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Posted : 9 years, 8 months ago on 14 September 2010 04:23 (A review of Mafia II)

I’ve owned a PlayStation 3 going on two years now and have, subsequently, had to put up with some inexcusably shoddy ports. Sega's over-the-top action game Bayonetta, released earlier this year, is a prime example of how not to port a game over to the notoriously complex PS3 hardware. Developers have often slighted Sony’s powerful console by releasing multi-platform games that were first coded for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 then sloppily transferred over to the PS3, resulting in a version far inferior to its current-gen counterpart. There have, however, been rare occasions where developers chose the PS3 as its lead platform but these instances are few and far between.

With that said, in comes Mafia II. I had been waiting for this game with baited breath since it was officially unveiled at 2008's E3 conference. I’m a huge fan of the first Mafia and expected much the same from its sequel. One of the most compelling things about Mafia II’s development process is that 2K Games stated that they handled the PS3 version separate the PC and Xbox 360. What 2K didn't tell us was that the PS3 version was, instead, quickly outsourced to the development team over at Massive Bear Studios with orders to optimize the game to the best of their abilities.

It’s very telling of the quality of a product when the main developer can’t be bothered to work the kinks out of their own game. As the above information soon spread across the internet like wild fire, there was further debate over the graphical definicies first displayed in the PS3 demo, as well as its terrible frame rate, copious amounts of screen tearing, and noticeable lack of some visual flourishes present on the other platforms (such as three-dimensional grass, pools of blood forming under your defeated enemies or splattering on the walls behind them during gunfights, as well as PhysX-enabled cloth movement, among other things.) PS3 owners questioned whether or not this demo was simply an older build of the game or if it was in fact the final build. Some gamers still clung to the notion that maybe it wasn't indicative of the full game. Sadly enough, that wasn't the case.

But even with these sometimes vexing issues present, and even though the full game does very closely resemble the demo as far as visuals are concerned, the game's performance has been increased dramatically. It’s still rather upsetting to be driving through the fictional city of Empire Bay and notice a flat-textured lawn instead of the 3D grass that the other two gaming platforms had been given, but at least the framerate wasn't dipping into the teens as was the case with the demo. Even with these graphical flaws present, a great game is still a great game through and through, and Mafia II is no exception.

Quite true that it was incredibly disheartening for this gamer to learn that the PS3, as powerful as it, couldn't render these FX without a serious decrease in performance. Massive Bear probably could have, however, optimized the coding to allow for these particular details, but decided to "fix" the problem by completely removing them instead. What’s even more disheartening is that seemingly everyone and their grandmother has been comparing Mafia II to the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Why? As far as I can tell simply because it's yet another crime shooter set in an expansive open-world. The GTA series no doubt popularized the sandbox genre, but therein lies the misconception; Mafia II isn’t a sandbox game.

It seems to me that more people are upset at what this title isn’t instead of appreciating it for what it is. The first Mafia was also unfairly compared to GTA upon its release for this very same reason. Apart from the open-world angle, these two series’ couldn’t be more different. Mafia II is very linear in its structure and story. There is usually one way and one way only to complete a given set of tasks. The game also tells its story in chapters as opposed to GTA-styled missions. There are 15 chapters in all with each one of them starting and ending the same way; main protagonist Vito Scaletta wakes up, runs his errands, then proceeds to call it a night; lather, rinse, repeat.

The jobs Vito carries out are, for the most part, varied and unique enough to keep repitition to a minimum. Some of the more interesting aspects of the game are the subtle nuances that really make Mafia II stand out from the glut of open-world games we’ve been swamped with over the past five years. For example, driving and smashing into an oncoming car will result in a police officer – if he’s witness to it – pulling you over and attempting to arrest you for a hit and run. At this point you can either bribe him if you have the cash to do so, or resist arrest by running off and quickly changing your clothes at the nearest department store. Other violations, such as being seen with a weapon, killing a police officer or pedestrian, or speeding will have varying consequences.

About two hours into the game, though, I came to the startling realization that Mafia II wasn't the generic shooter the demo seemed to want players to think it was. There are a few spots during the course of the game that rely heavily on cover system-assisted gunfights, but most of your time will be spent pulling jobs for the handful of crime bosses inhabiting Empire Bay as Vito and his childhood friend, Joe Barbarro, get closer and closer to becoming made men. And what's interesting to note is this doesn't take place until much later in the game.

On that same token, Mafia II really gives off this innate feeling of progression as the story deepens, but I do have some issues regarding that. Empire Bay is immediately open to you, as is most of the game’s luxury items (like high-class suits and other assorted apparel) right from the beginning. I would have preferred the quality and availability of clothing, apartments/houses, and weapon selection to increase as Vito takes on bigger and better jobs to indicate his rapid ascenion up the ranks. I was also disappointed by the lack of clothing available for purchase. When shuffling through Vito’s closet after an outfit is bought, gamers may change the color of it by selecting from existing presets only. Wear options are not included, and I think it would have better suited the game if players were allowed to mix and match their own outfits however they saw fit. The same can be said for car customization which is a nice touch, but a feature a little too hollow to warrant further examination.

I’ve already discussed the PS3 version’s various visual flaws, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the game still looks fantastic regardless. Taking into consideration that this is an open-world game, it’s amazing the amount of detail 2K managed to squeeze in. Character models look great and are all highly detailed. The whole of Empire Bay also looks absolutely spectacular due in no small part to fantastic lighting and shading, as well as the vast amount of pedestrians and cars allowed on screen at once. I also loved the fluidity of the well mo-capped character animations and the nifty physics technology allowing for the destruction of certain parts of the environment during shootouts and spectacular damage models for wrecked cars. There are, however, a few minor adjustments that could have been made (some very low-res textures and robotic lip-sync could have been far more polished, for instance), but overall, considering how butchered this particular port is graphically, Mafia II still looks amazing despite.

The biggest gripe fans have had up to this point is that after the main story is completed, there's really no reason to replay it. There are various collectibles scattered throughout the city (such as Playboy magazines, and I'm not making that up) but those don't really amount to much game play-wise. The story is involving enough to warrant more than one playthrough, but once you've completed the game you've seen just about all that it has to offer. The money you accumulate can be spent on, as mentioned above, clothing, cars, weapons, and even liquor from local bars, but none of that is especially noteworthy. Having a healthy selection of side missions to choose from would have been nice, but I'd gladly take a concise and satisfying single-player experience over that of a pretentious and drawn-out sandbox game anyday.

Despite its flaws, I could go on and on about how impressed I was with Mafia II, but I’ll spare you. Some have complained that the game is too short despite clocking in at 10-12 hours of game play time when most games this generation are lucky to hit six. I can’t outright recommend the PS3 version to those who own a powerful enough PC or Xbox 360 to play it on, but the pot is sweetened by 2K having handed over exclusive DLC to the PS3. Taking into account its various graphical deficiencies, rest assured that Mafia II is still a beautiful game. What's more, I love that at a time when so many developers are placing multi-player first and single-player as an afterthought, 2K forgoes the multi-player route in favor of crafting an excellent single-player game chock full of interesting characters, plot twists, and an immaculate attention to detail. Lacking visuals or not, this is still one hell of a game and anyone looking to sink their teeth into something with a beautifully told story intermittently layered with gunfights, excellent dialogue, and an overall unique approach to its subject matter, Mafia II shouldn't be missed.

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Posted : 9 years, 11 months ago on 6 July 2010 09:47 (A review of Call of Duty: World at War)

There were probably two types of people looking over the box for Activision's 2008 entry in the never-endng Call of Duty franchise; those who believed Treyarch could make an outstanding WWII shooter without the involvement of Infinity Ward and those who will play it and never admit to themselves or anyone else just how crucial an experience it is even without IW’s non-involvement.

World at War is quite similar to both Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2 in many respects, but where it sets itself apart from the previous games in the series is how distinctively gritty it is. From its intense, grisly action set pieces to its esoteric soundtrack, this is Treyarch's game all the way and what it does steal from IW's previous game it does justice to. I think Treyarch has done so much more with the formula - including expanding on its action and expounding on its drama - that the essential elements for any CoD game may remain, though that is all that has been left intact.

First and foremost, Treyarch said from the very beginning that they wanted this to be a truly dark experience. Modern Warfare brought the series its first "M" rating and didn't shy away from violence, but there are so many gruesome atrocities committed throughout World at War's 6-8 hour campaign that players will start to become numb to its violence after about the three hour mark. No longer do grenades simply blow your enemies back: if close enough, their explosive contents will send a mass of enemy ligaments flying and spread a pink bloody mist throughout the air. Heavy machine guns will pop off heads and rip off limbs, while flamethrowers will leave enemies charred and emitting smoke. Every bullet leaves entry and exit wounds on your foes complete with arterial spray and a smattering of red on the objects behind them. Bayoneting is graphic and damn near perverse as you watch your blade cut through Axis soldiers like a hot knife through butter.

War is Hell, and World at War portays that exquisitely. The in-game cinematics are executed with spectacular flair, and the memorable characters are voiced superbly (the American's Sgt. Roebuck is voiced by none other than Kiefer Sutherland, and the Russian's Sgt. Reznov brought to life by the inimitable Gary Oldman). The moments you may find yourself not pulling the trigger, though, are also some of the most essential as you get the chance to witness war's unadulterated chaos, rendered in all of its unsightly glory. World at War looks and feels like a big-budget war picture - replete with endless swarms of Allied and Axis troops (sometimes converging in the background of sequences), Banzai charges, countless explosions, and some surprising Hollywood-esque touches (which I won't give away here) - which adds to its unforgettable experience. Infinity Ward may have paved the way with Modern Warfare's game play and spectacular graphics technology, but Treyarch have taken a game that was a fairly generic shooter at its core and capitalized on its trio of technology, formula, and added element of increased on-screen violence.

Although I'm sure a lot of folks don't play video games strictly for the bloodshed, this is a series that was sorely lacking it. While always a rather violent series, Treyarch's inclusion of truly heinous torture, violence, and mutilation makes World at War feel much more realistic to the setting. Just as shocking to us as WWII was to those who witnessed its real-life atrocities first-hand; this is a game that pulls no punches. The gore is never overdone, but having a CoD game that realistically depicts the stomach-churning carnage of war instead of the lighthearted fare that was the earlier CoD games is something I'm looking favorably towards.

As much as World at War is virtually no different than its predecessor(s), perhaps that was the smartest thing Treyarch could have done. They may have upgraded the game visually, changed the time period and locales, added better weapon balance, and also made this a far more harrowing and ultimately disturbing experience than any CoD title before it, but not much has really changed between World at War and any of its predecessors/successors. Sure, you are able to virtually wade through water with resultant slowdown, as well as take part in some fantastically immersive scenarios: one of them being a Russian sniping segment that is so steeped in atmosphere and tension that it puts "All Gillied Up" from CoD 4 to shame. But, cosmetically, this is nearly the same game you have been playing since the first Modern Warfare.

But as they say, 'if it ain't broke don't fix it.' Modern Warfare is a brilliant piece of software and altering its core formula would have resulted in disaster; at least only a year after its initial release. World at War plays the same to be sure, but it feels so much more refined and, thankfully, just as intense as the game before it. Even if IW didn't develop, Treyarch have done a phenomenal job of including both a real, tangible atmosphere as well as keeping its action just as riveting and satisfying.

Visually-speaking World at War isn't a marked improvement over Modern Warfare, nor does it look much different, but Modern Warfare is still one of the best looking games currently available this gen. World at War's character models look a bit better here, there is a marginally higher polygon count, and the locales are much more varied and intricate also. I loved the color palette Treyarch utilized throughout and their reliance on varying the style and tone of each level as much as possible. This has been the case with all of their games thus far, most notably with the recent Quantum of Solace video game adaptation. If anything, much of World at War's visuals are on par with Modern Warfare's, but there is the rare occasion - through higher poly's and vibrant colors & varied maps - that it is a better looking game altogether. The flame effects are of note as well, and the gore is all-too-believable.

For those that haven't picked it up yet, World at War won't be mind-blowing to those looking for a bigger and better version of the Modern Warfare series; it simply takes Infinity Ward's winning formula, throws it into a WWII setting, adds a great sense of drama and pace, and gores it up like crazy. If you can get past the overt violence and intense, gritty atmosphere, then this is undoubtedly one of the best, if not the best, CoD games in years. It is light-years ahead of Treyarch's last franchise effort, Call of Duty 3, and I'd dare say it’s better than Call of Duty 4 in some areas. All things considered, this is one of the finest WWII shooters ever made. If Treyarch aimed to completely redefine the subgenre then they have certainly succeeded. A must-play for fans of the series.

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Posted : 9 years, 11 months ago on 6 July 2010 08:54 (A review of Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe)

Fighter fans either love or hate the Mortal Kombat series. But is it all that hard to see why? Since the franchise debuted in the early '90s, there was more emphasis put on executing gruesome finishing moves (or fatilities as most know them) than there was on a distinct fighting engine. These fatalities, though, are what separated MK from any other fighter of its era.

The classic Street Fighter games – released parallel to the bloody MK series - was far more family oriented, as was cult favorite World Heroes. It wasn't until the first Mortal Kombat and, more specifically, its smash-hit sequel, Mortal Kombat II, that game developers started creating their own gruesome one-on-one brawlers with plenty of blood, gore, and winning-round executions. Some are better than others (Eternal Champions, Eternal Champions: Challenge from the Darkside, Weaponlord, and Primal Rage to name a few), while most others were simply cut-and-paste affairs that were little more than clones of MK's invigorating if shallow game play and laughably gruesome if cool fatalities (the Atari Jaguar's Kasumi Ninja and Midway's late-'90s offering, War Gods immediately springs to mind). MK was, in fact, an innovator if for all the wrong reasons.

Whereas Street Fighter became historic for introducing technique and variety in a fighter and Killer Instinct popularized the combo system, Mortal Kombat has always relied more on excessive blood and gore, as well as increasingly ridiculous ways to "finish" your opponent, to move copies. It should come as no surprise then that when an already ridiculous idea such as the Mortal Kombat fighters colliding with and battling characters from the DC universe was announced fans nearly had heart attacks. An even bigger issue was the obligatory Teen rating and a once rumored omitting of fatalities. This would mean that, if there were fatalities (which, in fact, there are) they would be massively truncated or worst comes to worst would not exist at all. It has been said that the DC comic’s people didn't want their characters - which are well-known and adored by children - to either execute horrendously brutal finishers or be brutally finished off themselves via the MK roster or fellow DC fighters.

With that said, I think the first thing I should mention is that, despite the Teen rating on the box, this doesn't feel at all like a Teen-rated brawler. Sure, blood doesn't cover every inch of the arena during fights and instead looks more like red mist than it does the large drops/geyser-like spurts of past games in the franchise, it's still effective. This entry introduces a level of restraint not seen in any MK before it. Yes, there are fatalities for every MK fighter and a handful of DC fighters (including The Joker and Deathstroke), and the remaining DC roster do have finishers, but they are not necessarily fatal (again, a result of DC stepping in). These are called Heroic Brutalities.

I feel I should mention, though, that there were two fatalities trimmed for the US release. Joker and Deathstroke both have fatalities that involve their opponent being shot in the head and, although we no longer see the impact of the bullet, their censoring was somewhat unnecessary. It is quite strange that Deathstroke is able to jab a sword completely through his foe's stomach during his gunshot fatality and that remains intact, but the bullet impact is censored. There is also a fatality where MK favorite Jax uppercuts his opponent into the air, pulls out a machine gun, and fires multiple rounds into their abdomen with resultant blood splatter. That fatality is completely uncensored, mind you. The violence may have been trimmed down - meaning there are no more decapitated heads or missing body parts - but the violence still hits hard. There are head impalements, body impalements, scorched bodies, crushed bodies & heads, the aforementioned shootings, knifings, broken necks, electrocutions, soul-snatching, head-into-ground pounding, and so much more that I could not believe was allowed into a Teen-rated game without further censoring.

It is simply a testament to the development team then, that without the MK series' trademark gore that Midway was still able to deliver on whatever promise this mash-up may have had. Although the fighting presented is set in a three-dimensional universe, DC Universe feels very 2D. Aside from avoiding barrages of projectiles by side-stepping through the arena, you won't find yourself manipulating the environments much. To be frank, there really isn't much reason for MK vs DC to be 3D fighter (and that's a good thing). This feels like classic Mortal Kombat in every sense of the words. The fighting is fast and intense, and stringing together quick, seemless attacks feels immensely satisfying. The fights are fast-paced and are a far cry from the simple punch-kick-block formula of the early MK games. There is an overwhelming sensation during each fight that these larger than life characters are partaking in huge, larger than life battles; the epic scale that Midway manages to provide with each individual fight no matter the character selected is astounding.

By way of some gimmicky if not incredibly dramatic segments, you will feel your adrenaline rush. Players can enter Klose Kombat mode by simply pressing R1 next to their opponent. The camera will zoom in and present a view similar to EA’s latest Fight Night title. This mode is identical to a number of popular boxing titles and it plays just like one. A total of four successive hits exits Klose Kombat, but attacks can be countered which effectively evens out the odds on both sides.

Free Fall Kombat is one of my favorite additions. To describe it best, it is reminiscent of Neo and Agent Smith’s fight in The Matrix Revolutions when they are tumbling back to solid ground. Whichever kombatant is on the offensive will, naturally, be dishing out the damage and, when it becomes available, the offensive player can tap R1 to do a special attack that sends their opponent rocketing down to the next arena.

Test Your Might is a lot like Free Fall Kombat, but instead of falling to the next arena, the kombatant on the receiving end is sent crashing into a series of walls and ran through several buildings (yes, buildings) before ending up at the next “stage.” Button mashing is a must here as it will increase the amount of damage the offensive kombatant inflicts.

Character selection is also a plus as there are 11 selectable characters from each camp with two unlockablesl Darkseid for the DC side and Shao Khan for the MK side. The story mode, though rather shallow and unfulfilling, is something I was grateful for as it introduces something new to a Mortal Kombat game other than the tower (aka tournament mode) or Konquest modes. A real story involving both the essential DC and Mortal Kombat characters is presented with some flaw as there really isn’t much storytelling going on and a lot of the emphasis is placed on fighting various characters 2-out-of-3 rounds without the inclusion of finishers.

As a fighting series that has never had the best graphics, this new title is being backed by Unreal Engine 3 technology and even if it doesn’t look absolutely gorgeous, it is still a positive departure from previous games in the franchise. There is a magnificent amount of detail given to each respective fighter and every last one of them moves with such fluidity. While some of them could look marginally better (here’s looking at you Wonder Woman), these are the graphical improvements you would expect from a current-gen MK game. It would have been interesting to see eviscerations and popped heads with the Unreal Engine 3 tech, but simply being in control of fluid fights between Batman and Joker in all their hi-res splendor, complete with deteriorating costumes and an articulate amount of detail is reward enough for this gamer.

Even with a Teen rating, I can’t say this is for the uninitiated. This title was obviously made with love for both the MK community and the DC supporters. Whoever cries “cash cow” is completely missing the point. Ed Boon has already stated that the next Mortal Kombat game will get right back to the intense violence and insane amounts of gore, but this was a refreshing idea and, what’s more, a nice break from the laughably goofy fatalities and insane amounts of blood found in past entries. The idea of the DC world colliding with that of the Mortal Kombatants was a kooky one, but Midway pulled it off flawlessly (no pun intended) and I’ll admit to enjoying the living hell out of this game. The fatalities may be toned down, but I will commend the developers for avoiding all of the useless blood and gore and still making the game violent and fierce. It certainly isn’t as grotesque as MK: Deception, but how MK vs DC Universe ever got a Teen rating is beyond me. MK fans and/or DC fans owe it to themselves to check this out.

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Posted : 10 years ago on 14 May 2010 05:50 (A review of My Bloody Valentine [Blu-ray])

Early '80s slasher films were notorious for being manhandled by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) with little concern for the clarity of the final product. A great number of these pictures were/are known more for what had been cut from them - including The Prowler aka Rosemary's Killer, The Burning, Friday the 13th Part II, and this here film - rather than the quality of the movies themselves. Of these very edited motion pictures (most of which can now be found uncut on Blu-ray and DVD, however), the most highly sought for an uncut release most certainly was My Bloody Valentine.

It wasn't just a matter of "I wonder what was cut from the film;" MBV was hacked so badly by the ratings board that it rendered many of the death scenes incomprehensible. An uncensored release was damn near a necessity. Paramount's initial releases were barebones offerings, as usual, and delivered to viewers the movie in its heavily censored form. The uncut deaths became something of legend as, with each subsequent release of the movie on a home-viewing format, fans wondered if they would ever see the picture as it was originally intended.

As a brief aside, the film was so heavily cut due to the death of John Lennon briefly after the crew had finished shooting. Hence, the MPAA came down increasingly hard on violence in films and, more specifically, slasher films. 28 years later, slasher buffs can finally rejoice as Lionsgate has partnered with Paramount to deliver the long-awaited uncut version of MBV to rabid fans en masse. The Blu-ray offers up two viewing options; the first being to watch the film in its theatrical form, the second to watch it in its extended form. Fans should be forewarned, though. The deleted scenes are not in the greatest condition and look closer to workprint footage and, thus, greatly conflict with the near-perfect transfer that they have been spliced into.

Having first seen this back in 2002 as a rental from Hollywood Video (on VHS, no less), I never thought much of it. It was effective, but slightly plodding. I loved the idea of a psychotic miner, though, and I always thought that his get-up (the mining suit with accompanying mask and pick-axe) were a "shoulda-been" horror staple. But, unsurprisingly, I felt that the gore quotient was unfulfilled and, after doing a bit of research, I also became one of those who wanted to see an uncut release.

Those looking for a simple hack 'n' slash in the spirit of Paramount's mega-hit series, Friday the 13th, will be getting much more than they bargained for here. MBV has something of a plot going on; that is, outside of the typical "crazed killer comes back to town to slice and dice." There's a love triangle going on between characters T.J. (Paul Kelman), Axel (Neil Affleck), and Sarah (Lori Hallier). These characters are also non-suburban and, instead, are atypically blue-collar. Although MBV isn't wholly original in terms of formula, it turned many of the slasher conventions of the time on their heads. The practical joker isn't the fat guy, the heavier gentleman (played wonderfully by the late Keith Knight) actually has a girlfriend, there isn't a final battle between the madman and the virginal heroine, the characters are actually fairly likeable, and there are no token African-Americans.

On a more negative note for the picture, George Mihalka's direction does tend to be, as noted before, plodding. He spends too much time focusing his lens on things that don't add much to the movie as a whole and, moreover, he spends too much time showing us The Miner as opposed to keeping his figured relegated to the shadows. As most other horror directors of the '80s did - and this is something Mihalka is guilty of also - they attempted to build tension by way of odd noises or a random shouting of "*insert name*, is that you over there?" moments before the kill occurs. Not only do these sequences seem to drone on for ages, but they are also 85% ineffective. MBV is no different.

In its edited form, ... Valentine is an effective slasher flick with an eerie mood and tons of atmosphere. Uncut, however, that effective mood and atmosphere are increased ten-fold. Not only is this cut gritty and downright violent, but it can also be brutally morbid. I won't spoil any of the grisly details here, but the wait was definitely worth it.

For those of you who have already seen the 2009 reboot, I wholeheartedly recommend you seek out a copy of this special edition and take a look at what has become, in many circles, one of the most legendary cult slashers of the '80s. Now presented completely uncut and with some great special features to boot, MBV has finally gotten the Blu-ray/DVD release many of us never thought it would. As a testament to the early '80s and the films it inspired, give this one a shot. It has withstood the test of time and it is a great example of its genre. Eerie and tense it most certainly is, and all-deserving of the praise showered upon it from horror buffs. Hugely recommended.

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Posted : 10 years, 4 months ago on 17 January 2010 08:43 (A review of The Last House on the Left (Unrated))

Movie studios seem to be gravitating more and more towards remaking old (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre & Dawn of the Dead) and some not-so-old (The Hitcher & A Nightmare on Elm Street) horror films that were financially and critically successful in their respective eras for dozens of reasons. It's been argued by seemingly thousands upon thousands of fans that these remakes are inferior because the studios want nothing to do with the originals' respective subtexts. Instead, they lift only the barest of plot elements from them then proceed to loosely "reimagine" key sequences and moments.

Many of these remakes tend to get a bad rap though. The 2007 version of The Hitcher is much maligned, but I think fans missed the point on that one. I don't think director Dave Meyers ever intended for it to be the thought-provoking, tense, and largely isolated movie the Rutger Hauer/C. Thomas Howell version was. Instead it maintained a much steadier pace and became a slam-bang action vehicle that, of course, utilized a number of plot devices and pieces of dialogue from the original but was something else entirely. The same can be said for Zach Snyder's 2004 update of Dawn of the Dead which was, surprisingly, much better received than most Hollywood remakes.

This is where we enter Dennis Iliadis' Last House on the Left. Wes Craven's original film - which was also his first - has gained quite a reputation. Looking back on it, it's essentially an anti-exploitation exploitation flick. It is an admittedly nasty piece of work that may have been effective in 1972, but after 30+ years of existence, seems laughable by today's standards. The special FX were cheap even when it was filmed, as was the acting and script, but today the whole thing feels utterly unspectacular. I think through word-of-mouth and false praise it's gained the large cult following it has, but much like Alexandre Aja's remake of another Wes Craven cult classic, The Hills Have Eyes, it was a mediocre film made better with a remake.

Unlike the current trend of modern redo’s, Iliadis's film sticks very closely the narrative elements of Craven's version. I've noticed a lot of folks claiming that Iliadis's version is far less gruesome than the original, which in some cases I will agree with. Craven's version featured very realistic, if not perverse, scenes of torture and Iliadis seem to have to have strayed away from these moments (there's no "Piss your pants" scene or main villain, Krug, carving his name in Mari Collingwood's chest). I personally felt that was all for the better as the rape of Mari is so unsettling and hard to watch here that the inclusion of more overt physical torture would have rendered the segment virtually unwatchable.

Garrett Dillahunt, as Krug, plays the character much differently than the original's David A. Hess. He comes across as a closet sociopath rather than a twisted sadist as Hess played him. Dillahunt's Krug is a cold-blooded murderer who has no concern for innocent human life but does seem to genuinely care for those tagging along with him - his brother Francis (played well here by Aaron Paul), girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome), and his son, Justin (Spencer Treat Clark) who he feels he treats lovingly despite the audiences ability to see otherwise. I loved Dillahunt's performance and felt that his underlying sense of menace was both compelling and frightening. This iteration of the villain sees him as "just a regular guy" on the surface, but underneath one can sense unbridled rage. The entire gang, in fact, are people that seem relatively normal until provoked, then become distempered animals. This realism is what separates the remake's gang from the over-the-top caricatures in the original.

Mari's (Sara Paxton) parents, John & Emma Collingwood, are played to near-perfection by Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter, respectively. I loved Goldwyn's moments with his daughter when he discovers that she was raped and shot. Goldwyn plays the moment so genuinely. The character then performs hasty surgery on his daughter in order to get her breathing again, further fleshing out the movie's mention of his profession (in the original John Collingwood is also a doctor, but nothing is ever done with it). I bought Goldwyn's performance wholly. Monica Potter is the best she's ever been, playing a character that is clearly distraught by the situation at hand but adept at fighting back – believably, no less – when the time comes. Last House... is so well-acted throughout that it becomes so much more harrowing than the original. Watching Tony Goldwyn brutally beat, grind the hands, and hammer claw the back of one of the assailant's head is as much sickening as it is strangely gratifying. Chalk that up to a stellar cast giving it their all.

The script is also solid and borrows just enough from Craven's original while injecting plenty of writers' Carl Ellsworth's and Adam Alleca's own ideas. I admire these two for bringing likeable, relateable characters to the table and using the plot to more affective means. Iliadis's direction is fantastic throughout, and the cinematography elevates this from "just another horror remake" to a movie that is admirably classy. The set design is excellent and lighting is pitch-perfect. I appreciated that Iliadis filmed this as more of an artsy crime film than as quick-cutting, blood-for-blood's-sake torture porn we see far too much of.

But if anything can be said about the film in terms of violence, I will state that it goes much further in the on-screen gore department than the original. While not as perverse, it approaches the subject matter just as realistically. When Krug and company start getting offed, these sequences become elongated, brutal, and sometimes downright gratuitous. But there is something to be said about punishing those who have terrorized our loved ones. Whether right or wrong, I related to the Collingwood's and asked myself if I would have or could have done the same thing. We want to see these terrible people suffer for what they've done to two innocent young women. The acting, again, plays a big part here as characters are brutalized and killed and each actor plays it accordingly. The rape scene (extended greatly in the unrated version) in particular is so hard to watch - not because you really see anything - but because it feels so real.

What more is there to say, really? This is one of few remakes that isn't just as good as the original, but better in every possible way. The violence feels all too real, the acting is way above par for the type of film this is, and the movie is also extremely well-shot. Much like the original, it's not an easy watch and some of the changes made to the script will certainly divide audiences, but I however, found the changes effective. It may not be the original, but this is one instance where I can't complain about that.

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Posted : 10 years, 5 months ago on 18 December 2009 05:41 (A review of Saw V (2-Disc Unrated Director's Cut))

The great thing about a director's cut - for both the director and the viewing audience - is that it gives both a chance to re-witness the film in a whole new light. A lot of director's cuts add nothing more than a few useless, extra minutes of dialogue that ultimately amounts to very little within the context of the movie. But if the Saw series' prior DCs indicated anything, it is that you give the audience a taste of the film theatrically, but deliver the crucial blow for its home release.

David Hackl's Saw V is no different. Whereas the theatrical release was tame and near-vapid, the director's cut is meatier, riskier, and more enthralling. That's not to say it is the series' crowning achievement, but Hackl's director's cut is certainly better than the rated print. One of the biggest problems with the theatrical edit was not character development or plot; it was the lack of gore. There is more plot to be found here, to be sure, but there is also quite a bit more gore. Saw V's opening trap went from a mass of cut-aways theatrically to becoming, what could be, one of the most horrific death scenes in Saw history. Other notable additions are a bloodier conclusion and a lengthened-to-the-point-of-nausea "hand-saw" trap.

Moreover, the added bits of exposition help the film even if it didn't really need them. Some scenes have been rearranged to better fit the tone and pace of this cut and some characters are made (if ever so slightly) more memorable. I can't say I noticed a lot of the differences without consulting the commentary (there are actually quite a few changes), but upon noting what was added and switched around, I felt it served the film much better in the end.

Granted, a few of the bigger problems found in the theatrical edit are still present here; the biggest offender being an ending that doesn't quite resonate. I'm sure everyone who saw the picture in theaters knew how it would end way before its closing minutes and, quite frankly, that's inexcusable for a film of this brand. The story in and of itself is also quite useless. We want to see more Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) and less Hoffman (Costas Mandylor). And as a huge Saw fan, I could care less about Special Agent Strahm's (Scott Patterson) and Hoffman's cat-and-mouse game. It feels rather flavorless and out of place. Even the main game being played - which mirrored that of the (far superior) game in Saw II - held no deeper meaning and granted no deeper insights into the pathos of Jigsaw or even the film itself. A grand disappointment.

But the things that have been fixed and reworked – like Hackl’s previously lifeless visuals and the picture's subdued death scenes – are much welcomed. I walked away from my initial viewing of this Blu-ray feeling much more satisfied than I did with the theatrical print and I am thankful for both the added gore and exposition. The additional scenes of bloodshed is what really saves this from being the humdrum Saw sequel that it was initially, and I’m happy to see that there were, in fact, cuts made to secure an R-rating. My other, less signifcant vexation with the theatrical print, was that it felt so generic in comparison to Darren Lynn Bousman's previous Saw sequels. This director’s cut does a great job of remedying that.

Cutting to the chase, though, Hackl's cut may offer up substantial amounts of added gore and deeper characterization, but non-fans or casual fans of the series will hate this cut or any other cut of the film with a passion. The director's preffered version or not, this will do nothing to change the minds' of the uninitiated. Less focused on the franchise's trademark traps and their accompanying mayhem, and more about delivering solid story structure and backstory, Saw V is an ambitious if slightly misguided affair.

For the diehard Saw fan who plunked down their hard-earned dough last Halloween to catch the latest sequel in this seemingly never-ending horror series, this particular cut is well worth owning despite the entry it houses not being at full strength. Despite some rather glaring shortcomings, Saw V is better than about 80% of the available mainstream horror flicks already on the market. If you're an open-minded fan willing to look past these flaws, Hackl's cut is a marked improvement over the initial print.

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Posted : 10 years, 5 months ago on 15 December 2009 04:30 (A review of Friday the 13th (Digital Copy Special Edition) (Killer Cut))

I caught a showing of German director Marcus Nispel's Friday the 13th (Nispel previously helmed the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake of 2003, as well as the entertaining but unsuccessful viking flick, Pathfinder) in theaters back in February - on a free ticket, no less - and found myself thoroughly unimpressed.

Maybe I wasn't in the mood for this kind of slickly produced slasher throwback that day, but I walked out of that dark theater feeling no less unenthused and inquisitive because of it. For one, why did Jason now seem so well-organized (a man-made underground lair complete with tunnels and an alarm system made up of bells and tripwires), cunning and, beyond all else, methodical. What happened to the animalistic maniac of past films that hung bodies in doorways and sauntered after his prey? This iteration of Jason now finds him darting after his victims with all the speed of a track runner and the taught anticipation of a Chess champion. The J-man didn't seem too comfortable with his trusty machete, either. Sure, he slices and dices with the infamous blade for a good amount of the picture but he seems surprisingly comfortable using everything from a bow & arrow (!), bear traps, campfires, deer antlers, and other assorted items as well.

Me being the guy I am, I can't say I shunned the film for being all about the gore 'n' tits, but Nispel certainly seemed more reliant on the tits getting the average horror fan through the door than the gore. The kills were inventive and bloody where it counted, yes, but just not vicious enough. Moreover, the theatrical print rendered some of these death sequences so useless I was left wondering what had just occurred: a murder in a toolshed and the death of the quintessential "douchebag" are two good examples. Despite the ridiculousness of some of these sequences (the biggest offender, I think, being Jason using a bow & arrow to pick off two unlucky twenty-somethings carelessly cruising Crystal Lake on a speedboat). For the most part, Friday the 13th was creative with its kills but didn't completely deliver on the gory goods its predecessors promised.

But Killer Cut indeed as this version of the film, despite still earning itself an R-rating even with the inclusion of more gore/more elaborate deaths and a good deal more sex, feels like the satisfying slasher flick we should have gotten the first time around. With its run time clocking in at 106 minutes as opposed to the meager 97 minute duration of its theatrical counterpart, much of what the Killer Cut presents to its audience is not copious amounts of additional bloodshed and fornication. Rather, it is added character exposition and plot development. Most of these added minutes really compensate for the theatrical print's lack of punch. One sequence in particular involves Amanda Righetti's character, Whitney, watching Jason trash his lair after he realizes the similarities between her and his beheaded mother. Jason then proceeds to sharpen his machete as Whitney watches in horror from afar.

The Killer Cut's additional footage makes Friday the 13th a more watchable film through and through. Where the theatrical cut lent no pathos to Jason's actions and behavior, there's more digging being done here and it makes the movie that much more effective. The added gore helps, definitely, but I appreciated more the footage that defined this faceless killer that had literally become all too faceless.

The movie itself – although filmed in 2008 - feels quite similar to the '80s slasher flicks it's paying fitting tribute to; stupid characters saying and doing stupid things – like smoking pot, drinking profusely, and having sex while characters disappear systematically - with an unstoppable madman on the loose that the audience tends to root for more than the supposed protagonists. Still, some of these characters are marginally likeable (Aaron Yoo (Chewie) and Arlen Escarpeta (Lawrence) steal the show) and you do actually hate to see them go. Others are as one-dimensional as they come and feel like typical Friday the 13th fodder which, by the way, is nothing but a compliment.

Director Marcus Nispel, who had a rather illustrious career directing music videos before helming feature films, puts up a nice visual show if a touch too dark. It is sometimes hard to see what's going on during nighttime sequences and my best guess is that most of the film was shot using natural lighting. With that being said, it lends to this Friday a tense, ominous flavor that hasn't been relevant to the franchise since the early ‘80s. Beyond that, there’s too much time spent on promiscuity and not enough on Jason doing what he does best. Perhaps a fault of the screenplay and not Nispel's, but it is still one of the movie's biggest flaws nonetheless. There is, however, a high body count and some truly smirk-inducing deaths that successfully offset that glaring negative.

Certainly not the best Friday film I’ve seen thanks to an overreliance on nudity, drug use, and sex as opposed to the other half of the Friday equation, the Killer Cut does manage to spruce up the theatrical print nicely by tossing in more gore, more character exposition, and more plot development (for those that are actually concerned about the latter two in a Friday film). As mediocre as I initially felt the movie was four months ago, revisiting it after nearly a year's time I’ve come to realize that Marcus Nispel’s Friday the 13th hits (mostly) all of the right notes and harkens back to the days of old in a way that only true Friday aficionados can appreciate. A little too pretty, too well-crafted, and too pristine at times, but the unluckiest day of the year has just become valid again.

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Posted : 10 years, 5 months ago on 14 December 2009 04:30 (A review of Max Payne (Unrated) )

When a director adapts a video game to film, he/she has one of two choices. This person can either stick closely to the source material and make a mess of the story and characters because, as much as we think differently, video games are not made to be directly adapted to nearly any other form of media. The other way said director may go about this is the same manner in which Max Payne director John Moore has; keep it similar to the video games in mood, atmosphere, and spirit, but alter characters and plot points to better fit the filmic universe.

A good percentage of the Max Payne faithfuls have complained that too much was changed during its transition from computer monitor to TV screen. Some of the bigger examples being no graphic dream sequences, Jim Bravura being African-American (and Internal Affairs instead of Chief of Police), no Vinnie Gognitti, Frankie "The Bat" Niagra, Rico Muerte (or any of the Punchinello crime family for that matter), Alfred Woden, and an ending that, indeed, does have similarities to the conclusion of the first game, but exhibits the death of a completely different character. There are, however, many other characters from the Max Payne universe that do put in appearances, as well as several of the key locations. As far as locations are concerned, the Aesir Building, Roscoe Street Station, and Ragnarok are in the film; and arguable Max Payne favorites B.B. Hensley, Jim Bravura, Nicole Horne, Mona & Natasha Sax, Jack Lupino, Michelle Payne, and even Alex Balder are present and accounted for.

What the film lacks in cosmetic and plot-based similarities to its source material, it makes up for with grim atmosphere and a noir-ish, Sin City-like look and grit that mirrors that of its video game counterpart. The snowy backdrops are a constant and every single shot is dimly lit and featured in some seedy, shadowy location. Characters like Lupino and Nicole Horne look exactly as they appeared in the first game, and even Max Payne himself is brought to life through many small, but notable touches (Lupino's tattoos and trademark "drug-induced babbling" are spot-on and Max's hairstyle and "scrunched face" look are perfect). It's unarguable in this man's opinion that Mark Wahlberg was miscast as the titular Max Payne, but he pulled off the character well. Surprisingly, this unrated cut features some additional material that plays more to Max's suicidal/homicidal angle that was so prevalent in the games.

The biggest complaint of all, however, was that for a game that featured intense, slow-motion shootouts so consistently, its live-action adaptation was disappointingly light on them. It wasn't until the flick's third act that there was any kind of real fireworks. Where the game had an even eight hours that could be spread evenly between plot and character development, as well as action sequences, one must keep in mind that that the film has roughly an hour and 45 minutes to do so. Moore's adaptation opts to be more of a noir-like mystery that utilizes its few action sequences to complement the film’s intense atmosphere and visceral approach rather than as the main attraction.

I will admit to appreciating the time that was invested in creating tension, mood, and introducing & developing characters as opposed to simply giving us just another half-baked shoot 'em up. Max Payne takes its sweet time to get going, but the visuals are striking and the chemistry between the actors is superb. For an action flick that runs as long as this one, each minute seems like time well spent. On a more negative note, I can imagine that anyone who hasn't played the games would find more satisfaction in the film's conclusion, but for fans of the franchise, it won't be anything new (the movie follows each of the first game's twists and turns to the number, for better or worse).

Specifically related to the unrated cut, this version of Max Payne looks, feels, and acts like an R-rated movie. There is more profanity sprinkled throughout (by my count, four or five more 'F' words have been added, two with the prefix "mother"), a much darker feel presented by way of eerie camera shots and a more morbid tone (a good example being the extended take of Max peering in through the door at a "party" one of his "friends" is hosting), and more violence. Each scene of violence is accompanied by either blood-release squibs or digital blood that has, of course, been added in after the fact (sometimes they are both used together). Where these FX are most noticeable are in the Aesir Building shootouts and in the home invasion flashback. Even with only three minutes added back into the movie, these additions are very major and change the texture of the film considerably.

Even without the unrated cut, the PG-13 version was one of, if not the best, video game adaptations I had ever seen. Stellar direction and a brutally down-trodden atmosphere lent to the film's credence. Those of you who didn't care for the theatrical print - in its entirety - will find no reason to like this, but those who did will certainly find this to be truer to the Max Payne universe than Moore’s initial cut. Even minus the added violence and copious amounts of bloodshed, the pathos of the Max Payne character has been fleshed out more and the tone of the film is, surprisingly, even bleaker than the rated print. This is definitely one of the most faithful video game adaptations you will find.

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Posted : 10 years, 5 months ago on 8 December 2009 10:13 (A review of Rogue Warrior)

I've always found it fascinating how critics can either severely overrate a product or criminally underrate it. If you'd care to, take a look at IGN's final score for Rebellion's latest actioner, Rogue Warrior. I, and many other gamers, assumed that the lowest score they could possibly give any next-gen game was to Spark Unlimited's late-2008 shooter Legendary; they awarded it a laughable 2.5. I wasn't at all surprised considering Spark's track record with shooters thus far, but I did find Legendary to be a much better game than IGN gave it credit for.

Now, before I go any further, allow me to state that IGN gave Rogue Warrior a measly 1.5. I do understand that RW does absolutely nothing new with its few ideas or genre, but I'd still only warrant giving a score that low to a game that is without any merit whatsoever (i.e. broken beyond repair). Rogue Warrior will not sell, will not make any Game of the Year lists, and will ultimately be forgotten (as if it hadn't been already) as more end-of-year heavy-hitters start seeing release. Furthermore, after Rebellion's last abysmal foray into the FPS genre with Shellshock 2: Blood Trails my hopes weren't exactly high for Rogue Warrior and certainly not for next year's Aliens vs Predator reboot.

Before I delve any deeper into this review allow me to clear the air. Rogue Warrior is by no means an utter abomination that everyone should steer clear of. Just as Blood Trails has found a cult audience, so will RW. There seems to be a trend with critics being overly harsh on what are nothing more than generic shooters. Rogue Warrior has subpar graphics and controls, as well as a decidedly last-gen feel to it, but I've certainly played far worse. If nothing else it warrants a weeks' rental just to plow through its brief 3-4 hour campaign and collect the easy-to-obtain trophies for those into that sort of thing. I think the biggest injustice publisher Bethesda has done is charge the unsuspecting public $60 for a game that would have been priced at a mere $20 five years ago. Even if the game itself is nothing more than substandard, charging full price for a budget shooter is going to backfire on them, and hard.

But let's dig into the innards of this sucker, shall we. The Rogue Warrior license was originally given to Zombie Studios (Spec Ops, Spec Ops II: Green Berets, and Saw: The Video Game) and, from what I gather, their game had been in the works for quite some time. It took the idea of making legendary Navy SEAL Richard Marcinko the player character in a tactical, stealth-oriented FPS that favored brains over brawn. That idea was ultimately scrapped for whatever reason and Bethesda brought Rebellion on-board and gave them nothing more than a year to completely rework the title. Although that doesn't exactly justify a game this generic, the myriad technical issues, freezing problems, and other bugs, however, are. It's amazing even as mediocre as Rogue Warrior is that Rebellion managed to make it playable at all.

Despite being a relatively impressive feat for such a short amount of development time, there will be many gamers who just can't get over how unpolished it feels. The controls are jumpy and stiff, the action is unsatisfying save for the cool Kill Moves and great ragdoll deaths, environments are largely static, and explosions look horrid. For a game touting itself as a first-person shooter you'd figure that the actual shooting would respond better. With a big holiday title like Modern Warfare 2 releasing just a month before Rogue Warrior did, it really set the bar high for future FPS's. Despite the game being completely incompetent I still stand by the thought that it could have been much worse.

There are a few decent game play innovations to be found throughout, as well, but nothing that you'll shit yourself over. Being able to blow out fuse boxes, consequently powering down the lights, and offing your enemies in the dark with help from your Night Vision goggles is interesting, but too many times the poor AI is able to spot you in what is essentially a pitch black room. I'm also sure you've heard about the Kill Moves that Rebellion have incorporated into the game, and if there's any reason to at least give Rogue Warrior a try, it's for these. You can perform them on both unalerted and altered foes and depending on their level of awareness, you will be able to pull off around 25 of these moves. You take no part in them other than hitting X when prompted then the game goes into a short cut-scene showing Marcinko slaughtering enemy soldiers with his knife, a broken neck, or a toss over a high-reaching balcony.

Other than that, however, Rogue Warrior is as cookie-cutter as it gets. By no means deserving of its rating on Metacritic (an unsurprising 36 out of 100) or, moreover, it's shockingly low score from IGN, but I contribute that to the time of year it was released. If Rogue Warrior was a PS2 game it would have probably fared much better, but as a next-gen title it really disappoints. There's little to do outside of running from room-to-room and taking part in various ineffective gun battles. Even the ragdoll system - which does supply some fun - is seriously dated. That's the problem with the whole game in a nutshell: it just feels so out-of-touch with current gaming standards.

I also hear that RW is being powered by Epic's updated UnrealEngine3 and during specific moments of an otherwise bland looking game, it does show. Nothing is ever eye-popping, but there are brief instances where it rises above Rebellion's obvious love of low-res textures, sticky character movements, dated environments, and poor-lighting. Marcinko's character model looks decent and the Kill Moves are executed with just the right amount of panache. Going beyond the forgettable visuals, even having Mickey Rourke voice Marcinko isn't enough to make this worth your money. As cool as Rourke is, he sounds miserably uninterested in the project (and probably was). Nothing's really out-and-out wrong with Rogue Warrior, it just comes off as being painfully "too little too late."

If the horrid AI, technical problems, and last-gen visuals doesn’t turn you off to Rogue Warrior I'd recommend a rental. Even with poor controls and jumpy crosshairs, Rebellion has managed to inspire some moments of fun. The idea of putting Marcinko in a game is a novel one and could have been a great one if only Zombie got to finish their game. You really can't blame Rebellion too much for this one as it seems they were at least trying. I place more blame on Bethesda for releasing a quick cash-in attempt during gaming's busiest time of the year. I feel sorry for the people (including myself) who were duped into paying full price for an unfinished product. Even still, it's not a totally wasted opportunity as there are some moments of fun to be had. Ultimately, however, Rogue Warrior is a seriously outdated game that will be relegated to the bargain bins in no time.

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Posted : 10 years, 6 months ago on 18 November 2009 10:59 (A review of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2)

I played through Modern Warfare 2's single-player campaign no more than a week ago, proceeded to play through it again, and have finally decided to do a review on it. The minute I completed the single-player portion of it I couldn't wait to drop by Listal and write up a glowing review. Nothing's changed in that regard, but I felt perhaps giving my thoughts a little more time to marinate was probably in the game's best interest.

So here we are. The Modern Warfare 2 hype has died down and in the ensuing aftermath magazines and online gaming publications have spoiled Infinity Ward with nothing but positive reviews for their highly anticipated mega-hit. As much as the critics loved it, I'm not too sure about the fans. I've heard everything from "It's just a glorified expansion pack" to, and I laugh to myself as I type this, "The first was better." After my last review - which was coincidentally on the first Modern Warfare - you should know that I cringe whenever biased fanboys hype up Call of Duty 4 even more than it already is. And with this review coming from a CoD fan who openly admits to enjoying Treyarch's World at War more than any of the others, leave that grain of salt at home because, and you can quote me on this, Modern Warfare 2 isn’t just the best Call of Duty I’ve played thus far, but one of the best games I've ever had the joy of playing.

Those familiar with hot shot director Michael Bay's movies (funny, this is the second time I've dropped his name in a matter of months) will find a lot of similarities and references to them throughout Modern Warfare 2's six hour campaign. The one referenced the most is the Nicolas Cage/Sean Connery action vehicle The Rock, and when you reach these moments in the game, there's no doubt in my mind that those familiar with the film will find themselves grinning from ear-to-ear. Infinity Ward is no stranger to referencing movies in their games as each CoD developed by them has slyly nodded towards war movie favorites like Saving Private Ryan, Enemy at the Gates, and Black Hawk Down, just to name a few. What makes these moments so much fun to partake in - especially those in Modern Warfare 2 - is that there are so many like them.

MW 2 really does look and feel like an epic summer blockbuster with a controller attached for audience input. The first Modern Warfare was all kinds of ridiculous, but Infinity Ward have successfully cranked the dial up so high and so quickly that they damn near snapped it off. There's absolutely nothing in this game, real-world or not, that should be taken the least bit seriously. Modern Warfare 2 is easily one of the most ludicrous, over-the-top, and downright brain-dead games I've ever played. Even with that said, I loved every minute of it.

I could sit here and list each and every one of the amazing set pieces that dropped my jaw, but in doing so I would give away practically the entire game. Let me put it this way; if you high-fived your friends and pointed at your TV screen while exclaiming "Did you just see that?!" during MW 1's Shock & Awe mission, MW 2's entire six hour duration will probably send you to the hospital. Not only are the set pieces more elaborate and more satisfying than ever, but the sheer number of enemies on-screen is nearly overwhelming. Infinity Ward has also fixed that vexing franchise issue where enemies continuously respawn if the player doesn't begin to advance. Even so, IW have upped the number of on-screen enemies considerably and as a result of that, made this one of the more challenging games in the CoD canon.

Referring back to the "expansion pack" comments, I have a bit of a rebuttal to the folks making that claim. Every sequel I have ever played is usually nothing more than a "glorified expansion pack." Apparently modern gamers don't understand that if a developer finds massive success with a certain formula they'd be fools to change it. Treyarch utilized said formula for World at War, so what should stop IW from one-upping their own formula. There is absolutely no difference between the first Modern Warfare and the second aside from some cosmetic and slight game play differences, but logic dictates that there probably wouldn't be. Even when comparing the first and the second, MW 2 completely obliterates the first without so much as breaking a sweat. Everything that worked in the first is back, everything that didn't work has been excised, and those aforementioned set pieces make the ones found in the first game look like child's play in comparison.

I was much relieved to find that Infinity Ward's winning formula has gone unchanged. The controls remain the same and the core game play has been totally untouched. What has been changed, or at least updated, is the already powerful graphics technology that backed Modern Warfare 1 and has been carried over to its sequel. IW has touched up the engine to the point where it barely looks as if it's the same technology. Besides the tonal shift in locales, the excellent character models also deserve a mention. They are probably the best they're ever going to look, and this is probably the closest this gen that we're going to get to photo-realistic textures, architecture, and character models. Everything encompassed by the powerful graphics engine is astoundingly detailed and just flat-out beautiful. I'd really like to see Infinity Ward's updated technology earn some kind of best-of win for the traditional end-of-the-year awards. It deserves it.

If you know me well enough, you should already be fully aware that I won't be touching on the multi-player portion of this title. I will, however, mention the new Spec Ops mode. What it is is basically a single-player or co-op (that's left up to the player(s) own discretion) competition mode that rewards you based on set parameters given to you before undertaking any mission. It's amazing that the same scale and spectacle seen in the single-player portion of the game has been carried over into a mode most other developers would use as a pretentious game play augmentation in which to increase the shelf life of their game. Not only has Infinity Ward use the Spec Ops mode as an amazing way to stretch the game's overall length, but also an as interesting way for gamers to take what they've learned from the single-player campaign and put it to use in a sort of objective-based challenge mode.

Modern Warfare 2 really is one of the year's best and will probably end up winning Game of the Year even though I have already heard complaints directed towards the length of the single-player campaign. But again, my opinion of the first Modern Warfare's single-player mode can be carried over to MW 2; it says what it has to say, does what it has to do, and doesn't waste any time beating around the bush. I personally found the length of the campaign to be perfect and I stand by that statement. Multi-player gamers will probably get a bigger thrill out of it (if that's your thing) than those who aren’t, but rest assured single-player gamers, even with the brevity of the single-player campaign it is definitely an epic experience you’ll want to play through again. If you haven't picked up MW 2 yet, do so immediately.

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