Friday, April 18, 2008

We Own The Night

From the previews I thought that We Own The Night was going to be the story of two brothers who end up as enemies in the war on drugs. But that's not really what it is. It's more the story of two divided brothers reluctantly coming together in the face of tragedy; basically a tale of the bond of family winning over everything else. And watching the preview again now I probably should have picked up on that, but it's hard to process all that information in a short time period.

It's a good thing, because the plot is far more interesting this way. Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg play brothers who are headed in opposite directions. Wahlberg's character is following the footsteps of their father (played by Robert Duvall) as a police officer, while Phoenix's character is partying hard as a club manager and is slowly getting involved in the drug culture. In a lesser movie, Phoenix's character would be on path to become some villain who slowly loses his humanity and the ability to understand the harm he's causing. But this ain't that movie. Instead he goes through the painful process of abandoning the life he had built for himself when he sees harm come to his brother and father.

It’s all about family and duty. The two brothers don't get along at all. But even if in adult life you don't connect with your sibling that doesn't mean you can undo the childhood you shared. That bond, even if unintended or undesired, is strong. Phoenix's character throws away everything to protect his family, but he doesn't do it through some noble sense of martyrdom. He doesn't go through some heartfelt transformation and emerge sunshine and rainbows. He's conflicted the whole time. He loses the life he wanted, and he's pretty miserable afterwards.

It's complicated. I came in expecting something less subtle than what I got, so I was pleasantly surprised.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

More Tabula Rasa

You can currently get Tabula Rasa dirt cheap on Amazon. If you were on the fence but didn’t want to plop down the money for the initial purchase it should be a no brainer now.

I'm definitely still enjoying it. I'm currently at level 35, which means I've made my final class selection (Grenadier) and have had a few levels to play around with it. I don't have a flamethrower, but I do have a cryogenic disperser (or as I call it, "The Popsicle Maker"), which is equally awesome. That combined with rockets, chainguns, and some area of effect based Logos abilities makes me obscenely good at taking down large squads of enemies. I'm currently working on tracking down the Logos to unlock my class' signature Concussion Wave ability.

The development team is doing a great job of regularly making improvements to the game. The latest update made holding a crazy combo even more compelling and added some great rewards for attacking/defending control points. I hope they're able to keep up this agile development pace, because they have some really cool ideas in the pipeline. Tabula Rasa has a lot to teach the MMO genre at large, so I thought I'd compile a list of its strengths and weaknesses.

Things Tabula Rasa could teach other MMOs:

  • Quick Travel: Less time wasted due to instant and free travel between waypoints. Better connectivity due to multiple waypoints per zone
  • Play-Style Flexibility: Less rigid about grouping because instances scale to squad size
  • Feels Heroic: Multiple enemies instead of single targets that take a long time to kill. You are stronger than most individual targets, so you feel like a bad ass.
  • Risk: Incentive to play aggressively due to combo XP modifiers
  • Dynamic Environments: Control points provide a constantly moving PVE target. A mix of allied and enemy NPCs dropping in randomly creates a real warzone feeling.
  • Achievements: Per zone rewards for various accomplishments (Targets of Opportunity). Logos provide exploration oriented goals.
  • Informed Decisions: The most important decision for your character (class) is made after you've already had time to play and figure out what you like and don't.
  • Don't Make Me Start Over: Cloning lets you branch your character to try something different without having to start over from scratch
  • Levels Are Less Important: Less rigidness in the level strata means you can take on enemies well above your level. There's still a point beyond which you're screwed, but it's not as tight of a level band as WoW or LotRO.
  • Informal Cooperation: Kill credit is shared even if you're not in a squad, provoking more impromptu grouping
  • Share: Built-in support for sharing resources between your characters
  • Unlockables: The hybrid races are only available after completing quests, making them somewhat of a prestige item.
  • Community: Regular and frank Feedback Fridays let you know what the development team is up to
  • Development: Small updates with a short development cycle

Things Tabula Rasa could learn from other MMOs:

  • Casual Play: Rest XP bonus rewards you for having self control
  • Items Have Value: Interesting rewards for running instances (especially since instances are available for all play styles now). The lack of soulbound items in Tabula Rasa makes getting gear a little too easy (and thus less rewarding)
  • Epic Boss Battles: Interesting scripted encounters that make you poo your pants
  • Customization: Any shortcomings in WoW's user interface can be overcome with UI mods. Empowering the community to do work for you is a good thing.
  • More Locales: There are currently two planets in Tabula Rasa, with each planet having multiple zones. Unfortunately this only really amounts to two different palettes. It's sad when a game with interstellar possibilities has less variety than Middle Earth.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


I recently finished the second season of Carnivàle, which since the show didn't get renewed means I've watched the entirety of the series. Really puts a damper on that planned six season story arc. The show took an aggravatingly snail-like pace to unravel the primary storyline, to the point where I just stopped caring. There's a personified agent of evil, his counter agent of good, and lots of tension… but they don't end up in the same place until the very end of that second season. There are shows out there that string mystery along successfully, but this isn't one of them.

I didn't stick with watching the show for two seasons because of the story; I did it for the setting. Carnivàle follows a traveling circus in the depression era dustbowl, and completely nails that dirty, desolate, freaky atmosphere. It's got one of the best title sequences ever. The costume design is also especially noteworthy; it takes talent to make me lust after a haggard three-piece suit that's been worn every day and drug all over middle America. Everything fits together to create a unique atmosphere that lets you completely forget the meandering plot.

The primary protagonist, Ben Hawkins, isn't really likeable. But he's not explicitly unlikable either... he's just kinda… there. He squints, he whines, but mainly he just putts about while having a hard time understanding the world he's caught up in. His antagonist, Brother Justin the preacher, is clearly the stronger character, but your feelings about him get all confused in trying to figure out where his sister fits in. Is she the root of his evil or is she a victim? From episode to episode her tact varies wildly. The writers set up Ben and Justin on a Good vs. Evil storyline but then muddle the characters in an effort to make them feel more complicated. The end result is that you just don't care what happens to them.

To be fair, it's only the main plotline that's unsatisfying. The stories of the secondary characters are far more interesting. It helps that their arcs are introduced and resolved in a timely fashion. They also get less wrapped up in the series' uneven mysticism. I'm all for the supernatural, but I was never really able to figure out how this world worked. There's obviously some stuff afoot, but too many ideas are introduced and not enough are explored.

Carnivàle is a good series to sit back and watch if you don't want to think too hard. Unforgettable scenery, great costumes, interesting characters, unsatisfying plot. I wouldn't recommend the whole pie but it is worth tasting a slice.

Jet Li's Fearless

When it comes to martial arts, Jet Li's Fearless delivers, but everything else is just blah, blah, blah. I realize that these movies aren't really about the plot… but is it that hard to make it engaging? Fearless is the story of a prodigy's reckless youth, the (self-inflicted) tragedy that causes him to go into exile and think hard about his life, and then his return with transcending maturity and eventual martyrdom. In no way does the younger character feel connected to the older one. It might be me applying Western expectations to an Eastern story, but I like to see a character grow instead of be replaced. We're an individualist culture, and like to see the soul of a character persist through a transformation. Jet Li's character's change isn't properly explained. It's like you take trauma followed by a breath of fresh air and out pops perfection. Formula for success. Maybe I just demand a few more flaws from my hero characters.

Anyway, Jet Li kicks butt 'n stuff, and it's all very pretty. No nearly as pretty as Hero or Crouching Tiger, but still pretty. The film was marketed as being Jet Li's last epic martial arts film, which made me very confused when I recently saw ads on a bus for The Forbidden Kingdom with Jet Li and Jackie Chan. Not that I'm complaining: that sounds like a great idea. It could be spectacularly awful (the fate of the world rests on the shoulders of a teenage boy… again?), but the match-up will no doubt be incredible.

Anyway, you won't be wasting your time with Fearless; it's entertaining. But it left me feeling a little empty.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Beautiful Katamari (Xbox 360)

If you've played one Katamari game, you've played them all. There have been some small variations on the core formula, but it hasn't strayed too far from "roll up stuff and get big." Which is good, because that simple thing is so entertaining. If you've spent a lot of hours on the PS2 Katamari games, there's not much new to play around with in Beautiful Katamari on the Xbox 360. But if you've never experienced the joy of rolling up huge balls of crap, Beautiful Katamari delivers. You'll grow from the size of a penny to be bigger than the sun, all while listening to crazy J-Pop.

Every time you roll into another size class it's an epic moment. It's like leveling up in an RPG and going back to squash all the baddies that gave you trouble before. It's extremely entertaining the first time, but after you've seen the whole progression it does lose a little of its bite. And unfortunately you can only get so big before there's no more content in the game for you to roll up. Actually, the more I think about it the more I realize that Katamari is an RPG.

I really enjoyed Beautiful Katamari, but I can't help but be a bit disappointed. I'm ready for something new. Later in Beautiful Katamari you find yourself rolling up all these famous monuments from different civilizations, like Egypt or China. It'd be really fun to start out in different locales like that. They can't really raise the size limit anymore (you're already sucking up black holes by the end), so they way to improve the game is to add variety in the existing spectrum. Although… it could be possible to take it smaller. I could totally see Katamari at the molecular level... or cellular like Innerspace or Osmosis Jones... or rolling on the surface of a dog picking up fleas and hairs. Really, the game writes itself. Picking up sumo wrestlers is fun and all, but I think this series is ready for a scenery change.

Ben Hur

It seems like bad form to criticize a man's peak performance so closely after his death. I didn't plan it that way; the disc was already on its way back to Netflix when the news hit. And I know if I don't write down my thoughts now I'll have promptly forgot them a month from now. So, um, sorry for the bad timing?

Bun Hur is a widely recognized classic. It won like a bajillion Academy Awards in 1960 (more specifically, 14), including Best Actor for Mr. Heston. But let me tell you, it has not aged well. The legendary chariot scene holds up, but the rest is… meh. The characters are paper thin, Charlton Heston is the super cheese, the naval combat scene is laughably bad, and the whole thing is long and pretentious. The only reason to watch Ben Hur is to check it off your list of "movies I'm supposed to see for historical significance." But your time is really better spent doing anything else.

The film labels itself as "a tale of the Christ." It's not; it's a tale of revenge, with a bit of Jesus bolted on after the real climax of the movie. For part of the movie I thought they were going to handle the Christ thing well. I seemed like they were going to subtly interweave the story of Jesus with Ben Hur's story to give more context to both. It could have been really thoughtful and classy. But all that goes out the window when Jesus' death is met with stormy weather and instantly healed lepers across the land. The whole thing would have been much more interesting if there was a chance Biblical connection that was a side note in the life of Jesus (healing lepers 'n stuff) but huge for Ben Hur. But this is not a movie of subtlety. It's a big mess of dress up (how do those Romans get their whites so white?) and play acting. Skip it.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

ScrewAttack's Top 20 SNES Games

The Atari brought gaming home, the NES pushed games beyond the abstract, the SNES perfected 2D, and then things went into 3D with the Playstation and N64. Most people weren't willing to follow the transfer from 2D to 3D, and I really can't blame them. With that transition came an increase in control complexity and a drop in graphical quality. For most people it was a downgrade, and that marked the end of their time with video games. The SNES was really the pinnacle of the 2D era. I wish there were more epic 2D games being developed today, but there aren't, so a list of the top SNES games is about as close to 2D heaven as you can get.

You can watch the ScrewAttack coverage here: Part 1 (20-11) Part 2 (10-1). And I recommend you do, but for the purpose of discussion, here's the whole list:

20) Donkey Kong Country
19) Killer Instinct
18) F-Zero
17) UN Squadron / Gradius 3
16) Star Fox
15) Turtles in Time
14) Street Fighter 2
13) Super Mario Kart
12) Contra 3
11) Super Castlevania 4
10) Actraiser
09) Yoshi's Island
08) Megaman X
07) Super Mario World
06) Secret of Mana
05) Super Mario RPG
04) Chrono Trigger
03) Final Fantasy 6
02) Zelda: A Link to the Past
01) Super Metroid

Now that is a solid list of games. I have yet to post a list of my all-time favorites, but you damned well know that both Super Metroid and A Link to the Past are going be on there. I've been widdling away at my second run through FF6 on the bus, which is an absolute classic. Secret of Mana deserves the shout out, both for breeding RPGs with action and for the awesome co-op. And damn if Super Castlevania doesn't have one of the best video game soundtracks ever.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


Apparently I'm going against the grain in saying that Magnolia didn't rock my world. It's not that I didn't like it; I enjoyed it very much, actually. But it's fatally flawed.

High expectations always ruin movies, so I generally try to go in with as blank of a slate as possible. But Magnolia breaks this by establishing expectations in the first few minutes of the film. It tells a couple of stories of coincidence, where all the pieces fall together in some sort of sublime harmony. The feature that follows is supposed to be another such tale, but it's not. It's a great story, but it in no way fits into the pattern of the first couple vignettes. This breaks the entire experience. For the entirety of the film I was ready for some grand connection which never happened. The movie set my expectations and failed to meet them.

If I could ignore what the movie told me it would be about, It'd be much happier. But disappointment is hard to overcome. Which is too bad, because it really is an exceptionally well told story. The many storylines are all interesting, and the way in which they are stitched together is truly masterful. The emotion from one story stays with you as you transition to the next story, and it tints it every so appropriately. It's as if the threads are finishing each other's sentences. From a storytelling perspective it's amazing, but of course that is a separate thing from the storylines being naturally connected. See, I really can't get over it. Those initial vignettes were charming, but they're out of place and in the end cripple the potential of this brilliant film.

Expectations are dangerous, but let me try to use their power for good. Watch this movie, but don't expect it to go anywhere transcendent. The movie will tell you differently, but don't listen to it. It lies!

Board Games meet Video Games

Thank you random blog for compiling a list of video game to board/card game conversions. They're not like movie to game adaptations, where the fundamental mode of consumption has shifted from passive to interactive. Both video games and board games are obviously interactive mediums, but the type of interaction is very different. Video games are limitlessly virtual, where board games are physical, tangible things. The challenges involved in converting something from virtual to real while keeping the same spirit fascinates me. What aspects of the video game experience are important enough to demand a real physical object in your hand? Do you keep the same core game mechanics?

So I clicked through some of the links to look at the more interesting conversions. I skipped the CCGs, as that I'm not interested in tempting another expensive trip through those types of games. I'll take the Card Game part, but I could happily skip the Collectible aspect.

Starcraft: The Board Game (review, picture)
Real-Time Strategy games grew out of turned-based strategy games, which in turn grew out of board wargames, so it's natural to see Starcraft come full circle. Certainly the thought of moving around hydralisk miniatures sounds awesome. From the reviews it sounds like a pretty solid game, with enough variety in victory conditions to mix it up while preventing long games.

Halo Action Clix (review, picture)
Of the three reviews I read, none of the reviewers were familiar with Halo... which blows my mind. I mean, most of the value of these cross-over games is in the brand, right? But it seems there is a whole set of people who are interested in video games but don't play them (either because the games are too violent, or the controls are too complex, or whatever), and a board game adaptation is great approximation. I personally have a hard time wrapping my head around how a turn based wargame can capture the spirit of Halo deathmatch. But a lot of people seem to dig this one, and the miniatures look rad, so power to 'em.

World of Warcraft: The Board Game (review, video review, picture)
Yes, there is a WoW board game. And apparently it's epic in length and a little grindy… just like the real thing! I'm actually very intrigued by this one. It sounds like they distilled down character development, traveling, questing, and looting into a nice board game. It sounds a bit like the Middle Earth CCG that I used to play back in the day (which was great, but way too complicated for it ever to be as awesome as it was in my head). The WoW board game is compelling as an accelerated version of the MMO, but keep in mind that means a game takes only about five hours… yeah.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Tag Changes

Awhile ago I created a special tag for posts that didn't pertain to gaming. I used the tag "notgame," which seemed descriptive enough at the time. Well, then I started getting into this whole board gaming thing and it got confusing. If a board game post has nothing to do with video games, do I tag it with "notgame"? That seems... odd. So I changed the tag. I've started using "videogame" and "notvideogame" as that tags. All existing posts have been retagged.

Anyway, this is your head's up in case you were hitting the "notgame" page and not getting any new content. Redirect to here instead.