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White House Down (Blu-ray + DVD) review

Posted : 6 years, 5 months ago on 29 December 2013 10:35 (A review of White House Down (Blu-ray + DVD))

Director Roland Emmerich’s name is associated with some of the most lucrative (as well as some of the worst) summer blockbusters of all time. You don’t go into a Roland Emmerich movie to think, you go into a Roland Emmerich movie to watch cheesy dialogue drip from the mouths of big name actors in-between money shots of exploding buildings, exploding alien spacecraft, exploding American cities, an exploding White House, or exploding… you get the picture. Filmmakers like Emmerich can produce genuinely thrilling, albeit inane, films when firing on all cylinders. Emmerich has and can muster up the creative juices to do so, and White House Down looked to me like an honest-to-goodness ‘80s throwback picture he was going to be directing the crap out of. God knows a movie like White House Down isn’t expected to deliver a complex narrative, just to deliver on the promise of epic large-scale action sequences set in and around the White House. Simple, right?

The problem with movies like White House Down is how they completely underestimate the necessity of an R rating. When you have an action film rife with gunplay and a cadre of violent encounters, continuously cutting away just before the point of impact or not letting the camera linger on the aftermath seriously strains the action. White House Down is the kind of action vehicle that required an R rating. Hell, there are PG-13 shoot ‘em ups that have more oomph and ferocity than even the most ridiculous action sequences White House Down has to offer. The gun battles and fistfights are well choreographed, though a bit choppy in places, and there’s an impressive amount of destruction. A movie like this needs a director that can and will deliver hard, punchy, and tough action bits. Simply put, Emmerich doesn't have the balls to push the PG-13 as hard as he could have, let alone rally for the audience-dividing R.

It’s ironic, then, that so much of White House Down copy-and-pastes wholesale an innumerable amount of motifs from the original Die Hard. Some of the similarities are subtler than others, like White House Down’s eccentric computer hacker Skip Tyler (Jimmi Simpson) looking and acting an awful lot like Die Hard’s eccentric tech specialist, Theo (Clarence Gilyard, Jr). Non-fans of the Die Hard franchise will miss ones like those, but you just can’t miss ones like Channing Tatum’s John McCla… John CALE dispatching terrorists all by his lonesome, isolated from the outside, spouting quippy one-liners, and halfway through the film stripping down to a dirty white vest. Emmerich even thought it wise to throw in a scene with our hero climbing up an elevator shaft while eavesdropping on the baddies' plans. Borrowing from a masterpiece like Die Hard isn’t uncommon, and in the hands of the right director could have worked well within the context of the movie. Emmerich isn’t up to the task, unfortunately, and watching Tatum – charismatic & well-cast as he may be - do his best John McClane impression only serves to remind this viewer how much I'd rather be watching Die Hard at this point.

One thing White House Down has going for it is its talented starring & supporting players. Everyone is having a good time and that sense of fun is infectious. A movie like this doesn’t require top notch talent so it’s a bit curious that Emmerich enlisted the likes of James Woods, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins, and Jamie Foxx to play principal characters. These are all quality actors with proven acting chops. An action flick like White House Down doesn’t do a cast of this magnitude the justice it deserves. The roles could have been filled by anyone, really, and it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. The film’s real stars are its (cheap looking) CGI effects and ever increasing number of explosions. White House Down's cast do everything they can with writer James Vanderbilt’s totally inconsequential script but the human element was never a selling point to begin with and it shows. 25 years later and Die Hard is still proof that a fun action movie doesn't have to sacrifice its characters for its set pieces and that’s something its sea of imitators don’t seem to understand.

Speaking of Vanderbilt’s script, it’s just as woefully unoriginal as Emmerich’s overwrought directing. Any person with even a passing knowledge of contemporary action films will be telegraphing each plot twist, flat joke, and sappy melodramatic moment well ahead of time. The script tries with all its might to build suspense, but the oh-so-predictable plot doesn’t leave much room for it. White House Down finds comfort in a well-worn archetype and there isn’t anything wrong with that, it just does it in the most contrived & rote ways imaginable. White House Down also suffers from conflicting tone. Emmerich can’t decide if he wants his movie to satirize modern action conventions or be a catalyst for them. When a film casts Jamie Foxx as the president of the United States and has him reference the importance of his Michael Jordan sneakers, you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. White House Down tries too hard to be witty and self-aware but does it in all the worst ways. It doesn’t take itself seriously, so when we’re handed a sequence that piles on the dramatics, how in the world are we supposed to take any of it seriously?

If the Die Hard franchise taught us anything, it’s that these kinds of movies need a good central villain for our battered hero to do battle with. Jason Clarke’s rogue CIA agent, Emil Stenz, fits the bill nicely. Or rather, he would have fit the bill nicely if Emmerich had the good sense to give him anything else to work with other than snarling threatening lines and delivering some of the most generically “bad guy” dialogue you can possibly think of. Clarke must have set a record for the number of times he promises to kill someone. Seriously, this guy is every villain cliché rolled up into one. Subtlety isn’t on this one's menu, obviously, but the way Emmerich handles Stenz is insulting. Clarke is a fine actor and manages to mold Stenz into something resembling a memorable villain in lieu of his asinine dialogue, so it makes it all the more disappointing that he’s used so ineffectively. You could argue that James Woods’ Martin Walker has the meatier villain role, and with that you’d be right. Age hasn’t been kind to him, however, and Walker comes across as an incompetent, overweight, and altogether useless bad guy because of it. Woods is a marvelous actor that simply doesn’t belong here.

Is there anything good about White House Down then? Sure. If you’re in the mood for a thoroughly absurd action flick and aren’t expecting noteworthy originality or believability, this'll give you about what you’d expect. Emmerich’s action sequences have impressive scope but his execution is frustratingly muddled. Still, they’re serviceable on the most basic levels. Stuff blows up and only a truly abysmal director could muck up the carnal joys of watching White House Down’s level of destruction unfold. There’s a lot of action peppered throughout that wears the film’s PG-13 rating on its sleeve. If you’re not the sort that cares for the graphic violence usually associated with films of this ilk you should be pleasantly surprised by this one’s restraint.

For someone like me that grew up on movies like this, that wants an obviously R-rated movie to be an R-rated movie, you’re likely to get more and more frustrated as it wears on. And it’s probably not the PG-13 that hurts this one as much as it is the director behind it. White House Down, for all of its bluster and thunderous action sequences, is so painfully boring. PG-13 action films don’t have to be this bland as so many other pictures have proven. Everything about it is hollow, unimaginative, and mind-numbingly dull. Having lots of action means little if it’s stiff, poorly staged action. Movies like this one live and die by their action sequences, and White House Down’s are so diluted you’ll be feeling next to nothing as you watch them limp by. And how does a movie with a $160 million budget have CGI this bad? Throwing $160 million at the screen sure as hell does not a good action movie make. It's a chore to sit through and that's a shame because White House Down had serious potential.

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Medal of Honor: Warfighter review

Posted : 7 years, 7 months ago on 28 October 2012 02:13 (A review of Medal of Honor: Warfighter)

Could it be that gamers are finally tiring of military shooters? The spotty reviews Medal of Honor: Warfighter has been receiving since its October 23rd release indicate as such. If the general consensus is anything to go by (e.g. IGN's disgusting farce of a review awarding the game a 4.0 out of 10) this current trend in gaming has finally run out of gas. After all, it's not like most consumers who purchase every yearly iteration of Call of Duty and its massively overpriced DLC map packs are the same consumers that will likely spend their hard-earned dollar on deeper, brainier material as well. I'm sure the "gamer" whose only real gaming experience starts with the word "call" and ends with the word "duty" is growing quite tiresome of military shooters because, well, what the hell else do they play?

Yes, Activision's prized cash cow has been breaking sales records since 2007 and, I'll admit it, has held onto its mainstream success two years longer than I expected it to. But how many first-person shooters since the runaway gravy train that was Modern Warfare 1 were almost always met with staunch criticism that usually ended in, "But Call of Duty does *insert gameplay element here* better?" How many enjoyable, sometimes innovative shooters were pushed aside because A) They weren't like Call of Duty B) They were too much like Call of Duty or C) Were completely ignored because, shit, a new Call of Duty comes out in four months! Can you really blame both the game publishers and developers for creating similar experiences hoping to stay afloat in the aftermath of a huge economic downturn?

Enter EA's time-tested Medal of Honor series. The very series Activision owes its success to this generation. Why is that, I hear you ask? Because their success is entirely derivative of the lucrative business model that gave EA years of high profit margins. A decade ago EA had absolutely no problem flooding the market with Medal of Honor games every year and, more often than not, of questionable quality. But when rival shooter franchise Call of Duty struck paydirt with Modern Warfare the battle for FPS supremacy was all but won. EA's 2010 reboot of the Medal of Honor series was met with mixed reviews, though most who have played it felt its strong (albeit short) single-player campaign was a step in the right direction for the genre. I was one of them. Design studio Danger Close crafted a far more emotional, authentic, and gritty shooter experience than its competition, hoping their approach would net them recognition in a market overcrowded with Michael Bay action vehicles masquerading as playable entertainment.

If anyone knows me they know I think very highly of Danger Close's previous Medal of Honor. Heavy scripting and strict linearity aside, I loved its realistic plot, gun battles, and very human lead characters. Backed by the unbelievably powerful Frostbite 2 graphics engine and a single-player story written by real-life Tier 1 Operators to boot, Medal of Honor: Warfighter has promise by the bucketloads. Originally developed by DICE for last year's Battlefield 3, the Frostbite 2 tech allows for high-end visual effects, crystal clear sound, and photorealistic facial renders & animations. Graphically speaking, Warfighter is already a giant leap ahead of it's Unreal Engine 3-powered predecessor. Warfighter's visuals are consistently dazzling and sometimes downright groundbreaking. Make no mistake, this is one good looking game.

What separated Medal of Honor from its competition two years ago is the very same thing that separates its sequel today. There's a very noticeable human element that lends a palpable, dramatic tension to the goings on. There are numerous returning characters from the previous title and despite being completely fictional I couldn't help but feel like I was reuniting with old friends. One of the huge differentiating factors at play here is that unlike other military shooters, the men you are fighting alongside aren't Hollywood-style archetypes capable of unimaginable feats of heroics and valor. There's no last minute slow-motion headshot to save the day, no outrunning an onslaught of aerial bombardments, and certainly no close-as-all-hell explosions that you and they manage to get up and walk away from time and again. Medal of Honor: Warfighter makes sure that you know you're not a superhero, but a highly trained soldier that's still capable of being shot, killed, and emotionally wounded just as any other ordinary citizen.

That's not to say Danger Close doesn't cook up some impressive scenarios, however. There's a technically astounding mission early on in the game that sees one of the player characters, Preacher (returning from the 2010 entry), wading through the hurricane-ravaged streets of the Phillippines with brother-in-arms, Mother (yet another returning character), in order to secure intel on a highly volatile explosive substance codenamed P.E.T.N. Thanks to the Frostbite 2 engine's gorgeous lighting and destructible terrain, things like derooted trees crushing structures into jagged piles of rubble in real-time are made possible. It makes for an exciting mission, topped off with fantastic gun handling and a very hectic, successive feel to the gunfights.

I half-expected Danger Close to move Warfighter in this direction, that is to say taking more liberties with its shootouts and set pieces. Thankfully things never get as crazy or as unbelievable as other shooters, and while the prospect of a two-man team executing a hostage rescue in the middle of a hurricane is very, very far-fetched (though true, from what I've read), Danger Close still adhere to the rule established in the first: moderate suspension of disbelief in the name of exciting gameplay is fine as long as the characters aren't turned into indestructible caricatures of members of the armed forces.

For every high-speed car chase and every lengthy on-foot pursuit there are just as many funny, touching character beats that aptly provide that very human facet the 2010 reboot incorporated so well. Outside of the main P.E.T.N. plot, there are flashback sequences involving Preacher's relationship with his estranged wife and daughter who have had enough of his constant lengthy deployments. Some have complained that these cutscenes - while noteworthy for simply being included in a videogame - are never capitalized upon. I beg to differ. It ups the stakes considerably when you're in control of and directly partnering with a virtual character that has a name, family, and the same fears and responsibilities that you the player has. Oftentimes we forget that soldiers are also husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, and friends. Warfighter pays tribute to that very forgotten aspect, videogame or otherwise.

The other, perhaps biggest complaint lobbied at the previous game was that it was just too short. It's brevity doesn't subtract from everything it does right, but when you have an experience as fun as the 2010 game was, four or five hours of gameplay time just isn't enough. Playing on the normal difficulty, Warfighter's campaign ran me about seven hours. That additional two or three hours of play time benefits the game greatly. The game's 13 rather diverse missions are pretty straight-forward in terms of design, but not so linear that those willing to search the surroundings a bit won't find routes in which to flank or get above their enemies. Danger Close have taken into account some degree of bullet physics, so simply aiming down your sites and firing doesn't mean an automatic hit or kill. Taking and maintaining cover is crucial, and to aid in the protection of the player are the abilities to both slide into and peek over & around cover, both of which are welcome returning features from the previous title.

It's rare nowadays that a military FPS actually takes the time to build tension, build its characters, build the stakes, and then deliver a surprising, tragic twist without having some sort of score-one-for-the-good-guys cliché in which the player character and his squadmates exact some satisfying revenge regardless of whether or not it invalidates everything before it. Warfighter sticks to its guns nicely by ensuring that there is no stereotypical, mustache-twirling villain revealed as the catalyst for all of the pain and agony experienced prior.

With that said, it couldn't be more appropriate that Danger Close ends the game with a beautifully written eulogy on the strength, determination, and unwavering courage that these amazing individuals worldwide possess. We've reached a bit of a stalemate as far as first-person shooters are concerned and if you're already tired of ones that rely on linear level design and heavily scripted moments, Medal of Honor: Warfighter isn't going to do much for you. There's a place for games like these, though, just as there is a place for long-winded RPGs and expansive open-world games. Warfighter did something that very few games do for me anymore: it made me feel something. After all was said and done, I was exhausted. I was thankful. I was heartbroken. I was worn.

Warfighter isn't a somber military simulator intent on exploring the hellish bowels of war, but it also isn't a war shooter full of male machismo and eye-rolling characterizations either. It improves on an already outstanding game by making it better looking, better playing, longer, and more satisfying overall. I'm glad to see Danger Close didn't sacrifice the authenticity of Medal of Honor 2010 for over-the-top action sequences and Hollywood theatrics. It's what made the reboot so endearing and why its sequel remains such a rewarding alternative to Call of Duty and shooters of its kind. And that's very simply because it remembers that the events transpiring on-screen do indeed happen on a daily basis. There are countless individuals worldwide that fight for their people and their countries. I feel very confident in stating that Medal of Honor: Warfighter is one of the best military shooters in years. I couldn't have asked for a better sequel.

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Max Payne 3 review

Posted : 7 years, 10 months ago on 11 July 2012 08:26 (A review of Max Payne 3)

If there were ever a more tragic videogame character than that of hard boiled undercover cop turned vigilante Max Payne, I haven't found them yet. Remedy's 2001 PC exclusive, Max Payne, was something the likes of which we'd never seen before. Culling inspiration from Hong Kong action films, the slow-motion, Bullet Time-infused shootouts of The Matrix, and the dark, foreboding atmosphere of '40s & '50s noir cinema, Remedy created something wholly unique and innovative.

Max Payne and its sequel, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne never suffered the fate of innumerable rip-offs and imitators, although the series' success certainly inspired other developers to craft more cinematic and story-driven games. If Valve's Half-Life was the precursor to the cinematic action game, then by comparison Max Payne was the speeding locomotive that officially kicked this ever-popular form of shooter into high gear. Brimming with unbridled excess and some of the best shootouts in videogame history, the Max Payne titles are also of note for their excellent voiceacting, characterizations, and dialogue.

After Max Payne 2's concise wrapping up of all loose plot elements from the first title and sealing the fates of nearly every character in the process, it wasn't hard to see why a second sequel was deemed both unneccesary and never expected to materialize. If a Max Payne 3 was to ever happen there were very few places they could take the story. And when screenshots of a bald, heavier, and more grizzled looking Max surfaced in the summer of 2009 - with accompanying reports of Rockstar handling development duties - I and many other fans wondered just what the hell they were doing. Slowly but surely more details started trickling down. The dreary New York setting was ditched in favor of sunny São Paulo, Brazil, Max's trademark leather coat turned in for an ill-fitting tank top, cargo pants, and grubby looking construction boots, and no mention of how this entry would tie into the previous games. Indeed, the future of the Max Payne franchise was looking decidedly grim.

But after three years of waiting, anticipating, and praying, the console versions of Max Payne 3 were released on May 15th with the PC version following on June 1st. After four (yes, four) playthroughs and still saddled with this insatiable need to plow through it again, I can honestly say that Rockstar have delivered a sequel far better than it has any right to be. Despite the totally insane amounts of tonal changes, new characters, and shunning of past trademarks, Max Payne 3 deserves to be played more than any other game in recent memory. Why? Because it knows exactly what it is and really, truly does not give a shit. Although a lot has changed in ten years, there are two constants that were true when the first game debuted and are still true today: Max is the single most unfortunate human being on the face of the planet, and blowing away bad guys in ultra-cool slow-motion never gets old.

James McCaffrey returns to voice Max and Rockstar certainly puts him through his paces. Remedy never allowed Max to show much anger or, more specfically, to show much emotion at all. McCaffrey had always portrayed him as a glum, somber, and reflective man with a penchant for philosophical meanderings and a cool head. The drug-addled, drinking-himself-to-death version of the character in Max Payne 3 is far more vocal, angrier, and prone to fits of violent rage. Max is but a mere shadow of his former self; broken, self-loathing, and completely disillusioned with the world around him. And while the first two games were relatively light on the profanity (and to my recollection, Max never swore), in typical Rockstar fashion there are loads of unrelentingly foul language and Max certainly provides his fair share of it.

The last time we saw Max it seemed he had finally come to terms with his family's murder and would therefore be able to proceed with what was left of his life, picking up the broken pieces as he went along. And this is what separates Max Payne 3 from the previous two entries the most: this is - in very few ways - a direct sequel. There are only two chapters that take place outside of Brazil (New Jersey, to be exact) and they are used to explain how Max winds up in São Paulo. As a bodyguard for a real estate mogul, no less. There are very few mentions of past characters, there are no returning characters, and outside of the Bullet Time mechanic and Max's continual use of inner-monologues, they share considerably fewer similarities than fans would have probably liked.

But outside of creating a game that acts as more of a standalone reboot than a full-fledged sequel, Rockstar have delivered what is easily the best pure action game in a very, very long time. The RAGE graphics engine - which Rockstar debuted in their seminal hit Grand Theft Auto IV - is used to great effect here. The best the engine has ever looked, in fact. The PC version offers up considerably better textures, shadows, lighting, and particle effects than it's console counterpart, not to mention amazing performance optmizations and full DirectX 11 support. But either way you slice it Max Payne 3 is damn good looking regardless of platform. The facial renders look fantastic, the locales are brought to life with an immaculate attention to detail and photorealistic depictions of Brazilian architecture, great looking character models, and a plethora of diverse, highly-destructible environments to shoot the living shit out of. The Bullet Time effects themselves are nothing short of breathtaking.

Further emphasizing Max Payne 3's highly cinematic gameplay are two new features Rockstar designed for that very purpose. If the player has at least one painkiller left (the Max Payne series' answer to medkits) and an enemy depletes their health, time will slow to a crawl and allow you a few seconds to line up a shot and eliminate said enemy. It's an insanely cool aesthetic that keeps the combat flowing smoothly and naturally while also acting as a valuable gameplay tool during moments when the hectic nature of the gun battles won't net you enough time to recover some health. When these moments occur - referred to in-game as Last Man Standing - the player can control the speed of the camera. There are also moments during gameplay where a particularly nasty kill warrants a Bullet Cam (i.e. a tracking shot of the bullet hitting its target) which, again, the player can adjust at their leisure for added cinematic flair.

The RAGE engine has also been optimized to accomodate high levels of destructibility with nary a framerate drop. What's even more notable is the Euphoria physics engine, yet another piece of tech initially developed for GTA IV. It allows for realistic character movement by giving individual models skeletal structure and weight. Euphoria allows for every single character model to run, move, fall, and tumble with eerie authenticity. The Euphoria technology also eliminates those rather unsavory moments from past games where - if Max were to dive in the direction of a wall, for example - the Shoot Dodge animation would continue on as if there were nothing there. With Euphoria, impacting solid objects causes Max's body to take on the characteristics of real-life force and inertia.

On top of truly outstanding gunfights and set pieces, the story being told is both impressively written and unrelentingly grim. More so than the previous games, the violence in Max Payne 3 is swift and unwavering. There are some truly heinous moments of bloodshed that occur throughout and almost always when you least expect them. The shootouts themselves are extremely bloody, almost Sam Peckinpah-like in their gratuity. These gunfights are appropriately accented by amazing sound design and an eclectic, effective soundtrack. The score - consisting of original songs by rock band Health - accentuate the on-screen carnage but are used sparingly so as not to overshadow it. A sequence set in an airport is a perfect example of how Health's score works in tandem with the visuals to heighten these visceral set pieces.

With the main campaign clocking in at 10-12 hours with immense replayability via collectables and unlockables, there are an impressive amount of other game modes as well. Max Payne 3 is a story-driven affair, so it's no surprise that the game's multiplayer mode is serviceable if nothing memorable. Those yearning for an involving, deep multiplayer component won't find much to write home about. Very run-of-the-mill gameplay won't hold the attention spans of online fanatics for long, but the inclusion of the campaign's Bullet Time, as well as unlockables and some interesting modes of play make for a unique diversion.

The New York Minute mode - a popular feature carried over from Max Payne 3's predecessors - is essentially a time trial mode that rewards fast reflexes and quick thinking. The Score Attack mode is self-explanatory, though notable for allowing players to choose from an all-encompassing selection of costumes, two of which re-imagine the Max Payne models from the first two games. It's a great bit of fan service from Rockstar and provides a nice incentive to play through the game again if only to fantasize about what the game would have looked like if Max's prior looks had stuck.

With a lot riding on it and a new set of developers at the helm, Rockstar have not only surpassed my expectations but have a legitimate contender for Game of the Year on their hands. Max Payne 3 offers up a dark, gritty, and unbelievably violent tale of redemption presented in a way that only Rockstar can. Graphically superb, unbelievably fun, and fresh enough to break new ground for the series without sacrificing the quality or relevancy of it's prequels, Max Payne 3 is nearly perfect in every way. And despite a concluding act that doesn't wrap up the story as finely or as appropriately as I'd have liked, you'd be doing yourself a disservice by not recognizing just how seminal this game is and how it nearly perfects it's genre. Rockstar proves yet again why they are awarded such consistent praise. Max Payne 3 is action gaming at it's finest.

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Fast Five (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy) (Extended Edition) review

Posted : 8 years, 3 months ago on 20 February 2012 02:41 (A review of Fast Five (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy) (Extended Edition))

Ever since Len Wiseman's Live Free or Die Hard's summer 2007 release, it would seem the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) have allowed themselves to become increasingly more lenient as to what levels of violence and profanity they deem acceptable for a PG-13 rating. Back in the '80s and '90s anything more than split-second bullet hits and mere allusions to more gratuitous acts of violence were almost always met with an automatic NC-17, let alone the highly coveted R rating movie studios clamored to cut their films’ content back for. Revered early-'80s classic The Terminator, for example, has surprisingly little on-screen bloodshed when compared to the R-rated ilk of today. Watching as bullets tear through good or bad guys – all the while sending blood and viscera sailing through the air - has become commonplace. So much so, in fact, that I’m almost positive many of this generation's R-rated films would have been given non-negotiable NC-17s if released just 15 years ago.

The influx of R-rated actioners masquerading as PG-13 fair have skyrocketed since Live Free or Die Hard's release almost five years ago. Director Justin Lin's Fast Five is yet another in an ever-increasing line of hard-edged action flicks that doubles-down on everything but blood squibs and dismemberment to accompany its intense, destruction-heavy action sequences. And despite being the fourth sequel in the Fast and the Furious franchise (which has also spawned some of the most awkwardly named sequels this side of First Blood), Fast Five bears little resemblance to the 2001 Rob Cohen film that truly launched Vin Diesel into superstardom.

Those pining for a return to the L.A. car culture fusion of the first three films will once again find themselves with unmet expectations. Justin Lin's second sequel, Fast & Furious, got the genre ball rolling as it moved franchise mainstays (for the most part) Vin Diesel and Paul Walker away from the aforementioned car culture and instead placed them into a highly stylized barrage of car chases, car crashes, drug lords, shootouts, and a plethora of bassy explosions all in the name of avenging the death of one of the original film's principal characters. And realistically speaking, who can blame them? The car culture phenomenon died not long after the series' first sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious left theaters and when 2006's Tokyo Drift ended up a sequel in name only with no returning cast members, something had to be done in order to advance any future films forward without relegating them to dated topic matter. That's more or less what Fast & Furious accomplished. A bit slow in spots and a tad too heavy on exposition in a franchise that doesn't really need it, but Fast & Furious gave fans exactly what they wanted: Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Special Agent Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) tearing up the asphalt together once again.

Enter Fast Five. After three seemingly unrelated sequels featuring a smattering of new characters as equally unrelated, the brilliant idea to gather them all together - even the original film's Matt Schulze (Vince) shows up briefly - is a novel one and offers fans a quasi "greatest hits" sort of cast that could have very easily fallen victim to the old ‘too many faces with too little screen time’ song and dance. Factor in Dwayne Johnson as charismatic DSS agent Luke Hobbs and you see how dangerously close Fast Five was to becoming a victim of having a great idea that sullies its potential in executing it. Thankfully for us (and Vin Diesel's declining career) Fast Five is, hands down, one of the best action films of the last five years. If you're up on the series enough to know who all of these characters are, as well as their respective backstories, you'll find a lot to like. Justin Lin supplies varying degrees of fan service in no small amount thus ensuring that the more initiated will get a lot more out of this than those renting or buying the flick just hoping for a solid two-hour time killer.

What's even more interesting to note is how a lot of the previous cast members have grown as actors since their respective entries. Paul Walker is often derided for his non-existent acting abilities, but 10 years later and there's an unmistakable improvement in both his emoting and line delivery. Vin Diesel has always been something of a glorified stuntman likening himself to an A-list star and Fast Five certainly isn't the kind of film that does him any favors in that department. But he's yet another cast member who has improved over time, now able to better convey varying degrees of emotion and intensity without looking completely out-of-place while doing it. But Fast Five isn't an actors’ film despite all of the fun these guys seem to be having.

Justin Lin realizes that consumers are coming into this one expecting absolutely insane action sequences and that's precisely what he serves up on a battered silver platter. If character development is something you find absolutely essential when making your viewing decision then it's best to just steer clear of this one. You know exactly what you're signing up for when within the first five minutes of the movie Lin is throwing a high-speed breakout scene at you that involves exotic cars managing to flip – multiple times, no less - a prison transport bus. Yes, this is one of those kinds of action flicks. The laws of physics are foiled again and again in favor of delivering one jaw-dropping action set piece after another. And what Justin Lin gets right more than anything else is the pacing. Fast Five's extended cut clocks in at just a hair over two hours. With a 130 minute runtime you'd expect that last 45 minutes to become as tedious as waiting in line at the DMV. Where Fast Five benefits from this bloated runtime is, again, emphasizing the stellar action sequences and witty banter between the motley crew of returning characters. The choreography is top-notch and the amount of devastation Dom and company are able to cause is a testament to the film's outrageous $125 million budget.

With a budget like that it comes as no surprise that even the less action-centric moments are still cluttered with deafening ambience and macho posturing. Isn't that all an action director can really ask for? That an example of "less action-centric" is a sequence in which masked gunmen beat the crap out of a cash house proprietor and set his money on fire? The money belonging to Joaquin De Almeida's Brazilian drug baron Hernan Reyes, no less. It's surprising to see an international actor of De Almeida's talent "slumming" it as he does here. And if there's one complaint to level at Fast Five it’s that the motivation for Toretto's high-stakes heist of Reyes's vault (of which holds $100 million) comes off as totally inconsequential. De Almeida is, again, an excellent actor and even with such little screentime is as good as ever. He's imposing while doing or saying very little, instead letting his body language and cold gaze define the character. But as the movie's villain we simply don't see enough of him or what he's truly capable of, effectively half-baking Toretto's beef with him.

But despite that one vexing flaw, Fast Five is the summer popcorn flick to end all summer popcorn flicks. Universal, as par for the course, has given Fast Five a stellar Blu-ray release with a plethora of supplemental features, a gorgeous hi-def transfer, and one of the best DTS-HD 5.1 tracks I've had the pleasure of experiencing. Universal has also seen fit to release Fast Five in an extended cut that plays up its hard-edged action sequences by overlaying some very convincing CG blood into the gunfights. Other than CG blood, some slightly extended action sequences, and a few added bits of dialogue the extended cut is identical to the theatrical print.

Fan of the franchise or not, Fast Five works as both a sequel and a standalone entry that requires no past knowledge of the movies preceeding it to enjoy what it has to offer. As far as over-the-top action flicks go you'd be hard-pressed to find one that's able to keep the pace flowing this smoothly while maintaining such a crowded cast and decidedly lengthy runtime. Whether through writing or by accident, Fast Five's cast displays a great deal of chemistry amongst each other which contrasts the white-knuckle action sequences beautifully. A pure adrenaline rush of a movie that, even as the fifth film in a fairly mediocre franchise, manages to dazzle by pulling out all the stops and finally becoming the kind of no-holds-barred, ass-kicking good time this franchise has always had the potential to become. Simply put, see Fast Five.

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Saw VI (Unrated Director's Cut) review

Posted : 9 years ago on 4 June 2011 02:12 (A review of Saw VI (Unrated Director's Cut))

Who would have thought that after the surprise success of James Wan's Saw that we would get, as of early 2010, five sequels. What's even more compelling is to think that the first Saw was a Hitchcockian suspense thriller built more to tickle the brain than shed blood. Each sequel - beginning with Saw II - has left the original's relatively tame violence behind only to capitalize on Hollywood's renewed fixation with gag-inducing gore & violence. Nevertheless, the Saw films have always been conceptual brain-teasers and Kevin Greutert's Saw VI, while still unremittingly gruesome (what did you expect?) is no different.

It's amazing to think that the first Saw film - shot for a measly $1.5 million, released way back in the Fall of 2004, and originally meant to be a straight-to-DVD flick - would spawn some of the horror genre's most financially profitable sequels. Thus, a franchise was born and what remained of the first movie has pretty much gone by the wayside at this point. More importantly however, is that each film has moved the series forward instead of relegating them to surmounting past glories. The same can be said of Saw VI.

A lot of the previous sequels’ problems have been done away with. As much as Saw V has grown on me with repeat viewings it is still easily the worst film in the franchise. It's a pandering, poorly paced, and meaningless slice of the Saw pie that seemed to strike many (myself included) as made purely to squeeze one more sequel out of the declining series. Let's face it, ever since Saw III there was never any real reason to keep churning out sequels other than Lionsgate not wanting to sacrifice the money they figured they could make by keeping it going. I still believe to this day that Saw III was always meant to close out the series, but the money machine that is Saw was something the producers couldn't let go of. As much as I truly love Saw IV, even I can admit that it wasn't quite up to snuff with the movie's that came before it. Something was missing. I guess with Jigsaw no longer being alive (he is now relegated to flashbacks) it took away from a lot of the appeal of the movies. It also doesn't help that original creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell only have executive producer credits after the third film. In other words, they have very little to do with the franchise at this point.

As for Saw VI, I'm relieved to say that it is much better than V and probably one of the best sequels thus far. VI brought more story into the equation and gave us characters that we really do want to see survive. Peter Outerbridge (as slimey insurance agent William Easton) is a character that most of us can immediately identify; an insurance agent only out to grease the palms of his financers, as well as his own. The policy he's created, which is also the focal point of his "game," comes down to one equation; the healthy receiving coverage and the sick being denied it. This subplot plays out later in the film but those revelations are something I won't spoil for the reader. And as much as we hate William at first, we start to see that throughout his ordeal he has a newfound appreciation for the value of a human life.

I loved that the one being tested, William, and the subsequent people he must save are co-workers of his who are shown to lack any semblance of conscience, much like their boss. The way our economy is backsliding due to these same types of people should really ring true for viewers. At times the concept can be a bit too preachy and over-the-top, but it was nice to see a Saw film include a bit of social commentary to go along with its blood & guts.

Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) has also returned along with a more cynical point-of-view after law enforcement agents begin to get closer and closer to discovering his ties with John Kramer aka Jigsaw. As much as I like the character, Mandylor's performance was too subdued throughout and really didn't mesh with the Saw IV & V Hoffman. I don't think he spoke more than 10 sentences during the film. He was massively underused and his mannerisms seemed so unnatural for the character. Then again, Hoffman is probably quite the nervous wreck after all signs point to him as the second Jigsaw accomplice. As far as co-stars are concerned, the flashbacks involving Tobin Bell (Jigsaw) are very much welcomed and we find that he had ties to the abovementioned insurance agent that, again, is so crucial to the plot that I won't give it away here. Mark Rolston also returns as the likeable Special Agent Erickson. There are a few surprise returns as well, but none that (this is getting redundant) I will reveal to you.

VI as a whole feels so much more rewarding, informative, and thought-out as opposed to the rather mundane V. There's a lot going on and tons of flashbacks to give reference to new revelations. Kevin Greutert, as director, is also a huge improvement over Saw V director David Hackl. Greutert manages to squeeze out a number of good performances from the cast, sets up some truly amazing visual sequences, and keeps this feeling much more like the previous Saw's through trademark visual aesthetic than Hackl did. As much as I miss Bousman helming the sequels, I will freely admit to Greutert doing a bang-up job regardless.

As far as labeling this Blu-ray a director's cut, I can't say it offers up anything more than lengthened death scenes. I'm sure those familiar with the theatrical cut will notice some of these differences, but something tells me that the rated print wasn't cut down very much at all. With that said, it's amazing what the Saw films are getting away with now as VI certainly doesn't hold back. For the initiated, Greutuert has seen fit to add in slightly more back-story as well as a lengthened ending sequence that hits much harder than the theatrical print's.

All in all, Saw VI is much better than it has any right to be. As the sixth film in a waning franchise, it's much better than the previous sequel and is in many ways better than my personal favorite, Saw IV. Greutert focused much of his time on creating compelling subplots, interesting characters, and memorable traps that really make this a Saw film worth watching. I hear he's taken Hackl's place as the director of VII and, if so, I'm even more pumped to see what he's able to do with the 3D effect reported to be used in said sequel. In conclusion, Saw VI corrects many of the flaws of past entries while also earning it a place among the upper-echelon of the series. I give Lionsgate credit; they beat the horse to death but somehow have managed to revive it.

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Halloween (2-Disc Unrated Collector's Edition) review

Posted : 9 years ago on 4 June 2011 03:34 (A review of Halloween (2-Disc Unrated Collector's Edition))

"Make it your own."

John Carpenter sent those very words Rob Zombie's way when he had asked the legendary director, indirectly, how he should remake his classic 1978 slasher flick. The phrase "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" couldn't apply more traditionally to a film than it does here.

Carpenter's low-key, morally righteous (arguably) but superbly well-executed horror classic is re-imagined with - instead of small-town folks and a sense of brutal calmness – a bevy of white trash stereotypes, foul-mouthed teens, dysfunctional families, and a limitless mean streak. While Carpenter's film was light on the bloodshed (nearly bloodless, in fact), on-screen violence and profanity, anyone who knows Zombie knows he likes to push buttons. And as Carpenter told him, "make it your own." Zombie's Halloween is dark, unforgiving, brutally violent, and totally unrelenting.

Not content with just slightly reworking the original film's plot, Zombie dedicates the first 45 minutes of his re-imagining to the backstory of a 10 year old Myers, then proceeds to follow it up, very loosely, with the events that took place in Carpenter’s classic. Humanizing Myers as Zombie does during the film's opening act had many purists, myself included, up in arms and that is very understandable. Michael has always been a senseless killing machine with no feelings or motive. We can only assume he murdered simply because he enjoyed it. His connection to the holiday in which he chooses to butcher his family members was never explained until much later in the series and, thus, took the franchise in a direction that had been decidedly ignored in Halloween 6’s sequels, Halloween: H20 and Halloween: Resurrection. But Zombie manages to do what I never thought possible, and that is maintain Myers frightening facets & characteristics while also giving the character reason and explanation for his rage. Of course, purists will still denounce Zombie's decision to do this, but Rob has always seemed fascinated with questions posed by serial killers inner-workings; this is seemingly yet another way for him to quell his curiosity.

Although Zombie has always been fantastic at casting his films, too many B-list stars clutter Halloween's cast list whereas a remake of this caliber should, by all rights, have had bigger names to accompany its high importance. That is not to say that I didn't enjoy seeing Brad Dourif (Child’s Play), Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange), and the always-excellent Danny Trejo (Machete) chew the scenery, but they never came close to the iconic presence of - and probably won't be as revered as - the late, great Donald Pleasance or Jamie Lee Curtis (the original Halloween's Dr. Loomis and Laurie Strode, respectively). McDowell, no matter how great he may be as a much crasser, more grounded Sam Loomis, never channels the charismatic excellence of Pleasance.

It is simply astounding, though, how far Zombie has come as a director. From the out-there-as-all-hell, faux-music video vibe of House of 1000 Corpses to the very realistic, very gritty Devil's Rejects, to the film in question which can only be described as a seedy, stylish, sometimes surreal semi-recreation of one of America's first slasher classics. Imagery has always been important to Zombie, as expressed in his music videos, and that is at the forefront here. Blood is a deep red, Myers' memorably eerie mask is the best its looked in years, and Zombie's camera angles so dead-on throughout I nearly applauded them. Rob has done something else here as well - either through writing or directing - and that is make Michael Myers scary again. Fantastic lighting, excellent cinematography, and Rob's creative direction won’t sit well with everyone, but fans of the musician/director will be more than satisfied.

I was particularly surprised to see that Dimension billed this two-disc set as a director's cut (that is, as opposed to an obnoxiously over-designed "unrated" tag as we're so used to seeing) and chose to let Zombie give the fans of the movie substantial amounts of additional footage. The 11 added minutes contain, first and foremost, more character and plot development. There is a rather disturbing and completely unnecessary rape scene thrown in there (Zombie loves those rapes, doesn't he?) that takes the place of the theatrical print's big-budget break-out sequence, but the remaining footage only betters the picture.

You will either love or hate Halloween for everything that it is and isn’t, but don't sit down on your comfy sofa, Blu-ray inserted in player, and pretend you have no idea what you're getting into. This 2007 re-imagining was written and directed by Rob Zombie, so expect a lot of Zombie-esque touches (as just mentioned, rape included) that don't quite gel with the prototypical Halloween formula. But as Rob Zombie's take on the franchise, it's a grungy, atmospheric, and downright effective slasher flick that scores big in my book.

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Punisher: War Zone (2-Disc Special Edition with Digital Copy) review

Posted : 9 years ago on 4 June 2011 03:21 (A review of Punisher: War Zone (2-Disc Special Edition with Digital Copy))

We may well be into the 2000s, but if Sly Stallone's recent success with Rambo is any indication; gritty, uncompromising hyper-violence ripped directly from the "Schwarzenegger era" has a place in Hollywood right alongside Fall-time horror films and epic Summer blockbusters. Its box office failings aside, Punisher: War Zone is a refreshing breath of fresh air during a time when the moviegoing populace seems to be tired of Hollywood's adherance to the modern action flick formula.

In short, Punisher: War Zone goes a bit like this. Six years into his one-man war on crime, Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) inadvertently shoots and kills an undercover agent he believes to be part of Billy "the Beaut" Russoti's (Dominic West) band of murder-go-lucky criminals. After Russoti falls into a glass crusher with a little help from Castle - and later undergoes some serious facial reconstruction - he is birthed into maniacal mafia kingpin, Jigsaw, with top priority being to eliminate The Punisher. Racked with guilt over the shooting death of "one of the good guys," Castle decides to leave his extracurricular activities in the past and focus on the future. Melodrama ensues with the widow of said deceased agent (who is played laughably by Julie Benz), and after her and her young daughter are kidnapped by Russoti, Castle sees fit to dish out his unique brand of punishment one last time.

In a nutshell, Punisher: War Zone is as simple and as hokey as modern action films can probably get. The performances from nearly everyone involved are ridiculously cheesy and the cast's accompanying New York accents so forced and absurd you'd swear this was some kind of amateur film. But by putting your brain on "Junk Food Mode" and adapting to what kind of movie War Zone aims to be, it hits every mark that the Tom Jane 2004 Punisher reboot missed. Ray Stevenson, for one, is a more convincing Punisher/Frank Castle overall, both in performance and in look. The dark humor on display may rub some viewers the wrong way, but I found it a nice, if rather grim, contrast between the stark violence and more absurd elements of the picture.

War Zone's comic book-like visuals perfectly portray the world I'd always imagined Frank Castle inhabiting as well. Contrasting yellow, green, black, and white hues hit so strongly and so pervasively that the various scenes they affect look as if pulled directly from the pages of one of the Marvel issues the flick is adapting. Alexander has a fantastic handle on visual detail, and cinematographer, Steve Gainer, keeps everything aesthetically pleasing one shot to the next. More importantly, however, is the fact that Castle is shot from low angles which emphasizes Stevenson's already imposing figure. Not only does the film look and sound (that 1080p widescreen and 1000+ watt surround sound system are going to get a work out) like something straight out of Frank's one-of-a-kind world of crime, corruption, and violence, but this version of The Punisher has the tenacity of a loose Rottweiler and more gore gags than your average horror film.

And it's only right that a Punisher film relay the guilt, depression, and grief wallowing inside Castle during his every waking moment. War Zone has those moments aplenty and it pulls them off admirably. Alexander allows what at times appears to be a non-human killing machine to be completely vulnerable. At others, Castle simply does what he does best and shows absolutely no remorse. Stevenson is more than adept at both. Dominic West's portrayal of Jigsaw - though interpreted differently than the comic books' variation of the villain - was fun. Reminiscent of Heath Ledger's Joker in the excellent Dark Knight, definitely, but Jigsaw is so cartoonish in nature and so unjustifiably cold-hearted that West's performance elicited more laughs out of me than anything else. The biggest offender in the cast, however, is Doug Hutchison as Jigsaw's brother, "Loony Bin" Jim. Not an iota of talent was displayed as his overarching performance irritated more than it induced the general dislike for the character as I'm sure was intended.

Punisher: War Zone is a film that will most certainly divide moviegoers. This is a niche movie through and through. The acting is decidedly weak and the script so thin that if you got it wet, you could tear it in half just by breathing on it. But with the violence we've come to expect from this series of comics implemented so well throughout, a mash up of said hardcore violence with bleak, dark humor, the best Punisher we've seen thus far in Ray Stevenson, a cavalcade of Punisher regulars, as well as such an immense respect for its aforementioned source material, I wholeheartedly recommend Punisher: War Zone to fans of the comic books, and feel completely justified in naming it the best film in the franchise.

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Posted : 9 years, 3 months ago on 25 February 2011 08:40 (A review of Killzone 3)

If Sony has proven anything this generation it's that getting off to a slow start did nothing in deterring them as the years progressed. Their immensely powerful current-generation gaming console, the PlayStation 3, was literally a laughing stock for two years. When it launched in 2006 consumers were left awe-stricken at its "outrageous" price tag of $600. Matters were made no better when many early adopters were given a software line-up that was decidedly less-than-thrilling. The PS3's sales were such a disaster that I've heard Sony has, as of last year, just begun to recoup the production costs of the reportedly very expensive PlayStation 3. By 2008 it seemed quite likely that Sony could go the way of Sega and gracefully bow out of the game console market.

But something happened. The crappy third-party ports became fewer and fewer. Sony's exclusive titles, such as the award-winning Uncharted: Drake's Fortune and the exciting Resistance 2, were met with great reviews and overwhelming praise from both gamers and critics alike. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots released to some fairly hefty fanfare, glowing reviews and increased system sales. By the end of 2008 consumers had finally stopped laughing at the PS3 and instead saw it for what it really was: a complex game console that had talented developers supporting it that were more than capable of creating true next-gen games. Other heavy-hitters like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Heavy Rain, and God of War III further cemented the notion that the PS3 was in fact a very capable console with consistent quality in its first-party games that has so far gone unrivaled.

I say that to say this. When I first purchased my PS3 back in February of 2009 I had walked right into the PS3's defining moments. I wasn't there for all of the brouhaha prior, but I was there to see the snickering stop and folks finally give the system the credit it so rightfully deserves. February of that year also brought forth another milestone for the PS3 and that was Killzone 2. It was being touted as the PS3's long-awaited savior and given the kind of hype and press attention very few exclusive games get anymore. If you owned a PS3 at the very start of 2009 you most certainly were aware of Killzone 2's imminent release. It was showered with praise upon launch and even with hard-to-master controls, that didn't stop gamers (myself included) from naming it one of the best shooters this generation. With the utter excellence of Killzone 2 we could only hope and pray that it's pending sequel would live up to that initial promise.

And Killzone 3 is precisely that kind of sequel. It is nothing short of pure gaming nirvana. There are only a handful of first-person shooters that you can’t seem to put down, that eat away at your subconscious, begging you to place that controller back into your hands until you finally complete them. Killzone 3 is one such shooter. FPS's are by design very repetitious and Killzone 3 is really no different. Its mechanics, set-pieces, and ball-numbing displays of outright intensity are what propels the game forward and leaves you wanting more. Way too many shooters spill the beans too early on and everything after that becomes a jumbled mess of everything you've played beforehand but with all previous awesomeness stripped away. Killzone 3 has been blessed with the innate ability to completely avoid this. Just when you thought you had seen everything developer Guerrilla Games could possibly show you they throw a curveball directly at your forehead that results in the biggest concussion you could possibly ever have.

One of my biggest complaints with Killzone 2 was its undying devotion to placing you in the middle of gunfights that were entirely too bleak and too underwhelming. To this day I can admit to really enjoying the game but never figuring out why I didn't love it like many other gamers seem to. I think it has a lot to do with its overall feel. It's such a dark, foreboding game that it feels less like a futuristic sci-fi shooter and more like something out of a horror film. The environments in which you fight are the darkest, most colorless damn slums I've ever seen. Killzone 2's opening mission - a beach landing - is what I wanted from the rest of the game: intense, faster-paced, and urgent. The remainder of the game saw fit to do the complete opposite. You and a squad of soldiers proceed to lone-wolf it against relatively small groups of Helghast soldiers. The beach landing places you in the middle of a huge battle whereas the rest of them are best described as moderate skirmishes. I got tired of wading through dark city streets, dark refineries, dark deserts, and dark palaces.

Killzone 3 remedies this and then some. I can't recall one location that could be described as "dark." The opening mission - which picks up right where Killzone 2 left off - injects tons of color and vivid detail into a location that was just a game before rust-colored and dreary. It's a harsh tonal shift that I welcomed but still had to adjust to. Guerrilla has also taken you out of the cities of Helghan. Early sections of the game find the remaining ISA soldiers fervently trying to escape the crumbling city, yes, but it looks so different in comparison I'd doubt you'd find any resemblance between the two iterations at all. Pretty much everything after that takes you into the snow-covered mountains of Helghan, its jungles, a zero gravity space station, and even the far-reaches of space itself (which I won’t spoil). The locations aren't just more varied than the second game (which wouldn't be that hard of a feat to accomplish anyhow) but more varied than 90% of FPS's currently on the market as well.

The controls of Killzone 2 were a big talking point amongst gamers. So many of them just couldn't acclimate themselves to the slothy movement and imprecise aiming. Killzone 3's controls have also become a topic of conversation but for entirely different (and better) reasons. Killzone 3 ships right out of the box with PlayStation Move compatibility. If there was ever a bigger playing field to show off what the Move is truly capable of I can't imagine it being bigger than this. I played through the entire single-player campaign with the Move and I can honestly tell you I can't imagine playing first-person shooters any other way. The Move controls are so intuitive and so damn precise you'd be hard-pressed to argue the notion that they are "just a gimmick" anymore. I played through a bit of the single-player campaign with the DualShock 3 controller and it really felt like something was missing. Playing a game as intense and visually beautiful as Killzone 3 with such responsiveness from the motion controls has completely spoiled me. You're not just shooting Helghast soldiers from the comfort of your couch, you literally feel like you're in the thick of battle with your ISA buddies. Move owners will definitely get more enjoyment out of Killzone 3 than those who aren’t. The immersive qualities of it are absolutely astounding.

The game's visuals are also of note. Killzone 2 was already a great looking game so I won't sit here and pretend that there is a night-and-day difference between the two. It's obvious from playing Killzone 3 that the textures have been improved, lighting and shading has been improved, and there's much more detail on just about everything in front of you, as well as fantastic motion-capture animation. But when you have a game that's getting compliments on its graphics two years after release there's probably not too much more you can do to it without writing an entirely new engine. The most surprising aspect of the game isn't even a case of it having better textures or more light sources than it's predecessor, it's simply the fact that the game is so impressive visually and so much more detail is present (those aforementioned colorful locales included) that Guerrilla got the game to run at such a consistent framrate even with all of the added on-screen chaos. Killzone 3 really shows us what the PS3 is capable of in that regard. It's not only a downright beautiful game, but it's packed with so much on-screen activity you'd normally expect some kind of framerate drop and that very rarely ever happens.

The game’s aural excellence also plays a big part in how much I thoroughly enjoyed blasting through Killzone 3’s top-notch single-player campaign. I’m very lucky to be able to play my games with the added benefit of a surround sound setup and this is one title that beautifully illustrates how having the advantage of a high-quality sound system increases the tension of your on-screen actions ten-fold. Hearing that triumphant orchestral score blare out of the speakers while bassy explosions and the thunderous echo of gunshots fills the air around you gets the blood pumping exponentially. Holding the Move’s motion wand directly in front of you and pulling the trigger only to hear deafening gunshots parallel to said action provides immersion like I’ve never felt before. The cut-scenes benefit from this as well while also looking sharper than most big-budget films with inherent action sequences so exciting that they could move just about any summer blockbuster action director to tears.

If you hadn’t noticed, I found Killzone 3 to be everything I wanted and much, much more. I could give two rats asses about the lack of a story or noticeably non-existent character development because, frankly, it’s something we shouldn’t have even expected in the first place. Killzone 3 promised to be a balls-to-the-wall action shooter and that’s exactly what it is. I find it difficult at times to discuss games that are this good. No matter how much I write I can’t seem to fully illustrate how absolutely essential they are. I could go on and on about how beautifully chaotic Killzone 3 is. This is an absolutely jaw-dropping spectacle of a game that is in every way better than its predecessor. If you have even the slightest interest in first-person shooters I urge you to purchase this as quickly as humanly possible. This is how you make a memorable first-person shooter. This is how you improve on an already great game. This, my friends, is how you earn your consumers hard-earned $60. Killzone 3 is nothing short of shooter near-perfection.

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Posted : 9 years, 5 months ago on 15 December 2010 09:28 (A review of Call of Duty: Black Ops)

Another year and yet another Call of Duty game. This one, however, marks a bit of a milestone for me. With the future of main Call of Duty developer Infinity Ward currently sitting on shaky ground, it would seem that the proverbial torch has been passed to "B team" Treyarch. I know there are quite a few gamers out there who absolutely despise Treyarch and everything they stand for, but I've admired their tenacity and stood in their corner since 2006's much-maligned Call of Duty 3. What I find more interesting than the internal woes going on over at publisher Activision, though, is the Call of Duty series' ascension through the ranks (no pun intended) and how it's gone from being the little-PC-exclusive-that-could to one of the most successful and critically acclaimed first-person shooter franchises of all time.

Who would have thought that the PC-only Call of Duty, which became a massive success back in 2003, would spawn an expansion pack, six direct sequels, and innumerable spin-offs? Who could have predicted it would turn into the global phenomenon it is currently? I vividly recall flipping through the pages of PC Gamer that fateful year and scanning over a preview that had me and many others frothing at the mouths. This game, appropriately titled Call of Duty, promised realistic hit detection, some destructible cover (which was a big deal at the time), emphasis on historical accuracy, and very few missions where the player went "lone wolf." At the time, games like Wolfenstein 3D engineered a decade old game play aesthetic where any kind of first-person shooter would place you in the shoes of some random, flavorless bad-ass who saves the globe from destruction by way of a plethora of cool weaponry all by his/her lonesome.

Call of Duty changed that. No longer were you on your own, single-handedly taking out the trash. CoD ushered in an era where you were simply a soldier; one small soldier fighting one small battle. The scope of these battles was breathtaking, but the game always saw fit to drive home the idea that you and your squad-mates were making but a small difference in the grand scheme of things. You weren't overthrowing Hitler and his minions; you were just doing what any ordinary soldier tries to do in the thick of battle: survive. That's what separated the early Call of Duty games from every other war-based FPS of the time. Considering the direction the more recent games have gone in (that is more of a summer blockbuster feel than the decidedly grounded nature of the first three) there's still a lot of the first game's ideals floating around amidst the heightened sense of chaos and urgency.

Now, as for that milestone. I'm positive I'll catch some flak for this, but I always find myself favoring Treyarch's games over Infinity Ward's. When Infinity Ward releases a Call of Duty title I'm usually pretty amped. When Treyarch releases a Call of Duty title the clouds seem to part and pour a white light upon my face. Infinity Ward have mastered the art of the set piece, but as a whole Treyarch's entries tend to be better crafted and more refined, while offering game play alternatives. One of the best examples I can give is Infinity Ward's obvious reliance on set pieces while doing very little to the core of their games. I urge all of you who gave their much-anticipated Modern Warfare 2 a free pass last year to play it again. Did you see that? Maybe you didn't notice it at first, but it's definitely there. That's what I'd like to call "resting on your laurels." Oh sure, there's no disputing that Modern Warfare 2 is an excellent shooter, but that's simply because the first Modern Warfare is an excellent shooter. Aside from some cosmetic differences, I'd say Modern Warfare 2 is actually Modern Warfare 1.5.

That above paragraph explains in explicit detail why I've grown tired of Infinity Ward. Granted, Treyarch's World at War was nothing more than a Modern Warfare rehash, but at least it had new characters, weapons, an eclectic soundtrack, great gore, improved graphics, usage of vehicles (that weren't on rails), it took place in a different era, and less reliance on set pieces to disguise the fact that you're basically playing the same game you did last year. Now that I think about it, maybe the only real similarities between the two were the overall game play design and graphics engine. The same can be said for Black Ops. Not only has Treyarch carried over the dark intensity of World at War, they've also carried over some of the characters and it's creepy atmosphere. I've said it once and I'll say it again; if you're looking for Modern Warfare 3 but with Treyarch's logo on the box, you'd do best to completely ignore Black Ops.

Treyarch's latest has more in common with '80s action movies than it does previous games in the series. As a matter of fact, if it wasn't for the usage of the Modern Warfare engine you'd be hard-pressed to even label this a Call of Duty game, let alone recognize it as one. That in and of itself is what is going to divide gamers. Treyarch has focused so much on crafting not only an engaging single-player experience, but also a longer and more wholly satisfying one. My first playthrough ran me a good seven hours. That's certainly not uncommonly long but most shooters can't seem to make it to the six hour mark anymore. Not only is the campaign genuinely exciting and full of bite-sized portions of innovation, I think Activision is doing Treyarch an inexcusable disservice by not advertising Black Ops as the edgy game it most definitely is. Treyarch have taken great strides in order to distance themselves from any unfair comparisons that could be made between their game and Infinity Ward's.

What I was most relieved to learn was that Treyarch have carried over the dismemberment functions of World at War while touching up the engine to accommodate for more realistic dismemberments and contextual kills. What's more, however, is Treyarch giving main player character Alex Mason not only a face, but a voice (provided by none other than Sam Worthington). There are even a few brief instances where Mason is seen in the third-person with pre-rendered cut-scenes as opposed to in-game cut-scenes. And I'm sure you've heard by now that World at War favorite Viktor Reznov (voiced by Gary Oldman) makes his return, as does Dimitri Petrenko, the player character from World at War's Russian campaign. The big surprise here is that the roles are reversed: the player controls Reznov and Petrenko leads the squad.

I'm especially fond of how Treyarch has taken World at War's game play ideals & characters and spun them off into a spiritual successor of sorts. I find it refreshing that Activision is essentially allowing them to create an alternate universe within the Call of Duty universe. And if that isn't enough, Treyarch have thrown in just as many cool set pieces as Infinity Ward did with Modern Warfare 2. Some of those include bullet-time shootouts, raiding Fidel Castro's villa, a game of Russian Roullette, flying an attack chopper, piloting a stealth jet, parachuting off of a crumbling mountain top, and shooting your way through a Russian freighter. This is but a small number of those "summer blockbuster" moments you'll find yourself playing through, all handled with the same aplomb (if not more so) than Infinity Ward.

One complaint that seems to be the most common is decrying Black Ops graphics as "ugly" or "a step down." It's working from the same engine as Modern Warfare and its sequel, so I'm sure we all expected to have the same sort of visuals present for Black Ops. But again, these are two entirely different games. Modern Warfare didn't go for the throat in terms of atmosphere or present itself with an in-your-face grittiness. Black Ops does. You'll notice that throughout most of the game it's bathed in very dark, murky colors. Modern Warfare 2 was especially colorful whereas Black Ops is the complete opposite. This isn't supposed to be a "pretty" game. The character models and environments still look spectacular and harness quite a bit of detail considering the engine runs at 60 frames-per-second. These fickle gamers are missing the point; Treyarch wanted to create a gritty, almost surreal experience. With that said, Black Ops’ dingy visuals permeate a feeling of dread and despair throughout its duration. And considering the harsh subject matter, I wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

I usually don't discuss multi-player components in my game reviews, but color me surprised as I am currently hooked on Black Ops' excellent multi-player mode. The maps are immaculately designed and make it unquestionably difficult to find camping positions. Weapon customization is overwhelmingly in-depth, ranking up is as addicting as it’s ever been, and there are so many game modes you probably won't know which to start with. Every game mode can also be played "hardcore" which eliminates crosshairs, radar detection, and any other kind of HUD or button prompt. My only legitimate complaint is that with Treyarch designing the maps with all intentions of eliminating campers it makes it impossible to find advantageous sniping spots. All of the maps are played best if you favor full-on assault, and sometimes that can cause problems. There's too much running and gunning going on and not a lot of strategy. It makes it worse when the words Team Deathmatch seem to be interpreted as "Deathmatch with a couple of people you can't shoot." No one plays as a team and it all tends to boil down to trying to obtain the most kills with absolutely no concern for your fellow teammates. But there's just too much to like otherwise, from the outrageous number of weapons, attachments, perks, and killstreaks to the well-designed and unarguably spacious maps.

After Modern Warfare 2 I had pretty much written off the Call of Duty series. Don't get me wrong, though, Modern Warfare 2 is no slouch, but I just couldn't shake this feeling that, because of its unparalleled success, that we were probably going to see sequels just like it. That was my biggest fear. I'm happy to report, however, that Treyarch have done what I was hoping they would: make their own game. For the Treyarch haters out there who immediately suspect an awful game simply because their name is plastered on the box need to recognize that Black Ops may not be your cup of tea but does just about everything we could have wanted and does it exceedingly well. Maybe because Treyarch has never received the warm reception of Infinity Ward they feel they still have something left to prove. Not anymore. This review is coming from a long-time Call of Duty fan that had become seriously disillusioned with the franchise. But if this is an indicator of what's to come from the series, or at the very least, from Treyarch, I'm back on-board. Thanks, guys.

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Posted : 9 years, 7 months ago on 19 October 2010 08:57 (A review of Medal of Honor)

Before the Medal of Honor reboot was even announced, I knew the only thing EA could do to compete with current FPS heavyweight Call of Duty was to take their long-running franchise out of World War II and move it into the modern theatre. When I first saw the announce trailer for the game it became clear to me that no matter how good or bad it would turn out, reviewers and gamers alike were going to give Medal of Honor a hard time.

The year was 2007, and that winter saw the release of Infinity Ward's immensely popular shooter Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and, for better or worse, it completely redefined the war-based FPS title and how we play them. The game was loaded with spectacular set-pieces, memorable characters, a harrowing storyline, and enough polish to rival most Hollywood films. Modern Warfare’s presentation was unlike anything seen in its genre before and it was only natural that other games would mimic its style. While Activision and Infinity Ward were enjoying massive success with the franchise at this point, as well as accumulating general acclaim for its moment-packed single-player campaign and addicting multi-player mode, EA couldn't seem to keep the time-tested Medal of Honor series afloat. Medal of Honor: Airborne was released just a couple months before Modern Warfare but still suffered the effects of the former's success. Airborne was the same as all the others - set in World War II, with a Teen rating, and no real game play innovations.

In the three year absence of the Medal of Honor series leading up to its reboot, Call of Duty's light only shone brighter. In that three year time span, Activision has released two more Call of Duty sequels - World at War and Modern Warfare 2 - with another one set for release next month, titled Call of Duty: Black Ops. I used to be a huge CoD fan, but I've slowly begun to realize that every entry in the series after the first Modern Warfare has been nothing more than a thinly veiled rehash. I now ask myself how long it's going to take before the rest of the gaming populace catches up. Frankly, I'm sick and tired of Activision milking me for $60 every year just to play what is essentially an expansion pack.

That leads me into the title at hand. On release day, with Medal of Honor in my possession, I hoped for the best but feared for the worst. As I loaded the disc into my PS3, I begged and pleaded with the gaming Gods that this would be anything but another Modern Warfare carbon-copy. As I played through the game's opening mission and continued onward, I noticed immediately that EA has gone out of their way to show gamers that this title certainly is not a Modern Warfare clone. Right out of the gate you will notice a number of game play aesthetics different from the majority of shooters on the market. The first of these, and what I feel to be the most important, is that this is not a run-and-gun FPS. A couple of well-placed shots and your character is down for the count. It's absolutely essential to pick your shots carefully, to remain in cover until the coast is clear, and move forward cautiously. Aiding in this task is a feature I feel current-gen first-person shooters have been sorely lacking; a lean button. Holding down L2 and pushing the left analog stick either left or right will allow your character to lean in and out of cover.

There's also the ability, when sprinting, to hit Circle near cover and you will slide into it. This helps during many moments in the game when enemy fire is coming from all directions and you can't afford to be out in the open for too long and have to get to cover quickly. I should mention that when you execute this maneuver, your character stays crouched until you hit Circle again to stand him up. Another feature I really loved was being able to change my rifle's firing mode between automatic and single-shot fire to better adapt to a given scenario. And unlike the Call of Duty series, you can carry up to three weapons at a time as opposed to two. Pressing Triangle switches between your two main weapons and double-tapping the button switches to your pistol. Taking a stab with your knife (pun intended) is mapped to R3.

What will probably separate Medal of Honor from its long-time rival the most is the game's overall approach to its subject matter. This isn't the interactive action film that the CoD titles have become as it is decidedly much more grounded and harrowing. There are no massive set-pieces, no out-of-place heroics, and no over-the-top, James Bond-like action sequences. Granted, I can't really call Medal of Honor realistic in the sense that I would call early Tom Clancy games - like 2001's Ghost Recon - realistic, but I think EA has gotten the series back on track by steeping this particular title in real-world conflict and not making a mockery out of the men and women fighting the war EA is attempting to emulate. Not only will you spend a vast amount of the game traversing accurately rendered Afghanistan terrain by way of three different characters, you will also have the chance to commandeer turret guns, call in air strikes, utilize high-powered sniper rifles, fly an attack chopper, and even go through a section with heavy reliance on progressing by way of ATV. Apart from the onslaught of first-person shooting segments, I really enjoyed how the game never leaves you doing one thing for too long.

Where I’m most certain MoH will divide gamers is that it is mostly devoid of fancy pyrotechnics and over-the-top action sequences that have become the forte of war shooters as of late. I’m sure some will find that the game is a little too barren in regards to its lack of special effects, but I found that approach vastly refreshing. Firm emphasis was placed on creating semi-realistic battles with the accompaniment of excellent hit detection and ragdoll systems. I can’t praise the combat in this game enough. It feels slightly weighty and slower-paced than most FPS’s while also preserving the authenticity that developer Danger Close has been working towards achieving from the very beginning. There are a good amount of weapons at your disposal and also a neat feature that remedies having to scour a combat zone for new weapons. If you are running low on ammo and still have your default load out, you can request ammunition from your squad mates. I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t mention the effectiveness of the other soldiers in your unit. Most games of this ilk seem to only have them on-screen for nothing more than a cheap allusion to realism, in Medal of Honor’s case they do extremely well in combat. Not only do they pick off enemies with the accuracy of a real soldier, they maintain cover like one, too.

Graphically, Medal of Honor is a good looking game but certainly nothing special. The Unreal Engine 3 is put to good use here and models the rocky mountain terrain of Afghanistan well, complete with terrific lighting and well-detailed textures. Character models look good and also move fluidly enough, although I can't say the same for the cut scenes. The animations in these are lacking and the robotic character movements don't help matters much. Thankfully, however, they don't make up a large portion of the game and are therefore easy enough to overlook. What I was most surprised with is that the game runs well considering the Unreal Engine has always been temperamental with the PS3 hardware. The frame rate is fairly consistent with only a few times here and there that it drops below the normal 30. There's nothing truly amazing about Medal of Honor's visuals, but they serve the look of the game well while preserving the aforementioned authenticity.

As far as I’m concerned, EA have reinvigorated their famed FPS series by not only overhauling its content but by also making Medal of Honor with the clear intentions of not doing what everyone thought it would: rip-off Call of Duty. Another excellent thing about this reboot is that, as you may have noticed, the single-player campaign was developed by Danger Close whereas the multi-player component was developed by DICE, their brainchild being the ever-popular Battlefield franchise. I’d like to see more publishers do this; enlisting one team for single-player and another for multi-player. I feel it would ensure that both modes are given the proper amount of attention without favoring one over the other. After reading through various reviews after purchase, however, I can see that EA is going to have a long road ahead of them as too many people are still making this out to be some cheap Modern Warfare knock-off. Reinvention of the franchise aside, MoH is an outstanding FPS that makes great strides in the realm of modern military action games by lessening the fantastic and heightening the realism. Activision better watch their asses.

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