Thursday, December 25, 2008

Of The People, By The People, For The People: Part 1

Now that we've gotten the preliminaries out of the way, it's time to start reviewing. Our first fan film is Star Wars: Revelations, a 47-minute movie set between the two trilogies, courtesy of Panic Struck Productions.

As it was produced prior to the release of "Revenge of the Sith", the main purpose of "Revelations" is to explain how the Empire hunted the Jedi into total extinction by the time Luke Skywalker reached his teens. This is a fair enough question: it's a big universe, but even the Expanded Universe novels adhered to the idea that Luke had to rebuild the Jedi from scratch because none of the "old guard" survived the Clone Wars.

Insofar as that question is concerned, "Revelations" provides a logical answer by establishing the existence of a sub-group within the Jedi known as Seers - Jedi whose Force-related specialty is seeing the future. The Seers, led by a man named Sakal, were basically excommunicated by the Order because their predictions were thought to be unreliable (but as it turns out, they were all having visions of the Empire's rise to power, and no one believed them).

Taryn Anwar, the film's protagonist, is a Seer hunting for Sakal's Holocron, a cube-shaped data matrix that contains great knowledge (and, potentially, great power as well). Taryn hooks up with Declan, a smuggler, and another man named Cade who is either a defecting Stormtrooper or a fugitive Jedi (that part's a bit unclear). We also learn that Cade was the lover of Taryn's sister Raux, a victim of the Empire's purges.

But Taryn's not the only one looking for the Holocron. Zhannah, one of the Emperor's Hands, is competing with Darth Vader to find both Taryn and the artifact. As it turns out, Zhannah and Taryn have a history: the Emperor's Hand tricked Taryn into using her visions to find other Jedi, who were promptly exterminated by the Empire.

The backstory has a few minor timeline glitches - namely, we have no idea when Sakal and the Seers were cast out; sometimes it seems to have happened during Taryn's lifetime, but there are also references to the Sith Wars which happened thousands of years prior to the prequel trilogy. We're also not sure how long Taryn has been on the run, and whether or not Zhannah's been tracking her all that time. But as I said, these are minor distractions, not especially noteworthy given the pace and progress of the storyline. I'd say a bigger problem is that the distinction between Jedis and Seers gets pretty blurred by the time we get to the climax - Taryn's visions pretty much stop right before they could become relevant to the plot.

However, if the film's own internal continuity is problematic, it does manage some nice tricks with established canon: there's a scene around the midway point where the Emperor disbands the Senate. If you recall the first "Star Wars", this means the Death Star is complete. Now, the scene seems a bit tacked-on... until the epilogue of "Revelations", in which two characters decide to head to Alderaan. It's a sad moment, but only the viewer knows that.

While I said I wasn't going to talk about production values, "Revelations" merits a mention simply because it looks like a "Star Wars" movie. The CGI lacks the fluidity of professional studios, but is impressive nevertheless; the TIE Fighter chase through the shipyards and the lightsaber duels are surprisingly similar to the general look and feel of "Star Wars". Special props go to the actors who recreated Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader - they did so very convincingly.

Here's something I found interesting about "Revelations": both the main protagonist and the main antagonist of the film are women. And... okay, tangent time. I've had a problem with women in "Star Wars" for a long, long time. Leia didn't particularly impress me; Amidala even less so. The Expanded Universe isn't very accomodating either: Asajj Ventress had the makings of an interesting character but lapsed into 2D Land more often than not, Mara Jade is Timothy Zahn's Mary Sue, Mon Mothma's a bit player despite her supposedly legendary backstory... and then you have Admiral Daala, probably the biggest face-palm Kevin J. Anderson ever earned in the Star Wars universe. He makes a big deal about Daala being the only woman ever promoted to the Imperial admiralty, ostensibly on the strength of her impressive tactical skills, and then she turns out to be so incompetent she can't even score minor wins against the New Republic. I'll go so far as to say that if there's one decent, well-rounded woman in "Star Wars", it's Jaina Solo: badass Jedi, navigates her own love life without any help (*cough*Mara*cough*), swerves to the Dark Side and pulls herself out by sheer force of will, and basically becomes the greatest Jedi Knight of her generation.

Unfortunately, Jaina doesn't exist outside the projected future of the novels - a period no other medium or spin-off seems to want to deal with. So, perhaps as a response to that, "Revelations" gives us Taryn, a more compelling character than Luke or Anakin because of her redemption subplot (Anakin just whined a lot, and Luke... well, Luke's the Chosen One because he's born to it, not because of anything he actually does). Zhannah's an interesting counterpart to Vader, and "Revelations" does offer us a scene where they share screen time to highlight the contrast: he's this huge, booming, imposing presence, whereas Zhannah is ice-cold, detached and subtle - the role could have easily degenerated into one of those scene-chomping bits where you can actually see the teeth marks on the set pieces, but the actress playing Zhannah never loses her cool, never breaks character.

All in all, it's a rather enjoyable piece. The story's about average - standard fare for "Star Wars", really - and the cast avoids the sort of awkwardness you can sometimes get with amateur actors. Throw in some surprisingly good special effects, an overall length that's just about right (not too short that we're left unsatisfied with the results, not too long that it starts to drag), and what you get is a pretty decent justification of the genre.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Of The People, By The People, For The People: Prologue

I've decided to start a new feature here at Sententia: fan film reviews. Much like fan fiction, it's a phenomenon that fascinates me both as a reader and as a student of literature.

There are a few "ground rules" I suppose I should get out of the way first: I'm not especially interested in comparing these productions to the source material in terms of visual quality. It's fair enough to do that sort of parallel with text-based fanfic when words - and how they're used - are the only tangible difference between a fan-author and the original author; I hardly think it's realistic to expect fan-level productions to match the CGI budget of Paramount or Lucasfilm (though, if tomorrow's subject is any indication, they can come surprisingly close).

I'm also leaving acting skills (or lack thereof) out of the equation unless it absolutely merits a mention - in a world where Hayden Christensen passed the first round of auditions for the role of Darth Vader, it's best to judge such things on their own merits.

The guiding principle behind these reviews relates to my overall concept of fan fiction as something that exists to address a gap in the source material - whether these are issues and themes the canon can't (or won't) deal with, or scenes and scenarios that didn't textually happen but could have (or, depending on the genre of the story, couldn't have) happened. But it's always a response to something within the original work.

I should note that I find fan fiction to be as valid and as legitimate an exercise as, say, the Expanded Universe novels of the "Star Wars" franchise. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the only difference between the EU novels and "Star Wars" fanfic is that the EU writers get paid and presumably have the parent company's seal of approval - not the most convincing argument, as these things have nothing to do with what's actually published.

In fact, it's interesting to see how EU novels of this sort can fall into the same traps as fanfic - Timothy Zahn is rightly praised for the creation of Grand Admiral Thrawn, but he also inflicted Mara Sue upon us. And it's just as impossible to achieve consensus with published novels: just because you get a rubber stamp from Grandpa George doesn't mean you're not working with your own interpretations of the characters, which may or may not correlate to other authors' interpretations, or even to what the original material (the two trilogies) present. Canon becomes just as malleable as it is in fanfic, and the only thing that matters is whether or not the writer convinces you that his version works.

And, of course, the EU novels were a response to what was likely the most common question anyone was asking at the end of "Return of the Jedi" - what happened next? (Or possibly "Did we really need all those Ewoks?"). Sequels are easy that way. But with fan films, it's a bit more complicated to figure out exactly what they're responding to with regards to the source material.

You may have noticed that I've been focusing on the "Star Wars" franchise pretty exclusively so far. That's because our first entry, to be posted tomorrow, will be a review of Star Wars: Revelations by Panic Struck Productions, located here:

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Fight of the Century

Laaaaaaaadies and gentlemen!

In this cornah, weighing in at an astonishing 925 pounds (ego included), the Fighting Fossil, John Byrne!

And in this cornah, weighing in at 101 pounds, the Suffolk Succotash, Tom Brevoort!

Just so we know where we all stand, John Byrne puts out a list of changes he'd like to see at Marvel - some of which are common sense, and some of which betray Byrne's hilariously outdated storytelling style; like his old partner Chris Claremont, Byrne is very much a man of his time who's failed to keep up. And unlike Claremont, whose kitschy histrionics are good for a laugh, Byrne takes himself so seriously - honestly, just look at his last projects for DC - that it's no wonder he's been pushed to the margins of the industry.

And then you have Tom Brevoort, who - bless his inefficient little soul - at least tries to tell stories with modern sensibilities. He fails, of course, and spectacularly so, much as Paul O'Brien and Al Kennedy pointed out: more often than not a Brevoort-edited comic will bear no sign of actually having been proof-read, to the extent that writers will go to Newsarama and talk about fairly interesting concepts and plotlines that never actually materialize in the published comic. Some of Marvel's most embarrassing fuster-clucks occured on Brevoort's watch, and while he may not have displayed the utter incompetence of Mike Marts during Chuck Austen's Reign of Error on the X-books, this is someone who I hold at least partially responsible for the utter mediocrity of Marvel's output at the moment.

In other words, I wouldn't trust either of these clowns to see us through a transition to products of a better quality, not from a writer who can't get with the times and an editor who can't seem to put his foot down and say "Uh, Brian, you're basically saying the invasion we've been building up all year ends with one fight?"

If you really want to "fix" Marvel, the first thing you need to do is ditch the fanboys. By which I mean Quesada, Bendis, Millar, the writers who are acting out their adolescent rewrites of '70s and '80s Marvel and who can't seem to let go of that period - whether it's Quesada not being able to "identify" with a married Peter Parker or Bendis bringing back that bloody Mockingbird as if anyone born after 1983 knows who the hell she is... that whole block of non-creativity has got to go. We need fresh ideas, fresh writers with the balls to rip out the damned rewind button on the remote and just press Play already. Enough retcons, enough revisions, enough rewrites. Leave the past alone and look ahead for once.

And we need editors with backbone. Editors who do their job and actually give the comic a once-over before hitting it with the rubber stamp. Editors who aren't afraid to take the star quarterback aside and give him the old UR DOIN IT RONG speech.

And maybe, just maybe, if we get that change, and the overall story quality rises, and superstar artists are penalized for not sticking to the damned monthly schedule after having months, if not years, of lead time... maybe then we'll get new readers. Because from where I'm sitting, I really can't think of a reason people would set aside perfectly legitimate avenues of entertainment - more importantly, story vehicles that can actually deliver more often than not - to hunt down these deeply flawed and overpriced 22-page comic books. I love comics, but I've got a foot out the door as it is because it's been... what, five years now? Six? Since Marvel stopped being even slightly experimental and just slid into a quagmire of continuity revisions, each more convoluted than the last? That's a long, long time to go without ever once feeling that things were looking up. And if I could get tired of things as they are, I reckon others will get tired too. Maybe even the hardcore zombies - who surely account for at least 80% of Marvel's overall profit off comics, because those idiots will buy anything - will get to move on with their lives.

Then again, maybe not. Who knows? All I'm sure of is that, if we ever do get there, it won't be because John Byrne Saved Comics. Or because Tom Brevoort Did It Right. It'll happen despite their presence.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Game Review: Dreamweb

Another DOS-era adventure game, but a bloody weird one where your interpretation of the plot basically depends on whether or not you read the manual addendum written as the diary of the main character.

The protagonist of "Dreamweb", Ryan, has been having constant nightmares about the impending destruction of the world; it seems that seven men and women - working individually - are seizing control of the seven nodes of the Dreamweb, the sum of humanity's hopes, aspirations and dreams. If they're successful, the whole world will descend into madness and evil. Ryan is contacted by the Keeper of the Dreamweb, and is told he must find and kill these seven before they complete their corruption of the nodes.

And that's more or less how the story goes: you move about a dirty city where it's constantly raining, hunting down one target after another and reclaiming the dream energy they leave behind when they die, returning it to the Dreamweb. There are a few twists along the way, but I don't want to spoil them. Or the ending, for that matter, which is... kind of an anticlimax on the one hand, but on the other hand it still makes sense in the context of the story.

So you have the whole Chosen One angle and it all seems pretty traditional. Now, in my specific case, I beat the game and then read Ryan's diary... and it added a huge amount of ambiguity to what I just played, because the story takes on a completely different context if you believe the diary.

So far all I've talked about is the story, mainly because there's not much to say about the game's visual dimension: it's a top-down perspective, and not a particularly good one - there's a smaller, separate window which provides a sort of "zoom" on objects you're pointing at. All dialogues are pre-programmed and your seven targets are put in a set order, so it's all quite linear. And yet, I think this is one of those cases where the interest in the story outweighs the predictability and mild clumsiness of the mechanical aspect. Worth a play-through for the story and the music alone.

Game Review: Gabriel Knight

In keeping with my re-exploration of old-school adventure games, I recently completed one of the few Sierra game series I never had a chance to play in their heyday: the "Gabriel Knight" trilogy, comprised of "Sins of the Fathers" (1993), "The Beast Within" (1995) and "Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned" (1999).

There are a few factors which set "Gabriel Knight" apart from its contemporaries, even within Sierra's own product lines. First of all, it's the only series in which all the games had voice-acting (apart from "Phantasmagoria", though that doesn't really qualify seeing as how they were two completely unrelated games that happened to have the same title). Granted, "Sins of the Fathers" came out relatively late in the company's life - in fact, "Blood of the Sacred" was the very last traditional adventure game Sierra ever released - but even in 1993 you had games like "Space Quest V" that never got vocal treatment.

And the cast for "Sins of the Fathers" is pretty impressive: Tim Curry as Gabriel, Leah Remini as his assistant Grace Nakimura, Mark Hamill as Police Detective Franklin Mosely, and Michael Dorn as creepy voodoo expert Dr. John. Everyone involved delivers a great performance, with the possible exception of Curry's ultra-cheesy attempt at a New Orleans accent that actually got more outrageous in the third game. But we'll get to that in a bit. You also had a hilariously sardonic Cajun narrator mocking Gabriel every chance she got.

Another odd thing about the "Gabriel Knight" series is that popular opinion positions the first game, "Sins of the Fathers", as the best of the three. To be honest, while I think "The Beast Within" has its charms, I'm inclined to agree - it's the most "traditional" game in the trilogy in terms of gameplay, graphics and the interface, something that fits in quite easily with other Sierra masterpieces like "Quest for Glory IV" and "King's Quest VI". It has a strong, broad mystery that takes you from Louisiana to Africa to Germany and back, and it takes a very clear-minded (and surprisingly non-Hollywood-pop-culture-educated) view on Voudoun as religion vs. Voodoo as black magic. Also, "Sins of the Fathers" depicts Gabriel and Grace at their best: they bicker, they banter, they come pretty close to admitting mutual attraction, but neither of them are particularly interested in acting on it. At least, not yet.

None of this detracts from the fact that the second game, "The Beast Within", is appealing in its own way. The format shifts to interactive movie, so obviously it's a lot more streamlined and offers the player less possibilities in terms of plot-branching. But Jane Jensen again earns points for doing the research, taking the historical tale of Ludwig II, last king of Bavaria, and throwing werewolves into the mix, and players get to alternate between Gabriel and Grace, each tackling the same case from very different angles (Grace's storyline involves a lot of historical research, while Gabriel goes undercover and confronts the danger head-on). And if Dean Erickson takes the "pretty-boy" angle a little too far, flipping his hair every time he sits down like a slimmer Fabio, he still fits the mold nicely. Joanne Takahashi, on the other hand... let's just say Grace becomes seriously unlikeable in her first few scenes, generally played as an attention-starved stalker obsessed with Gabriel and biting the head off anyone who gets in her way.

Kudos are due for Jensen's use of homoeroticism - I'm not even talking about the explicit stuff like "Louie" being Ludwig's lover, but von Glower caressing a half-naked Gabriel as he sleeps? von Zell getting all bitchy because his ex-boyfriend has a new (and prettier) toy? Wow. Not the sort of thing I would've expected to find in a 1995 video game.

Which brings us to "Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned". And... it just doesn't live up to its predecessors. I mean, it's admirable that they try something new every game, and here we have a fully 3D environment in which the camera can move completely independent of the player character - refreshing at first, but you'll get tired of it very quickly when it comes to navigating and/or finding a specific item or person in a huge sprawling area. Fortunately, the camera moves swiftly, but still, it's an annoyance.

Tim Curry is back as Gabriel, and like I said, he's even more over-the-top here... So Bad It's Good? I honestly can't say. Anyway, after facing a voodoo cult and werewolves, Gabriel and Grace are up against vampires this time around. Sounds exciting? It would've been, if the game were actually about vampires. But that whole storyline gets sidetracked for most of the game so Gabriel can investigate - I kid you not - the Holy Grail. And it turns into a ridiculously muddled mess, with a bunch of scavenger hunters digging for treasure, some mumblings about alchemy, the 11th-hour appearance of the Wandering Jew and an origin story for the Ritter line that is so corny, so ludicrously and blatantly Christian-By-Numbers, that my eyes almost rolled right out of their sockets.

And if Grace and Gabriel didn't come off too well in "The Beast Within", they - and good old Mosely from New Orleans - are even worse here: Gabriel calls Grace a walking chastity belt while she's within hearing distance, and then he has a bad dream about a vampire attacking her and bamp-chicka-wow-wow, Something We Know Not What ensues. And the ending... abrupt, unsatisfactory, supposedly grows out of earlier events but I'm hard-pressed to see the connection. The whole Gabriel/Grace dynamic is just screwed to hell with this game, and that was a big part of the fun in the first game (and, to a lesser extent, the third as well). It doesn't help that "Blood of the Sacred" has some of the most obscure puzzles in the trilogy, especially towards the end with the whole "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" bit.

So, yeah, lousy ending to a great pair of games, for what that's worth. I'd say stick with the first two and give the third a pass - any closure you think you'll get from "Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned" will be disappointing to say the least.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Oy vey.

Oh, "Heroes". What am I going to do with you?

SPOILER ALERT, obviously.

1. So the ultimate outcome of the Big World-Changing Eclipse is... Elle dies? Mind you, she was getting ridiculously wishy-washy and I approve of hitting the reset button for Sylar, if only because it's marginally better than continuing the cockamamie redemption story... but on a show with so many problems, it's odd they prioritized getting rid of a genuinely talented actress whose character debut was one of the few highlights of season 2.

1a. And seriously, that's it? Mass power loss, everyone's vulnerable, everyone's expendable, and then the eclipse ends and we're exactly where we left off? This has driven home - with painful finality - a fairly horrible realization I've had about this show: it's not about the characters anymore, it's about the powers. It's not about taking risks, because the list of characters who could have died during the eclipse is huge, and most of those characters still have some S1 goodwill attached to them that their deaths would have meant something: Peter, Nathan, Claire, even Sylar. This was the best point to change something, and they didn't. Missed opportunity.

2. As I said, I'm happy about the Sylar reboot, despite feeling rather queasy at the whole Tilt-a-Whirl routine his character's gone through this season - seriously, in 12 episodes he got his powers back, was captured by the Company, became the Third Petrelli Brother (or is he?), teamed up with Bennet, sold out Bennet to kill Jesse, saved Angela, betrayed Angela, betrayed Peter, saved Peter, switched to Pinehearst, retroactively got a "hunger" added to his character makeup to make his redemption easier (in theory) to follow, retroactively got a love interest in Elle, became an empath, lost his powers and now he's gone back to his roots as the boogeyman serial killer (yeah, I vaguely remember a time when Sylar was genuinely scary). And I know I've been driving this comparison home ad nauseum, but it's really the foremost parallel that comes to mind: Spike, hanging around Sunnydale long after he doesn't have a purpose anymore, so he's evil and then he gets a chip and becomes Xander's pet and then he falls in love with Buffy and then he gets a soul, all these "grafts" that don't feel organic in the least because they're dictated not by the logical extension of the character arc but because the plot requires some kind of justification for keeping these popular characters around.

3. I like Breckin Meyer. I like Seth Green. Ever since it was announced that they'd be doing a stint on "Heroes", I was looking forward to it. My reaction to their role?

If I had any faith left in Tim Kring at this point, I might be charitable enough to attribute the total waste of brilliant guest-stars as some kind of quasi-meta commentary on how celebrities draw attention regardless of how substantial (or insubstantial) their actual screen time may be, much like Nichelle Nichols last season. Then again, Nana Dawson really didn't do anything and the sole point of Sam and Frack is to give Hiro the Uncle Ben speech, and so who are we kidding here?

4. It's a point of concern that there's been a substantial death tally so far (Adam, Maury, Elle, Niki [in that her death was made "official" this season], Bob, Usutu, etc.) and yet I honestly can't think of a single death that moved me like Eden's or Isaac's or even Simone's for all the eye-rolling that followed. All the S3 casualties were pretty much written off quickly, almost as an afterthought, and you know, it might have actually meant something if Claire had died during the eclipse, because Bennet would have been devastated to have missed the last minutes of his daughter's life while he was busy avenging her, and... okay, it wouldn't have been a heroic death, at least not in the sense that she accomplished much besides sacrificing herself for her father, but it would mean something to other characters. Similarly, Peter - a character I really enjoyed in earlier years who I now find insufferable - could have gone out in a blaze of glory in Haiti, finally being a hero without having any powers at all. It's not like Peter's the focalizer for the audience anymore, those days are long behind us.

CONCLUSION: If I was ambivalent about it before, I'm not anymore. I'll stick around to the end of the season for closure's sake, but... yeah, the shark's definitely been jumped here, folks. Time to cut and run.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

That's it?

So these are the diabolical fiends that got Chelsea Handler all worked up?


They seem harmless enough...

Friday, November 21, 2008


Another one bites the dust. And, just to add insult to injury, "Pushing Daisies" is ending on a cliffhanger - one of my biggest pet peeves.

I'm feeling particularly frustrated about this one. It's like there's less and less space for intelligent programming these days; and when you do get fresh, exciting ideas, they're either dumbed down for mass consumption ("Heroes", which really should have stuck to the original plan of dumping the S1 cast and starting over fresh; "Veronica Mars" with its WB-infected teen melodrama of the later seasons) or painfully short-lived ("The Middleman", "Jake 2.0", "Freaks and Geeks", "Joan of Arcadia", the list sadly goes on.)

And the question then becomes: is it worth getting invested in these series to begin with? I mean, why should I bother to get into "Dollhouse" if it's not likely to last a full season? Why risk getting aggravated when the axe drops?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Game Review: Fahrenheit

Before I start, I should note that I played the uncensored European version of this game, "Fahrenheit", but American players might recognize it as "Indigo Prophecy".

A friend of mine noticed that I occasionally blog about DOS-era adventure games, like the Sierra Quest line. That was my favorite genre growing up - which isn't to say I passed up the occasional "Wing Commander" or "System Shock", and I'll even admit to playing a few rounds of "Doom" before realizing that I'm absolutely hopeless at first-person shooters. But adventure games made up about 90% of my hard drive back then.

Anyway, said friend noted that my lament for the adventure genre might be premature, given that - while they're much less prominent these days than they were ten or fifteen years ago - adventure games are still being produced today. As a somewhat-contemporary example, he suggested I should try "Fahrenheit".

The tutorial gives you a pretty good idea of how the creators of this game saw their product: while you're learning how to control your character, designer David Cage appears in the (digital) flesh and talks about how he and his team want the player to view "Fahrenheit" as an interactive film. Which actually reminded me of "Phantasmagoria", in the sense that you spend more time watching the story unfold than you do actively determining its course. To be honest, I don't mind that particular mode of gaming: there's something to be said for sitting back and enjoying a good story.

But the game interface is a lot more complicated than just clicking on objects; for example, you have to drag your mouse in specific patterns during dialogue as a way of selecting which topic of conversation to pursue; if you don't move fast, the timer runs out and the conversation swerves away unpredictably. There are also numerous action sequences reminiscient of Simon Says, where the player must repeat a string of keys as they appear on the screen; failure will result in the loss of a "life", at the end of which it's game over. It's an unorthodox addition to an adventure game, and in the case of "Fahrenheit" it's both a great strength and a great weakness. The action sequences add a lot of adrenaline and reflexive play to a typically sedate genre, but they're also incredibly distracting, in the sense that they tend to kick off at crucial moments in the story, only you're too busy focusing on which keys to press. Entire scenes can pass you by while you're struggling to survive.

Another interesting - though inherently problematic - element of "Fahrenheit" is the Sanity Meter. As you progress through the game, your protagonists have all sorts of optional activities they can do, ranging from watching TV to listening to music to having sex. Some actions - the sort that you'd find calming and reassuring - grant you Sanity Points. Actions that could discourage or even damage your character's psyche (losing a bet, finding a dead body) subtract Sanity Points. If the Sanity Meter hits zero for any of your characters, at any point during the game, you lose. Sounds complicated? It is. Because "Fahrenheit" - despite its wide array of choices - is still a scripted game, and certain events will happen whether you set them up or not. So you may find yourself losing points without being able to do anything about it (for example, Carla's tarot reading which goes completely south, costing you a whopping 30 points). No way out of it, no way around it. And if you don't stock up on points beforehand, you may find yourself in a losing scenario through no fault of your own.

The story of "Fahrenheit" holds together rather nicely for most of the game: you start off with Lucas Kane, a man who wakes up in a restaurant bathroom, having just murdered a man while in a trance. Lucas is sure someone else was controlling his actions, but he has no way of proving his innocence - your first task is to help him conceal evidence and escape into the night.

And once Lucas is away, control shifts to Carla Valenti and Tyler Miles, a pair of detectives investigating the very same murder Lucas committed. It's fun to unravel your own crime scene, and in fact, some of the best moments in "Fahrenheit" involve the constant shifting between Lucas on the run and Carla and Tyler hot on his trail. Of course, Lucas also has to piece together what really happened that night.

It's an imaginative storyline. Unfortunately, it takes a right-angle turn towards the end of the game, after the amusement park sequence with Tiffany. I'm not going to spoil the twist, because it's a genuine yeahbuhwhat? moment, but let's just say you have a very sudden clash between the supernatural and science-fiction, and these things don't co-exist easily when they're set up well in advance; cramming them into the last hour or two of gameplay just feels like either someone lost a bet or the last act of the plot was cobbled together from different scripts. There are multiple endings, but not one of them really delivers an appropriate payoff.

Still, poor endgame aside, I honestly enjoyed "Fahrenheit". It's a different kind of adventure game, and aside from my issues with the action sequences (somewhat ameliorated by the fact that when you complete the game most - but not all - of the sequences are available for play-through or viewing) I thought the game mechanisms and interface were refreshingly innovative. I doubt I'll play the announced sequel - seriously, the endgame is just that bad - but it was fun while it lasted.

Monday, November 17, 2008

X-Maestro My Ass


Pencils & Cover by TIM SEELEY
They WERE the New Exiles…but after last issue’s shocking ending and a loss that will tear them apart, how can our heroes possibly continue? The answers await you here, true believers, along with clues as to what the future holds for our favorite dimension jumpers! Join X-Maestro Chris Claremont for a bittersweet chapter we can only call “BEGIN ANEW”!

This is one of those occasions where saying "I told you so" just doesn't carry any satisfaction with it. So Claremont tanked the book just like I knew he would - I'm still minus one monthly read. I guess I'd hoped they'd just replace him rather than axe the series altogether, but... well, short of a complete reboot (and honestly, we've had enough of those), I can't see anyone cleaning up his mess in an orderly fashion. It'd be bloody Xorn Damage Control all over again.

I'm just waiting for the inevitable Claremont interview where he whines about how he wasn't given enough time to really tell the story he wanted to tell...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


So... is it me, or was this week's episode of "Heroes" significantly better than anything else the season has offered so far? Sure, I'm still not happy with Sylar (and Elle to a lesser extent) being Spiked, but every other character was in top form - I'd almost forgotten that Nathan and Peter had such amazing chemistry together.

Obviously, it's way too early to attribute this apparent rise in quality to the departure of Jeph Loeb, but it's nice to think that maybe the slump is finally over...

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

TV Roundup

Just some quick updates apropos of nothing:

Legend of the Seeker: See below.

Heroes: Slightly better than season 2, but that's not saying a lot. Fortunately, they've ditched Jeph Loeb and his Cloud of Stupidity, so maybe things'll turn around.

Dexter: The lack of a direct threat to Dexter (so far) has made this season a touch more sedate, but the characters have always been compelling enough to keep me watchng even when things weren't happening. And I'm comfortable with the possibility of Dexter's redemption in a way I could never feel about Sylar.

Sanctuary: Dropped. It just... didn't amount to anything especially entertaining for me.

Wolverine and the X-Men: Surprisingly short on character moments, but still solid for the most part.

Pushing Daisies: I love this show. So naturally it's got an axe hovering over its neck. Is there some kind of public objection to funny, intelligent television series these days that I don't know about?

Burn Notice: On mid-season hiatus.

Battlestar Galactica: Ditto.

Weeds: Finished its fourth season a while back; still a major favorite of mine.

The Middleman: I have no idea if this is coming back for a second season or not... but I hope it does. It was awesome.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: The second season really kicked things up a notch, with particularly interesting performances from Summer Glau and Shirley Manson. Here's hoping it dodges the bullet.

Supernatural: I'm still not sold on the God Warrior angle, but other than that it's business as usual.

Damages: Still waiting for the second season of this brilliant legal drama, whcih made such use of misleading flashbacks and flash-forwards that would put every other show on this list to shame.

No Heroics: Fun for six episodes, but I doubt it would work in a longer format - the jokes aren't that funny, but they're okay for a quick run.

Ashes to Ashes: Nope.

True Blood: Hell no.

Flawless Victory

Well done, America! It's about time you picked the right man for the job again!

First Impressions: Legend of the Seeker


Okay, so Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert - creators of "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" and the infinitely superior "Xena: Warrior Princess" - have returned to television with a new series, an adaptation of Terry Goodkind's fantasy novel series "The Sword of Truth" (which I've never read). I saw the 90-minute pilot earlier today, and it left me with some mixed feelings.

Let's start with the superb visuals: this series looks stunning. Leading man Craig Horner is gorgeous (I like to think that bit of casting is Raimi's way of apologizing for seven years of shirtless Kevin Sorbo, which the years - and Paul Telfer's gratuitous skin shots in the later miniseries - have mercifully obliterated from my memory), and Bridget Regan's ethereal appearance goes a long way in selling those moments when she uses bad juju on people. As for Craig Parker, hell, I always thought Haldir was evil anyway. The action sequences have a tendency to overuse slow-motion, but they're still well-coordinated, without any of the blatantly impossible feats that eventually became mainstays of both "Xena" and "Hercules".

And yet... and yet. Mind you, I'm basing this opinion on the 90-minute pilot (which you probably guessed from the whole First Impressions thing), but as fantasy fare goes, "Legend of the Seeker" is rather formulaic. You've got your evil warlord, and a prophecy saying he'll be overthrown by a champion - said champion turns out to be a simple, down-to-earth guy with modest ambitions. Bad stuff happens, he accepts his destiny from a wizard with a ludicrous name (in this case, Zeddicus Zul Zorander), and everyone - seriously, everyone - constantly reaffirms his identity as the Chosen One until he finally "gets it" and follows through with an obligatory butt-kicking action scene. TV Tropes is going to have a field day categorizing this one.

And therein lies the problem: I've seen this exact sequence play itself out at least a dozen times in fiction. Raimi and Tapert haven't brought anything new to the table, there's no twist, no innovation that makes the stale old conventions at least seem fresh. Now, being formulaic isn't the same as being bad; after all, tropes become cliches partly because they work. But on the other hand, I don't know how happy Raimi would be to learn that I successfully predicted every single development in the episode - George's death, Richard being the Seeker, Zed's instant recovery from near-death, the hint of romance between Richard and Kahlen... hell, I'd bet good money that the evil warlord is Richard's father, just because the Darth Vader scenario is about the only cliche this show didn't tap in its debut.

Ultimately, it's hard for me to imagine staying invested in a series that's utterly incapable of surprising me - the eye-candy's nice, but I didn't chain myself to the TARDIS for David Tennant, and "Lost" is still teeming with cuties, so clearly The Pretty isn't enough. I'll stick around for a few more episodes, get a firmer sense of where this show is going... but my expectations have dropped a few hundred notches.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

TV Review: Ashes to Ashes

Is it fair to judge a sequel by the standards of its predecessor?

We do it all the time: any review of a movie with a 2 or a 3 (or a Returns) will have at least one reference to the original. Comics discourse will compare Chris Claremont's current rut to his legendary first run on "Uncanny X-Men", or Brubaker's "Daredevil" versus Bendis' "Daredevil" versus Miller's "Daredevil", and so on. We treat sequels as an extension of the previous narrative, and we naturally expect the follow-up to hold to the same quality as what came before.

But this is a problematic approach, because it overlooks the fact that changes occur outside the diegetic level of the story. Television spin-offs can have different actors, different writers, different directors, and the end result can either surpass the original ("Torchwood" if only for the total and complete absence of Daleks) or fall far beneath ("X-Men 3: The Last Stand"). Sometimes the premise can be set on a completely different path from the original series: "Angel" tried to do a lot of things, especially towards the end, but the one thing it never consciously attempted was imitating "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in terms of plot structure and characterization (ie: seasonal Big Bad vs. Wolfram and Hart as the constant nemesis).

So with that in mind, let's have a look at "Ashes to Ashes", a spin-off of "Life on Mars".

I've always had a love-hate relationship with TV from my native country: for every "Ultraviolet" you get a clunker like "Hex", and to this day I have yet to see the appeal of "Doctor Who" (sorry, kazekage! Still not sold!).

But I loved "Life on Mars". Oh, it took me a few episodes to really get into it; John Simm is an acquired taste, and DCI Gene Hunt is so very 1973 that I couldn't help frowning every time he harrassed Annie. But Philip Glenister plays the role with so much heart that you can't bring yourself to hate him.

The thing that set "Life on Mars" apart - the thing that, in a broader sense, sets most UK television apart from its American counterpart - is that things are rarely spelled out. Like "Ultraviolet", "Life on Mars" leaves blanks for the viewers to fill in themselves: like the intro says, Sam gets hit by a car and wakes up in 1973. Is he mad? In a coma? Has he traveled into the past? But the questions run deeper than that, because at times it seems Sam is inadvertantly setting up events that come to pass in the future: he sends Tony Crane to a mental hospital, and thirty years later Tony escapes and torments the comatose Sam. He takes down kingpin Stephen Warren and his own father assumes control of various criminal operations. So is he really following some kind of destiny or is his mind just creating situations to deal with any scenario that arises? And who is the Test Card Girl? We don't know for sure; we're not meant to know for sure. That's why I think the American adaptation is going to fail - even in the pilot, too much effort was made to force-feed the audience, leaving no ambiguity unresolved (Sam considers shooting a younger Colin to save Maya).

Anyway, "Life on Mars" ended with a proper finale that was both tragic and oddly comforting. And then we got "Ashes to Ashes": DI Alex Drake, a psychologist who studied Sam's "delusions", is abducted and shot in the head. She wakes up in 1981 and finds Gene Hunt and his team waiting for her... minus Sam, of course.

The twist, of course, is that Alex believes she's assimilated Sam's fantasy and expects this world to work for her the way it worked for Sam. Only it doesn't: Sam got messages through the television and radio, Alex hears nothing. Sam infrequently saw the Test Card Girl, Alex is chased by a clown (little girl vs. clown, hard to say which one is creepier there). But Gene Hunt is the same... well, mostly.

See, it's that "well, mostly" that makes "Ashes to Ashes" so complicated. It's not really something you can detach from "Life on Mars", if only because Alex never shuts up about it's all in her head (and that right there is a loss of ambiguity, because Sam is never really sure what's going on whereas Alex is utterly convinced and never loses that conviction). On the other hand, if we compare the two, "Ashes to Ashes" is going to come out looking all the poorer.

There are several reasons for this. Number one, Keeley Hawes gives it the old college try, but ye Gods, there are bite marks on every piece of scenery from Manchester to London. She shrieks at the sky, she curses, she quite overtly talks about how everyone is a figment of her imagination - and, of course, for the plot to hold together, people just ignore her or act amused rather than call the men with the white coats.

Number two, the series seems less interested in Alex finding her way around 1981 than it is in shadowy government conspiracies, the near-constant presence of her mother, and a quasi-romantic-triangle.

Number three, there's no counterpart for the absent Annie Cartwright, who served as Sam's confidante. She was the only one Sam was completely honest with, the only person who knew he believed he was from the 21st century. Alex doesn't have that, ostensibly because she doesn't need it - after all, she's 100% positive that this is all a product of brain damage - but it also means she doesn't have someone in her corner.

Number four - and this is the big one - Alex has a daughter. She has a rock-solid motive to return to 2008, and nothing can change that. Therein lies the problem: she's not at all tempted by the world of 1981. One of the best ongoing themes in "Life on Mars" was the way Sam was gradually falling in love with 1973, especially given the little we see of his cold, lonely existence 30 years later. Alex doesn't have any similar dilemma; if she finds a way "out", she'll take it without a second thought. No tension at all.

Number five, this series puts Gene Hunt in a very different light. "Life on Mars" had him as the lawless anti-hero, the guy who bends laws for what he thinks is the greater good. Sometimes he's right, sometimes he's wrong. And Sam constantly struggled against that, the voice of morality to Hunt's amorality. But eight years later, when Alex Drake arrives, the police - and Gene specifically - fall so heavily under public scrutiny that Gene is quite visibly emasculated; he's dealing with lawyers, he's feeling past his prime, and it'd be an interesting turn for the character if Sam were still around, but Alex isn't inclined to care about his problems - not real, remember? - so, despite the fact that Glenister is still bringing his A Game to the picture, it doesn't work.

All things considered, "Ashes to Ashes" doesn't really live up to the excellence of "Life on Mars". And I think that, even if we were to detach the series from its progenitor (easy enough given that, after the pilot episode, Sam is never mentioned again, and Annie is never mentioned at all), it still wouldn't work: the plot is all over the place, Hawes constantly overacts, and it feels as though "Ashes to Ashes" provides too many answers - there's no uncertainty, no mystery, nothing to contradict Alex when she goes on and on about how her brain created the entire scenario and everyone in it. And that's such a big part of the appeal - not just for "Ashes to Ashes" but for British TV in general - that doing without it seems like a loss of some kind.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

And with yesterday's episode...

"Heroes" has finally, firmly crossed into WTF Territory. Here be dragons.

To be fair, they're still doing some things right. But as I watched yesterday's episode, I started thinking about storylines I care about this season vs. storylines I don't care about. And it's tilting pretty heavily in favor of the latter:

Hiro and Ando? So over the unfunny antics. It was nice the first time around, now it's just "meh".

Peter? Going dark-side is an interesting turn... or it would be, if we didn't have Claire and Mohinder doing the same while Sylar, of all people, gets a redemption subplot (uncomfortable S6 Spike flashbacks ahoy!).

Matt? There's no end to the tedium there.

Nathan and Tracy? If I hear "God" one more time... sure, it's nice that the latest twist subverted the whole Touched By An Angel bit, but still. It wears thin.

Sylar? Like I said, the whole redemption thing is just not working. Wasn't set up properly, and it's being rushed, and I still don't get a sense of why Sylar wants to stop killing when it's never seemed to bother him before.

Claire? Again, having her take a darker turn is a risky but intriguing development precisely because she's always been the "heart" of the series - and it would be great, if her storyline wasn't getting lost in the shuffle of so many characters switching sides.

Mohinder and Maya? Ugh.

What all this goes to show is that I'm either lukewarm or downright bored with pretty much every storyline that's running now. Where "Heroes" has been excelling is in specific moments and scenes, such as yesterday's last-minute reveal (which makes sense, for a change). It's enough, I suppose, though I'm doubting I'll be on board for season 4 if things don't turn around. There's still ample time, but it feels like Tim Kring's got an entirely wrong-headed approach to the situation: trying to recapture the fun of the first season is all well and good, but replicating the first season isn't the way to go. And bowing further to actors'/characters' popularity even when they've served their in-story purpose (ie: Sylar) isn't doing anyone any favors. Don't get me wrong, I adored S1 Sylar and Zachary Quinto is hotter than the Merciless Peppers of Quetzlzacatenango, but his character arc is textbook dead-ended.

Hard to say whether "Heroes" has actually jumped the shark yet; the third season is off to a horribly awkward start, but there's still time to turn things around. One thing's for sure, though: This Is Not My Beautiful Show.

(Same as it ever was?)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

First Impressions: Sanctuary

We're two episodes in (three, if you count the 90-minute pilot as separate episodes), and I'm still not sure where I stand with regards to "Sanctuary".

On paper, it's thematically similar to shows I've seen (and enjoyed) in the past, such as "The Middleman", "Ultraviolet" and "Torchwood" - an ordinary person is recruited into a mysterious organization that studies (and hunts) paranormal activities. So even if it doesn't blow me away, there's enough of a precedent that I'd at least find it entertaining.

Except... well, it's a bit muddled, especially when you look at the differences between the pilot episode and last week's "Fata Morgana". The pilot assigned our "normal" protagonist, Will Zimmerman, with perceptive skills that bordered on the inhuman - he could reconstruct a crime by giving the crime scene a once-over. Obviously, this makes him unique enough to join said mysterious organization (in this case, the titular Sanctuary run by Dr. Helen Magnus, more on her in a bit). But there's no mention of this in the next episode; he's depicted as just a run-of-the-mill forensic psychologist, and not a particularly good one given the end results of "Fata Morgana".

Which is more or less the episode that really messed up my first impression. The pilot, for all its obvious green-screen moments and the cheesy bits, was still interesting enough to warrant checking out the next episode, but "Fata Morgana" really doesn't work: having established a quasi-scientific uniform rationale for the various creatures and situations that arise, the second (third?) episode of "Sanctuary" deals with... witches. And aside from a line of dialogue that posits how there might be a scientific explanation for 1200-year-old personifications of Death flying around and (not) killing people, no such rationale emerges. And the ending... very odd. It might just be a miniature version of "sophomore slump", so I'm willing to give it another episode or two.

On to more positive aspects, I'm digging Amanda Tapping as Helen Magnus, a sort of Miranda Zero figure (albeit much more charming and quirky). The mother-daughter team-up bit, where Helen's daughter Ashley is Sanctuary's primary field agent (and the requisite team ass-kicker), is new to me - sort of like what "Buffy" would look like if Joyce had been Buffy's Watcher rather than Giles. It adds a whole layer to the boss-underling relationship (or the mother-daughter relationship, depending on how the story plays out - which aspect is more important to this show?).

It does seem to me, though, that the show could've stood to have at least one or two more cast members. Not so much because big casts are necessarily The Way To Go these days - as any second-season star of "Heroes" will tell you (so... Nichelle Nichols' job was to slice up a tomato and take a nap on the couch? We lost West and Monica but got stuck with fucking Maya? Boo! Hiss!) - but for three reasons:

1. Suspension of disbelief is taxed pretty heavily without implying that the entire Sanctuary organization can be successfully run with a three-person staff (four if you include the tech guy, five if you include the monkey-butler, but the point's the same).

2. Character dynamics are going to be extremely limited, because there isn't much you can do in the long-term with three main characters who don't have individual arcs outside the show's central premise. I mean, Will, Ashley and Helen may very well develop their own subplots, but you can be sure they'll all be subordinate to Sanctuary and its operations.

3. No matter how interesting or profound any of these characters will turn out to be, I have a hard time believing they'll be as compelling in six months. The more characters you have in play, the more you can alternate, put a fresher face in the limelight and let the better-explored figures take a breather.

It's hard to say where this show is heading: the potential's there, but I've seen enough shows flop with less. And whatever expectations I had of the pilot were a bit quashed by "Fata Morgana". So another episode or two, maybe, and we'll see where it goes from there...

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Why "God Mode" Is Bad For Stories

So: "Supernatural". Apparently, angels and demons are finally at war, with Earth - and the Winchester boys - right in the middle of the conflict.

Now, here's the snafu, and the very real reason why it's rarely a good idea to confirm the existence of God (much less the biblical God) in a fictional narrative that runs the way "Supernatural" does: according to Dean's guardian angel, God gave the order to spring the elder Winchester out of Hell, because He's siding with Heaven and humanity against Lilith and her demons (and, presumably, Lucifer).

Someone please explain to me where I'd find dramatic tension in a situation where God, Creator of the Universe is backing the hero's team. I mean, the show basically says God is actively working to thwart Lilith - "Why'd you do it?" "Because God commanded it. Because we have work for you." And... I just have to stress this. God. Tilts the odds just a bit in Heaven's favor, no? It's not being played like a deity idly watching Ragnarok approach, and apparently we're dealing with New Testament God here, as opposed to "Joan of Arcadia" God who doled out tasks and hints but wouldn't (or couldn't) directly intervene.

So are we supposed to think that Lucifer has a chance of beating God and the Home Team? Uh... whatever? I don't know. It's a weird, weird plot angle and I'm still not comfortable with it.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Game Review: A Tale of Two Kingdoms

A Tale of Two Kingdoms is another example of "games by gamers" - a freeware adventure game modeled after the sort of old-school types I've mentioned before (ie: Sierra's Quest line). Of course, unlike its contemporaries at AGD Interactive (all of which I've enjoyed), "A Tale of Two Kingdoms" isn't a modern remake: Crystal Shard built this game from scratch. On the one hand, that's an impressive accomplishment given how smoothly the game looks and plays. On the other hand, there are more than a few bumps along the way.

Let's start with the good stuff: the game world is beautifully designed, with visually stunning artwork. The "overworld" is a bit small due to the story premise (more on that in a bit), but there's an advantage to that because you don't have to travel far when you go from point to point - and, of course, this being an adventure game, you do quite a bit of legwork in the course of your progress. The music deserves special mention, as the soundtrack has some truly lovely themes that add a lot of atmosphere.

The story starts out well enough: the prologue details how King Vortigern, ruler of Theylinn, conquered the southern kingdom of Qualinem only to be overthrown and forced into retreat by mercenaries under the command of Maeldun Whiteblade and his lover Branwyn. Unfortunately, both kingdoms - weakened by the prolonged conflict - are now threatened by a goblin invasion, forcing Vortigern to invite Maeldun and his troops to Theylinn as a precursor to an alliance. Obviously, neither side is particularly happy about the circumstances. And then an assassination sends things spiraling out of control.

So far, so good. But things take an awkward turn halfway through, with the introduction of the faeries and their kingdom of Thierna na Oge. Most of the political subplot gets shunted aside while an unnamed villain pops up out of nowhere and starts messing with you. The game's multiple-choice system also presents a specific problem - oh, it's hardly the first game, or even the first adventure game, to have more than one play-through route, but what usually happens in those cases is you get a complete, intact narrative regardless of which path actually plays itself out (ie: the "Silent Hill" serise). But "A Tale of Two Kingdoms" doesn't really do this, partly because very little attention is called to the possibility of random events - one side-quest, for example, relies on you knowing when a specific character isn't present at their usual location... but if you stumble on a different puzzle first and solve it, you'll never be able to complete the former. It's very easy - too easy - to get to the end of the game with huge chunks of the story missing (such as the identity of the assassin). Which means that if you want anything even remotely resembling a coherent story, you need a walkthrough. And that's... kind of a drag. Especially since even the best ending has what TV Tropes would call a We Will Meet Again moment.

So... yeah. It looks lovely, and it plays well, and that says a lot about these talented individuals at Crystal Shard. But "A Tale of Two Kingdoms" doesn't make the most of what it's got, particularly in the story department.

Friday, September 26, 2008

First Impressions: Wolverine and the X-Men

The X-Men are animated again, after the '90s cartoon and the more recent (and, in my opinion, better-executed) "X-Men: Evolution". As I understand it, this new series isn't scheduled to air in the States until next year, so I'm not going to discuss it at length, but I got a chance to see the three-part premiere last week and two things seemed noteworthy.

First, there's no introduction to any of the characters: the show assumes, right from the start, that you know who the X-Men are. In fact, the second episode depends heavily on the viewer knowing that Rogue has links to both the X-Men and the Brotherhood. It's a strange approach given that "Wolverine and the X-Men" doesn't seem to follow anything that's come before: not the Singer/Ratner movies, not "Evolution", not the comics. It's fine for me, but I can easily see this show appealing to a wider audience and the lack of exposition might problematize that.

The other noteworthy aspect is that the series takes its premise from a very unusual starting point: one year ago, the Xavier Institute was destroyed by a mysterious blast, Charles Xavier and Jean Grey disappeared off the face of the Earth, and the X-Men have scattered to the four winds. As all this is going on, Senator Robert Kelly gets the Mutant Registration Act approved, mutants are being targeted and arrested on sight, and the Sentinel program is speeding up.

Broadly speaking, it's the opening act of "Days of Future Past". The X-Men have lost, and they're trying to regroup, with Wolverine leading the charge. I have to admit, it's an incredibly unorthodox way to start the story... which makes it all the more intriguing, no? As of the third episode, the team still isn't fully assembled (with former teammates flat-out refusing to return), so it all feels a bit more open-ended than X-Men adaptations usually go. We'll see where it goes...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

First Impressions: Spaceballs - The Animated Series

In a word?


I want to be absolutely clear here: "Spaceballs" is one of my favorite parodies of all time. It still makes me laugh today, twenty years after its release. And you can make the case that Mel Brooks isn't entirely too late to the party here: the Star Wars prequels are still the butt of many, many jokes, so there's definitely a place for a "Spaceballs" sequel.

Except... this series isn't funny. At all. Not even a little bit. The writing's weak and lacks the sharp wit of the original - and what's worse, it doesn't even stay on topic, because the second episode is a "Lord of the Rings" parody, of all things. The level of humor takes a step down: they're making boob jokes, for God's sake. Boob jokes.

And the sad thing is? Mel Brooks is still voicing Yogurt and Skroob, Daphne Zuniga's back as Vespa, Joan Rivers is Dot Matrix. This should have worked. It really should have.

But it doesn't.

Monday, September 22, 2008

First Impressions: True Blood, Merlin, No Heroics

Just some quick notes:

"True Blood": Too stupid to live, IMO. The central innovation - that the world knows about vampires - doesn't overcome this series being one big mega-cliche made up of a bunch of little cliches that interlock like those lion robots on "Voltron". You had that abominable Ricean thing with vampires being hypersexualized to the point where seeing one gives a pure-minded virgin all sorts of nasty thoughts, and how vampire blood is the new cocaine (plus it makes you frisky, since everyone knows the undead just exude sex appeal). Plus, the inane soap scenario where everyone has unrequited feelings for everyone else: Sam loves Sookie loves Bill , Tara loves Jason loves Dawn loves no one in particular but herself... Ugh. Pass.

"Merlin": I was ambivalent about this at first - Anthony Head is Uther Pendragon, I like - but after watching the premiere again, I've got to give it a pass; it certainly looks good, and while Colin Morgan's performance didn't get my attention he's hardly offensive... it's just one of those situations where the parts don't add up to a good enough sum. It might be that the Arthurian legends are particularly "set" in my mind, and I find it hard to accept deviations that aren't especially interesting: Arthur and Merlin being the same age, Arthur being such a negative figure (at least initially), Guinevere as a servant to Morgana, and that annoying Great Dragon with the cryptic Secret Destiny talk... none of that works for me, not just because of the divergence but because, based on the first episode, these changes don't seem to lead anywhere I want to follow.

"No Heroics:" Quite amusing, maybe because it takes the X-Statix approach to superheroes as fame-hungry media whores whose powers are comically useless. I can see how the premise wouldn't support a full-length series, but it's certainly amusing to watch a hero whose only power is the ability to see a minute into the future - it's a repeating punchline that practically writes itself. Clever!

First Impressions: Supernatural S4

"Because God commanded it."

Pardon the pun, but...


I have this pet peeve about overt religion invading my entertainment. Joss Whedon did good with the Buffyverse by sidestepping the whole issue of God - and by extension, the Devil (well, there was the First Evil, but let's leave Marti Noxon out of this, shall we?). If there were higher powers along the lines of Judeo-Christian faith, nobody knew for sure or was inclined to find out.

Now, I'll admit it seemed like "Supernatural" was heading this way for a while, though the one time there seemed to be an angel it was just a holier-than-thou priest's spirit playing vigilante. But yeah, then they had that episode where Dean is trapped with a demon and she basically spills the Lore of Demonkind, which is that Lucifer is real, which - in a roundabout way - confirms the existence not just of God, but of the Biblical God (whichever version had the bit with Lucifer's rebellion, I suppose). And, see, for me that's the point where suspension of disbelief goes sour. The supernatural is one thing; demons and the existence of a Hell (rather than THE Hell), okay, fine. I don't even mind the use of Latin exorcisms, because someone (Gaiman?) did this thing once about how the rituals you use against demons work because you believe they'll work, and it's that faith which does the job - the words are empty. But if the show's going to try and convince me that God and angels exist, and that they just sat on their collective arse while a demon army broke down the gates of Hell and escaped into the world two seasons ago... well, no. That's just going a bit too far. Here's hoping it's a feint? Again?

And while I'm bitching about the premiere: against all hope, long after you've given up, your big brother is released from Hell and comes back to you, alive and well. Jared Padalecki's reaction? Painfully understated.

Movie Review: "Boy A"

It's taken me a bit longer than usual to put up this review, mainly because I've been crying so I can barely see the keyboard. "Boy A" broke my heart into little pieces.

Jack Burridge - played to perfection by Andrew Garfield - is a sympathetic young man trying to start a new life, having spent most of his childhood and teenage years in prison for a terrible crime. He gets a job, makes friends, falls in love, all with the wide-eyed amazement and gratitude that comes with having a second chance. But deep down, he's still scarred by his past, and by his constant fear that someday it'll catch up with him. In that sense, he's traded one prison for another.

In my opinion, this movie isn't so much about the question of criminal rehabilitation as it is about the things people do to each other, good and bad. Chris drugs Jack without his knowledge - it's a friendly gesture on his part, but it leads to Jack losing control at a point where he's desperately trying to pull his fragmented life together. Zeb destroys everything simply because Terry loves Jack more than his own son. Philip is a victim who became a victimizer.

In fact, of all the characters in the movie, Jack's the only one who doesn't do anything wrong. One of the most heart-rending scenes is when his secret is discovered, and he breaks down crying that he's "not that boy". This is where Garfield's brilliant acting comes in: he's so sweet, so easy to love, so grateful for the simple kindness people show him, that you want him to be right, you want to believe that whoever he used to be died in prison and he's someone different, someone with a clean slate. Tabula rasa. But, of course, it doesn't - can't? - work that way.

It helps that the film is ambiguous as to whether Jack actually committed the crime he was accused of... but then, ambiguity is something "Boy A" uses very well. Certain questions are raised that go without answer: what really happened to Philip? Was Michelle there on the dock, at the "end of the line", or did Jack just imagine it - wishful thinking for the life he almost had and then lost? And what really happened to Angela Milton that day under the bridge? We don't know, because there are no easy answers.

A powerful film, all in all. I salute director John Crowley and the cast of "Boy A" for putting together a superb drama. I'm less happy that my eyes are all red and I look like Puffy the Vampire Wailer, but it was worth it.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Must... Get... Umbrella...

A thousand curses on the man who sent me this.

I'm telling you, it must be some kind of military experiment to see how many repetitions of a specific musical sequence can drive a person bat-shit insane.

Movie Review Double-Shot: "The Incredible Hulk", "Iron Man"

I guess time really does heal all wounds. If you'd asked me a few years back whether a Hulk movie could work after Ang Lee Set Up Us The Bomb, I'd have been skeptical at best - it took the Batman franchise almost a decade to bounce back from Joel Schumaker (you'd think all that rubber would've made it easier), and Batman's A-list; the Hulk may be popular but he's hardly Marvel's most visible property.

To be fair, it's not that Lee's approach was wrong on a conceptual level - the psych angle was the foundation of Peter David's seminal 11-year run, so it pretty much proved itself in that respect. But the execution was sluggish and sedate: not enough adrenaline to be considered an action movie, not enough complexity to be considered a psychodrama. It fell between the cracks and that was pretty much the end of it.

"The Incredible Hulk" is much more traditional: Bruce/The Hulk runs around a lot and soldiers run after him. Simple, yes, but that may be exactly why it works so much better than its lethargic predecessor. There's so much energy here - even Liv Tyler steps up from her usual Thorazine-like state, and the action sequences (particularly the chase scenes) are exciting. Casting was particularly good: Eric Bana was way too hunky to work the nerd archetype, but Ed Norton pulls it off while maintaining his usual cuteness. Tim Roth creeped me out. William Hurt was precisely the kind of Obnoxious Military Guy you want to slap until his face falls off.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about this movie was the way it dealt with the backstory in the first few minutes, getting it out of the way as quickly as possible. It's been a pratfall of comic-to-film adaptations that you can't really help using the origin story as the basis for the first (and, in many cases, only) movie; think of "Batman Begins" and "Spider-Man", for example. They're complete in terms of their own internal plots, but with regards to the characters' larger storylines they only really cover the first act, so to speak. "The Incredible Hulk" gets past this very easily: Bruce Banner experimented with gamma radiation, he was in love with Betty Ross, he mutated and accidentally injured her and her father, and he ran away. That's really all you need to know. And the fact that the story moves past that point so quickly lets things move along at a much better pace.

Ultimately, "The Incredible Hulk" doesn't reinvent any wheels; it doesn't need to do that. It's fun superhero action that hits every mark it's aiming for, and that's good enough.


Marvel was two-for-two this week, because I wasn't expecting much out of "Iron Man" either and I ended up being pleasantly surprised again.

My enjoyment of "Iron Man" comes down to a single factor: Robert Downey Jr. I've never been much of a Tony Stark fan, especially given the most recent turn as a mega-fascist douche, but Downey's portrayal makes the character charming, funny and compelling. When we talk about specific roles that specific actors were "born to play", it's Downey as Tony Stark that seems to be the strongest example of that elusive connection between an actor and the role he plays: the look, the body language, all the little tics Downey threw in, it all works perfectly.

It's nice to see that Jon Favreau understood the way "Iron Man" should be about the man behind the tech and not the tech itself - the movie could've easily turned into another hollow special-effects gallery a la "Transformers", but this is still Tony's story, and it shows with every little "wake-up call" he gets that bring him closer and closer to that last revelation.

And there are actually a lot of amusing moments, which I honestly didn't expect; I mean, the movie opens up with an abduction in Afghanistan, not exactly light-hearted stuff. But we also have Tony's hilarious field-testing of the armor and its components, and the dialogues with Pepper, JARVIS and Rhodes have a swift, comedic touch. It makes for a nice blend of laughter and excitement.

Of course, the scenes where the Iron Man armor actually does its work are duly impressive; we get to see multiple incarnations of the familiar design in rapid succession, which sells the idea of Iron Man as an identity that evolves even as Tony himself is evolving. And, as tradition dictates, the final showdown is suitably action-packed and dynamic.

So I can definitely say that "Iron Man" is deserving of the praise it's received; like "The Incredible Hulk", it doesn't really do anything that could be considered ground-breaking by comic book standards... but what it does, it does very well.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Season In Review: The Middleman S1

I mentioned a while back that the "Middleman" pilot left me ambivalent but willing to see more; I ended up sticking around for the whole season, and I'm glad I did. "The Middleman" is a razor-sharp, clever, funny show (so naturally, I'm not expecting a second season).

Keeping in mind that I've never read the comics this show is based on, "The Middleman" seems to be a response to "Heroes" in that the latter is modern superheroics seen through a modern perspective, whereas "The Middleman" is decidedly more old-school: we're talking Bob Kanigher-level craziness like Corleone-inspired gorillas and flying zombie fish and murderous alien dictators moonlighting as a boy band. It'd be on the verge of crossing over into Adam West Land and going completely insane... except that our protagonist-focalizer, Wendy Watson, has a cynical, nonchalant viewpoint. It's basically the 21st century poking fun at the Silver Age without ripping it to shreds in the process. There's an implied acknowledgement that these things are ridiculous, but they're still fun. And there's a wide array of threats ranging from mystical to alien to mad-scientific; the variety spices things up because you're never really sure what'll happen from one episode to the next.

Turns out Matt Keeslar was the right choice to play the Middleman after all; the character requires a certain level of... I don't want to say shallowness, because that's not what I mean despite the fact that it's the opposite of depth, which is what I do mean. Keeslar's never really had the kind of range or gravitas to hold the audience's attention, but the character of the Middleman doesn't need any of that to begin with. Plus, the Mirror Universe Middleman spent most of his time shirtless, in leather pants. Thanks, Javier! Much appreciated.

I really, really hope this show lasts longer - with "Heroes" coming back next week, it'd be nice to have a lighter-hearted counterpart that doesn't descend to Superfriends antics or talk down to its viewers.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Book Review: "Avalon High" by Meg Cabot

By the time I got to the end of this book, I had only one comment.

"Where's the kaboom? There was supposed to be an earth-shattering kaboom!"

Either I missed the point here, or Meg Cabot did. "Avalon High" starts off with a very transparent intent to rewrite the King Arthur stories in a contemporary high school context. Fair enough - if you can pull that off, you demonstrate that there's a human core to the myths that still holds up today (ie: the love triangle, Arthur's burdens, etc.). Cabot doesn't even try to hide what she's doing, what with the constant references to Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" and giving her characters names like Jennifer and Lance (gee, I wonder who they represent). To be honest, it's a little too obvious for my tastes, especially considering Cabot's cast are shallow stereotypes: Arthur/Will is the pure-hearted, universally-adored and blindingly beautiful golden boy, Lance is the hulking, monosyllabic best friend, Jennifer is head cheerleader and Queen of Popularity. And, of course, the first-person protagonist Ellie is an outsider who's just moved to town and falls in love with the aforementioned golden boy. I don't know, is there a point where something goes so far beyond cliche that it's original again? Like "it's so bad it's good"? If so, I don't think Cabot got that far.

But, okay, even taking all that into account, the story still works at this point. Then, about halfway through the book, Things Get Seriously Weird. It turns out the characters are literally reincarnations of the Camelot crew, and they've been repeating the same patterns over and over throughout the centuries, while Merlin keeps trying (and failing) to save Arthur from the unnamed Forces of Darkness that constantly kill him before he... saves the world, or something. It's not very clear. Everything pretty much goes sideways at that point and never really recovers. And the ending is surprisingly anticlimactic - I say "surprisingly" because it's the first time I've ever read a take on Arthur that didn't at least try for a big finish. The whole thing just goes flat. Flatter, I guess, since it doesn't manage to break the mold in the first place.

It might be that I'm not the target audience for this one; I'm guessing younger readers would be much more comfortable with the standard high school formula. I went into this hoping for a bit more than that, and I didn't get it.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Game Review: Grim Fandango

Okay. Well... that was different.

I'd heard about "Grim Fandango" for years, but never had a chance to play it until very recently. Historically, it's noteworthy for being one of the last adventure games created by LucasArts, before they started focusing exclusively on "Star Wars" material.

Which was a shame, because their adventure line was full of fun games with quirky humor, amusing characters and challenging puzzles. They tended to be more forgiving than Sierra games, because you could never die or get trapped in a losing scenario; while that might make things a little less exciting, it's nice not to have to save your game every sixty seconds (these were, after all, products of the pre-autosave days).

But "Grim Fandango" stands out even among its sister games like "Day of the Tentacle" and "Sam and Max Hit The Road". For starters, it's in 3D (as opposed to the more typical 2D format), and the game's plot and visual style mixes quasi-Mayan mythology, noir and Mexican imagery, a combination I've never seen before. "Grim Fandango" looks different, and that counts for a lot. The story is simple but perfectly balances comedy and a Casablanca-esque atmosphere: Manny Calavera is a travel agent for the Department of Death, responsible for helping freshly deceased souls start their four-year journey to the Other Side. Unfortunately, after an unexplained fall from grace, Manny constantly finds himself with people who can't "afford" (by whatever currency is valid in the Land of the Dead) much more than a walking stick, as opposed to tickets on a luxury train or a car. The story proper begins when Manny meets Meche Colomar, a kind but mysterious woman whose good deeds should have earned her passage on the prestigious Number Nine Express, but has nothing going for her. Suspicious of internal tampering, Manny investigates and ends up chasing Meche on his own four-year journey, through nightclubs and port cities and across the open seas. I should note here that I loved the witty banter between Manny and Meche - kudos to the voice actors for doing a superb job.

Unfortunately, this golden oldie has some mold(ie). After years of using a perfectly dependable mouse interface, LucasArts designed "Grim Fandango" with an incredibly uncomfortable keyboard-based system in which the arrow keys move Manny around, and objects of interest can be examined or used once Manny is close enough that his head turns towards said objects. Normally, this wouldn't be a big deal, except... well, remember the 3D environment? It makes navigation downright obnoxious because the directional keys aren't absolute - "up" means "forward" no matter which way Manny is facing, and it can get very frustrating because he doesn't turn smoothly either, so just moving from one screen to another can be a chore.

So it's very much a "story vs. gameplay" situation, but I think the creative merits of "Grim Fandango" compensate nicely for the problematic mechanisms.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Game Review: Quest For Glory II VGA

The wait is over: it's finally here.

I was a big fan of Sierra's Adventure/Quest line in the early '90s: "Space Quest", "King's Quest" and "Quest For Glory" still rank among my favorites, despite the outdated pop culture references and the poor (well, by today's standards) graphics. To be totally honest, I'm more impressed that creators like Ken and Roberta Williams, Scott Murphy and Al Lowe managed to craft such engaging games with relatively little tech to back them up. Sure, none of the "Quest For Glory" games look like "World of Warcraft", but I get a kick out of hearing John-Rhys Davies mock the Hero for some boneheaded move anyway.

Anyway... as the A/Q sub-genre was dying out, Sierra started releasing "remakes" of their oldest games, doing away with the text parser and the (admittedly rough, even by the most forgiving standards) EGA graphics in favor of a mouse interface and VGA. My guess is that, at the time, updating the classics seemed like a sure way to reach a new audience while maintaining their current fanbase... but reception was cool, to say the least. In all honesty, I'm not sure why: okay, QFG1 was ugly as hell, but SQ1 had its moments. Still, the results were poor enough that Sierra never got past the first game of any Quest series.

Fast-forward about a decade later, and enter AGD Interactive: a group of hardcore Sierra fans who've decided to do the one thing that transcends fanhood into something more - they decide to update the classics themselves, recreating Sierra's finest games in mouse-based VGA. Their first two releases were "King's Quest I" and "King's Quest II", now with more plot, voice-work and graphics at least on par with anything Sierra put out at its peak. And now they've remade "Quest For Glory II: Trial By Fire".

"Trial by Fire" is my second-favorite game in the "Quest For Glory" series (the first being "Shadows of Darkness", because it retroactively made its predecessors pieces in one large puzzle rather than isolated stories) - loosely based on an "Arabian Nights" environment, the player must choose the role of Fighter, Thief or Magic User and journey through the land of Shapeir, fighting monsters and solving puzzles.

The work AGDI has put into this remake astonishes me: on the one hand, locations are virtually identical to the original game, but the artwork is beautiful, from the scenery to the dialogue portraits: it looks more like a contemporary to "Shadows of Darkness" than anything before or after it. Understandably, there's no voice pack this time (seriously, the amount of dialogue in this game goes beyond massive and into the realm of Lovecraftian in its enormity) but that doesn't detract in the least. The nightmarish alleys of Shapeir can also be simplified so you don't spend two hours running around in circles looking for the South Plaza.

And, in the interest of keeping things fresh, the AGDI team has also added some innovations that weren't in the original (but probably should have been) - Magic Users can challenge other Shapeir sorcerers to friendly competitions with prompt rewards, Fighters now have the potential to score Critical Hits on their enemies, etc. So beyond re-experiencing the old game, there's a bit of the new to seek out. By normal standards, QFG2 isn't a very long game - I estimate about six hours tops - but it's certainly fun while it lasts.

AGDI's slogan is "The Spirit of Classic Adventure Gaming". Thanks, guys, for keeping that spirit alive!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Game(s) Review: World Domination

I've recently become fond of "world domination" RTS games, where you're given a large map and must, through tactics or brute force, conquer territories in traditional RTS battles while your opponent does the same. This mode places a greater emphasis on micromanagement and strategic planning, because the game can literally turn on a victory or a defeat at a specific location.

Over the past six months, I've had the opportunity to play three such games, though in each case the "world domination" mode was just a side-game attached to a traditional, mission-oriented RTS: there was the War of the Ring mode for "Battle For Middle-Earth 2", Global Conquest in the "Kane's Wrath" expansion of "Tiberium Wars", and finally, Galactic Conquest in "Star Wars: Empire at War". It's worth noting that in each case, I found the world/galactic conquest mode infinitely more engaging than the campaigns.

So how do they rate?

Let's start with "Battle For Middle-Earth 2", specifically with its expansion pack "Rise of the Witch-King" which made significant improvements to gameplay. This game draws heavily on the film trilogy as its source material, and I think that's a big part of the appeal: it's generally held that the various wars were the most memorable scenes in Peter Jackson's movies, so being able to recreate (or rewrite) those conflicts is a lot of fun. The War of the Ring is essentially a free-style mode that allows you to set your own objectives (ie: conquer all the strongholds of Middle-Earth, capture the South, destroy your enemy's capital, etc.) and you can choose starting points both for yourself and for your opponent. During gameplay, you receive bonuses for consolidating control over a particular "nation" (ie: conquering all the lands of Gondor).

Each faction starts with four generals, the only units capable of free movement throughout Middle-Earth: armies can either attach themselves to a general or move through friendly territories. You have to make a choice right at the start whether you're playing offensively or defenseively: you can either rush neighboring territories to build yourself a large power base, at the expense of having an army capable of defending it if your enemies come calling. Every map corresponds to a specific area in Middle-Earth, so you can find yourself assaulting Isengard or storming the Shire.

The Pros: Setting aside the aforementioned thrill of playing a game so closely tied to the most exciting aspect of Peter Jackson's trilogy, there's a lot to enjoy about the dynamic gameplay in "Rise of the Witch-King". Every land you conquer provides a certain number of build plots, allowing you to customize the composition of each territory: you can build farms to raise your income, barracks to produce soldiers and fortresses to provide automatic defense for otherwise vacant territories - if you leave a land vacant, without either a fortress or a standing army, you will automatically lose the territory to your opponent. Fortunately, even your most powerful units will only require one turn to build, so if you have a few barracks working together, you can pull together a decent force quickly enough. There's also some real challenge in terms of tactics: defeating a fortified enemy will be near-impossible if you're not ready.

The Cons: Auto-Resolve can be outrageously biased in favor of the computer. Even against a Brutal AI, there's no way a single band of garrisoned archers could repel eight Mordor Attack Trolls accompanied by the Witch-King. It's usually best to fight each battle "live", since Auto-Resolve will rarely calculate the potential of each unit when sizing up the different armies. Of course, this can lead to incredibly long campaigns - I usually clock about six consecutive hours or so. There's also an income/population cap that limits the size and composition of your armies: these can be expanded with fortresses and farms, but once you hit 1000, that's it.


Moving on, we have the "Global Conquest" mode of "Tiberium Wars: Kane's Wrath", the latest addition to the "Command and Conquer" series. On the whole, it's much less restrictive than "War of the Ring", though this can be as much a disadvantage as an advantage...

The Pros: Well, for starters, Auto-Resolve is much more balanced. You actually stand a fair-to-decent shot of defeating your enemy through the Tactical AI, provided you have the right units. Free movement allows you to deploy bases and move strike forces pretty much anywhere you want, in any direction: it's tricky, but you get used to it after a while. There's an interesting array of support powers available for use against enemy forces and bases, and of course each faction has their own superweapon. "Realistic" geography is also an interesting addition: Australia, for example, is an excellent staging ground because it's isolated and you can deploy strike forces all over the map from there. Likewise, the high concentrations of cities around England provide massive boosts to income.

The Cons: The biggest flaw in Global Conquest is that you have very, very few customization options. You can't pick your starting locations (resulting in awkward situations like having a starting base surrounded by three enemy bases) or determine your base layouts (and 9 times out of 10, vital buildings will be placed outside your defensive perimeter). You can't play around with faction alignment - it's always GDI vs. Nod vs. Scrin, and sometimes they'll double-team you. There's also no way to bypass the secondary victory conditions, a ludicrously imbalanced set of goals that will grant you automatic victory if you achieve them. For example, Nod has to corrupt 24 cities around the world - a ridiculously easy task. GDI has to control at least 33% of world territory - again, very simple and much less challenging than military victory. Unfortunately, the Scrin get short shrift here: not only is it practically impossible to get any momentum due to the extremely high cost production of virtually any unit, but their secondary victory condition is building 9 Threshold Towers, which means a minimum of 9 bases if you're not going for any other strategic structure. It's just not a fun way to play... and yet you don't really have a choice, because if you don't aggressively pursue your objectives, one of your enemies will get there first. And even if you outnumber then ten to one, you'll lose.


And finally, we have "Star Wars: Empire at War" and its expansion pack, "Forces of Corruption". It's rather different than the other two games by virtue of having two strategic arenas: after conducting a round of space combat to control the orbit of a planet, you must then land ground troops on the surface to eliminate the enemy base. Some units, like Darth Vader or Boba Fett, can function in both arenas, albeit in different fashions. Also, there's no real-time production as such: you start each battle, whether space- or land-based, with a specific number of units; if your force is too large, the remainder will be available as reinforcements during the course of the battle. This forces the player to adopt a completely different tactical style, because you can't simply set up a base and overwhelm your enemies; they can make more units, you can't. So you either build a "victory fleet" that can overcome any opposition, or scout the enemy and bring units that can specifically counter those defenses.

The Pros: "Empire at War" is interesting because it's so atypical of RTS games. Unlike BFME2 or C&C, where every faction is more or less equal in terms of raw power, the three factions of "Empire at War" require three different methods of play. The Empire, for example, mostly depends on steamrolling over its enemies with brute force. The Rebellion can't go head-to-head with that kind of power, but they can make lightning strikes on ground forces, snatching planets out from under the Empire's feet. The Zann Consortium (representing the criminal underworld of the Star Wars universe) can bypass the need to conquer planets altogether, corrupting them from afar and allowing all sorts of interesting bonuses to come through. Every world has specific tactical value, and what's more, the game makes defensive play very difficult: the only way you can increase the population cap is to build space stations over newly-conquered worlds, so on the one hand you have to expand your territory, but if you're spread too thinly your enemy will punch a hole right through your defenses. Moreover, your income is based in part on mining facilities built on conquered worlds, so you can't just build a Death Star and blow up planet after planet - if your opponent stages a successful counterattack, you won't have the resources to rebuild.

The Cons: There are some odd limitations to the Galactic Conquest mode - heroes such as Kyle Katarn and Mara Jade, and units like the Imperial Royal Guards, are available in certain campaign missions but not in GC (fortunately, this can be fixed by modding the game). Also, like Global Conquest, the "Forces of Corruption" expansion doesn't allow you to streamline the battle, forcing you to fight the two other factions simultaneously. Auto-Resolve harkens back to the weirdness of "Battle For Middle-Earth" - a perfectly well-defended base can be annihilated by some underpowered units and a hero or two.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Season in Review: Battlestar Galactica S4

Wow, that was... kinda bad, actually.

The most recent (abortive) season of "Battlestar Galactica" pretty much ends the duality I've complained about in the past, that tension between naturalistic science fiction and metaphysical theology. Unfortunately, the schism is resolved by sending the entire show into amorphous religious babble. It's as if the entire cast of characters has gone stark-raving mad, following prophecies and being moved by spirits or higher powers. In the past, these events always had a plausible alternate reason, but we've long since left that behind: so many events in S4 literally can't be explained outside divine intervention or something similarly mystical. And that's... really not what I'm looking for.

What's worse, character arcs either went nowhere or took some truly bizarre turns: Roslin goes on an extended power trip, Baltar turns into Jesus for no reason that I can determine, Starbuck turns into a shrieking, whining madwoman, Cally... well, the only thing I can think of is that Nicki Clyne pissed off someone rather powerful, because in the space of a single episode Cally goes from devoted mom and loving wife to suicidal pill-popper with paranoid (or not-so-paranoid) delusions. And don't even ask me to explain Tory. In fact, the whole Final Four (or Five, or Four, or Five...) arc was pretty much a waste because they don't do much of anything - we already had the "what it means to be a Cylon who wants to be human" scenario with Boomer/Athena (and, to a lesser extent, Caprica-Six). The Four didn't bring anything new to the table besides their "magical" connection to Earth. What-ever, show.

BSG's just about done at this point, so I'll probably see the last ten episodes through... but my expectations have fallen a great deal from where they were after the first season. Big disappointment overall.