My rating: 3 of 5 stars
While not as engrossing as the first book (since Across the Nightingale Floor has the origin story), Brilliance of the Moon is much more entertaining than the 2nd book, Grass For His Pillow, and works to assuage some of the frustration built up in the narrative of the second book. Originally, Tales of the Otori was a trilogy and this was the final book (which is no longer the case), if it were still the final book I would be disappointed by it, since my only real criticism towards Brilliance of The Moon is its' rushed pace. It feels like important events are glossed over and poignant moments are only given a quick mention before moving on. Fortunately, there are still two more books to read.
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Much in the way that the Harry Potter video game I recently reviewed failed, Wolverine succeeds. The visuals of Wolverine-the film are consistent with Wolverine-the game, while the game's length is padded to expand it beyond the film's 2-hour running time, by using the ample and brilliant material found in the X-Men and Wolverine comics. The end result is that Raven software has created a real labor of love that will appeal to any fan of 'The Wolverine'.
Since we fans were first introduced to this unruly anti-hero with his metal skeleton and razor sharp adamantium claws, we couldn't help but imagine what would happen if Wolverine were finally let off of the leash of the Comics Code Authority or his youth friendly PG-13 rating and let to run wild in all his feral glory.
Structurally, the comparison to the God of War games is also apt. As Wolverine, you will navigate through each level, mashing on a couple attack buttons to fight off your foes, grabbing them to throw them, execute them or use the environment to do the dirty work for you and just generally flip out and kill everything that moves. One, incredibly fun mechanic introduced for Wolverine is his lunge move. The lunge allows Wolverine to lock on to an enemy from across the plane and then leap through the air and spear him with his claws. Not only is this a useful and awesomely satisfying attack, but it's also used as a navigational necessity. The lunge is sometimes the only way to cross a chasm or jump on to a vehicle. It sounds contrived, but the game pulls the occurrences off in such away that it doesn't feel too artificial and besides, the lunge move is just so much fun to pull off that you really won't mind it.
The visuals are quite decent in Wolverine. The game uses the Unreal engine at its core and runs at a decent framerate, although it is prone to slow down when a number of enemies and effects are all happening on screen at once. One of the most stunning elements of the game's graphics is the depiction of Wolverine. As Wolverine begins to take damage, you can actually see his body being chipped away by gunfire, explosions and other enemy weaponry. When Wolverine is at the brink of death it's usually possible to see his exposed ribs poking out of his chest cavity and most of his face missing. After a few seconds his mutant healing factor will kick in and you can watch as all of his wounds close up and heal. It's pretty amazing the first time you see it and novelty never quite wears off.
The story of the game is heavily adapted from that of the film, but also filled in with elements from the comic books, for example The Sentinel program that produces giant mutant-terminating robots makes an appearance. And the structure of the story-telling is also done in an interesting mash-up of flashbacks. Which help vary the locales you'll find yourself in as you jump from one moment in Wolverine's past to another. At first it feels like the story is randomly hopping around, but as the plot is fleshed out, the cleverness of the storytelling becomes apparent. Most of the cast from the film also make appearances in the game, and as a result, the voice acting is decent. No one sounds tremendously like they were phoning it in, but to say it is top-notch would be an over-statement.
In the end, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is much like God of War, but despite their extreme structural and mechanical similarities, Wolverine's presence as The Original Bad-ass (I'd back Wolverine in a fight with Kratos anyway), makes the game feel distinctly different, albeit related. You probably just won't mind the similarities. In fact, it's the perfect litmus test to gauge whether or not you will enjoy the game. Did you enjoy playing any of the God of War games? Do you like Wolverine? If you answered yes, then X-Men Origins Wolverine is definitely for you!
We have been waiting forever for this tune to drop and now it is finally available to the masses!
California doesn't really do anything that you haven't heard before. It follows the Drum 'n' Bass formula popularized by the likes of Cynatific, Logistics and of course, the song's remixer Danny Byrd. The stuttered voices are reminiscent of Neon Skyline by Cyantific, and chopped with equal skill, while the melody, song structure and samples used come together so perfectly to create a song that just makes you feel good. There's really no other way to describe it. This is one of those rare, mood-altering songs in the company of Call Me Back by Logistics or The Sun by Phetsta & ShockOne that can make you drop what you're doing and bop your head along to the beat in aural bliss.
So, while California may not do anything that you haven't heard before, it doesn't matter, because what California does do, while formulaic, is a perfection of that formula. It is a nearly-perfect gem.
For the love of good music, go buy it now.
To help put things in perspective, The New York Times has put together an interactive highlight reel of the entire year: 1969. Check it out.
Instead, the game suffers from a self-inflicted catch-22. If you have seen the films or read the books, you are bound to be disappointed by the poor adaptation of the story elements in this very short (10 hours or less) game. On the otherhand, if you have never read the book or seen any of the films, you will be completely lost by the plot, characters and even basic elements like the "rules" of the Harry Potter universe and what the hell things like Quidditch are.
To be fair, the longer a game lasts, the longer it takes to make and this game was pushed out the door to meet a simultaneous release date with the film. While it seems like a no-brainer for the game to elaborate on the film by drawing additional material from the book, it would have taken more time for the developers and time is money.
There is nothing wrong with the gameplay of Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince. The game actually offers more variety in gameplay than most games of it’s kind. You will spend most of your time making potions in gameplay sequences that have been likened to Nintendo’s Cooking Mama, playing Quidditch, which basically amounts to a Star Fox-ian, on-rails, flight sequence, dueling with other wizards which bares similarities to a simplified fighting game combined with a 3rd person shooter and finally, roaming around Hogwarts castle, exploring and searching for treasure.
Issues with the gameplay generally go hand in hand with foreknowledge of the source material. For instance, when the game began, I knew that one of the first sequences of the book (and the film) consists of Harry Potter and his crew following the evil Draco Malfoy to see what he is up to. So, naturally, I expected the first level would be some kind of stealth level, following an oblivious Draco and spying on his dealings. However, as the game began, those scenes were glossed over quickly by a poor cinematic. The game has to fight the expectation of the gamer and so while the existing gameplay is decent enough, a player familiar with the book or novel will spend more time thinking about what wasn’t included in the game rather than what was. While someone who is not familiar with the film or novel will likely never bother to play the game.
The graphics in Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince consist of poor cinematics voiced by imitation voice actors that don't do justice to their film counter-parts, stilted pacing, and a magnificent digital interactive reproduction of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft & Wizardry.
If there is one draw to this game it is walking around the grounds of Hogwarts. You can see exactly where the time of the developers was most spent, as the Hogwarts of the game looks exactly like the films and all of it manages to fit structurally in a believable way. It's really quite impressive.
What's puzzling is that The Half-Blood Prince is a sequel to The Order of the Phoenix and the large scale Hogwarts was originally built for that game. In fact, other reviewers have said if you have already played The Order of The Phoenix, you really need not bother with The Half-Blood Prince as there is really no new majesty to wandering around Hogwarts that wasn't already experienced. So that begs the questions of what did the developers spend all their time working on?
Aside from Hogwarts, the rest of the game's graphics are inconsistent. The character models look very good, but don't hold up to up-close scrutiny, Snape and Hermoine are absolutely frightful. Ginny has plastic hair and Ron's head is too small for his body.
Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince is not a very challenging game, which is probably to it's benefit. The game has a number of easy Trophies or Achievement Points for PS3 or Xbox360 players. Some of the later Trophies/Points can be a bit hard to acquire, but are generally attainable. You can see Hogwarts, get some Trophies or Achievement Points and be done in a weekend. Perfect for a rental or bargain bin shopping.
It is impossible to talk about Tomb Raider: Underworld without mentioning the game's predecessor, Tomb Raider: Legend, and to a lesser degree, Tomb Raider Anniversary.
These three games now as a trilogy, with Legend and Underworld being completely interwoven and Anniversary serving as back story. These 3 games are also the new Tomb Raider games developed by Crystal Dynamics, and serve as kind of a re-focusing for the franchise.
Underworld picks up precisely where Legend left off. Lara is continuing her quest, following in her father's footsteps to find her missing mother. There is a short synopsis that sums up the events of Legend in one of the menus of Underworld, but short is almost an understatement.
The story isn't the only thing that will be familiar to those who have already played through Legend. The gameplay of Underworld is largely unchanged, but boasts a number of improvements. This time around, Crystal Dynamics sought to give players as much freedom as possible, which means more climbing abilities for Lara, and the removal of seemingly needless limitations such as the inability to jump diagonally.
The combat has also seen changes, but they feel largely unnecessary. Lara can now activate 'bullet-time' by filling an adrenaline meter, rather than when executing special moves as was the excuse in the previous games. Most of your favorite weapons make a return, such as the shotgun, assault rifle and dual submachine guns. Later in the game Lara even gets to wield Thor's hammer. As for gadgets, it's the same as before, a rope gun, a bottomless backpack, an invaluable personal light source (flashlight), and a camcorder that really just serves as binoculars. There were a few moments where Lara has to use her rope gun in slightly unorthodox ways in order to progress, but throughout most of the game, and with exception of the flashlight, you really won't be using Lara's gadgets much at all.
The visuals in Underworld are the most impressive yet for a Tomb Raider game. Obviously, that's not saying much considering that at the time of writing this, this is the only Tomb Raider game available on current generation consoles. Compared to Tomb Raider: Legend and Tomb Raider: Anniversary the game looks astonishing. Compared to other current generation titles, like Uncharted: Drake's Fortune or Assassin's Creed, Underworld holds up, but doesn't stand out. Where Underworld really shines is in its lighting. The light design is extremely well done. Lara and the creatures that are after her all cast real-time shadows. What's more, several level sections are completely pitch black, with nothing but Lara's flashlight or the headlight from her motorcycle to light the way.
One major problem with the graphics was that the game suffers from a jittery kind of glitchy-ness that generally attacks during in-engine cut scenes. It's nothing major, but definitely distracting when it occurs during the moments you're supposed to be paying attention to the story. Another perennial problem with Tomb Raider games is the camera, and this game is no exception. The camera generally does a good job of adjusting depending on where Lara is in the level. It seems like the designers designated good angles for the camera to take based on where Lara is in a particular environment, however once the user tweaks the camera with the right analog stick, all bets are off, and if Lara is backed into a corner or tight space the camera has a tendency to go haywire. This can be especially frustrating during combat. Once nice touch with the camera, though is the Gears of War-style shakey cam that follows Lara when you make Lara sprint.
Stylistically, the graphics are realistic, but Lara and the cast of Underworld all maintain the slightly exaggerated almost cartoon-like character designs from the previous two Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider games.
The sound in Tomb Raider is decent, the music shines more so than the previous two games. Some of Lara's grunts, and screams are recycled from previous games. Sound effects generally sound good, from footfalls to gunshots, sounds will echo depending on the environment you're in. Enemies can generally be heard before they are seen and the voice acting is decent, if not a little hammy in spots.
Underworld is not a challenging game. The game clocks in between 6 and 10 hours long. It's short, and honestly, I wouldn't have wanted it to be much longer. The game takes you to a good variety of locales (although it would have been nice to visit a city akin to the Tokyo level in Tomb Raider: Legend) a few more levels wouldn't have hurt, but may not have necessarily helped either. The game's length is relative to being able to solve the puzzles that Lara encounters along the way. None of the puzzles are diabolical in any serious way. I got stuck a few times and had to look for help, but everytime, my problem was that I had overlooked something painfully obvious or didn't realize that I could interact with an object in a certain way necessary to progress. The game does have multiple difficulty levels, but those only seem to affect the combat in the game, making enemies more plentiful and harder to kill. As far as I can tell, the difficulty level has no impact on the puzzles. You can breeze through Underworld in a handful of sittings. Underworld is shorter than Legend and Anniversary, but it's an extension/continuation of Legend.
The bottom line, is if you're a fan of Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider series, or if you played through Tomb Raider: Legend, you need to play this game. Tomb Raider is the best looking game of the series and the basic elements that you enjoyed in previous games have all returned (in addition to some of its pitfalls). The story picks up right where Legend left off, so in some respects, Underworld kind of feels like half a game. On the other hand, if the game were longer or more drawn out it would risk becoming repetitive or dull. Underworld is a quick 6-8 hour experience that probably disappointed people who paid full price for the game, but now, as a rental or picked up at budget price will not induce buyer's remorse.
At first I was disappointed that J.J. Abrams and Michael Giacchino didn’t use the “official” Star Trek theme, scored by Jerry Goldsmith, as the main theme to the movie. But, as I listened to it more, I came to appreciate it more for various reasons.
First, this movie is clearly meant to be a break from what has become the “traditional” Star Trek canon. It is a new start and so a new theme makes sense. The theme is also a little more primitive (not the best word) or basic (still not the best word). It’s not as orchestrated and precise as the Goldsmith theme, but gives a sense of something a little more guttural, emotional and adventurous, something that’s by the seat of your (well, Kirk’s) pants. However, it still has an epic quality akin to warping through space.
Diving a little deeper, Gene Roddenberry described his original vision of Star Trek as a wagon train in space. A push into the final frontier of space, just as we once pushed into the final frontier of the West. Roddenberry referred to Star Trek as a sort of space western (seems neither George Lucas or Joss Whedon were as original as people may think--Roddenberry was really decades ahead of them).
Anyway, if you listen you’ll hear a definite western motif interspersed between the more intense thematic elements. Also, the opening track, Star Trek, pays huge homage to Jerry Goldsmith with the electronic tonal “chimes”, a sound concept created by Goldsmith for the Star Trek: The Movie score (for the Klingons, originally), and a concept he pushed throughout his career. Goldsmith was a true innovator in composing scores and using new technology and electronics to augment the orchestra well before it was as easy as the click of a mouse. He truly helped lay the groundwork for all of today’s “modern” score composers, from Hans Zimmer to Danny Elfman and anyone else we’d call “cutting edge”.
Needless to say, Giacchino had big shoes to fill, so it's fitting that he decided to take the score in a completely different direction. Unfortunately, the previously mentioned opening track, which pays homage to Goldsmith's theme is also tied to Nero’s ship in the opening sequence and so the theme and instrumentation doesn’t last long before it's interrupted by freaky horns and your nightmares begin.
Track 5, Enterprising Young Men, is the new Star Trek theme. Be sure to listen to the last track, End Credits, all the way through--actually, start with the track right before it, To Boldly Go. It starts off a bit cheesy with the original series theme, but even that is modified a bit toward something cool, and then let go altogether to be replaced by Giacchino’s new theme. Right at the three-minute mark it becomes very sweeping and vast, a bit reminiscent of Goldsmith’s First Contact theme.
The more I listen to the score, the more little homage’s to Goldsmith and the Star Trek canon I pick up, as well as the originality of Giacchino.
Have fun listening!
My first encounter with cyberpunk came fairly early, I remember an attempted viewing of Blade Runner at my library when I was in middle school (I say attempted, because I only made it 25 minutes into the film before I gave up) and of course Akira was standard viewing for any science fiction fan in the 90's. Although at that time, I didn't realize that Akira was considered cyberpunk and more importantly, I didn't even know what cyberpunk was. Even now, it is a description-defying genre that can be simultaneously nebulous and discriminating. I generally hold an all encompassing view of cyberpunk in that anything that has near-future technology, and a conspiratorial tone can be included.
So, the seeds had been planted with Blade Runner and Akira and there were also some smaller works like Strange Days and the unfortunate Johnny Mnemonic (film), but it wasn't until 1997 that the plant began to sprout. That was the year I skipped class with a buddy and went to see the Wesley Snipes action vampire flick Blade. I went to see the movie because it was based on a comic book I was vaguely familiar with, but I came away completely flabbergasted by the atmosphere, the bullet-time-esque special effects and the paranoia inducing conspiracy that drove the whole plot.
Yes, it's a vampire movie, but it contained some undeniably strong cyberpunk aspects. One line snarled by the eponymous Blade sums up a popular cyberpunk theme quite nicely: "You'd better wake up. The world you live in is just a sugar-coated topping. There is another world beneath it--the real world. And if you want to survive it, you'd better learn to pull the trigger."
Two years later, The Matrix was unleashed on the world (recapped perfectly in this article from Wired.com), and suddenly Cyberpunk was cast into my lexicon. It helped me track down classic novels like William Gibson's Neuromancer and the rest of the The Sprawl Trilogy, as well as Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. Ironically, The Matrix opened on March 31, 1999, a fact that I had forgotten up until I read the Wired.com article, but it further gives credence to my idea of designating April as Cyberpunk Month.
This year's agenda
It seems like most years I end up going back through old works. People have been saying that Cyberpunk is dead, probably since the term was first coined. This year, however, it seems like there will be a good balance of old works and new.
- The Matrix has been re-released in a 10th Anniversary edition on Blu-Ray. I already have the Ultimate box set on BD, so I'll passing on this release, but for those of you
craziesout there that did not like the rest of The Matrix Trilogy, this might be for you.
- The Prodigy just released a new album Invaders Must Die. This group, along with The Crystal Method and Leftfield is inextricably linked in my mind to Cyberpunk, as they provided the soundtrack to my initial read through of The Sprawl Trilogy.
- On television, we have the upcoming season finale of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, as well as Joss Whedon's new show (with only slight cyberpunk overtones) Dollhouse.
- On the horizon is Alex Rivera's extraordinary looking Sleep Dealer.
- And there is also talk of a new Syndicate game.
I don't know about you folks, but up until recently my default platform for online video purchasing and downloading was iTunes. That all changed when I got my Playstation 3. The Playstation 3 is hooked up to the TV in the living room, which immediately makes it more enticing than watching videos on my computer. I've never minded watching video content on my computer screen. Heck, when I was in college, most of the movies I watched were on my 12" laptop screen. However, in the end, it's all about the couch.
I've heard a lot of salesman-talk about electronics companies "making a play for the living room", recently. You hear this kind of thing from Microsoft all the time, and Apple actually did make a play for the living room a couple years ago when they introduced the Apple TV, or TV for those of us with keyboard savvy.
I have looked at the Apple TV and thought long and hard about buying one, but in the end, the PS3, just gives you more bang for the buck. It has most of the functionality of the Apple TV (minus actually being able to play DRM'd content purchased from the iTunes Store), plus a Blu-Ray drive, potential Hulu support, and oh yeah... you can play games on it.
Needless to say I've been happy with my overall Playstation experience, but I have been fairly hesitant to buy more than movie rentals from the Playstation Store. To be fair, I generally don't buy movies or TV Shows from the iTunes Store either, preferring instead to buy DVD copies and rip them into iTunes.
When I first bought my PS3 the Playstation Store was kind of a joke. There was very little content and the servers were so slow that you couldn't even load a preview of the content you were thinking about purchasing without having to wait for the video to buffer a few times. Since that time however, the Store has been improving by leaps and bounds. Download times are faster, preview videos now buffer quickly (although I'm not sure that the connection is quite adequate enough to watch your purchase while the video downloads in the background), and the amount of content found in the Store continues to grow.
The situation improved further when PSN announced the addition of content from NBC Universal earlier this week. Being a huge fan of Battlestar Galactica, and a lot of the other content added, this really just serves to sweeten the pot and now I can't help but think that maybe it might be time to start purchasing more content from the store.
- Find people that you know and care about on Twitter. Sure you can follow news organizations and big-time bloggers that have hundreds of followers, but you're going to get waaaaay more out of Twitter if you are following people that you know and care about. Unfortunately, I am having a lot of trouble with this one. I have a few people that I sort of know, but the people I would much more into following are all in the camp of believing that Twitter is retarded and/or too hard to use.
- Find the technology that works for you. Most people think Twitter is only available via text messages, but that's not true. I don't use text messages at all when I tweet. I get my updates via a handy Twitter add-on for Firefox called, cleverly enough, TwitterFox. This little guy lives in the status bar on my browser and pops up whenever someone posts a new tweet. I also use a desktop application called Twitteriffic as well as it's iPhone counterpart when I'm on the go. Twitteriffic also makes it super easy to upload pictures via Twitpic. There are all kinds of different, free, apps and interfaces for Twitter out there, and you can find them all here. Once the technical aspect of Twitter is set up (which doesn't take much other than a username and password) posting and receiving tweets is second nature.