Tuesday, December 8, 2009

War. War never changes. – Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Like everyone else in the game industry, I was moderately curious about Modern Warfare 2 and whether or not it would live up to the INSANE amount of hype that had been generated about it. I really liked the first one (to the point where I bought an Xbox 360 to play it on), but I was a bit scared of retaking the plunge into COD territory. Because I really liked the game, I convinced myself that I should play through the single-player campaign on Hardened and then again on Veteran, and to try and get every single Achievement.

By the time I was finished, I had succeeded in completely ruining the game for myself; on Veteran, the annoying, stupid flaws of the campaign came into much sharper focus, like the infinitely respawning enemies (especially in levels like Charlie Don't Surf and, well, basically every mission where you were an Army Ranger) and the enemies' Dan Marino-esque ability to throw a grenade into my pocket at 200 yards. I also can't really play the multiplayer anymore, on account that I hate at least half of the maps (Bog, Pipeline, and Bloc immediately come to mind, with a few more waiting in the wings), and these maps seem to be the most popular ones.

That said, I can't deny that both the single-player and multiplayer were both really polished and very fun while they lasted, and developer Infinity Ward make some quality first person shooter action, so I decided to rent it to give it a shot. After eight days of time with the game (I figure the small late fee was worth it), I've decided that it's a very polished and much-improved version of a game I had basically already played two years ago.

The single-player campaign has you hopping between different characters in true Call Of Duty fashion, but most of the time is split between Private James Ramirez of the US Army and "Roach" Sanderson of Taskforce 141, an MI6-style organization tasked with doing special ops stuff. While the first game had a relatively down-to-earth style with a couple of over-the-top moments (killing approximately 40,000 Russian soldiers during the last mission seems like a bit too many), this one is flat out Jerry Bruckheimer; this game is unabashedly built around set piece "Holy crap, did you see that?" moments, and the game is simultaneously sillier and more thrilling for it.



Many silly, epic moments pepper the experience.

The developers at Infinity Ward seem to have taken a lot of fan feedback into account with the campaign: there are no infinitely respawning enemies, the mission locales are much more varied than the last game (where there were basically two levels: desert and Russian grassy knoll), and the sniping mission from the first game has received several sequels.

The campaign is short; I plowed through it in one sitting in about five hours. However, it's a really tight, well-executed campaign with virtually no fat or downtime, and had a blast playing through the whole thing in one shot (I would recommend doing it that way, actually). There are still a couple infuriating spots (the last part of the Rio de Janero level looks to be this game's TV station) and some of the moments are just borderline ridiculous (like when you launch a snowmobile over a chasm in order to escape from Russian soldiers), but for the most part the game ran at a consistently high level. There are fewer "Wow" moments than the first game (there's no Death From Above level or anything like that), but most of the game hits such a consistently high bar that it's hard to distinguish one absolutely incredible moment from another one (well, that's not true, but far be it for me to spoil them here).

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Infinity Ward utilizes their favorite You Are The Character moments for storytelling.

So the single-player is fun, if a bit ridiculous, but the multiplayer is what made the first game have such lasting appeal (it's been in the top 3 games on Xbox Live since its release two years ago). I spent most of my time with the multiplayer component, and I am pleased to say that everything that bugged my about the first game's multiplayer has been fixed:

• Perks are rebalanced (stupid ones like Iron Lung are unlockable "Pro" perks that stack on top of the regular ones, and Martyrdom has been relegated to a reward for dying too much). Also, your first perk is actually a perk this time, instead of deciding which explosive you get.

• Weapons feel better and less slanted towards the P-90 and M-16. All of them are fun to use, and effective in the right hands.

• The maps are actually fun! I've spent about twelve to fifteen hours in the multiplayer and haven't run across a map that's made me say "Here we go again" (though, like the first one, some of the maps repeat far more often than others, like Quarry).

• You can assign shotguns to your secondary weapon. Lordy lordy lordy, this is something I've wanted for a while; I tend to sprint around the map without looking around too much, so flailing with a shotgun whenever I accidentally run into someone is a great asset.

• You get points for just about everything you do: kill someone after dying a lot, performing a headshot, using a certain weapon enough, using a certain perk enough, everything. This gives a great sense of progression to the game, and it tells me that I don't need to be uber hardcore to level up.

• There are more varied game modes. Specifically, the addition of a Battlefield: Bad Company-style mode called Demolition, in which an attacking team has to plant a bomb on two crates, and a defending team has to prevent them from doing this for a certain amount of time. I think this mode is a bit more broken than B:BC, but is still fun nonetheless.



Demolition gives me some Gold Rush fun.

If I have to fault the multiplayer experience for anything, it's because I have become too accustomed to the freedom that Bad Company's multiplayer gave me. One of the things I liked most about multiplayer for Bad Company was its destructable environments; the ability to destroy walls and obstacles added a whole mess of variety to games, and maps played out differently almost every single time because of that variety. In Modern Warfare 2, each map has a specific set of choke points and places where the fighting generally happens. As I've established before, I'm not that good at FPS games, and I like it in Bad Company that I don't constantly get worked by guys who know the level layout better than I do.

Then there's the co-op Special Ops mode that I didn't get a chance to play. I fooled around with a couple single-player challenges, but it's quite apparent that this game mode works best with two human beings sitting side-by-side on the couch. The first Modern Warfare game lacked any sort of co-op, so I'm glad to see that Infinity Ward understands that playing WITH someone who's way better than you is much more fun than playing AGAINST someone who's way better than you.

Special Ops lets two players tackle moments from the campaign.

All in all, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is more than worth the $60 you would spend of in at Target. The single-player is a tightly scripted, rollercoaster thrill ride, the multiplayer is polished and better than ever, and Special Ops is great for when friends come over. I don't think I'll be getting it just yet (I plan on buying Bad Company 2 in March, and how many online shooters do I need anyways?), but I wouldn't discourage anyone from picking this one up.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

So It’s Come To This – My Top 10 Favorite Games

My good friend Jordyn Auvil has a thing for lists. Being as how I hang with her a lot, and given my penchant for lists anyways , this blog was as inevitable as the sun rising or a Michael Bay movie featuring explosions.

But why games and not movies or music? Rest assured, dear readers, that those are coming too. For right now, though, video games have played more of a direct role in my freetime (I guess I'm rebelling at the times during my freshman, sophomore, and parts of junior year when I didn't play 'em so much), so they get the favoritism first. Here we go!

**DISCLAIMER** This list is by no means final. It's mostly me looking at my spreadsheet (yes, I have a spreadsheet) of games I own and deciding what goes up there. Also, the ranking's pretty much just how I'm feeling about the game right now, so it's mostly arbitrary. Except the number one spot. That one's basically in stone.


First up, games that I really appreciate and enjoy, but just didn't have the heart to add to the official list.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Goldeneye 007 – N64

If I could measure how many hours of play I've given to this game, how many hours of stalking and killing my friends in the Temple, how many different game types my friends and I invented for the multiplayer… well, I'm not sure I can. What I'm trying to say is that, while history will recognize Goldeneye as the first FPS to get it RIGHT on the consoles, I simply remember it as the best damn multiplayer game ever. Seriously, ask any of your friends who were gamers who were raised in the 90's about Goldeneye, and they will more than likely have some story for you about how late they stayed up planting proximity mines in the facility, or using the Golden Gun in the Stacks, or hiding in the walls in the Complex. Goldeneye hasn't aged particularly well compared to modern-day FPSs (I can't heal once I've been shot? Are you serious?), but I'll be damned if it isn't one of my favorite old-school multiplayer game to play today.


Lunar: The Silver Star Story – Playstation

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I'm a sucker for 16-bit RPGs, and I came along at just the right age for Lunar: The Silver Star Story for the original Playstation. The game is actually a remake/Special Edition of a game for the Sega CD with updated graphics, full-length anime cutscenes, and an updated (not to mention impossibly compitent and often hilarious) English localization. This game plays like everything I love about 16-bit RPGs, including a wonderfully cliched (yet still quite compelling, mostly due to the characters) story of love redemption and collecting elemental things from elementally-themed dungeons, beautifully animated sprites (those 2-D picture things from the Super Nintendo), and well-exectued turn-based combat.

It also has no random battles, a relative absense of grind (the bosses level up with you, so you're in for a decent challenge no matter what you do), and a quick-moving story for JRPGs. The one thing that sets this apart from so many other games is its charm. It's just so old-school in everything it does, and it does it with such commitment, that I can't help but love it, like a silly puppy who slips around on the slick kitchen floor.


Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time– PS2/Gamecube/Xbox

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I've found Middle Eastern storytelling absolutely fascinating since I first watched Aladdin, and it was only further enhanced after playing this game. Never has a non-RPG game's narrative captivated me so, with a romantic and epic tale of survival between a prince and princess. What made the story the absolute best for me was the way the story was told—it was literally told to the player, with the prince narrative the tale retrospectively, just the way the tales were orally told in the Arabian Nights books (which, as I bragged in my Prince Of Persia trailer entry, I have read before, so I feel qualified to make hyperbolic comparisons to that fabled series). The platforming is buttery-smooth, the progression never throws the player a dull moment, the visuals are stunning and inventive, but what really sets this triple-A game apart from a sea of triple-A games is how it combines all of these elements with a compelling and wonderfully executed narrative.


Rock Band 2 – Xbox 360/PS3

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This game allowed me to do two things: first, it allowed me to finally learn the motor skills it would take to drum (haven't found a real kit to try yet, but I'm working on it) and it acted as the perfect bonding tool for roommates last semester. Seriously, nothing says comradery like everyone acting like idiots with plastic instruments and sharing a feeling of awesomeness because of how good we did at "Snow" by The Red Hot Chili Peppers. I've loved the Guitar Hero games for a while, and this one raises the stakes even more. Kudos to Harmonix for exuding liquid awesome from every pore.


Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 – Playstation

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I have a strong fetish for the Action Sports genre. I think it comes with my desire to accrue points while listening to rock music, so that sort of makes it fun straight-away. No game did Action Sports better in the early Y2K days than Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, a game that took the formula of Complete Objectives While Earning Points And Listening To Goldfinger and made it something amazing, expanding the game worlds, adding objectives, and adding even more bands to the soundtrack.

It also gave players the ability to Manual, a move that allowed for even bigger and more ridiculous combos. Players were also able to make their own skate parks and skaters that looked just like them (or not), as well as customize their skaters with all kinds of special moves and tricks. When I came to college, this was basically the only game I played for like three months, and that was well after I had played this game to death in middle school. Many Action Sports games have come and go, but few of them have the staying power of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2.


And now, onto the main event!


10) Battlefield: Bad Company – Xbox 360/PS3

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Hi, my name is Andrew, and I like to make things blow up. Like any red-blooded American worth his M-80s on Fourth of July, I enjoy a good explosion, which is why Bad Company is here. I don't think I have anything to say here that I didn't already say in my Bad Company blog entry, but it's worth reiterating that I will always give the thumbs-up to a game that encourages you to destroy its buildings. I will also give the thumbs-up to multiplayer games that don't make me feel like I'm wasting my time; even though I'm not the best at killing streaks or what have you, I feel like I'm contributing when I blow up an objective or defuse a bomb from one of our objectives. This is a game that thanks me for playing, and to tip my hat I give them number 10.


9) Burnout Paradise – Xbox 360/PS3

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In 2005 I picked up Burnout 3: Takedown at a pawn shop and experienced a revelation in racing games: here was a game that not only condoned crashing, but actively encouraged it! Specifically, crashing your opponents into obstacles, and it rewards you with extra speed to boot! I loved the speed and the attitude, but my Burnout passion didn't come alive until Paradise dropped in 2008. Unlike Takedown, Paradise was open-world, meaning you can drive your car around the living breathing city and take on events wherever and whenever (emphasis on this part) you feel like.

It seems like a lot of genres these days are jumping the open-world shark, but Criterion Games was able to add open-world mechanics to its game without making it feel tacked-on. The city feels great for just randomly cruising around and racing through, and there are a ton of hidden billboards, super jumps, and gates to find and smash through, encouraging exploration. Criterion also gave the community a ton of DLC add-ons, giving fans a reason to keep coming back.

Unfortunately, there are a couple flys in the ointment of fast speedy goodness. The city is so labyrinthine in its many alleyways and streets that it's easy to get lost when you're trying to find the best way to race to downtown at 300 mph. Also, the soundtrack is kinda lame, though with next-gen music streaming, this really isn't that big an issue. Burnout Paradise is a great racing game to kick back and just soak in.


8) Tetris Attack/Planet Puzzle League – SNES/Gameboy/DS

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Like millions of casual gamers and iPhone owners the world over, I love puzzle games. I love Tetris to the point of considering buying the DS version, and I used to have a Dr. Mario addiction that was fed by my grandmother, of all people. But never have I loved a puzzle game more than Tetris Attack/Planet Puzzle League.

In this game, you have a stack of multi-colored blocks that keep rising from the bottom, and the ability to get two blocks to swap sides with each other. The object is to keep the blocks from reaching the top of the screen. When you line up three blocks of the same color, the blocks disappear and all of the blocks on top of them fall down, allowing for a million different opportunities to create combos. While it's marginally possible to create combos in the SNES version, it wasn't until I bought the DS version that I was able to create huge, donkey-choking combos that would clear half the screen.

The brilliance of Planet Puzzle League is its balance. The more blocks you have on the screen, the more combo opportunities you have, but the closer you are to death. The game forces you to walk the line between being overwhelmed with blocks and being in full control of where your next combo comes from. This is a game that I can play for literally hours and be okay with, though after playing for that long I would probably see rising blocks whenever I closed my eyes.


7) Need For Speed: Underground – PS2/Gamecube/Xbox

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Ah, my first non-Mario Kart racing game that I truly enjoyed. As I said in my Battlefield: Bad Company blog, I never really had any racing games when I had my N64, and it probably would have stayed that way during my Gamecube days if I had not visited my cousin Michael's place during the 2003 holiday season and tried it out on his PC. While I wasn't necessarily blown away with the racing mechanics (I had played Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 at my friend Clay's already), what I did like was the "street racing" feel; I was at the precise age and hormone balance where anything that reminded me of The Fast And The Furious was the coolest beans this side of the South Pole.

Yes, the street racing drew me in, but it was my friend Regi who took it to the next level. In the game, you can customize your car with rims, body kits, spoilers, and vinyl graphics; you can also get your car on a magazine cover as a sort of in-game achievement system ("Post the fastest Sprint time to get your car on the cover of Flamenhaugen!"). I never really mucked around with the car customization, but it was Regi who created the idea of changing your car's look every time you got your car on a magazine cover. This lead to epic World Of Warcraft moments where we would compete in races just to try and unlock parts for our cars. He also introduced me to manual control in the game, which adds to the tension, especially when combined with racing inside the cockpit.

A couple of minor gripes. The game only takes place at night, which makes sense for the atmosphere and vibe, but can kind of look monotonous. Also, some of the later challenges are just brutal and stupid (most of these involve 6 or 7 lap races; I will always get the first 5 laps perfectly, then screw up the last one. ALWAYS). Despite the frustrations involved, though, I can't think of another racing game that I've replayed from the beginning six (6) times because I enjoy progressing so much. Beats the heck out of Project Gotham 4.


6) Ratchet And Clank: Going Commando/Ratchet And Clank: Up Your Arsenal – PS2

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Being reared primarily on Nintendo consoles, it's not hard to imagine that I have a sweet spot for platforming games. Simply put, I just like to jump on things. With the advent of Goldeneye 007 on the N64, I also found out I like to shoot things. Lo and behold, Insomniac, the studio behind the Spyro series on the Playstation, saw the obvious potential for a crossover and created the Ratchet And Clank franchise, a series of platforming games where the main character leaps nimbly around with a stockpile of weapons that would shame North Korea.

It's kind of a cop-out to double post in one space, but honestly, if you've played these games, you'd realize that there's almost no difference, especially in my heart (awwww). Basically, in each game, your goal is to leapfrog your way from planet to planet, progressing from each linear level to each linear level, blowing up things and enemies, and collecting the currency that they leave behind in order to purchase bigger and more ridiculous weapons. In both games, the formula hardly changes; the similarities between Going Commando and Up Your Arsenal are almost 1:1, including the planet where you track down crystals in order to exchange them for ridonkulous amounts of money.

But they're so doggone good! The platforming is solid, the weapons feel great, and the stories are nice and relaxed. The only differences to me is the story and levels in Going Commando (I like them just a skosh better) and the tightened-up gameplay mechanics from Up Your Arsenal (it just feels better). So they both go here. Heck, they're both kind of on the short side, so you could probably plow through them both in the time it would take you to finish, say, half of Dragon Age: Origins.


5) Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest – SNES

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Like I said, I just like jumping on things. And no game for me fulfills the jumping-on penchant like Diddy's Kong Quest. The followup to Rare's smash hit Donkey Kong Country (which apparently is liked by every SNES owner in the world except for me), DKC2 takes the action and makes it pirate-themed. Donkey Kong has been kidnapped, and it's up to Diddy Kong and his girlfriend Dixie Kong to retrieve him.

One thing I love about this game is the level variety. The action takes you everywhere from a standard pirate ship, to your prerequisite lava world that's borderline required in every platforming game, to a haunted theme park (okay, didn't see THAT one coming). Each place feels unique and, more importantly, fun, which lots of hidden bonus areas that are an incredible pain to find (after playing this game for twelve years, I finally completed my first 102% game last year). The difficulty curve is absolutely perfect too; the early levels are an absolute breeze to go through as you learn all of the mechanics of the game, while later levels will challenge your skills and test your patience (Castle Crush and Chain Link Chamber, I'm looking at you both).

This was the first game I purchased with my SNES back in 1996 and my friend Luke and I absolutely lapped it up. While the first game was a bit too "realistic" in the art direction (Oh! It's a temple! And a coral reef!) and the third one was way too cartoony (what's with the googly eyes on the robot bees? Why is that Kremling holding a trashcan lid?), the second one strikes every balance just right and lives on as one of my favorites. A slice of gaming comfort food if there ever was one, this is my absolute favorite platforming game.


4) Super Mario RPG: Legend Of The Seven Stars – SNES

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What's a Favorite Game List without a Mario game, right? Only this one's a bit different from the usual fare. Super Mario RPG was my very first RPG. Think about that. This is the first game to teach me how to equip an item, the first game to teach me the joys of beating lots of bad guys in order to grind experience points, the first game to really draw me into its narrative rather than have me play it because it was fun (well, it's that too). Not only was this game a first, but it's pretty fun too.

The story deals with Mario rescuing Princess Toadstool from Bowser, only to be interrupted by your Uber Enemy named Smithy. He scatters you, Bowser, and Princess Toadstool all over the Mushroom Kingdom, and you have to find her. Along the way you run into Mallow, a "tadpole" from one of the towns you visit, and Geno, who informs you that unless you defeat Smithy and collect all of the Star Pieces he scattered all over the kingdom, no one's dreams will ever be able to come true (trust me, it makes sense when you actually play the game). You travel to all sorts of places in the Mushroom Kingdom, from Marrymore (a place where all of the locals come to get married) to a sunken ship (to retrieve a Star Piece) to Nimbus Land (a kingdom in the clouds ruled by a large tropical bird called Dodo), meeting memorable characters and having adventures that are just as strange as the places you visit.

Combat is turn-based, meaning that you and your enemies take turns hitting each other until someone keels over. Mario's signature jump and fireflower moves make it in the game, and Toadstool and Bowser even join you at one point in the game. The system represents a more simple version of turn-based combat than in other RPGs; magic-replenishing items are inexpensive and plentiful, so you can use your stronger attacks more often instead of saving them for a rainy day, and you never fight more than five enemies at a time. You can also see your enemies in the levels (no random encounters!) and there are some light platforming elements for each of them, such as hopping on flying turtle shells to reach the top of Land's End.

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Levels take inspiration from old Mario platforming games. This level plays that old "duhnuh nuhnuh nuhnuh" underground music from the NES Mario.

What I really like about Super Mario RPG is its humor. The whole game just has an air of silliness to it, such as when you're fighting a giant wedding cake and then another character comes along and eats it. Or when you fight this five-part boss battle against a multi-colored team called the Axem Rangers (what does this remind you of?). Or another scene where Mario and Bowser accidentally kiss. For all of the silliness, the game has a heartfelt story, particularly with Mallow and Geno, and some of the characters you encounter actually stand out as being well-developed, which is surprising for a game where one of your characters' ultimate weapons is a frying pan.

Super Mario RPG is basically RPGs For Noobs, and I'm glad for it. It didn't scare me off with complicated and unintuitive menus or gameplay mechanics, and it was a great time from first to last.


3) SSX 3 – PS2/Gamecube/Xbox

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Oh SSX 3. This is a game that got me excited about winter sports like I never have been before; even to this day, I want to hit the slopes and experience the freedom and thrills that I got from this humble PS2 game (well, back in the day it was on the 'Cube, but the differences are marginal at best). It started with my purchase of SSX Tricky back in 2001, which, through its deft combination of fast racing and huge tricks, was the first snowboarding game to make me CARE about the sport (1080, Twisted Edge, Cool Boarders, they all just made me want to switch to a more reliable form of racing). When I got SSX 3 for Christmas in 2003, I was hoping that it would live up to Tricky, which I had played pretty steadily for about nine months. I had no idea what I was in store for.

Unlike previous games in the series, SSX 3 is open-world. That is to say, it drops you in and says "Have fun! Do events if you want to, or spend your time screwing around on the slopes!" It was this switch to open world that made me love the game so much. I could go anywhere on the mountain that I wanted, pulling tricks and finding new shortcuts, all without hitting a menu screen or waiting for the next area to load. I could even travel to the game's "Back Country" parts of the mountain, where the game dispenses with groomed runs and puts you on an untracked section full of weather, trees, and an occasional avalanche. This sense of freedom captured my imagination, to the point where I would go skiing and imagine what Bridger Bowl would be like if it were in SSX 3.

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The game is full of gorgeous shots of the mountain and its surrounding valleys.

Of course, all of this exploration is for naught if the game mechanics don't make it fun, and SSX 3 is incredibly fun. It keeps the tight controls from the previous SSX games and improves upon them in little ways, such as how the game finishes off flips for you if you've rotated your body most of the way around (something that had broken COUNTLESS combos for me in Tricky). The game also adds a degree of customization, letting you pick what Uber Tricks your character will pull off (your big special moves, which range from flipping the board over your head to breakdancing on top of it) and even letting you buy clothes and boards for your characters.

The presentation absolutely stole the show for me, and not just because it created these huge open courses (though that was definitely part of it). The snow, whether it's falling or being shooshed beneath your board, looks spectacular, and the game creates gorgeous vistas for you to oogle at while you're flying down the mountain at 75mph. The soundtrack is the usual EA Trax fare (songs from up-and-coming artists on one of EA's label partners), but has a couple of cool features, such as dynamically fading in and out if you hit an especially big jump. Also, for being usual EA Trax fare, I find the soundtrack to be quite satisfying; there is a good blend of electronic music with some rock and hip-hop, with artists like Queens Of The Stone Age, Autopilot Off, and The Chemical Brothers. I have gone to great lengths to procure songs from this soundtrack for myself, and I listen to them every time I hit the mountain.

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Courses range from sunny groomed runs to blizzardy untracked patches of mountain. This game can be downright harrowing!

When it's cold and snowy outside, this is the game I immediately think of. I imagine myself flying off a jump, tunes swelling in my ear as I rack up the high score. The game enhances my appreciation for a real-life sport, and the developers at EA Canada should pat themselves on the back for their handiwork and get cracking on a next-gen sequel!


2) Pokemon Red and Blue – Gameboy

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What can be said about Pokemon that hasn't already been said? It was been made and remade over and over for the last ten years, with almost nary a sign of aging. Even Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, which came out in 2007 are almost functionally identical to Red and Blue from the Gameboy. What makes these games so addicting, so compelling, so stick-and-carrot that even to this day gamers all over the world feel compelled to Catch 'Em All? In truth, I'm not sure if I want to know, because then that would spoil the illusion and I would be dissecting the very magic that has kept me gaming for over a decade now.

Part of what makes Pokemon so compelling for me is its almost complete union with my childhood. My imagination put me in the game: with my trusty Pokeballs at my belt and a backpack full of Super Potion, I travelled from town to town, battling Gym Leaders and rival trainers, getting me one step closer to Victory Roada and my inevitable duel with the Elite Four. My imagination added drama where there was none, taking what I had seen in the TV show and adding my own narrative twists; sometimes it was the Pokemon that were on the quest, independent of a trainer, and sometimes I imagined my friends were trainers. Montana is a very wide-open and spread-out state, so I would imagine that, when I went to towns like Butte or Bozeman, I was simply going on another expedition, traversing the countryside on the way to another gym and looking for even more rare Pokemon. I defy anyone who says that video games stunt a child's imagination—on the contrary, I would say that Pokemon helped me invent some of my wildest and most adventurous stories.

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That's me over there, in the baseball cap.

The concept is deceptively simple. You start out with one Pokemon, given to you by your mentor Professor Oak. From there, you set out on a journey to be the very best, like no one ever was (I'll be damned if the TV series didn't make this game even more epic than it was, either). You could capture wild Pokemon by wearing down their HP until they were weak, and then take a gamble at throwing a Pokeball at them in an attempt to add them to your collection. The game pulled a sneaky move by keeping track of which Pokemon you had captured, and which ones you had merely seen, urging the perfectionist in you to seek out that one rare breed that you had missed or not seen yet. You may have caught a Rattata in Viridian Forest, but did you catch Raticate, its bigger and faster evolution?

Each Pokemon had at least one "type," and each type had its own strengths and weaknesses. Fire-types were strong against Grass-types, but were weak against Water-types, and so on and so forth for the game's 15 different types. Each Pokemon could learn different types of moves; a Water-type Pokemon might be able to learn Ice- or Ground-type moves in addition to just Water-type moves. Each Pokemon are allowed four different moves, and choosing which four moves best suited your Pokemon was a matter of strategy. Do you give your Jolteon Agility to increase its speed, or do you give it Thunder Wave to try to paralyze opponents? Perhaps you'll give Lapras Acid Armor to boost its defense, but you might give it Psychic instead to surprise any Poison-type Pokemon you run into.

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You begin by raising one of these li'l guys in the beginning. Then it only goes uphill from there.

You were allowed six Pokemon to a side, making each encounter a matter of choosing your Pokemon carefully. Perhaps you would lead in with Weezing to poison your opponent, then swap to Cloyster and let your high defense absord the damage your opponent deals while he is weakened by the Poison, or maybe you would put your opponent to sleep with Butterfree and switch to Dragonite for a finishing Hyper Beam. The strategies and battle plans that could be implemented were myriad.

Pokemon is not an easy game to work through; just like the best JRPGs, sometimes it is just best to have a strategy guide sitting next to you in order to find out where to go next. I had the best thing for this game: a six-issue mini-magazine series called Pokemon Power, which were given out in Nintendo Powers 111-116. These detailed the dungeons and Pokemon that you could find in them, but were vague in their descriptions of what to do in a given town. To a fiction-starved 4th grader, these open-ended instructions felt like a map, left behind by some intrepid explorer and discovered by me, following his footsteps and discovering exotic cities and dangerous caves.

Even today, Pokemon is probably one of the most epic gaming experiences I can have. The technology wasn't huge, there weren't detailed graphics and epic plot lines for me to follow, just a template left for me and my imagination. And for that reason alone, no game can top the exploration and freedom this one brings to the table—how could you possibly have a game that is more epic than my imagination?


1) Chrono Trigger – SNES

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To anyone who knows me, this game will come as no surprise. It is the PERFECT game. Its beautiful art and art direction have not aged a day since 1995, its gameplay still feels modern and fresh as though it were released today, and it still tells one of the best-told stories I have had the privilege to play through. Its character development is superb, its soundtrack a work of art, and the whole package is polished and executed in a way that is timeless. That's a lot of hyperbole for one game, but Chrono Trigger is that kind of game that makes me want to spew superlatives like I've developed food poisoning over a bowl of synonyms for "totally freaking sweet."

To be clear, the story is rather cliched and silly in places: your party includes a cave woman, a robot, and a medival knight who has been turned into a frog. Your starting weapons include "Wooden Sword" and "Dart Gun." One of your quests is to pour soda pop on the grave of an explorer. But what makes the story-telling in Chrono Trigger for me is its lack of self-importance (I'm looking right at you, Final Fantasy VII). Its narrative has you traveling all through time to stop the world coming to an end at the hands on an enormous evil in the year 1999. On the journey, you'll meet and develop relationships with a broad cast of characters, ranging from the brooding villian from 600 A.D. Magus to the shape-changing and consistently goofy Spekkio. I'm constantly surprised how, even with 2-D, sprite-based graphics, the story is affecting, with themes of love, abandonment, friendship, forgiveness, and true courage in the face of adversity. The story is never over-dramatic or too big for its britches—it knows it has a good story to tell, and it tells it with a restraint that would make any film-maker jealous.

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Over the course of the game you'll assemble quite a cast of characters, each with their own unique personality and backstory.

Of course, games are meant to be played, and Chrono Trigger a multitude of good gameplay ideas; so many, in fact, that I often wonder why more games haven't ripped this game off completely. Up to bat first is the Tech system, a method of combining your magic attacks with your other two party members to make even BIGGER magic attacks (team up Frog with Marle for the aptly named Glacier, and attack that drops a big ol' block of ice on a group on enemies). Second is the Tech Point system: enemies give up Tech Points after they're defeated, rewarding players with special attacks when enough Tech Points are collected. Third is the decision NOT to include random battles, which allows players to see (and dodge) enemies when exploring the game's areas (more RPGs are doing this these days, and it makes me very happy). The game is bubbling over with ways to get the player to have fun while they're experiencing the game's narrative.

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Crono and Marle team up for the Dual Tech: Ice Sword. It's pretty self-explanitory.

Chrono Trigger's art was designed by Akira Toriyama, who created the Dragon Ball series. Toriyama adds character and personality to everyone on-screen, from all of the seven main characters to even the lowliest monster. Gamers visit locations both beautiful and horrible, from a bright and cheery present day fair, to post-apocalyptic wasteland where humans take refuge in futuristic domes, to a magical kingdom above the clouds. Accompanying the visuals is my favorite game soundtrack, composed by Yasunori Mitsuda and aided by long-time composer for Final Fantasy, Nobuo Uematsu. The melodies are merry and sorrowful, joyous and haunting, guiding the player through every experience and making the best of every moment. These songs are still a regular part of the Play! series of video game symphony performances, and belong on anyone's classical music shelf (I don't say that lightly).

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Artist Akira Toriyama lends his unique style in fleshing out the cast of Chrono Trigger.

Perhaps my favorite part about Chrono Trigger is its ability to give the player an experience. The story can last about 8-10 hours, but not a single minute of it feels like filler. The story is tightly wound and never wears out its welcome. In a genre occupied by games that boast 40+ hours of gameplay to beat the main quest, it's remarkable that this game concentrates on delivering a tight and polished experience from beginning to end. I can't offer any higher praise than to say that this game is probably my prized possession out of everything game-related that I own.

This game may not be the best ever created, but it is the game I hold closest to my heart. As with other games on this list, this game went straight to my heart and captured my imagination. I don't expect you to get the same experience I did. I only hope to impress upon you what this game means to me. Its characters and themes will live with me all of my life, it is my favorite game of all time.


Got any favorite video games? Have any comments on what's here (or what ISN'T here)? Leave me a comment below!

Monday, November 16, 2009

It's The End Of The World As We Know It... -- 2012

Think of the biggest disaster movie ever. Now think of one much, much bigger than that. That’s only a tiny part of how big “2012” is.

“2012” is the new film from Roland Emmerich, whose previous credits include “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow.” Just like his last two flicks, this is a schlocky Disaster Film, replete with stock characters, inventive scenes of peril, and lots of famous landmarks getting blown up real good. “Citizen Kane” this is not, but I would be lying if I said that I didn’t have an absolute blast.


2012 Movie Stills

Among the casualties in the Important Monuments category is Yellowstone National Park. Being a Montanan, though, we've know it's been coming for a while now.


“2012”’s premise, for those that missed the trailers, is that the Mayans predicted that the world would end in the year 2012, and they turned out to be right.

The plot focuses on Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), an author who is divorced from his ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet) and estranged from his two kids (Liam James and Morgan Lilly). It’s typical in movies like this that, despite hundreds and thousands of people dying just in the first act, we’re asked to be kept in suspense that Jackson might of might not make up with his alienated family.

Anyways, Jackson is taking his kids camping to Yellowstone when he discovers something curious: the lake where he and Kate used to see each other has boiled away. I was disappointed to learn from IMDB that the Yellowstone scenes were all shot in British Columbia, apparently the most popular facsimile for Montana in movies today (see also 2007’s “Shooter;” Bozeman residents in particular will get a kick out of it).


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John Cusack leads the ensemble cast from camping to just straight camp.


From the lake, it’s time those landmarks to start going belly-up, including (in no particular order) the Washington Monument cracking and falling over, the Golden Gate Bridge twisting and collapsing, Yellowstone turning into that super volcano we’ve all heard about, and the White House getting hit by an aircraft carrier that’s simultaneously getting hit by a tidal wave.

What happens beyond this point, I cannot say. Part of the movie’s fun is trying to figure out how Emmerich and the writing staff will get themselves out of the corner they’ve so brilliantly painted themselves into; you’d figure that with the world ending and all, they’d need something pretty epic to avoid the whole human race going the way of the Washington Monument, wouldn’t they?


2012 Movie Stills

And you thought traffic was bad where you lived, huh?


If I sound incredulous to the whole movie, it’s because, well, it’s just so doggone ridiculous! But make no mistake; there is an excellent popcorn thriller here, and a whole lotta fun to be had.

From the start, it’s apparent that Emmerich has set out to top himself in every way, and he succeeds in every way (at 158 minutes, sometimes he succeeds a bit too much). It’s as if he simply said “This is not going to be just a disaster movie, it is going to be THE disaster movie!” Not content to have just his piece of the disaster movie cake, Emmerich also quotes other disaster movies from cinema’s past, including “The Poseidon Adventure,” “Dante’s Inferno,” and “Earthquake.”

The best reason to see the movie is the visuals. The special effects team should give themselves a pat on the back, because the images of destruction and explosions and storms are truly a sight to behold. In particular, there was an early scene involving the San Andreas Fault that, for all of its thrills, could easily be converted into a theme park ride at Universal Studios. It’s the one with the limousine, you’ll know which one.


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One of the characters happens to be a pilot, mostly to get us shots like these, of planes dodging collapsing buildings.


I had forgotten how funny movies like this can be. “Take the freeway, it’s faster!” one character says to another. So, of course, in the very next shot we see the 405 crumbling into little bitty pieces. The movie takes itself both completely seriously and not seriously at all, which is a plus when your movie is this campy.

The ensemble cast does a good job of, basically, slipping into stock character outfits, whether it’s the Forgetful But Loving Father, Wise And Confident President (Danny Glover), or the Crazy Kook That Had It Right All Along (Woody Harrelson, in one of the film’s best cameos). Not terribly compelling, but they do what’s required for a movie like this, and give us enough to care about them during the Earth’s trip to heck in a handbasket.


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Harrelson creates a character who not only predicts the oncoming disaster, but practically welcomes it, if only to prove that he's right.


If “2012” has any faults, it’s that it slows down dramatically during the third act (or I had simply grown restless; this IS a two-and-a-half hour movie after all), and that the movie follows so many of the disaster movie conventions so closely that some audience members might feel like they’ve seen it all before. Also, the script is cheesy and full of holes, but honestly if you’re watching the movie just for the story, you came for the wrong reasons.

That said, this is a great piece of schlocky disaster fun. Grab some friends, buy some popcorn, turn your brain off, and get ready to thrill at one of the most fun blockbusters I’ve seen all year.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Gold! (c) Spandeau Ballet -- Battlefield: Bad Company

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As a gamer growing up, I owned mostly Nintendo systems after I got my first Sega Genesis. I started with a Super Nintendo, moved to an N64, then graduated to a Gamecube. Because of my system preferences, I have had the privilege of playing many top-notch platforming games ("Super Mario 64," "Banjo Kazooie," etc) and many top-notch adventure games ("The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time," "Donkey Kong 64," "Jet Force Gemini," etc), but basically NO first-person shooters or racing games. Once I got my Xbox 360 about a year and a half ago, I basically underwent my Gaming Pubescent Rebellion phase; if you were to take a look at my library about four months ago, you would find mostly FPSs and racing games.

One product that I picked up during my I'll Stay In My Room And Listen To The Sex Pistols While Posting Self-Portraits On Myspace Because I'm Sixteen days of gaming was "Battlefield: Bad Company." "Bad Company" is another modern military shooter on a console thigh-deep in modern military shooters, but the thing that struck me about "Bad Company" initially was the incredibly high Things Exploding Per Capita ratio. Most of the environments are totally destructible, meaning that you can blow the hell out of them with your oh-so-convenient under-barrel grenade launcher that's located on almost every gun. Here is a game in which the best way to get the guy who's shooting at you through a window is to blow out the wall that's giving him cover and shoot him in the face.

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Just another day at the office.

Once I had finally broken into the single player mode, I found another pleasant surprise: this game does not take itself seriously AT ALL. Most shooters nowadays go out of their way to let you know that you are in an epic conflict and how the fate of the world rests on your shoulders and war is awful and blah blah blah blah blah. "Bad Company" is like one of those cheesy action movies from the 80's that went straight to VHS: the bad guys are caricatures, the good guys often throw out quips during even the most intense firefights and basically give each other noogies during the cutscenes, and everybody's just having a good time shooting at each other and blowing things up.

The game has your character Preston Marlowe joining a lesser-known branch of the Army called Bad Company, a group of degenerate soldiers that are meant to serve as cannon fodder while the other branches do the actual heroing. While out on assignment with cigar-chomping Sergent Redford, Steve Buschemi-esque Sweetwater, and walking Redneck-If joke Haggard, you manage to single-handedly invade a neutral country (don't ask how) and are disavowed by the Army unless you can track down a mercenary leader called The Legionnaire. Coincidentally, The Legionnaire pays all of his soldiers in gold bullion, so your deal with the army could end up lining your pockets...

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Your cast of lovable losers: Sarge (left), Sweetwater (middle), and Haggard (right). Yes, Haggard and Sweetwater are playing Rock Paper Scissors.

The story is pretty ridiculous, but it's also very lighthearded with its bad jokes and wanton destruction. The game also has a system that, when you die any enemies you killed before you died will stay dead when you respawn. Many hardcore will cry foul at this feature, saying that they never feel challenged or in danger, but I personally prefer it to Veteran Mode on "Call Of Duty 4," with the enemies John Elway-ing grenades into your pocket at 300 yards, causing you to reload your save ever two-and-a-half minutes. Even if it never "feels like I'm in danger," I'm still having fun because death doesn't cause me to render my last 15 minutes of playtime useless.

Let me explain. I play video games to unwind after kicking around all day, and "Bad Company" is the perfect unwind game. You can basically run around blowing up walls and driving around vehicles to your hearts desire without having to worry about reloading your game if you try something that doesn't work. I did this for probably three or four hours one day during Fall Break last year, and I had an absolute frustration-free blast. Other games that I play for hours at a time usually end up rubbing me the wrong way in spite of my coming back for more, but "Bad Company" was as perfectly happy to let me tool around as I was to do the actual tooling.

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Call in a Russian mortar strike for even more fireworks!

The game also has a robust multiplayer mode, one that also is pretty frustration-free. The main mode is called Gold Rush, where two teams take turns attacking or defending two crates of gold in a specific section of the map. If the attacking team succeeds in blowing up the gold, the defending team is pushed back to another section of the map until there are no more crates left. The defenders win if the attackers run out of guys. Most maps are big and have lots of tanks and jeeps lying around for people to drive, but that's not why I like it.

No, why I like it is the team-based approach. I would always play Team Deathmatch in "Call Of Duty 4" multiplayer, and it would always result in me getting my kneecaps shot off about 7.5 seconds after I spawn on the map. "Battlefield's" Gold Rush mode makes the objective not to kill everybody but to attack or defend the gold, a nice single-minded approach to task management that I can appreciate. Instead of trying to cover my teammates and not twitching fast enough to avoid certain death, I would defend my teammate while he plants a bomb on the crates, trying to spot a guy who would run in guns blazing to spoil our plan. To summarize, "Bad Company" makes me not feel like a liability, which I appreciate.

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Players can still play the traditional Conquest mode that's been in every "Battlefield" game, but Gold Rush is the real winner.

Actually, the same thing can be said about the whole game. It encourages you to wander around and HAVE FUN, which, incidentally, is why I play games anyways. The game isn't mind-shattering the way Infinity Ward games usually are, but I don't think it's meant to be, and for that I'm grateful. And fortunately for you stingy types, you can find "Bad Company" on Xbox Live for about $20 now. Buy it and practice for when the sequel comes out in March.



Here are some prerelease videos to give you an idea of how seriously this game takes itself:



Parody of those Gears Of War commercials from a couple years ago.


Parody of the Tom Clancy's brand of tactical shooters.


Good old-fashioned trailer.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

If I Could Save Time In A Bottle... - Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time Trailer Impressions

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As a fan of both video games and movies, I am generally comforted by the knowledge of two constants in the universe: movie-to-game adaptations often aren't worth the DVD they're pressed onto, and game-to-movie adaptations are worth even less. Most game-movies seem to either miss the point of what made the game cool in the first place (the most recent offender I can think of is "Max Payne," a film that I can add to my short list of movies I QUIT WATCHING OUT OF BOREDOM) or just go completely bat-guano crazy with the license and shoehorn characters and plots into scenarios they shouldn't go (the Street Fighter movie. 'Nuff said).

That said, I have had high hopes for the Prince Of Persia movie that has been in production for a while now. There are two reasons for this:

1) Jerry Bruckheimer, the film's producer, turned a theme park ride into a multi-billion dollar franchise, and has consistently produced movies and TV that have been, at the very least, entertaining.

2) Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time was one of my favorite games from last generation. I loved how creative the parkour platforming was, I loved the romance and grandiosity of the Middle Eastern setting, and I loved how the tale seemed right out of the pages of Arabian Nights (having read the thing twice, I feel qualified to make that statement).


The original Sands Of Time had the Arabian Nights vibe running out of its ears.

Which leads to the trailer. Apparently this trailer plays alongside "2012" when it comes out next Friday, but it made its way onto the internet within the past couple days. What can we expect from the film judging by the trailer? Well, that's a bit tough to say.

Let me explain. I love movie trailers; they're some of my favorite ways to enjoy movies, as they let me use my imagination to take the good bits and imagine how everything is ties together. However, movie trailers aren't always indicative of the final release. Take "300," for example. I didn't mind the movie so much, but the trailer is approximately seven (7) different kinds of epic, and is today still more entertaining than the actual movie. On the other side, I was unimpressed when the trailer for Pirates Of The Caribbean first came out (the "try wearing a corset" line totally killed me), but I absolutely love the movie.

That said, we can make a couple unfounded judgment calls and speculate about what me might be able to expect. Here we go!

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Mediocre trailer, great movie.

The setting and colors in this movie looks absolutely gorgeous. Part of the reason I love PoP is the sense of grandeur that the Middle Eastern setting provides, and this trailer hits that right on the head. Expansive, beautiful cityscapes; bright, hot, and expansive deserts; stone buildings perfect for climbing; like Kingdom Of Heaven before it, I just can't help but look at the edges of the screen to see all of the sights. The colors are earthtone without seeming washed out or dull, and everything is crisp and vivid. At the very least, this will be quite a movie to look at as well as watch.

When I heard about the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal as the protagonist, Prince Dastan, I raised a quizzical eyebrow; I don't normally associate the main character of a Big Summer Blockbuster with Homer Hickam from "October Sky." However, now that I've seen him onscreen I think he has potential. The thing I like about JG is his feeling of an everyman; similar to Tobey McGuire or Shiah LeBoeuf, he has a way of taking a character in extraordinary circumstances (a boy given superpowers, a guy whose car transforms into a Gundam) and making him relatable. He also has a subtle charm about him that also helps sell it, but enough about my celebrity crushes.

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Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton (Strawberry Fields from "Quantum Of Solace"!) offer a decent chemistry as Prince Dastan and Tamina.

The action seems fun. Some jumping off of walls, some sword fights and perilous dodging, and a couple cool shots of Prince Dastan stopping or reversing time. This is an element that I hope they don't play up too much, but judging by how the trailer is balanced between plot and fan service, I think the director knows what he's doing.

Speaking of the director, the movie is being handled by Mike Newell, whom you might remember from "Harry Potter And the Goblet Of Fire" and "Mona Lisa Smile." Though I didn't particularly enjoy the screenplay in "Goblet," (too much not-dialogue; it didn't feel enough like a "movie"); I thought the pacing and style of the picture was pretty good, so I think it's being handled by a talented person.

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In Iran, Iran so far away...

I think what excites me the most is what the trailer DIDN'T do. It didn't try to retell all of the events from the game, and it didn't try to make everything seem too contemporary. What we have instead is a movie that knows it is part of the Historical Epic/Summer Blockbuster genre, and isn't too caught up with pleasing hardcore fans. Instead of winking at the niche audience that has played the game, Disney has taken the license to a fantastic game and used it as a creative springboard for one of their blockbuster movies, making it just as accessible to non-gamers as Pirates was to people who haven't been to Disneyland.

But then again, this could all change come next May. After all, the trailer is just a collection of images and sounds from the movie, edited together out of context, hoping to coerce curious people into seeing it. In that regard, they've done a darn fine job. I will be excited for this movie all the way until it launches on May 28th, 2010.

In case you wanted to check it out for yourself, here is the vid, courtesy of Myspace.



Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Where Where The Wild Things Are are." -- Detective Charles Shaw

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I, like many others here at Carroll College, used to enjoy having Where The Wild Things Are read to me when I was a kid. I liked how Max, the main character, went off on his “private boat” into adventure and wild rumpus-causing, but mostly I loved the rich drawings and beautiful art style. Now, here comes a movie that captures the best elements of the book to create an enjoyable, if not perfect, journey.

“Wild Things” is not a direct adaptation of the book, but then again, how on earth could it be? The original children’s book by Maurice Sendak was about nine sentences and 48 pages long, most of them filled with Sendak’s wonderful Caldicott-winning illustrations. Instead, it harnesses the imagery of the book to create a lush, imaginative world.

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This book got quite a bit of play back in the day.

Spike Jonze, whose previous credits include 1999’s “Being John Malkovich” and a whole slew of mid-90’s music videos from bands like Weezer and Fatboy Slim, directs the film with an even-handed patience rarely seen in movies today. Rather than cut between shots like a rapid-fire PowerPoint presentation, he takes his time and lets his characters develop and live onscreen.

Where “Wild Things” is most impressive is its art direction. The environments where the movie takes place are grand in scope and breathtaking to look at. From expansive deserts to a grove of falling cherry blossoms, the screen is constantly filled with gorgeous sights.

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The whole film is an absolute treat to just sit back and watch.

The actual Wild Things themselves are probably the most impressive pieces of work. Made from a combination of computers and live-action puppets (think Yoda, but much bigger), the titular Things are a sight to behold. They move, breathe, live, and become real to the viewer in ways I didn’t think were possible for enormous Muppets.

The Things all have distinct names, personalities, and voices. Overall, each Thing feels well-characterized and fleshed out, from the sleepy but good-natured Ira (Forest Whitaker), to the excitable but badly-tempered Carol (James Gandolfini), and the neurotic and overeager Alexander (Paul Dano). There is also Judith (Catherine O’Hara), who, while giving a good performance, acts as a “downer” for most of the movie (side note: I’m sure there’s a market out there who finds this sort of thing charming, but I thought it came off as annoying and forced).

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Each Wild Thing is unique, different, and about as real as Max is.

Which leads to one of my criticisms about the movie: its overall somberness and sad tone. Granted, this is a fresh change of pace from many other movies involving children, which over-romanticize childhood rambunctiousness without remembering the frustrations that come with actually being a kid.

"Wild Things", on the other hand, remembers what it’s like to feel like no one understands you, or when a game stops being fun because someone doesn’t want to play anymore. Too well, in fact. For every moment of joy and exuberance this movie musters, it has two moments where Max or the Things are unhappy or moody about something. Kids deal with being sad and unhappy all the time, but the difference is that kids are generally able to move past it instead of dwelling about what happened the way this movie does.

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For all of the wonder and splendor going on, these guys sure can take the mickey out of it.

Another complaint I will offer this movie is the pacing. When I first heard Wild Things was being adapted into a movie, my first thought was that there wasn’t enough content to spread out over 90 minutes of movie. The movie doesn’t overstay its welcome, but near the midpoint it slows to a crawl and seems to trudge along until it’s time for Max to go home.

Still, there is some fun to be had. A dirt clod fight between Max and the Wild Things provides an exhilarating moment that reminded me of my childhood activities (I grew up in a neighborhood that was still in-development, and dirt clod fights were a summer staple), and I particularly enjoyed some of the early scenes between Max and his single mom (Catherine Keener).

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Occasionally the movie takes timeout to have some fun. The film is at its best during these stretches.

Overall, I’m still recommending this movie, if only because of how visually rich and original it feels. It’s not the feel-good movie of this fall, but it has a lot of positive things to share with viewers. Here is a movie that invites you to discuss it with your friends, if you’re into that sort of thing.

B+