Monday, December 29, 2008

VOID's 2008 video game round-up

As you may have noted from previous posts, I am a gamer; which is to say one who plays games. I know some game players now shun the term due to the mainstream media's making it synonymous with “psychopathic murderer”, but I still like it.

This has been a great year for games, last year was good, but I daresay that this year beats it hand down. Game Season alone had about a year's worth of great games to play in it. For those of you still doing your Pixmas shopping, I would like to go over, in no particular order, my top ten games, some honorable mentions, and a few dishonorable mentions as well.

Remember, my top ten is not ranked.

10.Grand Theft Auto IV.

It was a long wait between San Andreas and GTAIV, but it was worth it. I probably had hours of fun just playing with the Euphoria engine, and pushing people down staircases, not to mention just crashing my car into things. I can't wait for the DLC.

9. Rock Band 2

This is how a sequel should be done. They addressed almost every complaint I had about the first Rock Band, let me port over almost all of the songs and all of my DLC, and didn't even make me buy another plastic drumset. I plan for Void Munashii's “Mallville Survivors” to be rocking for some time to come.

8. Shin Megami Tensei Persona 3 FES

I've been in love with the SMT games since I picked up Nocturne used years ago, and can easily say that P3 FES is probably the best JRPG I have ever played. Good story, fun turn-based combat, and even the day-to-day school stuff is fun. Now if they would just make SMT games for the 360.

7. Fallout 3

I've loved Fallout for a good decade now, and viewed this game with fear and delight. I loved Morrowind and Oblivion, but could they do Fallout justice? For the most part, yes. I miss a lot of the funny random encounters (The Tardis for example), but the gameplay more than makes up for it. VATS is awesome, and the amount of gore and dismemberment are almost enough for me. I cannot wait to see what people produce for it with G.E.C.K

6. The World Ends With You

The only handheld game on my list, TWEWY is probably the most original thing to come out of Square Enix in years. Interesting graphics, characters, music, and unique gameplay combine to make this one of the best RPGs on the DS. How many other games out there make the popularity of your outfit a factor in gameplay?

5. Penny Arcade Adventures: On The Rain Slicked Precipice of Darkness Episode 1

Aside from having the longest title on my list, PAA is also the only downloadable game on the list. Having been a reader of Penny Arcade for roughly a decade now this is another game that I had high hopes but reserved expectations for. The only real complaint I have about it was the price, but then the point card I used for it was bought on sale, so it wasn't really that high. The final boss was both clever and actually fun to battle. I need to buy episode 2 once I get through by backlog of games leftover from Game Season

4. Burnout Paradise

I do not like racing games, but I do love crashes, and this game excels in that. While DJ Atomika and the inability to re-start a race once you have lost it are almost enough to keep this out of the top ten, the superb online play and level of DLC support the game has received are enough to salvage it.

3. Super Smash Bros. Brawl

This game is total fanboy-bait. What could be better than Mario and Sonic finally getting to beat the ever-loving crap out of each other? Am improved (which is not to say it could not be improved more) story mode and expanded character set make this game a must-own for any Nintendo fanboy. It would be nice to see more characters released as DLC or something though; I want to kick the crap out of Tom Nook.

2. No More Heroes

Over the top energy sword swinging violence combines with a somewhat interesting story, and a very unique style to make this one of the most unique games this year. The free roaming portions could have been better, but when you cut people's heads off, money and blood spray out. Do you really need more than that?

1. Fable 2

I was one of the people who did not have any real issues with the original Fable, so I guess it stands to reason that I like this game, even if the collector's edition was totally gimped. This game has beautiful graphics, the ability to earn money by not playing, but slightly wonky controls at time. It's a nice mature action RPG that never takes itself too seriously.

Honorable Mentions:

These are games that fell just short of making the top ten. They are games that I loved, but were just missing that certain something that would have catapulted them to greatness. Alternately, they are games that I know I will love, but will not get a chance to actually play before the end of the year.

Animal Crossing City Folk

The original Animal Crossing is a large part of why I wanted Gamecube, and “Wild World” has certainly gotten a lot of play from Osaka and myself. City Folk is more of the same, which is both good and what keeps it out of the top ten. Voice chat (which Wii should have had from the start), and the city area are not enough to excuse the dated graphics and lack of new content. Still as much fun as the original, but nothing much new here.

Persona 4

I won't repeat my opinion of SMT games here, you can read that above. What I will say is that I have heard from many sources that this is even better than P3, but I want to finish P3 FES before I start it. I'm sure it would have knocked something out of the top ten had I been able to play it, but at least it gives me a reason to not retire my PS2 just yet. Can we please have P5 on 360 though, please?

Saints Row 2

The game that wants to be more GTA than GTA is back, and is more violent than ever. Where in GTA IV you can find Niko somewhat sympathetic, your first mission in SR2 is to kill your doctor for no really good reason. You play scum, plain and simple, but that's part of the fun, right?

There is tons to do in this game, and the character creation system puts most other games to shame, but there's just not enough room on the list for two GTA style games.

House of the Dead 2 and 3 Return

This is the third time I've purchased HotD2, and the third time for part 3, but they're just as fun as ever. There's nothing new here, but it's still all good.

Wii Fit

This was this year's Tickle Me Elmo, and I was lucky enough to get one. It looks like quite a bit of fun, Osaka and my nephew have both enjoyed it quite a bit. Unfortunately for me I am too much of a fat ass to get fit, it simply resets itself when I try to play. Still, it looks like fun.

Dishonorable Mentions

These are the games I really wanted to love, but they just seemed to go out of their way to make me angry with them. It's like they want me to hit them....

Mercenaries 2

I loved the original Mercenaries; stealing vehicles, blowing up building, and Mercs 2 promised to be more of the same, and at first I was really impressed. Then I found out to hijack any vehicle required me to do a quicktime event. I HATE quicktime events, and have ever since I first encountered them in “Die Hard Arcade”, so having to do one every time I wanted to hijack a tank, helicopter, etc sucked a lot of the fun out of this game, and what fun it did not suck out was removed by the eternally spawning enemies in some areas. This game could have been in my top ten, and if they put in an option to remove the quicktime events in a future patch, it may redeem itself yet, but for now it gets a dishonorable mention.

Lost Odyssey

If you saw the ads for this game you know how beautiful it looked, and indeed when you start playing there's that same beauty, and it lasts for all of about 30 minutes, and then things go bad. You start out as this badass who takes out whole groups of enemy soldiers in a single swing, and indeed even takes out a flame shooting tank with giant swords on it all on his own, but once the sky opens up and rains lava down on the battle he wakes up incapable of taking out a large hermit crab without massive injury, and that is with the help of two other people.

The rhythm based attack system (which is done much better in the Shadow Hearts and Penny Arcade Adventures series), shouldn't bother you too much though, as you will spend most of your time wandering around “towns” looking for items, solving puzzles (including stealth puzzles, argh!), and unlocking the secrets of your past. The unlocking the past could easily have saved this game for me, as the stories you unlock are pretty good stories, but they are not told through the glorious graphics of the opening cinematic, but through plain text. There are five DVDs of content in this game, but my past is all told through text, seriously?

So that's my best, near best, and most disappointing games of 2008. If you do not see the games you put on your own top ten, keep in mind that I am not a gaming journalist, and do not get review copies of games that allow me to play everything that comes out. Also, I do not have a PS3, so if you would like to donate one to me, I'll be glad to give “Resistance 2” a try.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Anti-Claus

From myself, Osaka, all the survivors in Mallville, and all of the other characters in my head, I would like to wish you all a Happy Christmachanakwanzyulespixtivus, or, if you do not partake in the holidays, a pleasant Thursday.

As much as I would like to, I am far too poor to buy every one of you out there presents, so instead I offer you this. There are many stories floating around the Internet involving all sorts of apocryphal nonsense about Antarctic viruses turning scientists into eco-warriors, or about Santa's evil twin, but that's all hogwash. On this cold winter's day, I present to you to the true story of The Anti-Claus.

Gather 'round people, I've a tale to tell

On this cold winter's night, so please sit a spell.

It's the tale of one whose heart Christmas never thaws

It's the tale of the villain who's called Anti-Claus.

There once was a man who was called Werner Frost

for whom the holiday spirit had all but been lost.

He was tall, and thin, and bald, and pale

and his heart was cold with good tidings gone stale.

He sat alone on a Christmas Eve night long ago

that this would be be no normal night, he could not know.

He sat 'fore his fireplace, and drank of his ale

When something occurred to make his skin even more pale.

A woman appeared in a black dress that glistened

with a night sky of stars. She said "Do not speak, just listen"

"I am the spirit balance and fairness

It is my duty to keep reality's squareness"

"I come with an offer for you to peruse,

I think you will find yourself unable to refuse."

"Begone, foul spirit, I've no use for thee,"

cried Werner, whose mind could not process the sight he did see.

"Silence, dear Werner, I think you'll want to know

Of the offer I bring, at least, before I go."

Werner silenced his mouth, though shaking with fear

What sort of ploy has brought this spirit here?

Sure he hates Christmas, but he is no stooge

To have his beliefs toyed with like some fictional Scrooge.

To make him love Christmas would not be a cinch,

He's a real three dimensional person, not a cartoon Grinch.

"All that I ask is that you to hear what I have to say," implored the spirit.

"You said you had an offer, so spit it out, let's hear it."

She understood him fully, though his words were in German

with an attitude like that, she had surely found her man.

"I offer you a job, a position of power,

where the dark cold in your soul may flourish and flower

If you accept, you'll begin with no time to waste

and if you say no, I'll depart post haste."

"Universal balance? What poppycock.

What nonsense comes out of your mouth as you talk"

Werner Frost rose from his chair as he raged.

"I have never experienced fairness in my life as I've aged."

"To the universe as a whole, not to you, it is fair

now sit back in your seat, and the truth I shall share.

For good there is evil, for dark there is light

For God there is Satan, for wrong there is right"

"For life there is death, for noise there is silence

For victory, defeat, for peace there is violence.

For laughter there are tears, and though the thought may give you pause;

For someone like Santa, there must be an Anti-Claus."

"Anti-Claus? What crap!" Werner yelled, quite mad

for if there's one thing he hated more than Christmas, it was being had.

"Get out! begone! Find some other fool to fleece!

If you do not leave now, I shall call the police."

"Oh Werner, your anger, it makes me quite sad,

but it's also what makes you perfect to be bad.

Agree to my offer, you need sign no contract.

Just tell me yes, and on your word alone I shall act."

Werner thought to himself, "You must think me a fool

you must think me a dullard with a chin coated in drool

Lets see what you do if I say yes;

leave me in peace is my hope and my guess."

"Okay, Spirit of Balance, I've heard you song, seen your dance;

I am willing to give your offer a chance."

"Oh thank you dear Werner, you shan't be forgotten,

though what you'll be known for is being mean and rotten."

With a sad look in her eyes, and a clap of her hands

the stars flew from her dress to envelope the man.

There was light, there was sound, and when it was through

Werner Frost was gone, replaced by someone new.

Still aged and still bald, but his bedclothes had gone

replaced by the regal yet sinister garments he had donned.

A cloak of pitch black trimmed with fur of blood red

covered his body, with a matching stocking hat for his head

On his feet, boots jet black, the toes ending in a sharp metal spike.

In his hand a thick wooden staff, it's tip sharpened like a pike

His skin was still pale, his frame was still thin

his body unchanged, save that his face wore a grin.

"The change is complete," said the spirit, "How do you feel?"

"I feel fantastic, invincible!" exclaimed Werner with much zeal.

"I can take down the fat man, and steal all the toys!

I can ruin Christmas for the girls and the boys!"

With sadness in her voice, the spirit proclaimed,

"The dark side of balance is restored, and I am to blame.

My job here is finished, but yours just begun.

You have the rest of the night until the rise of the sun."

"The rise of the sun? What after that?"

Asked Werner curiously while adjusting his hat.

"Tomorrow through October, you'll cease to exist,

only in November and December will your life persist."

"Two months a year?" remarked Frost, "What about the other ten?"

"You'll be somewhere, nowhere, you won't exist then.

But do not worry, you'll not feel this time pass,

from tomorrow morning, you'll find November first in a flash."

So it came to pass that balance was restored

To oppose the one who is cherished there is one to be abhorred

One to steal the presents, and break into your car.

One to knock down the Christmas tree, and steal from the charity jar.

The man who comes on Christmas Eve to make everyone merry

Again has an opposite to make your Yuletide scary

So if you find your Christmas ruined, at least now you now know the cause;

The man once known as Werner Frost is now the Anti-Claus.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Nothing Like the Holidays

When reading reviews, be they for movies, games, books, or music, I have always felt that it is important to know a reviewers biases. In the interest of full disclosure, I shall now tell you that I am no fan of the holidays, in fact my holiday spirit comes in a bottle. Lucky for me that “Nothing Like the Holidays” isn't really a holiday film.

The Rodriguez family seems to be the living the American dream. Edy (Alfred Molina; “The Da Vinci Code”, “Spider-Man 2”) and Anna (Elizabeth Peña) have been married for thirty-six years, and for the first time in ages this bodega owner and his wife are going to have all of their kids under one roof again for the holidays, and if they can just put aside the growing animosity between them the holidays will go great.

The children also all seem to be living great lives. Jesse (Freddy Rodrigues; “Six Feet Under”, “Planet Terror”), a soldier just home from Iraq who is all set to take over the bodega from his father. Mauricio (John Leguizamo; “The Happening”, “Super Mario Brothers”) and his wife Sarah (Debra Messing; “Will & Grace”, “The Starter Wife”) are the successful New York couple who are both going places in their careers. Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito; “CSI:NY”, “Deathproof”)is the daughter who has gone to Hollywood to be a star, and is up for a big part in a sitcom. Throw in lecherous stereotype Johnny (Luis Guzman; “Oz”, “John From Cincinnati”) whose number one concern is his hair, family friend and former gangbanger Ozzy (Jay Hernandez; “Quarantine”, “Hostel”), and Jesse's ex-girlfriend Marissa (Melonie Diaz; “Hamlet 2”, “Be Kind Rewind”) along with her new boyfriend and child and you have the makings for one big family gathering.

“Nothing Like the Holidays” is being advertised as a heartwarming Christmas comedy; this is very misleading. The reason I said before that this is not a holiday movie is that the holidays only serve as a backdrop for events. A similar story could have been built around Thanksgiving, New Years (like in the 1992 film “Peter's Friends” which is the first movie that this film made me think of while watching it), a family reunion, or a wedding and progressed in much the same way.

This film has a lot of comedic moments that come off really well (the entire chainsaw scene for example), but it is really more a drama that a comedy. In between those laugh out loud scenes is a lot of heavy drama as it becomes apparent that no one has their life as put together as it first seems. Anna and Edy are divorcing, Jesse's emotional wounds run far deeper than the physical scar on his eye, Roxanna is barely surviving in Hollywood, and Mauricio and Sarah are on the rocks over a job opportunity she has been offered. There are intense moments in this film that will have you on the edge of your seat, and even had some people in the theater crying a little.

The interaction of characters is truly this movie's strongest point. As the family fights amongst itself people switch sides while attacking each other in a smooth and very natural fashion; allegiances are made and broken in mere moments as different people become the focus of arguments. No matter how angry the characters get with each other, the fact that they love each other is never far from the surface. It is this firm grasp of the characters and well written dialog that makes the movie's intensely dramatic moments so effective.

The only real criticism I have to make about this film is that it feels a little rushed towards the end. It's as if the writers realized that they had spent so much time really exploring each characters problems and the solutions to those problems that they realized the the only way to keep the film under 100 minutes (it comes in at 99 minutes) was to jump right to the end. The way they handle this felt awkward to me, as they follow up the most intense moment of the film with a scene that should be comedy relief, but instead turns into yet another dramatic scene that catapults us to the conclusion of the movie.

“Nothing Like the Holidays” is rated PG-13, and does contain some swearing, innuendo, some very intense and mature scenes, and Alfred Molina in his underpants. If none of that will bother your younger viewers, then this could ultimately be a nice movie to watch as a family.

Just taking place at Christmas is not enough for me to call “Nothing Like the Holidays” a holiday movie (for the record; I do not consider “Die Hard” a holiday movie either), but that's okay; the film is not about Christmas, it's about family, and on that it fires on all cylinders.

If you want to laugh, gasp, balance on the edge of your seat, and maybe even get a little teary-eyed, there's nothing like “Nothing Like the Holidays” out there to do it. A superb cast, believable dialog, and overall good pacing makes it easy for even a Grinch like me to recommend you check it out. “Nothing Like the Holidays” is in theaters nationwide now.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Yes Man

Carl Allen is a bit of a loser; he's divorced, he's alone, he's going nowhere in his job, and he's afraid to try anything. His situation has gotten so bad that he's avoiding his best friend's phone calls, and putting their friendship at risk. He's well on the road to a lonely sad existence.

One day, while taking his lunch break at work, and old friend runs into him, and tells him about a seminar that turned his life around. “Yes Is The New No” proclaims the pamphlet that is thrust into Carl's pocket. After much deliberation and a bad dream, Carl decides to go to the seminar.

At the almost cult-like seminar, Carl meets speaker Terrance Bundley (Terrance Stamp), who of course singles Carl out in front of everyone. Terrance coerces Carl into making a covenant with himself and the universe to say yes to all new opportunities. Carl must no longer be a “no man”, but a “yes man”, because as Bundley puts it “You cannot audit life”.

Saying yes quickly leads Carl to find himself out of gas with a flat cell phone battery and no cash in a park in the middle of the night. It also leads him to meeting Allison (Zooey Deschanel), a scooter riding singer/artist/jogging photography teacher who gives him a ride back to his car.

Carl's new agreeable outlook causes him to make friends with his annoying supervisor Norman (Rhys Darby), gets him a promotion, causes him to learn new things, and make new friends. It even causes him to possibly find true love. The question though is, what happens if you say “yes” too much? What can it ultimately cost you?

Based on the book by the same name from Danny Wallace, “Yes Man” is a throwback to Jim Carrey's early films like “The Mask” or “Liar Liar”. Carrey plays Carl as a very normal person who ends up in an unusual situation that offers many chances for Carey to pull funny faces and generally act like a spaz. Given some of Carey's more serious role choices in recent years (“The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, “The Number 23”), it is nice to see him return to his roots, and it's especially nice to see that he can do it so well.

Music plays a surprising role in this film; not only does that movie have a strong soundtrack, but both Carl and Allison do their own share of singing. Carl sings a couple of times in the film, and they're not quite musical numbers, but one comes kind of close. The musical highlight of the film has to be Allison's band “Münchhausen By Proxy” played by Deschanel and the all-girl trio Von Iva. MBP's songs featured in the film are so truly awful that they are cool, and have me strongly considering picking up the soundtrack.

The movie features a cast that works great together. Carey and Deschanel are pretty believable as a couple despite the fact that Carey is actually old enough to be Deschanel's father. Appearance's by Rhys Darby (“The Flight of the Conchords”), Sasha Alexander (“NCIS”), and Danny Masterson (“That 70's Show”) not only help to flesh out the world Carl lives in, but symbolize the different aspects of what being a “yes man” means; how this new outlook can do good and helpful things, but also how it can be taken advantage of.

As you might expect, there is nothing original here. The story progresses exactly the way you would expect it to, but that's okay. “Yes Man” manages to attach a lot of laughs to that old familiar boy-meets-girl plot progression. There's enough well performed dialog, physical humor, gross outs, and even a bit of Harry Potter cosplay to keep you entertained throughout the film.

“Yes Man” is rated PG-13, and may not be appropriate for younger audiences. The film contains a good amount of swearing, some strong sexual content, and a couple of scene with brief nudity, but if that doesn't bother you, and you are a fan of Jim Carrey's older work then this will be a nice little escape from the holiday season.

I give an unreserved “yes” to “Yes Man”, which hits theaters nationwide on December 17th.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Librarian 3: Curse of the Judas Chalice

Take some Indiana Jones, add a dash of Buffy, a sprinkle of Tomb Raider, a pinch of Ash Williams, and a dose of the absurd, and you should have a rough idea of what to expect from “The Librarian 3: Curse of the Judas Chalice”, which premieres on TNT on December 7th. While this movie is not going to change your life, it is certainly two hours of action packed escapism.

The third entry in the series once again finds Noah Wyle (“E.R.”, “Pirates of Silicon Valley”) fumbling his way to heroism as Flynn Carsen, The Librarian. The movie opens in London, England with Flynn in a bidding war for a valuable artifact, and in the final minutes of his latest failed relationship. He wins the artifact, but loses yet another woman to his job, and the secrecy and sword fights that it brings.

Upon returning to New York, Flynn has a mental breakdown in front of his co-workers Judson (Bob Newhart) and Charlene (Jane Curtin) over the state of his life; or rather the lack of his life. It is during an attempt to convince the dog-like sword Excalibur to cut his throat that it is suggested that he take a vacation.

After a night of wine tasting and speed dating, Charlene pays Flynn a visit at his apartment, and tells him off for wasting his vacation cooped up in his apartment. “Follow your dreams” she tells him, leaving a pile of vacation brochures as she drunkenly staggers out.

Flynn takes this suggestion literally, for after dreaming of a woman asking for him to come to New Orleans to help her, his destination is decided. Unfortunately for Flynn, there is little time to relax in The Big Easy, as he meets Simone Renoir, played by Stana Katic, who runs a jazz club in an old monastery and just happens to literally be the woman of his dreams.
Pursuing Simone leads Flynn into an adventure involving former a former KGB agent, vampires, a many-cousined cabbie named Andre, voodoo, and even a pirate ship all in the race to get the Judas Chalice. The Judas Chalice is the cup made from the pieces of silver Judas got for betraying Christ, and is the vampiric equivalent of the Holy Grail.

The movie is well paced, and the writing keeps things moving forward at a pretty good pace, rarely dragging as the story moves forward. You can expect a lot of scenes that are there basically for exposition, but these scenes are necessary to make sure the audience understands how things work in the Librarian universe (for example, only a stake of Aspen can kill a vampire, not just any old wooden stake). I can only think of a couple of scenes that could have been removed from the movie completely without losing anything, but both of these are very short.

The movie has a strong sense of visual style; the outfits worn by Flynn and Simone are distinctive and set them apart from the characters around them. The settings are all very well crafted even if they may not all be realistic; the scenes in the library itself are worthy of pausing on your Tivo just to to spot all of the artifacts (Jules Verne's time machine was my personal favourite).

The special effects may be the movie's weakest point. They're not actually bad, but they do sometimes scream made-for-tv movie. They're not Sci-Fi Channel Originals bad, mind you; vampires disappear and reappear in a fairly stylistic fashion, but some things, Excalibur in particular, are done in a way that may pull you out of the movie in a way if you let them.

The movie's dialog sparkles when it's at its best, and at least keeps the story movie forward at its worst. The actors play off each other really well, and there are definitely moments that made me laugh out loud (my personal favourite was a Russian thug telling the heroes “We're really not this good. You guys kind of suck at sneaking around.”)

One thing I have learned from watching this movie is that shaving cream is the enemy of continuity. One scene in the movie places Flynn in a barber shop, having a fairly expositional conversation with Judson while being lathered up for a shave. As the camera switches around so does the amount of shaving cream on his face. To finish the scene they move outside where the shaving cream on his face changes from the thin kind mixed in a cup and applied with a brush to the thick foamy stuff that comes out of a can. This does nothing to hurt the movie, but I noticed it, and it amused me.

This is a good movie to share with the kids; there's no cursing, no blood, and the violence is non-explicit. There is one short implied sex scene, but the participants never even take their shoes off on screen. There are also a few scenes of vampires being slain, but this is done in the “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” fashion with a poof of dust and sparks.

If you find yourself looking for something fun and a little exciting to watch come Sunday night, you could certainly do a lot worse than to watch “The Librarian 3: Curse of the Judas Chalice”. I heartily recommend checking it out on December 7th on TNT.

Thursday, December 4, 2008