he finds an encrypted USB drive and after learning about a man named Pomerov from the person responsible for the scientist's captivity, James Bond sets off for Monaco in search of more answers.  He meets up with an agent of MI6 named Nicole Hunter, and through their efforts, they discover that Pomerov is manufacturing bio-weapons in Siberia, and he hired the scientist to develop a cure for his men once he unleashed the bio-weapons on a target of his choice.  Knowing this, the two set out for Siberia with the intent of stopping both the manufacturing of this terrible device and Pomerov himself.

Though it has all the necessary elements for a compelling plot, Blood Stone never takes the time to fully develop any of its story ideas.  There are big set-piece moments, exotic locales, and cut-scenes boasting top-notch production values, but the story holding it all together is aimless and basic.  The simplistic nature of events and lack of proper motivation for the villain means that the stakes lack the impact that they should, and making things worse is that even after the main antagonist is dispatched, there are at least two more bad-guys that show up whose relevance to the narrative feels more like an afterthought.  Not only that, but the game ends abruptly on a cliffhanger hinting at an organization that was pulling the strings to this scheme this whole time; sadly, the plot never received proper continuation since the developer, Bizarre Creations, was closed after Blood Stone's release, and publisher Activision no longer holds the license.

As for the gameplay, Blood Stone has its moments and you can see its potential in these parts, but the by-the-numbers nature and lack of creativity hold it back considerably.  This is a third-person-shooter/stealth game that can be best described as a store-brand, diet version of Splinter Cell: Blacklist.  Each level features a multitude of areas that allow Bond to either use stealth or noisy tactics when confronting enemies.  Foes have a detection system reminiscent of Splinter Cell and Far Cry, and it's best to sneak around and use silenced weapons and attacks as Bond is a glass cannon.  Knocking out bad guys or using melee combat awards the player with a focus shot, up to three of which can be acquired.  This acts in similar function to the Mark-and-Execute system from Blacklist, and is just as satisfying.

Yet, as you progress through the five-to-six-hour campaign, you begin to realize that a lot more could have been done to flesh out the gameplay beyond this set-up.  What would have helped Blood Stone out the most is an upgrade system in which Bond could modify firearms and acquire more health to increase his resistance to damage.  The firearm attachments would be especially beneficial to the gunplay since it lacks impact and suffers from a small roster of foes to fight.  There are only three different enemy types and thus, the cover-based shooting starts to grow monotonous after some time.

Besides stealth and shooting, there are the occasional sections where Bond drives a car, be it an Aston Martin, a Ferrari, or a tow truck, in pursuit of a target.  Unfortunately, like the shooting, this is an aspect that could have benefitted from improvement as well.  The biggest issue with these parts are their linear nature, since the designs of these sections just funnel you from one location to the next.  If you avoid the debris and traffic, you'll do just fine in these parts.  However, the cars lack proper weight and feel floaty, which makes them a hassle to drive.

Visually, Blood Stone features some impressive environmental designs that have a large sense of scale to them and are gorgeous to look at.  Character models also look good, but some, particularly the ones for Bond, M, and leading lady Nicole Hunter, look rough around the edges and often express as much emotion as puppets in a puppet show.  Fortunately, such technical quirks aren't prevalent with the well-done audio, which features good performances from Daniel Craig and Judi Dench, among others, in addition to a great soundtrack.

Blood Stone isn't necessarily a bad game, but out of all the Craig-era Bond games, this one, along with 007 Legends, has the most wasted potential.  The plot is a middling mess and what the gameplay offers, mechanically speaking, is stuff that has been done much better in other titles of similar nature, including 2004's Everything or Nothing.  In short, it's a product that's derivative in many regards, and is the equivalent of being a waiter who accidentally spills a shaken-not-stirred martini into the face of an iconic secret agent.

Final Score: 5/10

Friday, June 2, 2017

Wolfenstein (Xbox 360) Review

Nazis, they are a group whose name sends shivers down everybody's spine and whose reputation is that of pure evil.  Founded by Adolf Hitler, they had one goal on their mind: become the supreme race on Earth and eliminate those in their way.  Their actions were spiteful and malicious.  They took over Europe, formed an alliance of villainy with Japan and Italy, and most heinous of all, wiped out a large percentage of the Jewish population through different means of extermination.  Yet, they did not get far as through the efforts of the Allied nations, their reign of terror was squashed, and World War II was put to an end.

Their infamous legacy has made them a force of evil that is squashed time and time again by different heroes from all sectors of entertainment.  To keep the opposition from getting stale, though, creators have come up with unique ways in which the Nazis could be even more sinister than they already were, such as turning them into an undead monstrosity, or in the case of the Wolfenstein series, having them experiment with science and the supernatural in their efforts for global domination, a notion which is prevalent in the third installment of the hallowed series, released in 2009.

After taking care of the German menace once again in Return to Castle Wolfenstein, OSA agent B.J. Blaskowitz is immediately put on assignment once again when the agency receives word that the Nazis have set up operations in the town of Isenstaldt for unknown reasons.  Upon arrival, B.J. teams up with the local resistance known as the Kreisau Circle to figure out what is going on.  He discovers that they are searching for rare crystals that can be used to open a portal to another dimension known as the Black Sun, and in turn, harness its powers for their various projects and plans for global domination.  Thus, B.J. sets out to destroy their research and prevent them from using the Black Sun's power for evil.

Although its set in a world where Nazis are creating fantastical super-weapons and super-soldiers with the hopes of conquering the world, Wolfenstein's plot is threadbare and its characters, both good and bad, lack personality and depth.  The story's flimsy nature means that there's no real sense of progression in the narrative, and before you know it, B.J. will be armed and ready to stop the Nazis for the umpteenth time at the game's climax.  Not only that, but new villains are introduced so frequently that you'll hardly care about their nebulous intentions and instead focus on killing them so that the credits eventually roll.  However, what the story lacks in detail is made up for by its intriguing setting.  Like Wolfenstein: The New Order, there's a nice balance between reality and fantasy, offering mutated monsters, hi-tech weaponry, and a mystical dimension, all set against the backdrop of one of history's most pivotal wars.

Meanwhile, the gameplay mixes familiar first-person shooting action with a unique mechanic.  Over the course of the campaign, B.J. will shoot hundreds of Nazis and their scientifically-enhanced ranks so that Isenstaldt is liberated from their villainous grasp.  Story missions will see Blaskowitz infiltrating several different locations and sabotaging the Third Reich's plans.  Areas include hospitals, farmlands, zeppelins, and a heavily-armed castle, among others; in between missions, the player can roam the city of Isenstaldt while reaching the next destination.  Unfortunately, there's not much of an incentive to explore the town as the place feels more like a ghost town, save for the occasional scripted shoot-out.

It's a locale that the game never fully commits to, and instead of offering a multitude of things for the player to do like a sandbox environment should, instead, it acts as an unnecessary stop-gap when progressing to the next story mission.  There are collectibles to find, including documents and gold, more on the latter soon, as well as the occasional side task, but its inclusion only pads out what is a short game, taking around four-to-five hours to beat.  Despite this setback, the other major aspect of Wolfenstein's design, combat, fares much better, and is quite fun and creative.

B.J. will acquire a total of eight weapons which can be selected at any time via a weapon wheel.  These include WWII mainstays such as an MP40, MP43, a rifle, and a rocket launcher, along with inventive firearms such as a gun that shoots a constant stream that distenagrates anything in its range, as well as a lightning gun and a firearm that shoots orbs that can send things close to its vicinity flying, or reduce them to nothing.  These tools of destruction can be upgraded by collecting gold and using it at different black market shops set up around town.  With your state-of-the-art weaponry, killing Nazis is a whole lot easier.

Yet, easy is a word that describes the game's challenge, since your firearms, along with a magical amulet, can annihilate the German forces.  Early in the story, B.J. acquires an amulet that fuses him with an energy source called Mire.  With it, players can slow down time to weave in and out of gunfire, project a shield that deflects bullets and other projectiles, and unleash a rage mode that amps up damage for all weapons.  To counter these new abilities, the Nazis have their own Mire-infused soldiers that can project shields to protect their comrades, or use invisibility to get the drop on B.J.  Regardless, these powers, while fun, only diminish the challenge even further, and running out of energy is never an issue as there are plentiful sources for the amulet's energy to regenerate from.  Even then, the Nazis' haphazard intelligence can sometimes result in scenarios where they end up doing themselves in via a poorly-thrown grenade or some other accident.

On the technical side, Wolfenstein is a mixed bag.  Environments are well-designed and are, at times, inventive in their structures and layouts, and the flashing muzzle of gunfire and destructibility of the levels makes each shootout a chaotic affair to partake in.  However, the low-res, late-cycle original Xbox character models, framerate hiccups, and occasional glitches add up to a visual experience that is equal parts hit-and-miss.  While the voice acting is average at best, the soundtrack and its bombastic tone do a lot to enhance the action-packed mood of the game.

When it soars, Wolfenstein offers much entertainment through its inventive gunplay and unique set-up, but its faults, of which there are many, hold it back from greatness.  The inclusion of a half-baked, open-world city leaves much to be desired, since it lacks reasons to explore what it offers and thus, is nothing but padding.  Combine that with a lack of challenge and a forgettable storyline and you have a game that's promising in design, but leaves a lot of room for improvement.

Final Score: 6/10