Thursday, June 25, 2020

GamerGuy's News: Two new "Earth Defense Force" titles revealed

The cult-classic series "Earth Defense Force" lives on with the announcement of not just a sixth installment but another spin-off.

A teaser website put up by publisher D3 contains a handful of screenshots from "Earth Defense Force 6," along with a 2021 release date for Japan.  The screenshots hint at a world devastated by the invasion from "Earth Defense Force 5."

The images show the Ranger in a dilapidated, rundown city overpopulated with enemies.  No further details nor a trailer have been revealed as of this writing, but this could change in the next few months.

On the flip side, both literally and figuratively, a spin-off was announced.  "Earth Defense Force: World Brothers" swaps out the realistic graphics of past games for a blocky art-style inspired by titles like "3D Dot Game Heroes."

"Earth Defense Force: World Brothers" is developed by Yuke's, who previously worked on 2019's "Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain."  The game takes advantage of the series' history and lets people play as a multitude of characters from past installments.

So much brown...and grey!
The premise is that world has been broken into pieces and as such, has left the Earth Defense Force scattered.  The trailer reveals it is possible for characters to fall of the world if they are not careful.

Up to 100 characters can be recruited, and as stated prior, the roster includes individuals from the series and other D3 titles.  From the PS2-era soldier and Pale Wing to 4.1's Air Raider and Fencer, it seems developer Yuke's intends to have a little fun with the series' past.

An "Earth Defense Force" game is not complete without aliens and other baddies to kill, and rest assured there will be plenty of shooting to go around.  Keeping with the theme of pulling from the past, the roster consists of creatures old and new, from ants to spiders to the H.G. Wells-inspired designs of the Hectors from the PS2 titles.

Unlike "Earth Defense Force 6," "Earth Defense Force: World Builders" releases later this year for PS4 and Nintendo Switch, but only in Japan.  No word yet on a U.S. release for either title.

This is the closest we are getting to "Lego Starship Troopers..."
For 17 years, the series has entertained gamers with its over-the-top shooting and addictive loot system.

Initially a budget title in the "Simple Series 2000," "Earth Defense Force" became the quintessential "B-game."  What it lacks in the technical and storytelling departments it makes up for with its fun.

Previously, the only time the series had traded hands with a different studio was 2011's "Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon."  It appears Yuke's is becoming the go-to secondary team for developer Sandlot after Yuke's made "Iron Rain."

When more information on "Earth Defense Force 6" is dropped, the GamerGuy will be there.  Killing ants, spiders and robots is a dirty job, but someone's got to report on it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

GamerGuy's News: "Crash Bandicoot 4" continues the series in new and ambitious ways

After an unofficial leak last week, "Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time" was officially revealed yesterday and aims to act as the proper continuation to the original trilogy, ignoring the numerous sequels that followed it.

The reveal during IGN's Summer Game Fest showcased the 2.5-D gameplay the series is known for and how developer Toys for Bob is expanding upon the mechanics.  The trailer highlights new moves such as rail-sliding on top of and under rails, as well as wall-running.

"Crash Bandicoot 4" also introduces masks Crash Bandicoot acquires as the adventure progresses.  Two of the four were revealed, those being Kipuna-Wa, which slows down time, and Eka-Eka, which alters gravity, allowing Crash to run on ceilings.

Speaking with Geoff Keighley, Toys for Bob chief creative officer and co-studio head Paul Yan said the studio chose to call it "Crash 4" because they wanted to key it off the original trilogy from Naughty Dog.

"It's not just 'Crash 4' because narratively we are continuing off of where 'Crash 3' ended.  It is bringing back that authentic, wholly unique to Crash gameplay, which is the unique perspective shifts of going into camera, being chased by things running out of camera or switching to side-scrolling," said Toys for Bob design producer Lou Studdert in an interview with IGN.

Crash's journey through space and time takes him to new locales such as this pirate-themed area.
Regarding the story, after being banished to a realm between space and time, series antagonist Dr. Neo Cortex escapes and is looking for revenge.  Crash's adventure takes him through various time periods and dimensions.

"While we are retaining the old-school gameplay of those unique perspectives, we wanted to open up the worlds from a visual standpoint," Studdert said.

The trailer shows Crash jumping and spinning his way through prehistoric jungles, icy tundras and futuristic city-scapes, complete with flying vehicles to help hop across bottomless gaps.

The developers said difficulty is being fine-tuned to be challenging yet fair.  Two modes of play will be available, retro and modern.

Retro retains the old-school difficulty of its predecessors, complete with lives, while Modern is more accessible, going so far as to replace lives with checkpoints.

Series fans might recall "The Wrath of Cortex" utilized a similar concept of different masks granting different powers. 
Wumpa fruit now doubles as a collectible and a currency, though what it can be used to buy remains under wraps.

After "Crash Twinsanity" toyed with the idea of playing as multiple characters, "Crash 4" expands on the concept.  Players will not only be able to play as Crash or Coco Bandicoot, but Dr. Neo Cortex.  More characters will be revealed as it gets closer to release.

Titles like "The Wrath of Cortex" and "Crash Twinsanity" tried to keep the series alive but with mixed results.  Developer Toys for Bob is hoping to do the series justice after the recent remakes brough the bandicoot back into the public eye.

"Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time" releases on October 2 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Review: The Mummy Returns (2001)

On the weekend of The Mummy's release, Universal Pictures called Stephen Sommers and told him, "We need another one."  Never has a sequel received such a fast-track to production, but given the movie's success, who could blame them?  There were many ways to approach this follow-up, and The Mummy offered potential beyond Imhotep.  Egypt is home to many gods and people of nobility, and as long as there are mummies to find, the cash keeps flowing.  Alternatively, there is the opportunity to explore different takes on mummification, such as the mummies of Central America.  Such talk is speculative, as The Mummy Returns brings back not only the O'Connell's and Imhotep but introduces a new threat who is bigger, stronger, and looks like a certain pro wrestler turned actor.

After defeating Imhotep and riding off into the sunset, Rick and Evelyn married, had a son, and live happily in their rich estate thanks to the wealth of Hamunaptura Beni dragged out before his demise.  However, while on an excursion in Egypt, the family unearths a mysterious bracelet belonging to the Scorpion King, a fearsome warrior who once controlled the armies of Anubis and used them to terrorize the world.  When their son Alex gets curious and tries the bracelet on, he inadvertently sets into motion the return of the dreaded individual.  Unbeknownst to our heroes, Imhotep is found and brought back with the help of his cult led by a mysterious woman who knows an awful lot about the cursed priest.

Petition to add Brendan Fraser and Arnold Vosloo into "MK11"?
On paper, The Mummy Returns has the pieces for a great sequel.  The cast is back, original writer and director Stephen Sommers is at helm once again, and the set-pieces are crazier.  Forget running away from sand faces or hungry beetles, this time the threats include walls of water and armies of jackal soldiers.  It has the necessary ingredients and seems like a win, but it is not.  By no means a bad movie, the bandages holding The Mummy Returns together unravel in the story department.  What made the original work was not only its characters and action, but its plot.

It was an adventure with an easy-to-follow narrative, but the sequel's story is muddled with exposition and reliance on introducing MacGuffins.  The first film used exposition but when necessary.  The Mummy Returns introduces new twists and turns every five minutes, be it the bracelet, a new destination to travel to, or a device which turns out to be a tool for killing the big bad.

At least the dialogue retains the quick, snappy pace of its predecessor but with the amount of information being unloaded, it can be a bit excessive.  While the story takes a step back, the characters receive quite a bit of development, even if some of the material is contrived.  The strongest element is Rick and Evelyn's relationship.  Eight years have passed, and in this time, they have changed, but not without retaining what makes them click.  Evelyn is no longer a closeted researcher but a tough archaeologist who gives Lara Croft a run for her money.  She holds her own and is no longer a damsel in distress Rick needs to save all the time.

Rick is still a cocky hotshot, but the new roles of father and husband have softened him.  Yet, in an ill-fated movie, we discover him and his wife are destined for something bigger in their own ways.  Rick learns he is a hidden Medjai warrior which is odd because in the first movie he had to gain the trust of Ardeth Bay before they could defeat the mummy.  If Ardeth knew Rick was one of his own, how come he never told him then?  Evelyn discovers she is the reincarnation of the Pharaoh's daughter Nefertiri, which explains why she suddenly became a capable fighter.

The new "Dead or Alive" looks dope.
Flashbacks show she had a rivalry with Anck-Su-Namun, who has also been reincarnated but in body only.  When Imhotep is brought back, he has her kill herself so he can perform the spell to bring his lover's soul back.  It was unnecessary to to tack on such destinies to these two.  What made Rick and Evelyn work was they were polar opposites.  To make them secret ass-kickers takes a way a bit of the spark.

On the other hand, Imhotep's role is greatly expanded.  In The Mummy, we hardly sympathized with the high priest since he spent most of the runtime as an evil creature who sucks people dry.  Here, it does not take long till he has sucked the life out of a few poor souls to restore his youthful condition.  The viewer feels glad for him now that he and his squeeze are back together after thousands of years.

He is still the bad guy vying for control of Anubis' armies, but at least he is no longer a simple scare machine.  The final act makes us even empathize with the poor guy when Anck-Su-Namun chooses to abandon Imhotep as him and Rick struggle to get out of a pit leading to hell.  Evelyn choosing to rescue her husband makes him realize what love truly means, so he lets himself go rather than chase after Anck-Su-Namun since he knows how futile it would be.  In a twist of ironic, Anck-Sun-Namun meets her end by falling into a pit of deadly scorpions, much like how Imhotep suffered the same with the scarabs way back when.

All of this cannot be applied to the Scorpion King.  While there is a novelty to seeing Dwayne Johnson in his first film appearance, the introduction is the only time we see him in the flesh.  For the climax, he comes back as a poorly rendered half-man/half-scorpion monster.  Bad special effects aside, it was a missed opportunity to make the Scorpion King a legitimate antagonist, one who is brasher and eviler than Imhotep.  Maybe have the two work together before Imhotep realizes how dangerous he really is.  The Scorpion King lacks purpose, and what should be a stand-out opponent is an underwhelming character.

However, the secondary cast picks up the pace.  Though the introduction of a kid sounds like a disaster, Alex does not come off as a nuisance, a Jake Lloyd whose behavior and dialogue distract from the experience.  He has his father's brash nature but his mother's love for archaeology.  Even after being kidnapped by Imhotep's cult, he stands up for himself and is resourceful when the opportunity calls for it.  Jonathan returns and is delightful as ever.  He has fallen on hard times since he blew his share of the treasure on gambling but getting caught up in another quest to save the world gives him the chance to find purpose, and occasionally be a lifesaver.

With a bigger budget, the action sequences are more extravagant.  There is shooting, fisticuffs, and chase scenes set in the streets of London, along the Nile River, and at the Scorpion King's hidden oasis.  The hunt for the Scorpion King takes the good and bad guys all across Egypt, meaning we get some spectacular vistas.  At times, it does scream "been there, done that," like with the pygmy mummies, who replace the scarabs as the tiny but deadly threat.  The film's low-brow humor becomes prevalent when these guys are around, as their mischievous behavior apes the Gremlins.  Although the budget is larger, the effects are not as good.  Some are alright, but the rest look lousy, especially the Scorpion King.

I get what Stephen Sommers was going for, having a man/creature hybrid in the vein of something from Jason and the Argonauts or Sinbad, but it looks unfinished.  The fight scene between Rick, Imhotep, and the Scorpion King looks like a video game, even the set they fight on seems to be ripped straight from Mortal Kombat.  The wall of water sticks out like a sore thumb too, especially with how doughy and untextured Imhotep's face looks.  Alan Silvestri takes over for Jerry Goldsmith, and though the music is good, it lacks the distinctness of Goldsmith's compositions.  The main theme is excellent, but if you asked me to recall any other tunes, I would be hard pressed to come up with a response.

Imhotep then remembered he was hydrophobic.
The Mummy Returns is a decent but underwhelming sequel.  The cast is excellent, and it retains the fun, adventurous tone of its predecessor.  Yet, a weak story mires the film.  An overabundance of exposition combined with a disappointing new antagonist drags things.  When new plot details combined with arbitrary plot devices are unloaded every few minutes, it is hard to stay invested.  Maybe it was not the best idea to quickly rush out a sequel, maybe then the results would not have felt as underdeveloped.  Even the effects have taken a step back, and while the previous installment holds up visually, the sequel shows its age, badly.  The Mummy Returns is the Ghostbusters II of action-adventure flicks, an enjoyable film which retains what works, but lacks compelling material to get behind.


Thursday, June 11, 2020

Review: The Mummy (1999)

Before Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees terrorized the screen, the Universal Monsters ruled the roost.  Though most people associate the Universal Monsters with failed reboots and the occasional gem, there was a time when these mythical creatures meant big bucks for Universal Pictures.  From the 1930's to the 1950's, the Monsters were synonymous with horror, until the Atomic Age ushered in a new era of horrific beasts.  Of the 20-plus movies Universal created, The Mummy is one of the interesting entries.  The 1932 feature follows a mummified priest who is inadvertently resurrected and seeks to bring back his long-lost love.

It is a tragic romance and not a run-of-the-mill creature feature.  The sequels, including a crossover with Abbott and Costello, fulfilled the schlocky quota.  When Universal Pictures attempted to remake the movie in the 90's, filmmakers like Joe Dante and George Romero wanted to do a modern update of the tale, but their proposals were rejected.  Then, an up-and-coming director named Stephen Sommers pitched his take, a rollicking adventure in the vein of Indiana Jones, with a dash of Ray Harryhausen fantasy film mixed in.  Universal gave the go-ahead and The Mummy was reborn as an action flick starring George of the Jungle.

3,000 years ago, the high priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) attempted to resurrect the Pharaoh's mistress Anck-Su-Namun after she took her own life, but his plan is thwarted by the Medjai, Pharaoh's bodyguards.  As punishment, Imhotep is cursed with the Homdai, which involves mummifying him alive and putting him into a sarcophagus with ravenous scarabs.  Should Imhotep be revived, he will wipe out the world.  In the 1920's, former French legionnaire Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser) guides novice researcher Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) and her brother Jonathan (John Hannah) to Hamunaptura on a quest for the city's loot.  Instead, they find Imhotep's sarcophagus buried at the feet of Anubis.  When Evelyn gets the idea to read from a sacred book the rival expedition found, she awakens Imhotep.

Somebody call an exterminator?
Remakes come in two flavors.  Either they retell the story beat for beat or take the premise and spin a new tale around it.  The Mummy chooses the latter.  The idea is the same, but the characters and situations surrounding it are new.  Plus, instead of being a shuffling bandaged person who becomes a mostly normal-looking human being, Imhotep is a decayed skeleton who gradually turns human by sucking out the organs and fluids of his victims.  The movie is not a slow burn, but a fast-paced rollercoaster ride filled with action, humor, and romance.  What sounds like a product disrespecting its source material is actually a fresh take on an established concept.

Writer/director Stephen Sommers knows how to keep things going.  The dialogue is quick, snappy, and knows when to slow down to explain the situation and what the stakes are.  It is also funny.  Never does the comedy detract from the experienced and is timed just right.  For example, when Rick is about to be hanged for "looking for a good time," he asks the hangman to let him go.  The hangman discusses the request with the warden (Omid Djalili), to which the warden points out how the hangman looks like an idiot for thinking they would let Rick free in the first place.  The characters, even the questionable ones like Beni (Kevin J. O'Connor), are all likable for their eccentricities.

A period-piece adventure needs a charming protagonist who can hold his own against mummies while delivering a sarcastic quip or two.  Brendan Fraser excels as Rick O'Connell, a man who exhibits the right amount of charm and cockiness.  He may be armed to the teeth at all times, but he is not the best people person, especially when he tries hitting on Evelyn, which backfires 80 percent of the time.  Some will argue he is an Indiana Jones clone, but his ironic behavior makes him more like Nathan Drake than the rugged archaeologist.  He thrives on adventure but is not prepared for dealing with 3,000-year-old supernatural corpses.

Bondage, ancient Egypt style.
Evelyn is the polar opposite.  She is interested in Egypt's history because of her father and wants to carry on his legacy, but her endeavors have not brought her success, until she saves Rick from his hanging.  Her relationship with Rick opens her up.  She goes from being quiet and reserved to open and helpful.  Unfortunately, she does fall victim to the "damsel in distress" cliché, especially in the second half where a lot her scenes amount to being cornered by Imhotep, only for Rick to show up and save her.

All of the other characters, good and bad, play on established tropes.  The Americans that make up the competing expedition are gung-ho opportunists who care nothing more than about finding treasure, which bites them when they least expect it.  The slimy, traitorous Beni will work with whomever faction so long as he is rewarded.  The Mummy has a strange yet fitting moral about how greed backfires on those who get blinded by it.  Most of the secondary cast is killed because their cockiness gets the better of them.  Even the destruction of Hamunaptura during the climax is the result of the weaselly Beni being exhausted from hauling treasure out of the ruins.  When he rests on an arm sling, it just so happens to be the lever which triggers the place's collapse.

It is bizarre but goes to show how scummy most of the cast is.  Some of them are more stereotypical than others, such as the Arab warden who is fat, lazy, and greedy, but it never reaches the point of being offensive.  It scrapes by with the fact it is a period piece and as such, things like pillaging an ancient civilization for loot was considered the norm instead of a violation.  The only exception is Jonathan because someone is always around to snap him out of it before his personal vices do him in like the others.  The film is called The Mummy, not Treasure Hunters Explore Egyptian Ruins, and the titular characters is in some ways similar and different to his 1932 counterpart.

Nobody said treasure hunting was easy.
Physically, he goes against the typical characteristics of a mummy.  He is a decaying, rotting skeleton who regains his youthful looks, plus he can do things like turn into sand to slip through keyholes or resurrect his mummified priests using black magic.  He looks horrific, but Imhotep walks the fine line between realistic and fantastical so as to preserve a PG-13 rating.  However, he shares the same goal as Karloff's Imhotep, which is to bring back the only person he ever cared for.  Yet, Arnold Vosloo's Imhotep relies on special effects to get what he needs because if he tried the persuasive approach, then the special effects team does not have much to do.

Both Mummy movies are great for their own reasons, but if the original had an advantage, it is Imhotep.  The viewer sympathizes more with Karloff than Vosloo, since the former is a tragic character, while the latter is a vicious killer.  The second half of the movie plays to this notion as Imhotep spends his time stalking the Americans and British Egyptologist (Jonathan Hyde) in the streets of Cairo, killing them when the time is right.  It is hard to sympathize with a mummy who spews out flies and eats scarabs like candy.  Imhotep's sole function is to act as the centerpiece for the film's special effects, and the humanity which defined the original mummy is diminished because of it.

Though it came out 21 years ago, the effects have aged well.  At times, the visuals show their age, like in the scenes where a scarab works its way up someone, but one can appreciate the creativity and ambition of what it is on display.  The best bits are the opening shots of ancient Egypt in its prime, simply for how it emphasizes the grand scale this movie is going for.  On a similar note, Jerry Goldsmith's score is amazing.  The music is a great mixture of Middle Eastern and action-adventure themes which sell the adventurous but exotic tone.  It can be calm and serene one moment then loud and bombastic the next.

Looks like love at first sight to me.
The Mummy is a solid action-adventure flick and a commendable update of the 1932 film.  By gearing this towards high-stakes adventure, things move at a breakneck pace and never stop.  The emotional depth the original had is lost, but it is made up for by strong characters, witty, energetic dialogue, and great sense of fun and adventure.  Rick O'Connell is the perfect protagonist for such a flick, as his self-referential, hotshot attitude fits the pulpy tone.  Imhotep might not be the most complex villain, but he goes against the grain of what we consider a mummy to deliver something unique yet threatening.  The Mummy succeeds at doing its own things and never does the experience feel excessive.