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Movie Review: Alien Covenant

Posted in film, movies, reviews by commorancy on May 31, 2017

*SPOILER ALERT* stop reading now if you want to watch this film.

If you haven’t seen Prometheus, then you should probably skip this review. Also, if you want to see Alien Covenant, then I’d suggest you stop reading now as this will be chock full of spoilers. With that said, let’s explore.

Alien Covenant Story

This film begins as a sequel to Prometheus, basically where that film left off. However, it effectively tosses the Elizabeth Shaw character out before the film even begins. While we have seen this happen with the Newt character between Aliens and Alien 3, we’ve never seen it done to a main character. No, Newt wasn’t a main character. She was a supporting character and her loss was no big deal. However, I find it a huge problem to open this film and toss out the one redeeming character from Prometheus. A character that could have been as strong as Ripley. Instead, we’re left with a malfunctioning synth named David. I jump ahead a little bit here.

After a longish and unnecessary expository scene involving a very young Weyland and David, we proceed into the main film.

Colony Ship Covenant

The film starts out following a colonization vessel named Covenant with both crew, colonists in stasis and embryos. The mission is to land on an already vetted planet with a forgettable name to begin colonization. It will take about 7 years to get to that destination planet. However, the ship is rocked by a space anomaly and damaged along with the death of the captain. This ship damage premise actually starts out much like Passengers. This requires the newly assigned captain and crew to go out and fix the damage. While fixing the damage, one of the crew stumbles across a message in a bottle… or more specifically, a space transmission.

So now, the crew has decide whether to follow the transmission or continue on with the mission. Here is the first of many stupid plot devices. If your mission is to land safely on an already existing planet that’s been vetted for the purposes of colonization, why would you make a diversion to some unknown and potentially hostile planet? It doesn’t make any sense. In Alien, the reason the Nostromo landed was in part due to Mother and Ash. They had orders from Weyland to find this alien and capture it. However, the colony ship had no such orders from Mother or Walter (the resident synthetic — artificial person).

Plus, that colony ship wasn’t equipped for that sort of reconnaissance type mission in the first place. Yet, here we go traipsing into the unknown because the naive new captain deems it so even though his second actively protests. Wouldn’t they have at least trained all seconds in command for these sorts of contingencies?

We also find that there is a synthetic on board this colony ship who is named Walter and looks surprisingly like David from Prometheus, except he doesn’t have the British accent.

Planetary Diversion / Alien Backstory

So the colony ship, which was clearly not built for exploration, decides to spend time gallivanting off to this unknown world to find this message in a bottle. What do they find? Spores that turn people into xenomorphs, the Engineer ship (with Shaw’s message), a bunch of dead engineers on the planet surface and, eventually, David. We also come to find that Elizabeth Shaw is dead. We also find that David apparently chest bursted her in one of his experiments.

As the story progresses, we find there are spore plants that can infect people and back burst aliens out of them. We also find that David has unnecessarily re-engineered the species to require an egg and a face hugger. The same egg and face hugger we find in Alien. So, we’ve come full circle. Now we know who created the egg and face hugger, but what was the point?

The spores which seemed quite abundant on the engineer home planet were actually a much more sophisticated and deadly delivery system. No need for alien queens or eggs or even face huggers. Instead, just drop the spores and let them do the work. What we find is that David’s work was actually superfluous. The original design by the engineers was sufficiently deadly enough and easily delivered without the need to complicate it with eggs and queens and hives and stuff.

I’m not exactly sure why Ridley felt the need to degrade the original Alien story by setting up this crude prequel that degrades the idea. Worse, it really doesn’t even get into the head of David sufficiently to understand his motivations. All we know is that this synthetic is somehow damaged, yet still able to function. I guess that’s the point. Since the original Alien didn’t get to take Ash to a more disturbing conclusion, Ridley seems to be doing it with David instead.

Body Count

After the bodies start piling up, first from the spore aliens and then later from David’s face hugged variety, the crew gets fewer and fewer. Of course, this is to be expected and is entirely predictable in an alien film. Because the colony ship used its one and only one landing vehicle to land on the planet (why are they only ever equipped with one?), effectively the crew is stranded because a spore alien makes its way onto the ship through an infected crew member and one of the crew lights the entire ship up with gunfire into explosive canisters.

Being stranded means David comes to the rescue and this is where things turn mostly sour. After a bunch of David vs Walter stuff and some other spore alien death romps, David reveals his big surprise on the naive captain, his prized face hugger alien. Seriously, David hasn’t given himself to be that trustworthy yet, yet this naive captain calmly puts his face right over the top of an open egg. Ah, the stupidity of movie characters.

Anyway, David shows himself to be mentally unstable and Walter and David have a fight. Yet, we don’t really know how it all ends because Ridley cleverly cuts away before the end. So then, the colony ship makes a daring rescue with some kind of ship not designed to land on a planet, an adult alien gets on board and lots of yelling, gunfire and stupidity ensues. Walter and several other crew make it back aboard the colony ship in space, yet we have one more alien to take care of. Now that that’s done, we settle into our cozy 7 year nap. Just as the last crew member is in her cryotube, she realizes Walter isn’t Walter at all. David has somehow taken over Walter.

David in Walter’s body

Here’s where the film jumps the shark. So, Walter is a much more sophisticated and newer synth model. I’m reasonably sure that Weyland did not give David schematics of himself. Yes, David knew what he was, but didn’t have any idea how he was made. So, how is it possible that David could have, in the all of about 5 minutes he had after fighting Walter, transfer himself into Walter? Seriously, there was no equipment on that planet to perform such a data transfer. There had been nothing set up in the film at all to show that David had been working on anything like that. David’s experimentation was entirely with the aliens, not with his own physiology.

Expecting us viewers to suspend our disbelief that far is just insane. There is no way possible that David could have transferred his own programming into Walter that quickly. In fact, as sophisticated as those synthetics were, to believe Weyland didn’t put a fail safe to prevent such synth to synth transfers is also insane. Weyland was extremely paranoid and that idea certainly wouldn’t have slipped past him. Based on what I know about Weyland, it wouldn’t have been possible for David to transfer his programming into Walter. In fact, it’s likely that David’s programming wouldn’t have even worked in Walter considering how much newer the Walter model was.

At the end we see Walter/David burping up alien face hugger embryos. Wait… what? Since when do face huggers exist in small embryo formats like that? I thought they required eggs? I shake my head yet again. Between the embryo aliens and the David into Walter transfer, this whole movie ends up as one big unnecessary Deus Ex Machina.

Third Film

I don’t really even know if I want to see the third film. I already know what’s going to happen. Clearly, they’re going to land on their colony planet and become infested with Aliens with the help of David… unless Walter can somehow reemerge and stop it.

Alien Covenant is a below average film that tries too hard to fill in the details, but fails at pretty much everything it tries to offer. Worse, what it does offer only degrades the idea of Alien rather than enhancing it and it adds entirely nothing new to the franchise.

Stars: 4/10
Recommendation: Skip or rent if you must

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Posted in movies, reviews by commorancy on December 19, 2015

[Alert: Note, this review may contain spoilers. Though, I have done my best not to reveal critical plot points and only discuss the technical merits of the film as a whole. If you are interested in seeing this movie, you should stop reading now. I have also written a deeper dive critical plot analysis article separately from this review.]

starwarsposterLet’s just start by saying that I’m usually very critical towards films, just as I am towards any other technology, device or game. I also don’t review every film I see. I only review those films that I feel deserve a review and Star Wars: The Force Awakens does deserve a review. Let’s explore.

Disney and Lucasfilm and Star Wars

This is the first in a series of films to be produced by Disney in their newly purchased Star Wars franchise. How many total films that will be in this series is as yet unknown. However, I’d expect the current storyline to run at least 3 total films with The Force Awakens being the first in this trilogy. Why is this important? It’s important to understand the place of this film not only in relation to the past 6 films, but to future films that have yet been created. In other words, this film is only a small part in a larger story. So, even after seeing the film, there are still many questions unanswered… and this is as it should be for a first part in a larger set of films.

Star Wars Redefined

Star Wars is a much beloved series. Episodes 4, 5 and 6 set the tone for this series with iconic likable characters that have become a huge part of pop culture. Though, cracks did begin to appear as early as Return of the Jedi with George introducing the saccharine cuteness of the Ewoks in Episode 6. However, we could forgive George this one blemish in an otherwise amazing universe. Unfortunately, by episodes 1, 2 and 3, those beloved icons were no where to be found and the films ended up disappointing on so many levels. With unnecessary characters like Jar Jar Binks, wooden acting, badly cast child actors, horrible screen chemistry and the inclusion of a storyline about political satire that could bore your dog, we were less than enchanted with the prequel series by the end of episode 3. Though, I will admit that episode 3 was much better than episode 1 by a long stretch. In other words, the prequels set the bar pretty low for Star Wars films. That’s all in the past, thankfully.

With this newest episode, JJ Abrams has brought a film to the screen that is at once both fresh, new and exciting and looks and feels like that old pair of amazing fitting gloves that just never seem to wear out. In other words, Disney, Lucasfilm and J.J. should be commended on the restraint used in producing The Force Awakens and in keeping the universe look and feel fully intact. Also, it seems that someone kept JJ’s wild fantasies in-check and out of the film such as lens flare city and odd story changes that really wouldn’t have enhanced this franchise. Disney also managed to keep their disneyfication to a minimum. Keeping JJ’s fanciful, but unnecessary additions at bay and limiting disneyfication to a bare minimum has helped to solidify this film as easily one of the best for 2015. Though, BB-8 might have been a disneyfication.

This newest Star Wars installment has firmly set the tone for the things to come. Yet, the film is far from perfect.

The Opening

The film opens identically to all other Star Wars films with the exception of the missing THX deep note (which was getting tired anyway) and the missing 20th Century Fox fanfare (this is Disney now, remember?). Though, it was also oddly missing the familiar Disney castle logo. There is little fanfare in the opening. More or less, it was just the same as all other Star Wars films. The film segues nicely into its first scene, but this is where the pacing is off. Instead of opening to a rousing battle scene or some other rush of action, blaster fire and lots of people or ships shooting one another, we are treated to a much slower paced opening. In fact, it’s so slow of a pace, for a short time I was beginning to wonder if it would ever pick up. No need to worry, it does.

The Characters

Other than saying that Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill are all in the film along with Chewbacca, this film is about the new guard taking over the reigns from the old guard.. and that’s exactly what this film does. This is a transitional film. The cast is unknowns who do a decent job with their parts, but nothing spectacular. Though, I will say the on-screen chemistry between the new characters has yet to congeal. Not so much because there is no chemistry, but because there are few scenes were they are all actively together for more than a few minutes at a stretch. So, it’s difficult for me to judge the full chemistry between these actors as yet. They always seem to get separated within moments of coming together.

Stormtrooper Gone Bad

This is an interesting concept introduced into this film that has not been in previous installments. In previous Star Wars, whatever process the Empire had used to indoctrinate Stormtroopers seemed entirely solid and without question of loyalty after the process was complete. In The Force Awakens, the whole thread of indoctrination (and failure of said indoctrination) is explored and discussed explicitly and somewhat in-depth. I hope this concept makes a resurgence in later installments as a wider story arc. In fact, I would love to see it used as a linchpin in the entire destruction of the First Order and the Supreme Leader.

Questions and Answers

The Force Awakens both asks and answers old and new questions. One of them is the Stormtrooper Gone Bad motif. This is a new question that has yet to have a full answer. I’m anxious to see where that thread goes or if it’s just dropped. However, just as we have new questions, we have many old questions answered. Questions like “Did Leia and Han have a kid?”, “Where is Luke Skywalker?” and “What happened to Han Solo?”. There are many other questions answered in this film as well. Just as many questions were answered, there were just as many questions asked that have no clear answer. With The Force Awakens, JJ has perfectly straddled the line of balance between the answers to old questions with asking new questions. Questions we won’t get answers to until future installments. Because this is the first of many installments, it was inevitable that there would be cliffhangers and unanswered questions.

Death Star on Steroids

Yes, there is a Death Star story in The Force Awakens. In fact, like A New Hope and like Return of the Jedi, the Death Star makes a reappearance and on a much more grand scale. You’ll have to watch to find out what happens. Suffice it to say that this Death Star is far more destructive than anything ever built by the Empire. But, this isn’t the Empire. This is the New Order.. and likely if the New Order built one of these massive death machines, they likely built two or more of them. So, I’d expect to see another one or possibly a fleet of them in the next installments.

WYSIWYG story

While I realize this applies to computers, it also applies here. JJ didn’t put anything behind a veil. It is what you see. Yes, there might be subterfuge at work that we won’t realize until later installments, but in this film people take off their masks so we get to see them. There is little to be hidden behind masks for a 3 film story arc to reveal. It’s all revealed right here, right now, which is immensely satisfying. Who really wants to wait 3 films to finally see someone peel off their mask or find out who is really behind it all? In this film, it’s all put right out there immediately. No hiding. Limited use of masks. No hidden identities. No cloak and veils. What you see is truly what you get.

Though, we’ll have to wait and see in the next installments exactly what ‘points of view’ changes have yet to reveal themselves… and yes, there are questions that have yet to be answered.

Pacing

If there is anything here to fault of this film is its pacing. It starts out almost unbearably slow. Lots of scavenging scenes. Lots of random shots of conflicted moments of this failed Stormtrooper. An opening scene with the stormtroopers that while intended to garner some sympathy from the audience is mostly extraneous to the plot. We get that the New Order is to be feared. There is no need to beat us over the head with it. There were some scenes that even failed to advance the plot of the story and also failed to offer much in character development. In short, the opening is slow. After we finally leave Jakku, the pacing picks up and boy does it ever pick up. Once Han Solo is here, it’s a rollercoaster ride that lasts almost until the very end.

And then later… in the middle of the Death Star starship battle, we get interrupted by a longish lightsaber battle that leaves the Death Star scene hanging. Meaning, The Resistance (Rebels) trying to deal with how to bring down the death star and for the next 10-15 minutes, the pacing is killed with an awkward lightsaber battle that ends weirdly and doesn’t really conclude much. So, what were those X-wings up to the whole time the lightsaber battle was going on? Were they like on pause or something?

I would have expected to have more intercutting between the X-Wing battle and the lightsaber battle (like the lightsaber scene between Luke and Darth in Return of the Jedi and the space battle). The pacing between the space battle and the light saber battle in Return of the Jedi was amazing to behold. George didn’t always do everything right, but his editing skills were amazing. Unfortunately, JJ didn’t really seem to get the pacing or the tension here correct. So, the tension is almost completely killed while we watch this lightsaber battle unfold. I was hoping that these scenes would have been intercut better to keep the tension between both events high.

Overall

I enjoyed the The Force Awakens and want to see it again in 3D. I wouldn’t necessarily rate it a 93% that Rotten Tomato viewers have given or the 95% the critics have given it. I’d rate it more like 85%. It’s a good film and worth seeing. It especially ties up loose ends from what happened after Return of the Jedi nicely, but the pacing problems left me feeling less than impressed. Because TFA had nothing to do with the prequels, we can forget all about those films entirely and focus on what happened in episodes 4, 5, 6 and now 7. Well done Disney, JJ, Lucasfilm and George. Now, let’s see if we can keep this up and improve it for 8, 9 and beyond.

 

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Call of Duty – Advanced Warfare Review: Good, but a mixed bag

Posted in reviews, video gaming by commorancy on November 8, 2014

CallOfDutyLogoCubeMost previous Call of Duty titles were more-or-less grounded in some reality close to today. Well, Advanced Warfare finally tosses all of that aside and goes straight for a fantasy shooter. No longer are we looking at real world locations with real world weapons, we’re now firmly looking at some distant future where there are robotic suits you can strap on, flying drones with machine gun weapons, magnetic wall crawling abilities and more. This is definitely not the Call of Duty of yore.

Story

Your character, Jack Mitchell, is an ex-military war vet with a missing arm lost in a botched mission. As you’re being washed out of the military, Atlas corporation enlists you to give you a second chance with a prosthetic arm (and to become a mercenary). No sooner is the prosthetic arm strapped on than is Atlas sending you into a training simulation, to which you fail because the ‘arm isn’t ready’ (part of the story). As soon as you get the arm repaired, you are sent in a second time (yes, you do this mission twice) and you succeed the second time.

From here, you find out that the owner of Atlas, Jonathan Irons (Kevin Spacey), likes what you have to offer Atlas and continues to court you into their team. From here, the story begins.

Kevin Spacey as Jonathan Irons

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Kevin Spacey as Jonathan Irons

I’m mixed about this whole let’s-make-a-main-character-look-like-an-actor gimmick. In reality, the first and only thing I see each time I see this character is Kevin Spacey, not Jonathan Irons. In fact, Jonathan’s name is so not mentioned in the story that you really don’t ever know what this character’s name really is. Note, Spacey’s character name is so badly unmentioned in this game that I had to actually go Google his name to write this review. Unfortunately, that lack of namedropping doesn’t help this character to become more menacing. In fact, because he’s not in most of the game and because you don’t even know his name, what makes the writers think this character is even worthy of being a villain? I mean, one way or the other, this character had to die in the game. It was inevitable based on the way the story was set up. But, the character development around this villain is seriously lacking.

The rest of the story

Though, the story is less about Jonathan and more about you and Gideon’s (your sidekick) missions. It’s what drives the game and keeps the action interesting. The story is reasonably decent, but is centered around distinct missions that are distanced by time. So, the cohesion of the story isn’t always as good as it could have been. But, the action and lack of repetition does keep the story and environments quite interesting.

Story Choice and Player Character

10661945_932059730156581_7886592432289690474_o

Cormack and Mitchell

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Gideon and Mitchell

Let’s just bluntly say, there are none. The story is linear. There are no choices that you can make that impact the outcome of any of the segments or the final ending. So, if you want to let someone live vs die, there are no choices in this game like this. You’re dragged through the story, more or less, as a tag-along for the entire game. While your character is made to seem important by Atlas, the missions treat you as a rookie who barely knows his way around a training coarse. The game does not at all treat you like you’re the well respected and experienced soldier that you formerly were.

Linear Shooter

The downside to this game is that it is a completely linear shooter. What I mean by that is that it has absolutely no open world elements. It’s a firmly closed world kept in check mostly by Mitchell’s death. Meaning, if you stray from the mission, Mitchell is dead. If you do the wrong thing, Mitchell is dead. If you lag, Mitchell is dead. If you do anything other than what the story requires, Mitchell dies or the mission fails and ends. If it’s not your character who dies, then it’s one of your sidekicks. If they die, your mission is over. If you’re looking for more of an open world to play around in, don’t look here. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is not the game for you.

Graphics

10525368_932844880078066_7906915004664649843_oOn the other hand, this game on the PS4 is absolutely stunning visually. From the detailed suits that everyone wears to the vehicles, to the landscapes, to the buildings, the signage, everything. There’s not a detail in this world that wasn’t painstakingly made in high res. Combining all of that with near perfect naturalistic lighting, and you have some amazing scenes in the game. In fact, the cut scenes may have been produced on the PS4 and recorded. The graphics on the PS4 are so close in look to the cut scenes, it seems they likely were recorded on the PS4. Even as visually stunning as this game is, it can’t overcome the forced linear nature of the gameplay.

Gameplay

For the most part, I like the game play. The controls are simple, they work well and the button layouts are perfectly placed. However, that’s not the real problem here. The real problem is the inconsistent nature of the suit (see Exo Suit section below). This game borrows heavily from games like Killzone Shadowfall (futuristic look and feel plus some story elements), Halo 3 (vehicle, weapons and shield) and Crysis (the suit and lighting). Unfortunately, as much as they borrow, it doesn’t help the gameplay that much because of the linear nature. In fact, the gameplay is so linear, it might as well have been a rail shooter. Why even let us wander off at all? Just put up barriers. Nope, instead, they let you wander off but then give you a warning message ‘You are about to abandon your team’.  If you stray far enough for long enough, the mission fails.

This is the most problematic portion of this game. Here the artists have created an absolutely stunning world with well developed characters using amazing character models, and we’re stuck being a tag along.  Though, the character AI on the sidekicks has to be some of the worst I’ve seen in a game. Gideon’s aim is about as good as a Stormtrooper in Star Wars. That is, he couldn’t hit the side of a barn if it were 5 feet away. Seriously, the game entirely relies on your aim and your gun skills to kill anything and everything that moves. The other characters do occasionally manage to kill an enemy or two, but usually only at close range by melee. Not usually by killing them with a gun.

There are also times in the game where Gideon’s voice work is truly and utterly annoying. There’s one mission where you have to cross what amounts to a highway with continual cars and buses speeding by. At times, I felt like Frogger. Anyway, what’s most annoying about this scene is Gideon says ‘Get across the road’ every 2 seconds. Literally, every 2 seconds he’s chiming in telling you to get across the road. But, there are like 10 enemies on the median waiting to pop a cap in you. So, the first thing you need to do is sniper them all off considering Gideon’s (lack of) ability to actually shoot a gun. In among his constantly annoying chatter, you’re trying to pick off these enemies. It’s like, “Dude, shut the hell up and shoot these people first. Then, we’ll worry about getting across the damned road.”  And even worse, just a few feet away from you is a pedestrian overpass. If you try to go over to the overpass to get a higher vantage point, you can’t. The game simply won’t let you. In fact, if you try, it will warn that you’re about to abandon your mission. So, where is that ‘use whatever you can to get an advantage’ strategy that Call of Duty was so previously famous for?

Simulations and Checkpoint Saves

1956906_932045896824631_5119604728357774203_oAs with most Call of Duty games, the developers like to throw in a lot of different game modes to keep the game from becoming stale. In this case, there are flight simulators, suit jetpacks, jumping super high, a hover bike, hover tank simulator, mech suits, drone machine gun control, etc. These are some of the various additions. These are few and far between. In fact, you’ll only get one chance at each of these. For the flying simulator, that’s actually a good thing. The flight simulator in this game is probably one of the most horrible flight sims I’ve ever played. It’s so bad, in fact, that it feels like you’re flying about 2 MPH and you can’t keep yourself from running into anything and everything in the environment. Sometimes the developers just don’t get these pieces right.

On the hover bike level, I actually failed at a point where I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to finish. Because you’re supposed to be following Gideon on his bike, the save check point saved my game at a point where I was just too far away. So, every time it restarted my game, I didn’t have enough time to catch up to him. I finally found a trick that somewhat reset the fail timer and let me finally get past this level without restarting. I had this same exact problem on the hover tank level with the checkpoint save. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any tricks for the hover tank and I restarted the entire mission from the beginning. In this game, checkpoint saves aren’t always your friend.

Exo Suit

The suit itself is kind of cool, but a little too derivative of other suits like the Crysis Nanosuit. Though the initial suit was more or less a skeleton that attached to your body (rather than full body coverings), later in the game you get a full body suit that is much more reminiscent of the suit in Crysis (cloak included).

The suit has a lot of cool features, but the enemies always appear to have technologies that conveniently counter some of the most useful of the suit’s capabilities, like the cloak.  I mean, why even offer a cloak in the game when you can’t even use it most of the time? Seriously, why spend the time building the feature in the game when it cannot even be used for much of the game?

The secondary problem with the Exo Suit is that the features of the suit are turned on and off by the story and level segment. So, while you do have a drone you can use, you can only used it at specific limited times. If you want to jump high, that’s only available at limited times. If you want to use the grappling hook, that’s only available on limited levels. Instead of adding more and more to your suit, the designers chose to enable the suit features only when the gameplay warranted their use, not when the gamer chooses to use them.

Overall

1522580_932845190078035_8037699168592533202_oIn among all of the above problems, I enjoyed the game’s campaign and story. The main problem with this game, just like Killzone Shadowfall, the campaign is very very short.  You can expect to finish the entire campaign in under 3 days casually playing. If you are a hard core gamer, you can probably finish it in under 24 hours. For $60, this is far too short. This is also the exact same way I felt about Killzone Shadowfall. It also has a great campaign game, but is too short. Halo 3’s campaign is much more lengthy.  It took me at least a couple weeks or longer to get through Halo 3, not to mention all the easter eggs all over the level (i.e., the skulls).

It seems with the next generation games, short gameplay is the number one problem. To produce these visually stunning, nearly photo real and human motion accurate games, the gameplay and story are sacrificed. This leaves the story no more than 2-3 days worth of play value. It’s unfortunate, I’d rather have a less pretty experience and a much more lengthy campaign that might take a month to complete. For that $60, I want to have a long and lengthy story experience. I want to walk away feeling like I’ve just experienced the equivalent of a visual novel. I want to walk away also knowing I got my $60 worth of play.

Unless you are a really devoted fan of multiplayer games, I’d recommend that for the reason of shortness, you rent it. Though, the game does look amazing.

Graphics: 10/10
Sound: 9/10
Gameplay: 7/10 (flight sim was horrible, suit lacks consistent abilities)
Overall: 7.5/10

Game Review: Watchdogs

Posted in gaming, reviews by commorancy on June 24, 2014

Watchdogs-artLately, I’ve decided that I don’t want to know anything about the AAA titles before they are released so I can be surprised. Going into Watchdogs, I knew nothing (other than it had some hacker theme). Well, I’m somewhat disappointed in this title. Let’s explore.

Grand Theft Auto

I don’t mind playing Grand Theft Auto clone games, but games that don’t expand that idea enough beyond jacking cars really don’t do it for me. That, and I’d only recently finished playing Grand Theft Auto 5. Yes, I know, I play games slowly and in steps. Just prior to that, I had finished Saint’s Row the Third, also another GTA derivative.

Rehashed Ideas

It’s not that I have a problem with game developers taking some ideas from games and using them in new creative ways. But, when you just abscond with the entire control system and gameplay mechanics nearly unchanged, that’s when it treads far too near plagiarism. Though, adding the ‘hacking’ gimmick to divert your attention away from Ubisoft’s blatantly ripping a page straight from Rockstar’s GTA book doesn’t mean I’m okay with that. In fact, I’m definitely not okay with this. We already had the original GTA and Saint’s Row, do we really need another GTA? It’s a cool game structure and all, as long as it’s under the Grand Theft Auto name. I forgave Saint’s Row only because of it’s satirical nature. Anyone who can add irony and satire to a derivative game franchise will always make me want to play it.

But, that’s no where to be found in Watchdogs. Watchdogs is as serious as serious games come. It makes no attempt at hiding the fact that it’s a GTA clone, but it doesn’t make fun of that fact either. It’s just a straightforward ripoff with no apologies.

Road Layout and Car Handling

If you’re going to spend time writing a GTA clone, then make the road maps accommodate driving a car. More specifically, driving a car fast. The one thing that really irks me about Watchdogs is the crappy road layout of the city. Seriously, if Rockstar got anything right with GTA5, it was the roads and how they work in relation to vehicles. With the exception of the Vinewood Hills area in GTA5, the rest of the roads had easy and realistic curves that work quite well with high speed driving.

Unfortunately, the maps are an extremely sore point in Watchdogs. You simply can’t do high speed driving in Watchdogs. Nearly every city road runs into literally an L turn. And I’m not talking about a curve like (. No, I’m talking about an L. If you’re doing high speed to avoid the cops, the road abrubtly L turns and you’re crashing into a barrier or coming to a crawl to make the turn. Bad bad design. It’s clear, Ubisoft’s level designers put no thought into the road design. You can drive maybe 2 blocks before encountering yet another L turn. The subdivisions are just not conducive to high speed driving. Sure, I expect some L turns on some roads. And even then, they were occasionally in GTA5. But, they were the exception, not the rule. In Watchdogs, the roads are nearly L turns at every dead end.

Another thing Rockstar finally got right was the driving feel of the vehicles. Not so much in Watchdogs. The cars careen all over the road in unrealistic ways. In fact, the handling is so bad, it feels like a game from the 90s or maybe GTA 1 or 2. It doesn’t matter what car you jack, they all drive like crap. Ubisoft just didn’t get the driving or the roads right at all.

Cops

Just like GTA, if you go vigilante on the public, the wanted level goes up and the cops come after you… right down the Helicopter chasing you with a search light. It’s just a complete and utter rip off of GTA. Though, instead of the wanted stars, you get this flashing line bar. Effectively the same, though. And, like GTA, as long as you can outrun the cops or are good at hiding, you can eventually evade the cops. I even evaded the cops by jumping in a waterway and swimming away even when a helicopter was after me. This is something that would never have happened in any GTA game. The helicopters would have simply sent you to the hospital. Of which there is…

Dying

When your player character dies in the game, the game reloads back to the same point where your character died. So, for example, if your character happened to die in the middle of the freeway, that’s where the game places you after loading. No money lost, no trips to the hospital. I’m mixed on this, though. On the one hand, I like that I don’t lose my place where I was. On the other, placing my character in the middle of a busy freeway on foot is not really ideal.

Though, losing your place is one of the bigger problems I had with GTA5. If you happened to be in a part of the city where you’re not sure the exact location or weren’t paying attention to the map when your player character dies, you’re transported to the nearest hospital which might be a very long way from where you formerly were. So, on the one hand, I like that your character spawns where it died. At the same time, it’s not always practical to spawn in some of these locations. Overall, I’d say this is a miss by Ubisoft.

Hacking

Yes, Ubisoft did add the ‘phone hacking’ feature to Watchdogs as its primary gimmick. Note that hacking was actually a big part of Saint’s Row the Third, but offered up in a different way. The mechanics involving the cell phone hacking here is actually done very well. But, it doesn’t add so much to the game that you feel it’s a primary reason to play this game. The hacking is really to be thought of as another weapon that can help or hurt you as you progress through the game. Because the game is way overshadowed by the GTA5 feel, the hacking piece feels like an add-on that could have just as easily been added to GTA.

I would have preferred them rip off Assassin’s Creed’s climbing and or the quest system over GTA5. Give me the ability to climb the buildings over jacking cars, popping caps and joyriding.

Though, I will give credit to the camera hacking system. In fact, the entire game could have revolved around camera hacking. As long as you can ‘see’ another camera in the camera you’re viewing, you can hack into it. With this idea, you could string along camera hacking and ‘travel’ throughout the entire city without leaving the street corner. In fact, with this idea, it could have had other abilities like exploding street lights or hacking other devices that you might even be able to thwart crime simply by using the phone. While this infinite camera hacking idea wasn’t explored, it has a great potential at making a big part of a game. This is the one idea in this game that was left way underutilized but had immense potential. In fact, the camera hacking could have been a game unto itself.

Overall

Having just completed GTA5 and SR3, I’m still in my ‘I don’t really want to play another one of these games’ modes. I’ll snap out of it in a year or so, but for now it’s not really something I long to play at this point. GTA5 also had a whole lot going for it with the ability to mod vehicles and store them in garages and also supported switching between multiple player characters. While I don’t know if modding cars or storing cars is yet possible in Watchdogs, I’m not really planning on playing this game for a while to find out. I’m just a little burnt out on this style of gaming, but I’ll pick it back up eventually.

Because the roads are also not conducive to street racing, the game really made a huge blunder here. If the roads had been designed with more subtle curves to allow for high speed racing, chasing and escaping from cops, Watchdogs would have been a whole lot more fun with the cars. As the city roads are designed, it’s a chore to drive around the city. If you’re planning to rip off GTA (which is effectively a car-centric game wrapped in story), then you need to design the in-game roads to accommodate racing the cars. Right now, Watchdogs just doesn’t work well enough for that.

Recommendation: Rent or Buy
Gameplay: 5/10
Mechanics: 7/10
Car Racing: 2/10
Graphics: 10/10
Audio: 9/10
Overall: 7/10 (needs improvement)
Comment: Derives far too much if its play from GTA5. Road design is crappy and doesn’t work properly for racing.

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Movie Dissection: Tron Legacy

Posted in entertainment, film, movies, reviews by commorancy on December 18, 2010

Updated: 1/7/2012 – Disney greenlights Tron Legacy sequel

To start off, I am a reasonably big fan of the original Tron film. Yes, the first Tron story was a bit of a letdown, but it worked for what it was. After all, it was the first film to use computer graphics to that level within a film.  Definitely a ground breaker.

Achievements

Tron Legacy is also a ground breaker once again, but much less so.  Its technological advancements in film are much more subtle.  A lot of people may not have thought about this, but Tron Legacy is the first film to use an actual actor’s likeness in a film to play the actor at a younger age using a CG head and real body. I had predicted that this would happen eventually, and here we are.  Tron Legacy now opens doors up to creation of new films by Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.  Granted, the animation on the face is a bit stilted and unnatural, but it works for the CLU character.  It doesn’t work so much for Kevin Flynn’s younger self. Nevertheless, the character works in most instances.  If they had spent just a bit more time on the face, they could have made it look and act even better.  Avatar is proof of that.

Story

While I really wanted this story to work well, it doesn’t come together as I had hoped.  Basically, the CG is so strong that the story has to be twice as strong to overcome the incredible visuals.  The trouble is, it doesn’t.  But then, the same can be said of the first Tron film.

However, the two main problems with this film are 1) lack of formidable villain and, by association, lack of a real payoff at the end and 2) Tron is not the main character and is visibly absent most of the film.  After all, this film is named ‘Tron’.  Tron is the character we expect to see.  We do see him in flashbacks and, without spoiling the film, in other places as well.  However, for 95% of the film, Tron is absent.  In the small parts he’s in, Tron really contributes little to the overall story.

I realize that this one is about the ‘Legacy’ aspect of Kevin Flynn (i.e., Sam Flynn).  So, Sam takes the front stage in this production. That’s okay were Sam Flynn a super likable character.  Unfortunately, he’s not.  I liked him well enough, but not nearly as much as I liked Kevin Flynn in Tron.  In the first Tron film, we the viewers felt just like Kevin who was plopped into this fantasy world unexpectedly.  So, we’re experiencing it all for the first time just like he is.  With Tron Legacy, the audience already understands much about the world having seen the first film. So, wasting time on the introductions of the world isn’t really necessary.  To their credit, the producers/writers did try to skip much of it.  But, the whole clothes cutting and redressing scene was a bit overkill and kind of showed us just how cheesy the costumes were.  Like the first film, it would have worked better and saved lots of time if Sam had awoken in the world fully costumed. That whole costuming scene could have been skipped (which was awkward anyway).  I understand the setup between him and one of the female dressers, but that meet-and-greet could have happened in a different way.

Tron original film rules ignored

I also keep thinking more and more about Tron Legacy vs Tron and I keep coming up with more and more holes. Holes that are big enough to drive a truck through.  It’s really very obvious that the writers (former writers from Lost, I might add) just didn’t consult the original film before writing this story.  Without consulting the original film, they just arrived at an idea that didn’t really take into account all of the previous rules that had been established in Tron. Worse, it seems like the writers and producers thumbed their noses at the fans by not following these rules.  Following the rules, however, would have made Tron Legacy much more complete and true to the original film.  It would have also made Tron Legacy far better than it is now.  And, it would have shown that the writers were committed to providing a full experience to not only the casual viewer, but also to the die-hard fans of Tron.  Instead, this film only appeals to the casual viewer and completely ignores and, worse, insults the die-hard fan.

First example, the whole reason the game grid exists in Tron is as a result of the arcade video games in real life. The game grid is a virtualized, but identical active game as what the gamer sees on the arcade CRT.  Just as the gamer plays the game in real life in an arcade, so the game progresses identically in the virtual world with 3D people.  As a result, the game grid exists because of real life gamers.  As the gamers play games, so too do the game grid games.  In 2010, with games like World of Warcraft, Halo 3 and Assassin’s Creed, the writers could have had a field day with such an updated game grid.  Yes, it might have ruined the aesthetic of the game world to see people dressed as Master Chief or Ezio, but it would have made Tron Legacy far more true to what’s going on today in gaming and, at the same time, make Tron Legacy a lot more fun to watch.

In Tron Legacy, this entire arcade to game grid aspect was either forgotten or intentionally dropped.  The trouble is, this rule has already been established.  So, the movie should have at least popped out to the real world to see gamers playing on mobile phones, computers and Xbox 360s to show that the virtual game grid is still tied to a real world game.

Second issue… although, I have to admit I didn’t initially think of this one and don’t necessarily agree with the thinking behind it. Some people have surmised that the Encom mainframe had been shut off the whole time between Tron and Tron Legacy and thus the virtual world wouldn’t have existed. The reality is, there was a computer in Flynn’s Arcade that appeared to contain the virtual world.  So, while Encom’s computers may have been shut off, it appears Flynn had moved the entire world into his own personal server.  So, while some people seem to find this part of the film a problem, I don’t. Flynn was the CEO of Encom and easily had enough money and power to build a hugely powerful computer system in the basement of Flynn’s arcade to manage this world.  Sure, it might have been shut down for a time, but it certainly appears that Flynn had successfully transferred both the world and the computer into the arcade’s basement.  He certainly had enough money to do this. It also appears that this computer is fully functional when Sam arrives at the arcade.  So, I don’t see an issue with this part of the movie.

Third issue (see Encom below for more of this).  When Flynn took control over Encom after Tron defeated the MCP and released the files incriminating Ed Dillinger, I full well expected Flynn to drive Encom to become a game development company.  In fact, had this premise been realized, this would strengthen the idea behind the game grid and the existence of the virtual world.  Instead, for whatever reasons, the writers decided to turn Encom into an operating system company like Microsoft.  Now, that doesn’t mean that Encom doesn’t make video games, but it does mean that it is not Encom’s core business.  If that whole board room meeting had been related to a new video game title, the whole Tron Legacy story would have been dramatically strengthened.  Also, in Tron, Encom was an R&D group think tank.  That is, they designed extremely cutting edge prototyping products, like the digitizing laser.  The very same laser technology that digitizes and transports both Sam and Kevin into the virtual world.  Again, the writers ignored this part of Encom’s business completely to the detriment of Tron Legacy.  Considering that that digitizing laser was designed in 1982, I would have expected to see that digitizing system being sold on the market and people entering into their own virtual worlds (separate from Flynn’s world) by 2010.  Yet another lost opportunity for the writers to create an interesting spin on what happened with Encom.

Fourth issue,  after Sam ends up back in the real world at the end of Tron Legacy, he’s fully dressed in street clothes. As far as I know, he didn’t pack an extra set of clothes.  So, the whole costuming process inside the virtual world (where his clothes were cut off and discarded) doesn’t make sense.  Worse, Quorra, who isn’t even human, also pops out into the real world fully clothed in street clothes.  Again, where did these clothes come from?  I’m quite sure that Sam didn’t expect to be leaving Flynn’s with a female companion.  So, I’m quite sure that an old dusty arcade wouldn’t have such clothes stashed away.  So, again, this is a problem.  Although, some people surmise that Quorra didn’t actually make it out.  Instead, Sam is somehow having a delusion or an hallucination of Quorra and she’s not actually there. I don’t know that I agree with this.  I have my suspicions as to what’s going on, but I’ll leave that for Tron 3 to fully explain.

[Updated 1/16/2011]

Fifth issue is that the original digitizing laser consumed the space of at least 2-3 building stories and at least one football field.  This is a huge laser equipment laboratory.  In Tron Legacy, this digitizing laser is now located in the basement of Flynn’s Arcade?  Unfortunately, I just don’t think that this sized laser equipment fit within Flynn’s arcade basement space.  So, the question is, where is the rest of the huge laser infrastructure?  Just not thought out well enough.  However, if one of Encom’s newest products had been a self-contained USB digitizing laser (for home use) and that had been what was being discussed in the board room, then having this laser in Flynn’s basement would have made a lot more sense.  And, it would have made sense from a time perspective (all technology gets smaller).  But no, this issue was not addressed at all.

Sixth issue.. this is not so much an issue, but an observation about how the laser works.  According to the first film, the molecules are digitized and then suspended in the laser beam.  When the molecule model is played back, the object reintegrates.  With Quorra, it actually does make sense that she could end up in the real world.  How?  Well, there were two users in that world: Kevin and Sam.  Two real world users with real world molecules.  Kevin’s molecules would still have been suspended in the laser beam.  When Kevin explodes after reintegrating with CLU, those molecules are still trapped in the laser beam.  There’s nothing that says that those molecules have to play back out as Kevin.  In fact, Quorra could use Kevin’s suspended molecules to play back into her form and become human.  Of course, that would leave no more suspended molecules for anyone else to exit the grid.  That also means that for someone to leave the grid with a real form, that a real person would have to enter the virtual world.  I’m assuming that as long as that person lives, those molecules are tied to that individual.  If the user dies in the grid, then an ISO or another program could exit into the real world using that dead user’s molecules.  Another issue is that Kevin’s molecules would be suspended in Kevin’s form when he went in.  It would take at least Yori to reconfigure the laser beam protocol to play out Kevin’s molecules into Quorra’s form.  Yori was the program designed by Lora to manage parts of the digitizing system.  Unfortunately, Yori isn’t in Tron Legacy.  So, Quorra should have exited the virtual world in Kevin’s form and clothing.

Encom 2010

Other than the bored room meetings (pun intended), we really get very little of what Encom does in the present.  With technologies like the digitizing system that are displayed in Tron, I would have expected Encom to be a lot farther along in technological breakthroughs than selling ‘the latest greatest operating system’ (ala Microsoft). Clearly, this part of the film is an afterthought.  It wastes screen time without really telling us much about Encom.  It is really used as a vehicle to set up Sam Flynn’s character.  However, even that vehicle falls flat.  Honestly, the film would have been served better by not knowing or seeing that specific Sam Flynn escapade.

Villainy

Unfortunately, CLU isn’t the appropriate ‘Program’ to be a villain.  First, CLU is supposed to be Kevin Flynn’s helper program.  So, it seems odd that he has gone rogue anyway.  Secondarily, he isn’t really designed to be a villain.  So, turning him into one just seems somehow wrong.  Worse, he really isn’t a worthy adversary in the games.  If he is as good as he is supposed to be (along with his black guard henchman), they both should be able to best Sam Flynn easily.  So, this whole part of the film just doesn’t really work.  But then, Quorra interrupts the games early.  Kind of convenient, but at the same time gives us no payoff.

Adversary

Unlike Tron, which has the MCP, we have no such villain in Tron Legacy.  CLU is it, but CLU just doesn’t come across as a proper villain.  He seems more like a henchman for something bigger.  Yet, that something bigger just never materializes.  I actually expected to see Kevin Flynn emerge as the villain in this film. That would have been something.  It would have really justified the ending of this film, showed us a completely different side to Kevin and, at the same time, have given us a huge payoff at the end.  Alas, that doesn’t happen.

Action

The movie definitely starts the pacing off on the right foot and continues at a pretty solid pace until just after Sam Flynn exits the game grid.  After that, the story comes to a crawl, as does the action.  So, unfortunately too, this leads to a lack of payoff.  It also doesn’t give Sam Flynn any screen time to kick butt and take names which this film so desperately needs.  The wins we see with Sam are more out of luck and accidents than out of skill.  Sam never does get enough screen time to show that he has any skills that are translated from the real world.  Even his lightcycle skills don’t show through no matter how much Ducati footage is included in the opening. We need to see Sam win at something where the stakes are substantial.  Something that at the end of it, we cheer for him and his win.

Visuals and Audio

What’s to say about the visuals other than, “stunning”.  The music by Daft Punk and the audio effects are superb at doing what movies do best: set the mood and tone.

Payoff

In the end, there really is no payoff.  In the first film, Tron’s first goal is to get a message to his user.  So, Tron fights his way through to a communication tower.  In Tron Legacy, Sam’s and Kevin’s only objective is to get to the exit portal (not unlike the communication tower in Tron).  So, when they finally get to the portal, it seems trivially easy.  There is really no opposition along the way.  Just a quick trip with a Solar Sailer and they’re basically there.  No grid bugs, no hidden Mickey Mouse heads, no Recognizer chases, etc.  Just a trip without any incidents.  In Tron, getting to the communication tower is only half the way through the story.  Tron still must battle the MCP.  At the end of Tron Legacy, there was no battle.  In fact, there was nothing to battle at all, other than Kevin’s own guilt.

Unfortunately, the ending was really explained by Quorra about 20 minutes before the end.  So, I won’t give it away, even though Quorra does.  But at the portal, there is no real payoff with CLU or Tron.  In fact, there is no real positive payoff at all.  The ending leaves more questions than answers.  So, unless Disney plans on Tron 3, we may never know what happens.  This really feels like half of a film.  It feels like we’re missing the other half of this film.

Overall

The story could have been far better.  However, the producers rely on the visuals and the music (which, granted, both were very impressive) to carry this film.  Again I say, the plot could have been far far better. We need at least one payoff and we don’t get it.  I was even hoping for a little payoff with Sam on the game grid, but even that doesn’t happen.  Sam, like Kevin in Tron, also needed to befriend someone in the virtual world besides Quorra.  He needed another companion to travel around the virtal world and show him the ropes.  And, for a split second, I thought it might actually happen when one of his lightcycle mates almost gets his bike wand back.  That is until CLU runs him over and Quorra steps in.

Also, there are lots of subtle things that just don’t work or are missing.  For example, as a user in Tron (first film), Kevin is able to absorb energy and use it in unusual ways.  Clearly, he is still able to do that to create CLU in Tron Legacy.  He also uses this power to steal a non-working Recognizer in Tron. However, the writers don’t explore this aspect with Sam at all.  It could have helped out in several instances and would have made for a more cohesive film. There was also no comic relief element like the ‘bit’ in the Recognizer in Tron.  Not that we need ‘bit’ in this film, but I think that humor could have helped in places.

Even though the story is a bit weak in the film, the story for Tron Evolution (video game) is much stronger than this film.  In fact, it has many of the elements and payoffs that the movie lacks, including a proper villain with Abraxas.  However, that doesn’t mean that it’s the best game of 2010. Far from it. However, the story is definitely better than the Tron Legacy story. If you’re really into Tron lore, you should check out Tron Evolution to fill in the story gaps that the movie doesn’t fully explain (i.e., the ISOs).  I am disappointed that the film glosses over the ISO storyline and, instead, leaves it to the video game to fully explain these concepts.

I like the film, but the story really needed to be far stronger to match the visuals.  Overall, I rate this film 7.5 out of 10 stars.

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