Tuesday, December 31, 2013

MadCap's Game Reviews - "Best and Worst of 2013"

Wow, what a year we have had!  

2013. A year that has seen your favorite Munchkin journey into the field of film reviews, as well as play many, many games that have been the height of excellence or the cream of the crap.  And everywhere in between.  And on this, this glorious New Year’s Eve 2013, I look back on the reviews I’ve done and how far we’ve all come this year.  Because I haven’t done quite enough to do a list for film reviews, I’ve decided to break down what would have been a Top 10 List into simply the best and the worst.  That being said, let’s go ahead and get the good part of this out of the way…

Best Game of 2013 - Far Cry 3

Back in August, I reviewed a game that had already been out for a few months beforehand.  Drawn to it by friends sending me to the Let’s Plays of TrendKill, I got the game and went on a journey as a (in my own words) “third-place winner of a Zach Braff look-alike contest” by the name of Jason Brody found himself on Rook Island following being kidnapped by the affably evil Vaas and his merry band of equally psychotic pirates.  Despite the flamboyant nature of Vaas being entertaining, I had believed I had merely picked up another dime-a-dozen shooter.  “Skyrim With Guns”, as Machinima had called it (and, by the way, it isn’t).

But what it was, however, was a rather chilling and insightful trip by a person who is literally pushed to the limits of mind and body simply to survive...and then more.  In a rather seamless and very believable way, we see Jason Brody slip from a young man who goes into a panic when he murders in self defense to gleefully gunning down the men under the command of Vaas and Hoyt.  The game doesn’t question the morality in any overt way, there’s not a morality system or anything of that nature that many other games might have.  It is simply a descent into madness, very beautifully brought up in certain text screens displaying text from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland more and more throughout the course of the main plot.

Rook Island itself feels alive, and several NPCs speak about how those who come to the island are forever changed.  In Jason Brody’s case, it is not for the better in either case.  I praised the game on pretty much every point, especially its storyline. In fitting in with the themes of madness and change, there really is no good ending like in a lot of games.  There are no alternate paths to take to get a different one, no way to escape the two endings.  Either Jason descends completely into what he has become; or he leaves to return to the life he once knew and is forever changed, perhaps even unable to reconcile what he was with what he has become.  Either way is sad, and there really is no good answer or happy ending for him.  And it’s done well enough that I wasn’t at all mad, like I might be with some less well-crafted game.  Thus, the best game of the year 2013 is Far Cry 3.

Runner Up:  Pokemon False Red

Technically a ROM hack rather than a game, but False Red gets an honorable mention, having been my Halloween special for this year and being my second favorite game that I’ve reviewed this year.  Unlike creepypastas like Creepy Black or Lost Silver, False Red goes for the horror of making us realize that we, the player, might be the biggest antagonist of a video game at all in stealing the story from the player character.  This sort of thing is most appropriate, really, in the Pokemon series.  I’ve enjoyed other entries of the series, and I’m currently playing Pokemon X for those curious, but for me the classic three games of Red, Blue, and Yellow remain as the definitive symbols in my mind.  The fact is that people complain about the lack of innovation in the games with mechanics, but the storylines also have been the same when you boil them down to their bare basics.  What if that is just stealing the story from Red, doing the same things and achieving the same things again and again and again?

This misses the number one slot, however, by the ending being somewhat disappointing.  I was expecting, considering the climate and the attitude that Red had perished, that a final climatic battle with Red on Mount Silver was in order. Instead, we defeat the rival only to have him and Professor Oak pull a “taking my ball and going home” and erase the player’s save. In a way, this makes sense being that the lines between whether NPCs were aware or not of the changes had started blurring before you’d even left your house, but it still feels like there could have been more and a final battle against Red would have made it beyond perfect.

Worst Game of 2013 - Aliens:  Colonial Marines

I have already said all I can say on this.  This game is offensive, it is wrong, and it has absolutely no right to exist.  In a fair and just world, Randy Pitchford would be imprisoned for this absolute abomination of a game.  Gearbox Studios stole funds from SEGA to finance their “true” pet project (the first two Borderlands games), spent several minutes lying to everyone who was excited for this game and presented us with a steaming pile of references to a very, very good movie that deserved far, far better than this.  And, yes, by the way, FOX has declared that this is the canonical sequel to James Cameron’s Aliens.  Of course, these were the same people who were stupid enough to cancel Firefly, so I wouldn’t pay too much heed to what they say.

I could go into the literally dozens of plot holes that this game has in relation to not only Aliens but Alien 3, but I won’t.  I could go into how they managed to present a trailer that made the game look amazing and then gave us a thing that was so stripped down that it looked like a game from about ten years ago (and played even worse) and expected us to be impressed, but I won’t.  I could go into how Randy Pitchford and the entire team at Gearbox should never be allowed to work in video games ever again, but I won’t. But I will say that this is the worst game I’ve ever played.  Not just of 2013, but ever.  So far, this is the worst.

And I want you to think about that, I’ve played Vampire Rain, just to put that into context for you. That was horrific and unplayable, but you want to know why I rate it higher? If only just higher than this game? BECAUSE IT ISN’T TRYING TO BE ANYTHING ELSE!  There was no pretense about it, there was no set up that it was going to be a truly great movie-based game.  It was a pile of streaming shit and didn’t try to hide that fact.  Colonial Marines, and by extension the people who made it, represent the worst type of charlatans.  It will not change my opinion of Randy Pitchford, but I would like to point out that even Joel Schumacher apologized for Batman & Robin, and it’s the least he could do for this.

Or, to summarize my thoughts on the entire thing, I would like to amend my final sentence in my Colonial Marines review:

“You completely suck, Aliens:  Colonial Marines...completely…

Runner Up: Nothing

After that rant, are you surprised?!

And now, my friends, I leave you as we go now to ring in the New Year.  What were your best and worst of 2013? Tell me in the comments!  Happy New Year, everybody!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

MadCap's Reel Thoughts - "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" (2013)


I’ll go ahead and be honest with you, everyone.  On two counts; one, I didn’t intend to do reviews of more recent films (so don’t expect this sort of thing that often), and two, I didn’t really enjoy the first Anchorman movie.  I enjoy several films of Will Ferrell’s - ones that come to mind immediately are Talledega Nights:  The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Stranger Than Fiction - but Anchorman was just never one of them.  I didn’t dislike it, and I’ve admittedly used the “Boy, That Escalated Quickly!” meme often enough, but there just wasn’t much there for me to enjoy.  I didn’t really have the same laughs I did from the aforementioned Talledega Nights or Blades of Glory.  To me, it was a pretty forgettable film save for a few good laughs.

Then they made a sequel.

Needless to say, I was more than a little confused by this.  But apparently people have said it’s really good.  In fact, even now, the film is getting mostly positive reviews for its work.  And, of course, the only real question I can ask is - why?  After viewing it, I had seen a film that does fairly well for its first half before dissolving into a rather disjointed mess.  Not that it’s bad per se, but it really doesn’t have any sort of structure following the midpoint and really just breaks down into some gags that would have been better serving in a comedic anthology film like And Now For Something Completely Different.

The plot involves Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) being fired from a prominent news station in New York while his now-wife, Veronica Cornerstone (Christina Applegate), gets the anchor position in his place.  Destitute, Ron falls in with a new attempt to broadcast the news twenty-four hours a day, called the Global News Network. What follows is satire of how television news had descended from journalistic integrity into only caring about ratings and leading into the media cesspool that we know today.  Who started it? Ron Burgundy, with a single sentence and the 2 a.m. time slot for GNN.

The subplots along with this involve such “gems” as; Burgundy attempting to connect with his son, Burgundy attempting to deal with his new boss (Meagan Good) who he immediately clashes with, and Burgundy’s fellow newscaster Brick (Steve Carrell) developing a relationship with similarly mentally handicapped GNN office employee (Kristen Wiig).  All of these situations lead to admittedly very hilarious jokes in their own right.

However, these are set up and played out and there’s nothing to them.  They’re gags for right then and there’s few to no call backs or pay off for any of them. No better is this demonstrated in actual dialogue when Burgundy is taken to a dinner with his boss’s family. Some of the most racially insensitive dialogue that crosses the line not once, not twice, but many thousands of time...and then is almost handwaved away on the cab ride home. And a lot of the film is like that. There are a few memorable things, but I could remember very few things from the film in the end...at least until the second half of the film.  The second half of the film, in particular the last twenty minutes or so, is distinctly memorable.

That, by the way, is not remotely a compliment.

Around the midpoint, Burgundy loses his sight due to an accident and is forced to leave newscasting.  Living in a lighthouse in the middle of nowhere, he eventually reconnects with his wife and son and through the power of comedy becomes a more loving husband and father - even nursing a baby shark back to health.  The problem with this plot, however, is that it really just kills the pacing of the film dead.  It completely shifts gears, and then when Burgundy gets his sight back it shifts right back with very little warning, leaving us wondering why exactly they bothered.

Nearing the resolution of the film, Burgundy is faced with some rival newscasters coming to attack him as he tries to reach his son’s piano recital, exactly like the all out brawl in the first film between the San Diego news stations.  At first, it is simply the two rival teams at the GNN, but they are soon joined by the BBC (headed by Sasha Baron Cohen), ESPN (headed by Will Smith), the CBC (headed by Jim Carrey and Marion Cotillard), and MTV (headed by by Kanye West).  Into the fray as well comes the History Channel (headed by Liam Neeson), who also bring to the fight a minotaur and the ghost of Stonewall Jackson (John C. Reilly).  Weapons are drawn, including Brick pulling out a gun from the future (and just laughing maniacally when asked where he got it), and the battle begins.

And then, Harrison Ford shows up from earlier in the film and becomes a “were-hyena”. Just if there were not actually enough ways for you to not only ask "what the hell is going on?", but to frequently enough that you are asking it at an average of every thirty seconds.

In spite of it all, Burgundy manages to get to his son’s recital after coming to the realization that is family is more important than the ratings, attends Brick’s wedding, and then gets attacked by a shark.  And, literally, that’s the end.  Lights up, exit audience, the end.

I’ll give Anchorman 2 it’s due credit, when it hits it out of the park, it really hits it out of the park (I think the phrases “Bat is the chicken of the cave” and “Cat is the chicken of the railway” will be sliding themselves into conversation whenever possible for weeks to come for me), but it doesn’t really do it with any consistency (twice that I can recall after viewing), and it fails to form any cohesive narrative.  I’d say it borders on the absurd, but it doesn’t. It runs right over the line of absurdity, reaches back, and drags it along with the duration of its run.

It’s also abundantly clear that Will Ferrell and his friends are really enjoying what they’re doing.  They have claimed in interviews, and Will Ferrell has said on Twitter that he really wanted to do another Anchorman movie, so I really can’t fault them for that on it. But the fact is that Anchorman 2 is a really unnecessary sequel.  Not that it doesn’t have it’s moments, but the world could have done without it.

Friday, December 27, 2013

MadCap's Game Reviews - "Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide"

Shadows of Undrentide is the first of the two major expansions of Neverwinter Nights.  However, don’t expect a lot of Neverwinter or nights, as Shadows of Undertide begins in the snowy village of Hilltop in the Silver Marches, around the same time that the Wailing Death is afflicting Neverwinter.  Unlike escaped prisoners, zombies, a wizard, and pirates, the player character must contend with a kobold tribe, a gnoll tribe, and a white dragon.  And that’s just the first act.

A player character can be created, as in vanilla Neverwinter or imported from another save game.  With how the enemies are set up, the campaign seems like one that should be started at first level or so.  This, of course, means that you can transport your character over from Neverwinter if you’ve beaten the campaign and completely break the game…at least until act two.  Undrentide is technically split into three sections – Chapter One, an Interlude, and then Chapter Two.  The first chapter involves an attack on the player’s home – a school for adventurers run by Drogan Droganson, the most badass dwarven wizard ever…who gets immediately poisoned by kobolds and later drops an entire temple down on himself.  Spoiler alert.  

Thus, with the master knocked out, the player is charged with recovering artifacts that were stolen by the kobolds, which lead into the main quest as a whole as well as several side quests around the village of Hilltop.  These include such interesting asides as trying to convince the village to allow a Red Wizard of Thay to set up shop in town, clearing giant spiders out of an elven crypt, and saving a duergar’s daughter from a giant attempting to mate with her, as well as several others.  The main plot also allows the player a glimpse at the main Big Bad, as well as hinting at things to come.

The Interlude is just that, an interlude.  The player ends up joining up with a Halfling caravan heading into the Anauroch desert in order to get a crystal identified.  Until the last settlement reached in the section, the main plot is hardly even addressed.  It provides a few neat side adventures that help break up the main plot and keep it from being too monotonous.  I think this was something that the vanilla game sorely missed.  By the same token, however, there was a real sense of weight and the threat of something that could end the world, something that isn’t really achieved here until Chapter Three.

"Get up on the hydra's back!!!"
Chapter Three sees you being awoken from stone – oh, yes, there’s a Medusa Sorceress who ends up being the Big Bad of the game, spoiler alert – to be enslaved to a desert merchant for a time until you can find the Medusa and stop her from using a magical series of mirrors to raise the sunken city of Undrentide and take over the world.

From a gameplay standpoint, Undrentide plays exactly the same way that its vanilla form does.  However, it does add some new prestige classes to the game in the form of Arcane Archer, Assassin, Blackguard, Harper Scout, and Shadowdancer classes.  Again, all following the Third Edition ruleset for Dungeons & Dragons…more or less.  There’s also fifty new spells for the magically inclined.

In full summation, it has a fairly good storyline and a couple of new goodies to play with depending on how hard you look.  It’s not as long as its parent game nor really as in depth, but it’s definitely enjoyable and worth the time invested.  And worth it especially due to the fact that, according the in-universe canon, the player character from Undrentide is the one that will face off against…the Hordes of the Underdark

Shadows of Undrentide is now available from Bioware and Atari for PC.