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Posted : 11 years, 2 months ago on 28 March 2009 04:58 (A review of Wheelman)

Playing the waiting game can be a real son-of-a-bitch. Upon viewing the teaser trailer for Wheelman back in 2007 - as part of Stranglehold's supplemental features - my interest was immediately piqued. I knew absolutely nothing about the game in question; only that it looked so unabashedly over-the-top (in a good way) and also had a likeness/voice-feature mesh from Vin Diesel himself.

A year-and-a-half later and Wheelman finally sees a simultaneous release on the PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. As I said, waiting can be a son-of-a-bitch and this was one game that I waited for for what seemed like an eternity. Every piece of game play footage and every pile of screenshots I viewed after that initial video had me frothing at the mouth. Call me shallow, but Wheelman was a game that I felt held so much unseen potential that I was utterly shocked to find that literally no one else but me was awaiting its arrival.

After Midway made seemingly rock-solid plans to release the game during 2008's third quarter, a looming bankruptcy put that idea to a screeching halt. Several delays and a new publisher later, Wheelman is released to mixed reviews and little fanfare. Some are calling it a half-assed GTA clone while others are being a bit kinder and giving the game its due credit for not only jacking GTA's ideals, but also the ferocity of your average Burnout sequel and the high-impact game play of Midtown Madness & the PS2's popular Pursuit Force series.

To be completely honest, Wheelman is all of those things. There is very little story to speak of, so if you were expecting Shakespearean dialogue and characters to rival last year's open-world heavy-hitter, GTA IV, you've got another thing coming. Wheelman's primary focus is on elongated action sequences and over-the-top car combat. Missions are plentiful, variety is omnipresent, and even with a half-baked story and shoddy voiceacting this is a game that needn't rely on those kinds of things to get by. It does just fine by being the fast-paced driver/shooter it has always alluded to.

And as a straightforward action game, Wheelman delivers in spades. Truth be told, the game can be rather repetitive in that when Vin Diesel’s character, Milo Burik, isn’t driving around and smashing the living hell out of anything in sight, he is performing on-foot missions that fit firmly into the free-roam genre's well-worn archetype. The meat and potatoes of the game, however, are definitely the driving segments and, thankfully, you will be in a car for about 85% of the game. Taking into consideration all of the cool maneuvers you can execute when in a vehicle, the on-foot portions of Wheelman seem rather unimaginative. There is no cover system and you can’t even jump. At least there is a decent lock-on feature implemented and a good amount of weaponry at Milo’s disposal.

As far as the car combat is concerned, Milo is able to use the vehicle itself as a weapon. “Vehicle melee,” as it’s called, allows Milo to use the car as a battering ram of sorts, either flinging it left, right or straight ahead. Inflicting enough damage to enemy vehicles with these melee attacks will result in a cool cinematic showing the car/bike flying about with passengers accompanying it and exploding in mid-air. Other unique abilities at Milo’s disposal are the Aimed Shot, Cyclone, and Airjack, respectively,

Being able to slow down time and fine-aim with the Aimed Shot for an “instant kill” feels downright rewarding, as do the abilities to either spin your car around 180 degrees and shoot in slow-motion (Cyclone), or even Airjack a vehicle adjacent to Milo’s. Milo’s latter ability, the Airjack, is one big way in which Wheelman keeps the vehicular segments fast, exciting, and consistent. Instead of having to get out of your car and walk to another when your ride is showing signs of damage simply line your car up with another and hold Circle until the indicative reticule turns green, then release. This will then show Milo crawl out of the driver-side window and onto the hood of his car, then jump onto the one you have selected, crawl through their passenger-side window, kick the driver out, and take control of the vehicle. The animation is so fluid and the action itself so simple that it remains one of the most compelling – not to mention coolest – aspects of the game.

But even with fantastic mission design and varied objectives – including everything from driving a flat-bed truck stashed with porn DVDs and other assorted hot items through town while being chased by a rival gang, to flying through oncoming traffic and jumping over ramps while a hostile NPC dangles off the roof of your car in order for Milo to extract information from him - Wheelman isn’t perfect. Developers Midway Newcastle has kept the game so arcade-like in style that a lot of those unforgiveable annoyances from games’ past rear their ugly heads. We’re talking hundreds of respawning enemies, artificially sped-up enemy vehicles, and enemy NPCs that are crack shots. Not so much a difficult game as much as it can be a frustratingly cheap one, some ultimately fun missions are bogged down due to seriously inefficient AI and cheapskate enemy accuracy.

As noted, Wheelman isn’t a top-tier title graphically, either. This particular incarnation of Epic’s UnrealEngine3 looks to be the same one put to use in 2007’s Stranglehold which, even then, wasn’t the best looking game around. Blurry textures are a constant in Midway’s usage of the acclaimed graphics engine and Wheelman, though sporting a surprisingly realistic likeness of Vin Diesel, is visually laughable in this day and age. There are countless blurry textures, clipping shadows, poor animations, jaggies, an abundance of low-res textures, and an overall lack of refinement. Not an ugly game, though, as the art direction is top-notch and Diesel’s character model looks shockingly lifelike, but everything else surrounding that is disappointingly last-gen.

While it has been compared to GTA by nearly every reviewing site it has been handed to thus far, that conclusion couldn’t be further from the truth. An open-world driving game? Yes. But it puts more focus on ferocity and simplicity rather than the life management that GTA has been incorporating as of late. There are even mid-mission checkpoints present in Wheelman, the ability to move directly to the mission start instead of driving to it, and a firm emphasis on driving (as opposed to on-foot combat) and vehicular stunts to complement that. Not the most refined game, to be sure, but it is a damn entertaining one and certainly worth the $60 price tag. It’s about time games got fun again and Wheelman is some of the most fun I’ve had with a game so far this year.

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Posted : 11 years, 3 months ago on 1 March 2009 10:40 (A review of Killzone 2)

Going into a local GameStop one day to trade in some items, I began chatting with one of the employees manning the register. He asked me, after applying credit to my account for the items I had given him, if I was going to reserve anything that night. I responded with a rather dry, "Not reserving, but looking into buying Killzone 2 when it's released." He said, and I paraphrase, 'you may want to reserve it now, it's going to be the Halo killer.'

Excusing the gruff business tactics - practically begging for a reserve or pre-order through rather shrewd phrasing - as I do understand how GameStop works; I was employed there for a while myself. But to have a fellow gamer tell me that a first-person shooter was going to be the Halo killer was either: A) very stupid, or B) incredibly smart. You can assess this situation from one of two ways. I've come to the conclusion that there are Halo fanatics who have the Master Chief collectible statuettes, 360 controllers, custom skins for its respective console, posters, replica Warthogs, and whatever-the-hell-else they make to coincide with each respective release. Telling these fans that some random FPS will topple their beloved shooter franchise is equivalent to blasphemy. And then there are ardent non-fans, such as myself.

Little did this employee know that he immediately sparked even more curiosity in me when he labeled it the "Halo killer" because, well, I have a certain amount of distain for that game anyway. But the more I read into Killzone 2 and the more video clips I saw, I became confident that it was going to be the big PS3 system seller that Sony has been needing for going on three years now. Sure, Sony has both the critically acclaimed Uncharted: Drake's Fortune & Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots currently available, but those games have become largely niche titles that I reckon few people have actually purchased the pricey console to play.

The current comparisons being made between Bungie's Halo and Guerrilla Games' Killzone 2 are flawed and, above all else, unfair. Despite a homosapien/alien war played through a first-person perspective, Killzone 2 is an altogether different beast. It approaches first-person action less surreally and with more emphasis on squad combat, tactics, and an acute reliance on pseudo-realism. An example being its cover system which is one that must be put to use systematically in order to survive. It is accessed by maneuvering next to large, obstructive objects like road blocks, pillars and walls, then holding down L2 to "dig-in." In this mode, which is still presented in the game's almost non-stop first-person perspective, your character (Tomas "Sev" Sevchenko) can lean out and around said cover, pop-and-shoot, or simply recover from taking too much damage.

There have been many complaints made about the controls and overall "feel" of Killzone 2. Granted, it certainly doesn't feel as "light" as recent shooter fare like Call of Duty: World at War or the other big PS3 exclusive, Resistance 2. But rather than presenting itself as a fast-paced run and gun actioner, KZ 2 is obviously meant to be played more methodically and, because of that, will definitely take some getting used to. “Wading” through dim corridors and massive firefights with all the speed and agility of a sloth is a refreshing change of pace over every other shooter where marathon running and loose aiming mechanics seem to win out. In fact, the default X and Y-axis sensitivity is so tight it can feel downright ruthless. Thankfully, it can be adjusted, but I give credit to Guerrilla for attempting something different amidst a genre overcrowded with redundancy.

As an action game with some of the best presentation and production values around, you really can't fault the game for being an FPS that wears its heritage boldly on its sleeve. Its this reliance on a tried-and-true formula, coupled with amazing presentation, that places KZ 2 above most of its (stiff) competition despite being relegated to genre limitations.

This is not, however, a game that you'll cling to after the end credits have rolled, wanting to replay over and over again, and somehow hoping to recover the true meaning of life from. But it does offer up incredible action sequences, furious battles, and brilliant visual and aural presentation to tie these moments of exquisite action together. Enemy AI is stupendous; different types of units attack with unique patterns, weapons, and tactics. Being flushed out with a grenade by certain breeds of Helghast is not uncommon, while others find comfort in full-on assault. I can't say the same for friendly AI exhibiting any sort of intelligence as they will die... a lot. Reviving them is an option offered to the player, but it gets to be an old hat after the same guy goes down for the 5th consecutive time.

Not only is this an action lover’s dream come true, but Killzone 2 is one of the most visually stunning games I have ever played. I have no qualms saying that this is one console game that certainly gives PC favorite Crysis a run for its money in terms of pure visual prowess. The Deferred Rendering engine encompasses beautiful landscapes, spectacular lighting, the best motion-capture ever put to disc, and character models & textures that will literally floor you; all of which are presented at insane resolutions with the help of excellent framerates. Killzone 2 is basically a high-end PC game under the guise of an ordinary console FPS. It is a game so utterly beautiful that, quite literally, no other console shooter is even coming close to its visual excellence.

Although Killzone 2 won't be winning any awards for originality, the experience in its entirety is a highly enjoyable/rewarding one. Despite some minor issues inherent in the game's design, as well as awkward, if refreshing controls, this still remains one of the most impressive shooters released thus far on the current-generation of consoles. Xbox 360 fanboys won't find the brass to admit that Killzone 2 is one hell of a game, but PS3 owners and those soon-to-be are in for a one-of-a-kind experience. Showcasing the true power of its hardware, this PS3 exclusive is an entertaining, altogether excellent action game that is not quite a great one, but only because its ideas are something FPS lovers have been playing through for some time now. Nevertheless, I still wouldn't miss the chance to grab this one off the shelf as soon as possible.

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Posted : 11 years, 3 months ago on 25 February 2009 04:20 (A review of 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand)

If I told you a couple of years ago that a game starring 50 Cent was anything but average, I would probably do so snickering. Not only is 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand a competently above average shooter, it also happens to be one of the more interesting third-person action games released during 2009's late first quarter.

50 Cent's first video game endeavor - which was the much-maligned 50 Cent: Bulletproof - couldn't be any more different than Swordfish Studio's recent action title/semi-sequel starring the love him/hate him rap mogul. Bulletproof held a lot of promise as an action game, culling elements from Fiddy's famed past, love of guns & drugs, and his uniquely palpable character traits that seemingly begged to be translated into our high-revenue interactive medium. Bulletproof saw a release on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox consoles in 2004 and received generally lukewarm reviews. Half 50 Cent life story with over-the-top, abundantly clichéd characters in-tow and half action game that simply wasn't too proficient at delivering the action its fantastic trailers promised. Bulletproof was maligned and rightly maligned at that.

But Blood on the Sand takes Fiddy out of the concrete jungle and moves him into undisclosed, possibly Middle Eastern locales that fill the ambiguity requirements Swordfish greatly stressed to the naysayers as the game's pre-release bandwagon made its rounds. The company was well-justified in believing that placing a gun happy 50 Cent directly in the currently war-torn Middle East would cause an unwanted uproar and it is with great approval that I say Blood on the Sand feels as though it could be happening any where at any time. Though the game feels like it rips too much from our current headlines a bit too often, there is still just enough ambivalence to provide comfort.

But if you think you should play and/or buy Blood on the Sand looking for a deep, involving plot and rewarding character development, you’ve got another thing coming. However lacking the game may be in terms of creative storytelling, that makes it no less fun to embody 50 Cent or one of three other members of the G-Unit. Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo, and DJ Whoo Kid are playable in online co-op mode or offered as an AI controlled teammate in the game's single-player mode.

Blood on the Sand plays a lot like 2008's Army of Two in that taking cover is essential to survival and teamwork will get 50 and his selected accomplice through almost every one of the tough scenarios they encounter unscathed. Some aspects of game play can only be utilized with said partner, such as boosting each other up onto ledges or pulling open heavy doors. Other sequences simply require the extra firepower and coordination, thus making them much less painful.

Surprisingly enough, the AI controlled teammates aren't at all a detriment to the fun factor of Blood on the Sand. The main player will automatically play as 50 when beginning a new game but will have to, naturally, pick from one of the three remaining members of G-Unit to buddy up with. No, these characters don't have any differing skills so it all comes down to one’s own preference (being my personal favorite in the group, I chose Banks). I'll hand it to Swordfish for their fantastic programming here as the friendly AI are expert marksman, alert the player to incoming dangers, help Mr. Cent if he appears to be in one spot for too long looking for an exit, and they never seem to stray too far from a particular objective or battle.

Not without its gimmicks, either, Blood on the Sand has two flash-in-the-pan features that may not gestate well with some folks on a given day. The first is the ability to pull off button sensitive counterkills. The problem with them is that 50 must be in-close to one of his foes in order to execute one of these flashy finishers. Considering the nonstop ferocity of the firefights and the intense number of enemies on-screen at one time, it's highly unlikely you will ever get that close to an opponent willingly; it leaves you undoutedly defenseless at all other angles. Collecting money off of downed foes or from broken crates scattered throughout levels will allow Fiddy to purchase new weapons, counterkills, and taunts, but these abovementioned moves aren't anything the game greatly benefits from. Counter-kills are rather fun to witness, and pulling them off is as easy as pressing O as described above, then pressing O again in unique repetitions when the indicative icon is displayed until the move is complete.

Swordfish even saw fit to include a slo-mo feature that can be accessed by pressing Triangle when Fiddy's slo-mo meter is partially or completely full. Pulling off stylish kills fills it and it is quite a challenge to fill it completely, but it is a feature that I have probably used two or three times throughout my entire time spent with the game. As much as I love the slo-mo aesthetic in video games, this is a poorly implemented feature that does nothing to enhance the already hectic action. Instead, it seems like a half-baked idea that never takes off the way it could have. The counterkills are at least a satisfying way in which to dispatch of 50's opponents, the slo-mo is not only poorly implemented, but the effect itself is rather lackluster as well.

Even though the enemies are dumb as bricks, this is a game that doesn't ask to be played as some kind of thought-provoking experience. Case in point; there is a scoring system that bases its scores off of the types of kills executed. For each enemy killed in succession - and within a certain amount of time - points are gained, for example. Kill enemies with explosives (grenades, incendiary/exploding rounds, the infamous "red barrels," etc...), eliminate enemies by way of headshots, with the help of your teammate, and numerous other possibilities and you gain points that earn you badges at the end of each section that add to your "high score." These aforementioned points later come into play as they grant you the ability to unlock items in the Unlockables section of the main menu. There you have access to 50 Cent music videos, still photographs, game art, and more. The game also offers up an in-game playlist that allows you to take out songs and add more from a list of 50 Cent/G-Unit songs as more become unlocked with your ever-increasing score.

An advanced version of the UnrealEngine3 powers Blood on the Sand's visuals and, while the engine has looked better elsewhere, it has never harnessed this much visual detail while still maintaining such a consistent framerate. The character models are striking and, as usual with an UnrealEngine3-powered title, the cut scenes look magnificent. The PhysX technology put to use during combat sequences is an assurance that each gunfight will lead into one jaw-dropping moment after the next. Textures are a bit muddy and nothing is ever beautiful, but the visuals are especially solid considering the massive amounts of activity present on-screen at one time. Explosions look spectacular and the weapon-specific ambience is second-to-none. For a game of this ilk, Swordfish could have done a lot worse than to tack on the technological power of an A-list engine and try to squeeze out every last one of its resources that they could.

Blood on the Sand even features "on-rails" vehicle segments that are so confined that they tread the line between "shooting gallery" and "useless." Levels are more like huge mazes than true-to-life locations, and even the game's weaponry is so unrealistic you'll be pissing yourself laughing at how 50 manhandles the game's various firearms. But that's OK.

The smirk-inducing score system and the sheer simplicity of the game offers up a truly unique experience in a world where every other game is seemingly vying for interactive supremacy with lengthy cut scenes and ever-evolving game play. There will always be a place in our hearts for the BioShock's and Metal Gear Solid's of the world, but sometimes a good old fashioned shooter with wanton violence and insane amounts of profanity is just what the doctor ordered.

Clickity clank, clickity clank, the money goes in to my piggy bank” – 50 Cent

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Posted : 11 years, 3 months ago on 14 February 2009 06:48 (A review of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune)

If I ever needed a reason to buy a PlayStation 3 it was certainly the prospect of playing system exclusive Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. The Xbox 360 has its two highly popular cover-shooters in Gears of War and Gears of War 2, both of which changed the cosmetic make-up of third-person action games and how we play them. Uncharted - developer Naughty Dog's first foray into cover-shooter territory - isn't just a game trading in tight corridors for expansive, open environments and an intuitive cover system, it's just as much Tomb Raider as it is the aforementioned Gears... and then some.

The last time I scored a game perfectly was last year's Grand Theft Auto IV. I was absolutely floored by Rockstar's masterpiece. I couldn't pull myself away from the Television long enough to even write a decent review on it. I played it, completed it, and then completed it again a couple of months later. Not only did I love it, but I bragged up the game to just about every person in existence that was willing to listen. But what does GTA IV have to do with Uncharted? Quite a bit. Uncharted is one of the few games I have actually considered, let alone gave, a perfect score to. Not only does that mean it is pure gaming excellence, but that it stands in a league all its own amongst increasingly heavy competition.

I'll admit to being a fan of both puzzle-solving titles and platformers (attribute that to my love of old school Sierra point-and-click adventures as well as NES, SNES, and Sega Genesis games). That right there will determine your relationship with Uncharted. Sure, there are healthy amounts of action interspersed throughout as the gun battles are plentiful. But I find half the attraction I have with the game to be figuring out which way to go, how to get there, and how to maneuver around to it. The puzzles aren't "stagnant," either; Quick Time sequences are present and - whether you love them or hate them - they work extremely well within the context of the game. The interaction is flawlessly presented and it lends to Uncharted a truly immersive quality.

As for those "non-stagnant" puzzles I mentioned; most of them require dangling from ledges, swinging from vines, or finding rather linear, but oh-so-satisfying & quite treacherous paths around blocked obstacles or long drops. They usual entail a successive series of jumps, big leaps, and shimmies that the engine manages to never muck up with poor camera angles or lackluster collision detection. To spice things up a bit, Uncharted throws in ledges or pieces of various platforms that tend to crumble or give way under the weight of the player character (Nathan Drake), forcing the gamer to make a split-second decision to either jump to the next available ledge or, consequently, fall to their death.

These sequences not only get the adrenaline pumping but are, in fact, the most intriguing part of the game. One of these early types of sequences sees the player being put in complete control of Nate as he dashes his way across an elongated series of collapsing wooden planks to an uncomfortably distant exit. Naughty Dog has handled these impressively cinematic scenarios with so much panache that, instead of becoming maddeningly difficult, they are an absolute blast to play through. Each permeates feelings of satisfaction rather than frustration, and I began looking forward to going through these sequences more than anything else the game tossed my way.

Coupled with the fantastic cover-based game play, Uncharted is so much more than the Tomb Raider or Gears of War rip-off it first appears to be. The cover system works the same as Gears, though there are more cover opportunities, as well as more things to do within cover. Nate can turn corners while "dug in" and, like Gears, jump from one piece of cover to the next if they are adjacent. As a slight downside, weapon variants are a bit scarce. It gets old real quick having to dispose of enemies with the same types of weaponry.

Perhaps that is needless nitpicking, because the core combat throughout Uncharted remains satisfying. Enemies get thrown back by grenades, sail through the air when hit by shotgun fire, and will fall from high-reaching cliffs when defeated. Hand-to-hand combat is also something that has been incorporated. Combos are started by pressing Square next to an enemy and can be followed up by combinations of the Square and Triangle buttons for brutal hand-to-hand attacks. Not particularly the most refined aspect of the game, however, is the rather unintelligent enemy AI. Their cover patterns seem to be scripted and there were many times I caught them charging right at my incoming fire. Sufficient enough, yes, but the lackluster AI is clearly not up to task with the pristine craftsmanship often encompassing it.

Running on PlayStation 3 hardware has also given Uncharted an advantage in terms of meatier content and some of the most stunning graphics I have ever seen. Cut-scenes, however entertaining they may be, do tend to drone on a bit too long, but in hindsight you can thank the PS3's Blu-ray technology for allowing that kind of lengthy content to make it into a game with visuals this stunning. The aforementioned cut-scenes look absolutely gorgeous and feature some of the most fluid character movements I have ever seen in a console game. In-game visuals are of the same quality with plenty of subtle details; like Nathan's clothes appearing drenched and dripping wet after exiting any large body of water. The physics are also of note, as Nate and the various NPC movements have been mapped perfectly. A simple in-game task such as running down a flight of stairs looks incredible thanks to the propietary engine/physics the fine folks at Naughty Dog cooked up. Shading is top-notch, lighting is a feast for the eyes, and water texture is a real visual treat.

A game as good, as technically superior, and as downright fun as this is very rare these days. With that said, I have no choice but to award it a very deserving five stars; a 10 out of 10. If it isn't the beautiful graphics, it's the over-the-top, cinematic game play and Hollywood quality voice acting. If it isn't that, it's got to be the fact that Naughty Dog has developed a game that tries it's hand at being a third-person shooter, a puzzle-solver, and a platformer, and nails all three flawlessly. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune truly is one of the great PS3 exclusives that is an absolute must-buy.

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Posted : 11 years, 4 months ago on 31 January 2009 10:54 (A review of Turok)

I'll start this review with a summary of sorts. When I first purchased my Xbox 360 a year ago, the second game I bought for myself was "Turok." If anyone reading this is familiar with this game, they are probably chuckling to themselves as they read. You see, I was a PC gamer for a good number of years and had become well-adjusted to the mouse-and-keyboard combination as opposed to the more simplistic 360 controller.

With that said, allow me to freely state that "Turok" has one of the most unwieldy aiming mechanics I have ever witnessed in a console shooter. There is absolutely no aim-assist and the thumbstick sensitivity is ferocious. Keep in mind that the most time I had spent with a 360 game before purchasing my own system was on a friend's machine for a mere 15 minutes playing the "Stranglehold" demo. Oh, and did I mention "Turok's" maddening difficulty and its uncanny ability to actually grab console newbies, shove them into its virtual mouth, roll them around in its rock-hard teeth, and spit them right back out? No kidding.

As far as the game itself is concerned, you may remember a series of similar-sounding titles dating way back to the late '90s. Acclaim once owned the rights to the franchise - themselves based on a series of comic books - and released a slew of games for the Nintendo 64 (among other systems) with the first two being the most favored amongst critics. Later sequels failed to impress and, after Acclaim folded, Disney Interactive eventually acquired the rights to the franchise and left this reboot in the hands of first-time developers Propaganda Games.

"Turok" reeks of "rookie developers’ syndrome” in many respects and not only with its infuriating right thumbstick sensitivity and total lack of aim-assist. Incredible difficulty spikes aside, "Turok" can't decide what it wants to do or be. As an example, the developers caution in the Tips portion of the loading screen to "run away" from dinos as Turok is meat and dinos eat meat, naturally. But if the opportunity should arise to run, these carnivorous lizards always manage to catch up with you and knock you off your feet immediately. Fighting is a must at all times despite Propaganda's advice to do otherwise.

Further game play innovations do prove fruitful. Using the ORO Shotgun's flare launcher and luring in dinosaurs to human opposition is always a blast; it successfully evens out the playing field, in fact. But when it comes time for the poorly programmed stealth portions of the game - which are presented to you as an option instead of a necessity - they never seem to pan out as I believe they were intended. Instead of being able to silently eliminate most of the human enemy presence, you'll be lucky to bring down three of them before you are spotted... each and every time.

Knifing dinos OR humans is an undeniable high point of the game and it would have been nicer if the aforementioned stealth segments were better implemented. The gun battles are satisfying thanks to incredible sound design and heavy controller vibration when firing any of the game's guns. "Twitch" gamers will certainly dislike the way in which they will have to play "Turok," though; running and gunning is not recommended. Distance fighting and cover is a must in order to keep yourself alive. Most of the game's really intense moments come from the epic boss battles (Mother Superior is a definite highlight), as do most of its aggravating ones (Sea Beast... that's all I'll say).

Graphically, "Turok" was a looker a year ago and it still holds up well today considering the stiff competition. It is notable that the cut-scenes, which are powered by UnrealEngine3, tend to look better than the in-game visuals that are powered by the very same engine. Character models look great - specifically the various dinosaurs that inhabit the planet Turok and his accompanying squad have crash-landed on - and the jungle environments are lush and finely detailed. Some of the texture work looks rather rustic, however, character movements seem canned at best, and dimly lit areas are flat-out unsightly. But walking through dense jungles and watching the brush sway beneath your torso is a sight second-to-none.

Again, the cinematics are flawless despite some of my small discrepancies with the movement of character models. Cut-scenes are wonderfully ambient, that due in no small part to an excellent voice cast that includes the likes of Ron Perlman, Powers Boothe, Timothy Olyphant, Donnie Wahlberg, and William Fichtner. Despite excellent voice-acting and vivid cut-scenes, it's ironic that "Turok's" story is ultimately forgettable. The 6-8 hours you'll spend with the game will actually be time spent playing it instead of watching it. That does, however, hurt the overall experience as I believe too much time is spent repeteadly shooting soldiers and knifing dinos as opposed to developing an involving plot & characters, as well as drawing distinct lines between good guys and bad guys; a must for any first-person shooter calling itself an "epic."

May I recommend right now that if you are a gamer who typically prefers first-person shooters and has just bought a 360, skip over this game until you better learn the controls and have played a good number of other, perhaps easier, FPS's available for the system. This little disclaimer may seem a bit out of place, but "Turok" was one of the few games that I literally gave up on for weeks at a time because of its all-too-unforgiving difficulty. Not only is simply aiming your gun problematic, but the disorientation that comes from being knocked around by raptors or blown back from a grenade a flaw that is not only irritating, but also one that can warrant some serious frustration.

Not to worry though, because as hard as "Turok" can be it still comes recommended by me. With excellent combat, a memorable hero, two fantastic final boss fights, and intense melee combat (i.e. the knife) that never wears thin, it's easy to shake off the game's rather glaring shortcomings and just go along for the ride. Despite the negative press and a handful of bizarrely difficult scenarios, "Turok" is one of the more unique first-person shooters you will find available for the 360. Just make sure you are up to the task.

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Posted : 11 years, 4 months ago on 17 January 2009 11:12 (A review of My Bloody Valentine)

Having just recently seen and appreciated even more the original "My Bloody Valentine," I tried to go into this remake/reimagining with zero expectations and an open mind. I'm pretty hip to how remakes are done these days; that is, reference the original film, and if the director is remaking a slasher, keep the iconic villain in tow but alter him slightly. The remakes of today seem to owe nothing to the past, where faithful updatings like "Night of the Living Dead (1990)" changed so little, it was hard for them to miss.

More like reboots than remakes, and more modernized than the films they cull inspiration from, it's only right that they pull in the youngsters (despite this film's deserved hard R-rating) and rake in the cash. But when all of the dust settles and all of the unoriginal re-toolings have ceased, which ones will stand out? Which ones will be upheld for the next handful of generations to enjoy and recognize as true examples of their genre?

In blunt honesty, "My Bloody Valentine 3-D" won't be one them. Without the admittedly excellent 3-D effect, this would be just another by-the-numbers slasher film that thinks it’s such an original throwback to the glory days of the subgenre when, in fact, it often approaches hilarity and is carried by an aura of sheer stupidity because of it. "The Miner" character is one of the great things about the movie, though, and also one of the only reasons to see it aside from the aforementioned 3-D hook. I cared little about the characters (a great plus from the original was that the characters were very likeable) and their melodramatic sob stories. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to laugh at the dialogue or say, "Hey, this is really reminiscent of those '80s slashers we all grew up on." Some of the events that transpired went beyond the ridiculous and bordered on the inane. Perhaps it was all in good fun and purposely campy, but it drew me out of the picture as a result.

The film's problem of not knowing when to play it serious and when to laugh at itself was a huge mistake on director Patrick Lussier's part, as well as the fact that screenwriter Todd Farmer's dialogue and the cast's resulting performances were embarrassingly hit-or-miss. The altering of the plot from the original film was a big misstep also. Who cares about Tom Hanniger (Jensen Ackles) selling his fathers' mine? Who cares that Axel Palmer (Kerr Smith) is cheating on his wife? None of these events are fleshed out enough for us to care whatsoever. The film is just one big setup for the next 3-D gag and the next satisfying gory set piece (of which there are plenty).

There has also been talk over the picture's ending(s). I found it very anti-climactic, because by process of elimination, the simplistic "whodunit" is easy enough to figure out. The "big" reveal isn't a mind-blower and the last few minutes of the film sticks rather closely to the spirit of the original (which is a plus), but it could have been written and executed so much better.

So why am I still awarding this film a three-and-a-half after all that? It's simple. The trailers promised a "carnival ride" of sorts and that is exactly what this film delivers. Despite its amateur direction and shoddy lighting, and despite the horrid script and mediocre performances, there is enough gore here to satisfy just about anyone and the 3-D is just so mesmerizing - especially considering the fact that it is being harbored by a "throwback" slasher flick - that the film can be recommended based purely on these merits. High art this is not, but "My Bloody Valentine 3-D" comes with my seal of approval to those who aren't looking for the Holy Grail of horror and simply want great 3-D in a superbly gory package.

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Posted : 11 years, 5 months ago on 4 January 2009 02:21 (A review of Belly (Special Edition))

Certain movies just aren't destined to become critical favorites or financial successes. 1998's "Belly" - music video director Hype Williams' first feature film - is one of those pictures. It is a film that is many different things to many different people. Due to its largely African-American, rap-centric cast and soundtrack, some have labeled it an urban drama, some have called it an urban action picture, and others have just called it an "urban" film.

But there is one thing the above descriptions have in common with each other; the word "urban" can be found in all of them. Quite true that the cast is comprised of either rap or R&B musicians and that its soundtrack is culled straight from the East Coast rap scene circa 1998, but the film is so much more than a "Boyz N the Hood" or "Menace II Society" retread. Because "Belly’s" subject matter is firmly rooted in the “New Jack City”-styled guns and drugs motif of many early-90s African-American “hood” flicks, it will probably still get overlooked long after this review is written.

Truth be told, "Belly" is NOT a "hood" drama. In fact, it has more in common with Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, and Francis Ford Coppola gangster pictures than it does movies by John Singleton, The Hughes Brothers or other likeminded directors. There are many well-worn, albeit beautiful themes that lie beneath the crust of this picture. If you, the viewer, can get past the merciless profanity, drug abuse/drug selling, violence, and sex, you will discover a gangster movie rife with, first and foremost, strong themes of redemption and self-righteousness.

DMX's character, Tommy Brown, is nothing short of America's worst nightmare; a drug-selling, drug-abusing, gun-toting, foul-mouthed womanizer who doesn't care who he hurts to get ahead in life. And Nas's character, Sincere, is quite the opposite. Though far less violent and hedonistic in lifestyle, he tags along with Tommy and enjoys the gangster lifestyle at first. He soon, however, begins reading self-help books and follows the work of a man who calls himself "The Minister." The Minister preaches, in his books, of self-empowerment and self-righteousness; this is a man Sincere begins believing in more and more as, slowly but surely, the path of righteousness that he so reads about he begins to truly embrace.

Tommy, however, is involved in everything from recruiting high school students to run drugs with him in Atlanta, Georgia & gunning down various crime lords out in Jamaica with big cheese Lennox (Louie Rankin), to receiving felatio from a 16 year-old female back in Queens, New York (in a scene that sees him talking on a cell phone to his girlfriend as this is happening).

The film beautifully depicts two separate sides to one ugly story, as well as the consequences a life of violence has on the person inflicting it, as well as the lives closely surrounding him. Tommy's actions have a domino effect on his girlfriend (who he is cheating on, as you have probably guessed), a friend of his named Knowledge who recruits a local hood named Shameek (Method Man) to take care of competition in Omaha, Nebraska, and later on, someone very close to Tommy. Things start off "great" for Tommy and Sincere as we see that they do not live in the ghetto but, in fact, nice suburban homes and have what appears to be a nice collection of money for both of them. As the film wears on, Sincere starts to question life's purpose, as well as his own, and Tommy denounces it; saying we are only here to “get money” and live wealthy. Despite everything he has, Tommy can't get enough.

Hype's direction is pitch-perfect. "Belly" features a unique visual style that is strangely reminiscent of a music video (the entire film is shot and photographed like one), but it is strangely appealing nonetheless. The soundtrack is hypnotic and the ending is powerful and resonant. If there are any weaknesses at all, they can be summed up in one word; casting. With the director's potential and the fantastic ideas presented, A-list actors would have made this a top-notch gangster picture with an ending just as resonant, if not more so. As it is, it is incredibly thought-provoking. It’s also great to see rappers being treated with more respect in a film that, despite the subject matter, plays to their strengths.

By no means is “Belly” perfect. A rumored first cut that was 3 hours in length is said to have fleshed out the story much more (admittedly, it is muddled) and the plot jumps all over the place, probably from slash-happy editing. But “Belly” is so well-directed, shot, poignant in message, and starkly violent, that I applaud Hype’s talent and tenacity. We need more films like this.

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Posted : 11 years, 5 months ago on 29 December 2008 05:03 (A review of Death Race (Unrated Edition))

I'll admit that I let "Death Race" slip by me pretty easily during its theatrical run. Sort of wanting to see it, yes, but also becoming disillusioned with the current crop of Jason Statham action flicks, it wasn't on purpose that I avoided it but it happened just the same.

Along comes Christmas and I receive "Death Race" as a gift. Perhaps it was meant as an apology to Statham and much-maligned director Paul W.S. Anderson ("Mortal Kombat," "Resident Evil," "Event Horizon," and "Alien vs Predator") that it was the first movie I watched that day out of the many I had gotten from various family members. Somewhat eagerly I popped open the DVD tray, gently placed in the disc, and closed the player's door. I plopped myself down on my 7 foot long couch and was expecting just about anything at this point.

But maybe it was my total lack of expectations that got me to this point. I had done little to no research on the film - something I make a regular practice of - prior to viewing it and all I really knew about the picture was that it was a loose remake of the '70s Stallone vehicle "Death Race 2000." Forgoing the subtext and political incorrectness of that title, Anderson's "Death Race" is much more cut-and-dried, but just nearly as violent. The film takes place inside of a maximum security prison where the inmates have the right to earn back their freedom by participating in the online phenomenon known as Death Race; a show where the prisoners use heavily-armored cars to both race and fight one another to the death. The first prisoner to win five races regains their freedom.

Statham plays Jensen Ames, a man who is very obviously framed for the murder of his wife by the higher ups of Terminal Penitentiary, so that the corrupt warden (Joan Allen) can place him in the Death Race as the recently deceased, but legendary driver Frankenstein (called so because he had been "so horribly disfigured by crashes” that he must wear a mask). She offers him the chance at freedom if he, as Frankenstein, wins one more race. Things do, however, become complicated but I will not spoil that here.

Going into "Death Race" and hoping for a little substance is like renting an "Evil Dead" film and hoping that this time they hold the ketchup. "Death Race" is all about big guns, souped up cars, hot women, sustained action sequences, and bloody combat. While the unrated cut runs nearly two hours in length (and is the only version of the film I have seen even though both the theatrical and unrated edits are included on the DVD) much of that time is spent on the track with the tires squealing and the bullets flying. An HDTV and 5.1 surround is HIGHLY recommended for this film to get the most out of the experience. Anderson has paced the film incredibly well, even in its lengthier unrated cut, that he literally gives the viewer no time to breathe.

The action sequences are handled with aplomb and it was great to see Anderson come back from the rather tame "AVP" and deliver something as foul and hardcore as "Death Race." Fistfights feel rough and brutal, God knows how many 50 cal. rounds are spent during racing segments, and various people are either impaled, blown up, run over, machine gunned or stabbed. I don't think the added material found in the unrated print would award the film an NC-17 rating, but "Death Race" is a profane actioner that has a distinctly gritty look to it and doesn't care to shed a little (or a lot) of blood.

You could find fault in the simple fact that none of the cast do much more than shout expletives or give the camera a brooding look now and again. Statham has built his career on it, and others in the cast such as Tyrese Gibson (Machine Gun Joe) and the funny-as-hell Jacob Vargas (Gunner) - who has built his career on being the comic relief - do nothing more than look as menacing as menacing can be when the camera is on them. In fact, this can be attributed to the entire cast. Anderson was going for bleak, I suppose, and he nailed it in atmosphere and cinematography, but the acting is the flick's most - if only - forgettable aspect.

But we didn't check ourselves in to this ride for noteworthy performances; we came for the action, and there's more than enough of that to go around. Complaints from film purists’ aside, "Death Race" is a fantastic popcorn flick that delivers on its promise of nonstop action. Poor acting and flimsy script aside, those interested in an edge-of-your-seat action picture will definitely want to check this one out.

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Posted : 11 years, 5 months ago on 21 December 2008 05:16 (A review of Semi-Pro [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC])

I can't say I've ever seen a Will Ferrell film that has left me feeling disappointed. Although the understated "Stranger than Fiction" is certainly his most awkward, the man has a solid track record and definitely knows how to find work that plays to his strengths as a comedic actor.

"Semi-Pro" is no different. One big difference, though, is that it was and is still fairly criticized for being "not funny." Truth be told, Ferrell relies less on his patented man-child shtick throughout "Semi-Pro" and gives a performance that is much more grounded making the flick, in this man's opinion, generally more enjoyable and less audience-specific than films like "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" and "Step Brothers" clearly are. But as a result of Ferrell's rather grounded performance, he's also less funny when solo.

His supporting cast is "Semi-Pro's" saving grace. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Ferrell gives everyone ample screen time. In many of the movie's best comedic scenes, Mr. Ferrell starts the gags and his co-stars end them with a winning punch line. I appreciate the approach this film took; as if Ferrell said "I may be the star of the show, but I don't necessarily need to hog the screen AND the jokes." There are a number of comedians and comedic performers in the cast (stand-up comic DeRay Davis, funnyman Jay Phillips, Andy Richter, ex "Arrested Development" cast member Will Arnett, Andrew Daly and one of Ferrell's regular collaborators, David Koechner, just to name a few) and many - if not all of them - are funnier than Ferrell himself.

The cast is more than solid and, if anything, it is the banter between co-stars (Will Arnett and Andrew Daly as courtside announcers Lou Redwood and Dick Pepperfield, respectively, had me howling) and the interaction that many of them have with Ferrell that makes the film so funny. The loose ABA/NBA satire “Semi-Pro” attempts to be doesn't hold weight, but if the picture would have forgone the unremarkable satire and had just been a more basic sports comedy - set in the '70s just the same - and still starred Farrell and cast it would have done just fine.

As a '70s era sports-comedy this works just fine also. The various era-specific references - like a cameo by a specific songstress that shall go unmentioned and a Michael Jackson reference that should be whole-heartedly applauded for its tenacity and pseudo-foresight ("Mark my words, Lou, there is something seriously wrong with that little boy") - are fun and noteworthy, while movie-long jokes like the Jackie Moon character's only hit single, "Love Me Sexy," is an overtly explicit yet hilarious slice of the '70s music scene. The era is, however, handled with the utmost respect and, more importantly, flair that never wears thin. It's amazing that a Will Ferrell film seems to hold more historical weight than many contemporary dramas in conveying the attitude and atmosphere of its respective time period.

The 2-disc release of this film features both the theatrical cut and the unrated cut on one disc, as well as a healthy selection of special features on the second. The difference between the two versions is nothing major; about seven minutes worth. The unrated print features more jokes, different camera angles, more dialogue, a new subplot involving Ferrell's character, Jackie Moon's, previously unmentioned wife, and a couple of raunchier jokes. Many of the changes are nearly unnoticeable and the additional material would still earn the film an R rating.

The special features, which consist mostly of behind-the-scenes documentaries, interviews, deleted/alternate scenes, and some promotional material, are fairly interesting. Some are rather informative and others not meant to be taken the least bit literal. The deleted scenes section is worth a look as it features a fantastic "Improv" section and a hilarious alternate opening and ending, though the opening and closing segments used in the theatrical and unrated cuts are much, much better.

"Semi-Pro" isn't the stinker critics have made it out to be. Although Ferrell is much more understated this time around and seems to be playing the background even though he's really the star of the show, putting the ball in the supporting players’ court (no pun intended) was a refreshing movie; they get the quotables and they get to deliver the memorable punch lines. Those looking for an altogether better movie with the unrated cut, however, won't find it. The 2-disc set is a great package overall and, for the more initiative-driven, having both versions of the movie on one disc is certainly worth the $25 price tag alone.

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Posted : 11 years, 5 months ago on 15 December 2008 04:23 (A review of Thr33 Ringz)

T-Pain is not an "everyone" artist; he is either an acquired taste or a "I hate that fucking guy so much I would crucify him the second I saw him" type of entertainer. Thankfully (or not so thankfully, depending on your point of view), I've liked the guy since "I'm Sprung" became a smash hit during the summer of 2005 and my fandom has continued to grow as he has released more singles and more (and more, and more) collaborations.

His second album, "Epiphany," was a spectacular record that captured the essence of mainstream music; inimitable grooves, limitless melodies, incredible production, and a wonderful palette of songs that swabbed every inch of the commercial hip hop market equally. By no means is it an artistic success, but T-Pain was obviously having a good time with his success by this time and he was bringing us along for the ride.

It was with great anticipation and a rapid pulse that I slammed "Thr33 Ringz" into the player upon purchase and immediately began listening. Forgoing the circus theme (which is really just a half-assed attempt at artistic "creativity"); this is a typical T-Pain album, minus the sleepy "Rappa Ternt Sanga" of 2005. Nearly every track is upbeat and there are numerous club bangers. "... Sanga" seems to be a bit of a misfit as it featured a slightly younger Faheem Najm crooning softly and tenderly - auto-tune intact, however - over melancholy production that created something... sultry. "Thr33 Ringz," however, is equal parts chaotic as it is rambunctious and infectious.

"Ringleader Man" is typical Pain, replete with catchy hook and melody, while songs like the clubbish “Freeze” with Chris Brown and the experimental “Blowing Up” with Ciara will either get you moving your ass or nodding your head. "Therapy" maintains a tempo that guarantees it’s ridiculous - if not totally ingenious - chorus will stay on your brain much longer than it should. "Chopped 'n' Skrewed" and "Can't Believe It" are the current singles and as singles, they don't compare to Pain's two previous chart-toppers which are "Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin')" and "Bartender," respectively, but they are incredible nonetheless.

A bigger problem here is all the guests. Nearly every track features an artist not named T-Pain, and with a short rapped intro (we plunked down our cash for some auto-tune, sorta-kinda R&B action, not RAPPING, Pain!!) and two needless skits, that dwindles the total song count down to 14, not counting useless filler that you'll skip over anyway. Of those 14 songs, 11 contain outside help. That is simply unacceptable when an album is billed as a “solo” recording. “Epiphany” had half as many guests and, wouldn’t you know it, it was twice as good.

That's the entire album in a nutshell; T-Pain is T-Pain, but this is nowhere near as infectious, as well-constructed, or more importantly, as consistent as "Epiphany." Album filler is scattered throughout and pops up at the worst moments. "It Ain't Me" is placed right after the aforementioned "Can't Believe It" and is followed by a useless skit. "Reality Show" follows the can't-get-it-out-of-my-head catchiness of "Therapy," that is followed up by the beautifully introspective "Keep Going," and that is triple-teamed by the ultimately forgettable trio of "Superstar Lady," "Change," and "Digital.”

If not for some terribly misplaced filler (more so if you got stuck with the Deluxe Edition), the rampant guests, and the simple fact that this just ain’t as good as Pain’s previous effort, “Thr33 Ringz” is an exceptional record from Anatares Auto-Tune’s number one customer. It’ll make a great stocking stuffer for T-Pain fans this holiday season, but the LP is still a touch disappointing.

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