Thursday, March 29, 2018

VHS Revival Presents: Godzilla 1985 (1985)

In 1954, he rose from the depths to terrorize Tokyo and make a name for himself in the film industry.  This creature went on to have a successful career in film and television.  Now, it's 1985, the times have changed, and it was only inevitable that he would return to the place where it all started.  This time, though, he's bigger than ever before; that's right, it's the return of the one, the only...Raymond Burr.

Whoops, this is about Godzilla's return to the big screen, not Raymond Burr's!

After the release of Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), the King of the Monsters went on a break, and after nine years, Godzilla returned in 1984's The Return of Godzilla, but when New World Pictures acquired the rights to this film, it only seemed fitting to bring back Raymond Burr, star of Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956).  Join me as I take a second look at a film that mixes Cold War-era politics with giant monster action and Dr. Pepper product placement.

Original review:

Monday, March 19, 2018

Halo: Combat Evolved (Xbox) Review

Microsoft is known for a lot of things, but at the tail end of the 20th century, nobody expected them to become video game creators.  The launch of Halo: Combat Evolved in 2001 proved to be a pivotal moment for the company.  The original Xbox released on November 15, 2001, and what better way to excite consumers with a new console than with the debut of a new series.  Though a juggernaut franchise now, Halo: Combat Evolved, when it released, was just a new IP from developer Bungie.  Little did they know that this game would define what the studio was in the years to come, at least until they created Destiny.

In the future, humanity has succeeded in colonizing other planets, but with success comes failure.  An alien race known as the Covenant has wiped out numerous human settlements across the galaxy, and their latest target is the planet Reach.  The planet is destroyed, but amongst the survivors is an armada of marines and their ship, the Pillar of Autumn, led by Captain Keyes.  They can't enjoy the escape too long as the Covenant have managed to track them down.  Therefore, a super-soldier called the Master Chief is awoken from hyper-sleep to deal with the threat and protect the ship's AI, Cortana.  The marines and Master Chief are overwhelmed by the enemy forces, so Captain Keyes orders an evacuation.

Master Chief and Cortana escape, only to crash land on a mysterious planet shaped like a ring.  While searching for survivors, they learn Keyes has been captured, so a rescue operation is carried out.  After he is saved, Keyes wants to figure out what exactly this planet is, and the secrets that lie within, so he sets out on his own while Master Chief and Cortana go in search of answers.  Unfortunately for everybody on the planet known as Halo, it turns out that an ancient, parasitic alien race known as the Flood is being held within, and Keyes releases the threat.  With chaos breaking out all over Halo, Master Chief must find a way to eradicate not just the Covenant forces, but also the Flood, since they threaten to consume the galaxy should they escape.

Take the action of Aliens, mix it with the mystery of Alien and the world building of Star Trek, and that's Halo in a nutshell.  You'll notice the motifs throughout the game.  For example, the marines act like the soldiers from Aliens, sporting similar designs in their weapons and outfits, and there's even a cigar-chomping sergeant that's more or less Apone from the 1986 classic.  Yet, there's an aura of mystery surrounding the planet.  Like in Alien, the player is constantly questioning what exactly Halo is.  As the game progresses, questions are answered regarding Halo, but enough threads are left dangling to keep the player wanting to know more about the mythology of these games.

Every now and then, Master Chief is assisted by marines
on his mission.  Sometimes they're helpful, other times
they're not.
Besides an interesting story, Halo features enjoyable characters.  Of the cast of characters, the ones that stand out are Master Chief and Cortana.  Their partnership in this game reminds me of Robocop and Lewis from the Robocop series.  Like Robocop, Master Chief is a heavily-modified human with strong combat expertise, but who doesn't have much to say.  He's not a silent character, but the only time he speaks is when he has a question to ask or is receiving an order from someone.  This is where Cortana comes in.  Cortana acts as both the player's and Master Chief's guide to Halo.  She'll update Chief on the latest objectives in a mission, and she's the one most of the characters talk to during cut-scenes, rather than the man in green armor.  Luckily, Cortana never becomes a nuisance since her dialogue is both informative and humorous, and much of the storytelling relies on the visuals and atmosphere to get across what's going on than the dialogue itself.

Though the game is seventeen years old, it's surprising how much of Halo: Combat Evolved's gameplay has managed to hold up.  Many of its mechanics, including the regenerating health system and two-weapon limit, have been copied by modern shooters, and the control scheme is smooth and easy to get used to, considering the button layout has also been re-used by other games.  Each of the game's ten levels sees Master Chief taking on Covenant and Flood forces across a multitude of locations, many of which are set in different parts of Halo.  The game might be a run-and-gun shooter, but one has to be careful when taking on enemies, particularly the Covenant.

Covenant forces are split between three enemy types.  Grunts are the red-shirts; they'e small, expendable, and are equipped with either a plasma pistol or needler.  The grunts are also complete chickens and have a tendency to run around the battlefield flailing their arms if the situation is too much for them.  Next are the jackals, lizard-like creatures who wield a shield in one hand that blocks most enemy fire, while wielding a plasma pistol in the other.  Getting a clean shot on these goons can be tricky, and jackals can fire a charge shot from the plasma pistol that can quickly disable Master Chief's shields, but like grunts, they will panic and retreat if their shield is lost or if there's too much going on.
Sun, surf, and shooting await on Casa del Halo!
Finally, there are the elites, who act as enemy officers.  They look like an armored version of the Predator, and like Master Chief, a shield protects their body from gunfire, but when it's depleted, an elite can be finished off quickly.  These are the most challenging foes to fight since they're quite adept at combat.  They'll flank, dodge grenades, and generally provide a challenge for the player, especially on higher difficulties.  Sometimes, elites are equipped with an energy sword; imagine if the golden gun from Goldeneye 007 was turned into a melee weapon, that's this device.  When an elite strikes you with this weapon, it's an instant death.  While fighting the Covenant offers a good challenge, the same can't be said for the Flood.

Once the Flood show up halfway through the campaign, much of the thrill of the game's combat is lost.  Since the Flood are mindless space-zombies, they use their numbers to overwhelm the player, and these creatures come in two forms.  The first is a small parasite which explodes when shot or if it latches on to Master Chief.  Meanwhile, the infected are mutated Covenant or humans that run around and attack anybody within their vicinity.  It's also possible for infected to keep on fighting even after the player supposedly kills them, so shooting them twice when one is lying on the ground is a must.  Additionally, infected can wield firearms, including rocket launchers, so watch out.  However, once the Flood are introduced, killing them becomes a chore.

Out of all the levels in Halo, the weakest one is "The Library."  In this stage, you go from one similar looking room to the other, fighting off never-ending waves of the Flood.  The endless numbers of Flood, combined with the constant strafing and shooting, makes completing this level a chore.  Indeed, some of the levels feel drawn out to the point of tedium, but others, particularly "Halo," "The Silent Cartographer," and "Assault on the Control Room" are fun to play due to their sandbox-like nature, which allows you to complete most of the objectives in whatever order pleases the player.

Expect to see this corridor when playing "The Library"
over, and over, and over...
When fighting either the Covenant or the Flood, Master Chief has an assortment of weapons to choose from, such as pistols, shotguns, pulse rifl-er, assault rifles, rocket launchers, plus alien weaponry like the plasma pistol, plasma rifle, and needler.  Halo is an early instance of a shooter using a two-weapon limit; though this concept is considered the bane of existence in modern shooters, here, it's not.  Each gun has its advantages and disadvantage against the enemies in this game.  Covenant weapons are great for taking out foes equipped with a shield, but they can run out of energy.  Human guns are just as useful, but require ammunition, which isn't always readily available.  Also, Master Chief can take control of a few vehicles, and these handle well enough, but the Warthog, a military jeep, can slide all over the place if one doesn't make use of the e-brake.

Visually, Halo: Combat Evolved looks good for the time and holds up even to this day.  Granted, textures are bland and the animations, particularly during cut-scenes, look exaggerated and make the characters seem like puppets, but its biggest strength is the sense of scale.  Environments are large, especially levels set on Halo itself.  When looking up, you're always reminded that this is no ordinary planet, since the rest of it encircles wherever Master Chief currently is.  Sound is also good.  Master Chief is voiced by radio DJ/voice actor Steve Downes, and what Chief does say in the game is well-written, same goes for the rest of the cast.  Then there's the music; composed by Marty O'Donnell, who was Bungie's in-house composer all the way up until Destiny, the music is equal parts grand, eerie, and calm.  Many of the musical cues are heavily inspired by James Horner's score to Aliens, and when the soundtrack kicks in during a firefight, it gets your blood pumping with excitement.

Halo: Combat Evolved has managed to stand the test of time and is still a solid shooter.  The story, while borrowing elements from plenty of popular works, is interesting due to the writing and setting.  It's not every day that a game is set on a ring-like location, and there are plenty of mysteries for Master Chief and company to discover on Halo.  The gameplay also holds up; combat is great, when you're fighting the Covenant, that is, but the quality of the levels is hit-and-miss.  Despite these problems, Halo: Combat Evolved is certainly worth checking out.

Final Score: 8/10

Friday, March 2, 2018

Dead Rising: Chop till You Drop (Wii) Review

Resident Evil 4 is considered one of the greatest games of all time, but it also deserves the award for being one of the most ported games of all time.  From the Nintendo Gamecube to the Xbox 360 to the PlayStation 4, chances are many people have played this game in one form or another.  One system it was released on was the Nintendo Wii, where it sold well.  Sensing this, Capcom decided to port its recent hit, Dead Rising, to the little white console.  Yet, seeing how this system was not as powerful as the likes of the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, not to mention that it sported an untraditional controller set-up, changes had to be made.  The end result is a bizarre mish-mash of ideas from two different games, and a title with a fewer amount of dead rising.

Frank West is a photojournalist looking for a big break.  When word gets out that the town of Willamette, Colorado has been quarantined by the government, he hitches a ride in a chopper with the request that the pilot fly to the town, so he can see what's going on.  While investigating, they are ambushed by government choppers, and without hesitation, Frank leaps out of the copter and on to the roof of the town's local mall.  Once he finds his way toward the lobby, Frank discovers the truth.  Outside, there are zombies trying to get in, and some civilians are setting up a barricade, so the ghouls can't get in.  Unfortunately for them, an old lady notices her dog outside, oblivious to the fact that it's a zombie, and when she tries to save to the pooch, the zombies flow in and begin to feast on the people.

Frank manages to escape back to the security room, but no one else makes it.  Once there, he is greeted by a pair of government agents, Jessie and Brad.  They're looking for somebody but won't say who.  Eventually, Frank learns of a man named Carlito, who is responsible for the outbreak in Willamette and is the person they are looking for.  With the help of the agents, plus Carlito's sister, Isabela, Frank West sets out to discover the reasons why the outbreak happened within three days since the pilot will then return to pick him up.

Dead Rising's story is serviceable; it's not bad and it does enough to keep your interest, but that's about it.  Much of what happens here has been explored in plenty of other zombie-related fiction.  In fact, the game's concept of fighting zombies in a mall got Capcom into legal trouble with the studio who owns the rights to Dawn of the Dead, both the original and the remake.  Fortunately, the lawsuit was dismissed since no connections to both products could be found beyond the basic premise.  Throughout the campaign, questions are set up regarding Carlito and what his grand scheme is, and because of the game's structure, the outcome of events will vary depending on the circumstances at hand.
After going to jail for a crime he didn't commit in the WWE,
Frank West took up baseball while in prison, which
proved to be useful when caught up in another outbreak.
However, when you find out what Carlito's plan is, you realize that he is the luckiest bad guy in the world.  Minor spoilers ahead, but halfway through the game, Isabela reveals Carlito's plan is to detonate bombs underneath the mall that will release parasitic larva into the air, larva that becomes a wasp capable of infecting people with the zombification gene.  The problem is that these are bombs, and if they blow up, then the wasp larva would be incinerated, so no zombies.  Then again, considering how apparently most of the town was short on Raid when Carlito released the wasps to infect the town's populace, it's best to say that logic was not a key ingredient in his plan.

Story issues aside, Dead Rising does have moderately compelling characters.  When the game begins, Frank West is a cocky, hotshot journalist who could care less about helping people out, but as things progress, he finds out that working with other individuals is the only way he's going to get closer to the truth.  Although the rest of the cast is fine, the psychopaths the player will encounter are the highlight of this experience, besides Frank West.  The psychopaths are people that have gone mad due to the outbreak and have resorted to desperate measures just to survive.  They're exaggerrated and over-the-top, but not to the point that they stick out like a sore thumb and detract from the experience.  Highlights include Adam, a crazy, chainsaw-wielding clown that gives the Killer Klowns a run for their money, Cliff, a Vietnam War veteran that goes mental and takes people hostage, and Stephen, a grocery store salesman who's a little bit too obsessed with his job.

Dead Rising: Chop till You Drop is a strange anomaly.  While the set-up is the same, the core gameplay has been overhauled tremendously.  Frank still has three days to uncover the truth behind the Willamette outbreak; however, there is no time limit.  Players no longer have to worry about keeping track of time and making sure to accomplish the available missions before they disappear for good.  Instead, quests are done by speaking with Otis, the janitor.  Once a certain number are completed, you can continue the story.  Because of the change in mission structure, the open-world aspect of the game has been scaled-back tremendously.  The entire mall is available to explore, but the only times you can do what you want are during cases.

Just about every gun from Resident Evil 4 is here,
even the Chicago Typewriter appears as an end-
game reward.
When taking on psychopaths and saving people, a timer keeps track of how long it takes for you to complete the quest, and at the end of such missions, you receive a ranking based on your performance.  Getting an A or S rank can reward the player with free weapons, extra cash, costumes, or special healing items.  Money is used to buy weapons and other goods from Cletus, a hostile owner of a gun store that dies in the original but is saved by Frank here.  The Wii version's treatment of the psychopaths will be discussed later.

One area that this game improves upon is controls.  Chop till You Drop was made with the Resident Evil 4 engine, so it uses the same control set-up found in Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition.  Aiming is smoother here than in the original, but Frank can't use his camera, which is odd, considering he always has it with him during cut-scenes and gameplay.  While the controls are better, the issue with using an engine from a different game is that the whole experience feels like a re-skin rather than a unique product.  Frank's animations re-use many of Leon Kennedy's motions, and zombies are now capable of being stunned by a shot to the head or knee, leaving them vulnerable to a melee attack, just like in Resident Evil 4.  Worse, all of the firearms Frank can acquire are from Resident Evil 4, so instead of just re-working the guns from Dead Rising into Resident Evil 4's aiming system, you get the likes of the Blacktail, Riot Gun, Machine Pistol, and the Broken Butterfly for Frank to use.

Additionally, the concept of using items around the mall to dispatch zombies has been downplayed tremendously.  You can still pick up stuff and use it against the undead, but there are fewer things to use, and unlike guns, they can't be stored in Frank's inventory.  Speaking of which, it's time to address the Tarman in the room, the lowered zombie count.  It's understandable that there would be a lower onscreen enemy count due to the Wii not being as powerful as the Xbox 360, so instead of being swarmed by hundreds of ghouls, now there are, at most, ten to fifteen on-screen at a time, and the short draw-distance means they're constantly disappearing and reappearing out of existence.

To compensate for the fewer number of zombies, special enemy types have been thrown into the mix.  What are they?  Undead psychopaths and animals.  Cliff, Jo, and Kent, all of them bosses fought in the original, have been turned into super-zombies that can take more damage than your normal, rotting corpse.  Strangely, Paul, another psychopath, is completely absent, but his weapon of choice, Molotov cocktails, can be found around the mall.  Human zombies aren't the real enemy, though, no, it's the never-ending supply of zombie poodles and parrots that are the real threat.  Why Willamette has pet stores that only sell poodles and parrots, I don't know, but what I do know is that these creatures are surprisingly more bloodthirsty than the human corpses milling about.

The 2x4's may be gone, but at least they kept
the Servbot helmets.
As discussed earlier, the lack of zombies adds a feeling of emptiness to the mall, and it makes the zombie apocalypse portrayed in Dead Rising feel more like a zombie nuisance.  Fortunately, this means escorting survivors isn't as annoying, even if they are still brain-dead.  The quality of the graphics is average.  Character models look low-res and everything lacks proper detail, and the cut-scenes, rather than being created with the in-game engine like on the 360, are simply movie files.  However, the mall has been faithfully recreated, and everything's intact, though the barriers that have been set up are hugely annoying since they block off perfectly useable paths.  Sound, including voice acting and music, is on par with what's heard in the 360 version.

Dead Rising: Chop till You Drop is commendable for trying to keep the spirit of the original Dead Rising intact.  The problem is in converting the game to the Wii, much of what made the original enjoyable is lost.  There's still some fun to be had with killing zombies, the controls are better, and there a number of things to unlock for use in the game, as well as some bonus mini-games to try out.  However, the removal of a time limit, altered and more repetitive mission structure, and the recycling of stuff from Resident Evil 4 relegates this version to nothing more than a mere curiosity.

Final Score: 4/10