Big Choices
A Special Message to USgamer Backers!

[The following was something I wrote for the launch of USgamer, the new site I’m working for in addition to GamesIndustry International. We ultimately decided not to publish it there for a few reasons, not the least of which was wanting to avoid reader confusion.]

First off, a special thanks to all our backers who really came through for the USgamer team by giving to our Kickstarter! When we first launched the campaign with a specific dollar figure in mind, a month-long publicity campaign mapped out, and a detailed internal budget for the site, we had no idea anybody would give us money for it! Seriously, it hadn’t even occurred to us! But USgamer has the best fans in the world, and now that the site actually exists, it’s time for us to follow through on YOUR expectations, and that’s to do the same thing that made YOU willing to support us with YOUR money in the first place: to write about video games!

But this won’t be like any other site out there. Not a chance. Now the leash is off, no more publishers telling us what to, no more advertisers to answer to! Now we’re empowered. Now we get to do the work we’ve always wanted to do, and fulfill the vision of game journalism we’ve been pursuing our entire careers but have tragically been held back from by the corrupting influences of outside forces! And we want YOU to tell us how to do it!

That’s right! As far as we’re concerned, each and every one of YOU is one of us now. YOU supported USgamer because our history speaks for itself. We have decades of experience and have been responsible for work that shaped your notions of what games journalism should be, and we want YOU to tell us how we should do our jobs! The great thing is, we’ve already started!

When we first conceived of USgamer, we were steadfast in our vision of what a great gaming site should be. We knew what belonged in a gaming site, what was necessary to create a USgamer that featured only the best of the best, an incredible mix of thought-provoking content, streamlined and laser-focused on a level of quality that just wasn’t possible under the old models of gaming journalism. But then the response from the Kickstarter was so huge, we hit stretch goal after stretch goal, and now we’ve got all the extra bells and whistles YOU wanted, including microtransaction reviews, five weekly podcasts, retro strategy guides, and a cat meme gallery!

But now we need to take it a step further. We want YOUR input on everything! What’s newsworthy? What score should we give this game? What should our position be on on-disc DLC?

Of course, our backers from the Dedicated reward tier will get to influence this more directly as they write their editorials with guaranteed front page placement. And obviously, the user profiles of those generous contributors who made up the Archivist reward tier will carry permission to edit any piece of content on the site. But we want to go further, because we know that YOUR ideas are the only ones that matter!

In the end, this will be an unprecedented collaboration between the audience and the content creators, working together to realize OUR ARTISTIC VISION with YOUR CONSTANT INPUT. Because that’s what USgamer is. It’s not MEgamer. It’s not YOUgamer. It’s US, gamers.

(Unless you guys think YOUgamer is better, because we could go either way on this, really.)

Upside Down: A Spectacular Car Wreck

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I went to see Upside Down this afternoon. It’s the newest cinematic take on Romeo & Juliet, a film about star-crossed lovers on two planets stuck so close to each other in gravitational gridlock that they are each other’s sky. And as the film’s painfully obvious expository sequence explains, this results in “double gravity” governed by three rules, none of which are adhered to all that faithfully.

1)      Each object is bound by the gravity of its home planet

2)      Objects of opposite gravity in contact with each other will heat up after a couple hours, to the point that they eventually burst into flames

3)      Something about weight from one planet offsetting weight from the other. I’m not sure here. Didn’t seem like a rule they needed to state.

In case you’re wondering why it didn’t seem like a rule they needed to state, it’s because they didn’t really need to state any rule because they are all violated routinely and with great disdain. The introductory sequence laying out these rules seems so ham-fisted that seeing the film spend the next two hours disregarding them at its own convenience would be infuriating if it weren’t so damn interesting.

Here’s what you need to know about Upside Down: It’s beautiful. The movie’s entire premise is an excuse for stunning visuals and a few clever moments that play off the idea of some parts of the world being subject to reversed gravity. It is not designed for scrutiny, be it of the intense kind or simply the “well, hey, wait a minute, didn’t they say this was a problem?” variety.

Upside Down’s premise leads itself to a slew of logic problems, be they emotional (why are these people attracted to one another?!?) or logical (Why doesn’t food of the inverse gravity heat up and burn them up from the inside out? Why does the affluent Top Side need to mine oil from the destitute Down Below when any matter from Down Below would combust nicely when exposed to Top Side matter?  Why is Kirsten Dunst doing ANOTHER movie where she kisses a creepy guy whose personality is encapsulated by the fact that he sticks to the ceiling?

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The point is, if you go into Upside Down expecting coherency, you will be disappointed. But if you go in expecting a flimsy excuse for stunning visual after stunning visual, linked together by terribad human drama, you’ll probably dig Upside Down. It’s like the pacifist’s Michael Bay / Jerry Bruckheimer movie, with eye-catching explosions and landmark-destroying havoc replaced by a Nick Drake-esque soundtrack. Seriously, watch this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XtixqUXid9A

"What if love were stronger than gravity?"

Yeah. Yeah. It’s crap. But it’s crap with redeeming qualities. Honestly, I would give anything for the 13-year-olds of my childhood to care about this movie more than they cared about Titanic. So Rotten Tomatoes be damned; Go see Upside Down. It at least strives for something, and it is a singular movie making effort. Even if it make no f&*^$&# sense, it is absolutely worth watching. See this.

Wondering what you thought about The Guided Fate Paradox by NIS. It looks extremely similar to ZHP but I'm a little worried that the president said they didn't make a ZHP 2 because they weren't happy with the story which for me was the best part. Being God should be cool though...
Anonymous

I already preordered it. As for ZHP sequel, I’m fine with them not making one. It’s already a perfect self-contained story. Better to start fresh with a new game built around a new story with new themes.

Actual patent application text

"A cleverly-conceived new novelty item made to let "party people" freely express their sense of individuality and help crank up the festivities, the Party Goggles proudly display, in a very literal way, the figurative eyewear we all have put on at one point or another. A gut-busting sight-gag aimed at those who might find themselves in a raucous roadhouse, hectic house party or fun family get-together, the Party Goggles should find a wide and receptive market among both the swarming barflies and regular, fun-loving folks."

Boo.

Party Goggles patent app

Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation review

Rating: Disappointing
Time spent playing: 10 hours, finished the campaign
Previous series experience: Assassin’s Creed, about five hours of Assassin’s Creed II

I was excited about Liberation and picked it up over Assassin’s Creed III for two reasons.

1) With an 18th century American setting and a female former slave protagonist in Aveline, I wanted to see how the game would address the issues of equality. Would the good guys all share anachronistically enlightened attitudes on the subject? Would the developers use oblivious defenders of the era’s status quo to comment on male privilege in the gamer community? Or would they just chicken out (as they did with the religious conflict during the Crusades for the original Assassin’s Creed) and use the setting as wallpaper instead of a way to make a point?

2) The game ditches the convoluted Desmond storyline entirely in favor of a much more interesting framing device. From the game’s boot screen to its credits, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation is ostensibly a consumer entertainment product created by Abstergo, the villainous corporate arm of the franchise’s antagonistic Templar order. The unreliable narrator conceit should make the story interesting on a few levels, because the story has to work both when taken at face value and when examined as a piece of Templar propaganda.

Unfortunately, Liberation does little to capitalize on all of that potential. I suspect the events and political intrigue of the game might make for a relatively fascinating chapter of a history textbook, the game tells that story in fairly terrible fashion. It’s possible (indeed, likely) I missed something, but I found nothing to establish the underpinning of the Assassin’s Creed universe, the ongoing struggle between Assassins and Templars to shape history as it happens.

So the game drops the player in the role of Aveline, former slave, current upscale lady of New Orleans, and secret killer taking orders from the family business’ warehouse manager. Before I really had my bearings in the world—but long after the exposition-filled tutorial started to feel confining—I was beset by twists in a plot I hadn’t really grasped in the first place.

As the game goes along, it’s easiest to tune out the parade of minor adversaries and unclear allegiances and turn yourself into just the sort of mindless tool of death that would make for an ideal assassin. Indeed, the actual assassinations in the early part of the game are so separated by padding I actually found myself wishing more people would just point me at a target and tell me to kill.

So if the superficial story is more complex than the game’s ability to tell it effectively, imagine how well it fares when you throw the added complexity of the unreliable narrator on top of it. The primary way this hook comes into play is actually pretty simple. At certain points of the game, you are alerted to a “glitch” in the system. That glitch is represented by a person in the game called Citizen E, and by tracking down and killing each incarnation of Citizen E, you get to see extended versions of previous cutscenes, additional snippets that provide some added context and show the Assassins in a better light.

It comes off as clumsy as it sounds. Abstergo apparently has no QA team, as a number of the Citizen E segments are impossible to skip on a playthrough. It’s no wonder the clandestine society of puppet masters finds itself on the wrong side of history when its own propaganda contains the unmissable evidence of its own sinister machinations.

And even if these sections were left out entirely, the Abstergo-approved version of events would still paint a shockingly heroic picture of its rivals. Those who oppose Aveline are at best mercenaries and leches, at worst slavers and killers. The best part is that even in its own propaganda, Abstergo, the height of villainy in the Assassin’s Creed universe, is more tolerant of criticism and “off-message” communications than any major publisher in the game industry, Ubisoft included. (Remember when they blacklisted EGM over a 4.5 score for the original Assassin’s Creed? Good times.)

With its intriguing premise thus squandered, Liberation let me down. The setting is interesting but incidental. The action is enjoyable when you’re killing people or dancing across rooftops, but otherwise uninspired. Liberation disappointed me, but I’d bet it fulfilled the development team’s primary goal. The PS Vita debut for the series is not an abomination. It doesn’t feel like a square peg in a round hole. It doesn’t feel like a bag of compromises made to shoehorn familiar gameplay onto an under-powered portable. Instead it feels like just another Assassin’s Creed game.

The Man with the Iron Fists review

Rating: Mildly Worse Than Expected

I just came back from seeing The Man with the Iron Fists, because I love kung fu and have very little regard for my free time. Well, that’s not entirely true. Obviously, I knew from the start that this movie would be a train wreck. Somebody gave Wu-Tang Clan frontman The RZA $15 million to make the kung fu movie he’s clearly been desperate to make for decades? And he casts Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, former WWE wrestler Bautista, and himself in key roles? I had to see it, absolutely had to. I had to know what a RZA-helmed movie would look like, what kind of kung fu flick we would get from a rapper who spent the past 20 years draping his crew in references to a genre that had essentially died out a decade before he even got started?

This on-set image of an Oscar winner, a Grammy nominee, and a Fangoria Horror Hall of Fame member makes promises the film doesn't deliver on.

The answer is, “One made with boundless affection, but terribly bounded inspiration.” The Man with the Iron Fists is a quilt of kung fu tropes, stitched together from stray parts with no consideration for the whole. It reflects old kung fu films on a superficial levels, full of gimmicky weapons, leaden dialog, and simple—if not always logical—motivations. The problem is for every true-to-the-roots retro reference in the film (like freeze-framing an act of violence to flash “The End” with studio credits), there are five things reflecting modern sensibilities and production values. As spoiled in the movie’s trailer, an iron fist to the face results in a CG eyeball flying straight at the screen, an over-the-top bit of gore more suited to the movies of Hostel director Eli Roth (who produced The Man with the Iron Fists and co-wrote the screenplay with RZA).

And even when it isn’t getting hung up on pushing the envelope of martial arts violence (there are some awfully grisly moments), the movie is still anachronistically disjointed in the way it merges modern wire-fu techniques with old school trappings. The old school exploitation flicks were notoriously for their violence, sporting “Banned in 36 countries!” on the VHS box art like a badge of honor. But their violence was perpetrated with practical effects, equal parts hilarious and shocking (or in the case of The Crippled Masters, genuinely sickening for all the wrong reasons). The violence in The Man with the Iron Fists misses out on much of the humor. It instead comes off as “totally raw, dawg.”

The temporal anomalies extend beyond the movie’s violence, and well into the screenplay. Cartoonish villains with porn star moustaches laughing for no good reason before needlessly slaughtering the innocent played well in the late ’70s. But while Jet Li and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were revitalizing the genre, they left a lot of those archetypes behind. The heroes are similarly one-dimensional in a 3D world. There is no proper protagonist in the film, as the setup suggests X-Blades (son of the Lion Clan leader whose assassination sets the plot in motion) would be the hero, but halfway through, the film decides that it should care more about RZA’s character of the Blacksmith, who not only becomes the titular dude with the ferrous fists, but also gets to hog the climactic fight scene. However, the Blacksmith is mostly absent for the first half of the film, and X-Blades is a boring cypher whose big talent is having a suit with lots of spring-loaded hidden daggers.

For all the CG and wirework, there's something so much more enjoyable about a condom full of blood. Erm, I mean, when that's your practical special effect for violence. Not, you know... Shut up. You know what I meant.

The only other possible hero is Russell Crowe’s Jack Knife, who—besides having a name that prompts a painful degree of eye-rolling—spends most of the movie indulging has crass desires at the local brothel after gutting a man for wanting to sleep with a whore who seemed like she maybe would have preferred not to sleep with him. Of course, noble Mr. Knife’s whores are all entirely too eager to bed a sloppy, getting-in-Marlon-Brando-shape-to-play-Kal-El Russell Crowe, lining up two and three at a time to provide exposition by letting him violate them with whatever objects are handy.

Yes, this movie has issues with its depiction of women. Are you really that surprised?

So I went in hoping to see an interesting trainwreck, a modern homage to an entire genre of films with the same loving touch as Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez gave Grindhouse. What I got was a diehard enthusiast’s idea of the ultimate kung fu movie (starring himself), a collection of remixed clichés in dire need of some sort of cohesive vision. I expected a train wreck of interesting directorial Choices, and my expectations were only half-filled.

A video game movie triple feature

Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph opens in theaters today. It’s a movie about video games, in just about every way possible.

The film’s protagonist, Ralph, is actually the antagonist of a classic arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr., and as the movie opens, he’s in a pretty serious funk. For 30 years, he has terrorized the tenants of a virtual apartment building only to have the perennially perky Felix undo his efforts and exile him to the junkyard each and every night. Unappreciated and alone, Ralph spends his nights on the pile of discarded bricks he calls home, jealously looking upon the adoration Felix receives as the people’s savior. Fed up with his lot in life, Ralph sets out to prove he can rise above his role as the villain, jumping out of Fix-It Felix Jr. and into the arcade’s other games in search of a hero’s medal.

The movie itself is fun, with well realized characters, perfect casting, and enough gaming cameos and references to establish that the filmmakers indeed “get it,” but not so many as to get in the way of the actual story they’re trying to tell. A handful of the gags even have some insight to offer on gaming, but perhaps not as much insight as the film’s plot.

Much like gaming itself, Ralph’s primary action is destruction because it’s what comes naturally to him. He is a mammoth man with medicine ball hands, a hulking oaf incapable of handling things delicately. Violence is his vocabularly. For 30 years, it has been how he’s expressed himself. Whether Ralph is wrecking things in joy, sorrow, frustration, or anger, the point is he’s always wrecking things. The movie then, becomes about the medium’s aspiration to do something more than wrecking. And just as happens so often in gaming (like, for instance, with Heavy Rain), Ralph’s attempt to be something more, to be something else, fall comically short of their intended target.

But the attempt is still important, still meaningful. And eventually, Ralph perseveres. He realizes his strengths, and he takes that thing he does well—violence—and puts it to good use in the proper situations. Ralph achieves his original goal (in a form), but only after he stops pursuing it as an end in and of itself. The game industry could probably learn a thing or two from Ralph.

So Wreck-It Ralph is about games, but not actually based on one. On the other hand, there are a pair of other new films based entirely on games, but not actually about them at all. Silent Hill: Revelation 3D opened last week, and the Phoenix Wright-based Ace Attorney is slowly making its rounds on the festival circuit (The film will screen this Sunday in association with the Gamercamp festival in Toronto. Get tickets here!) Perhaps showing how far gaming has come in the culture at large, neither film is an embarrassment to the industry.

As one might expect, Silent Hill: Revelation 3D is a horror film released to capitalize on the annual Halloween demand for violence and gore just before the seasonal bombardment of lip service to peace on Earth and good will toward men. And the nicest thing you could say about it is that it does very little to stand out among its scary movie peers. The Silent Hill sequel runs down a checklist of genre staples: creepy kids with demonic powers, pointy things poking directly at the audience in 3D, an idyllic small town fallen into sinister disrepair, religious zealots perpetrating the most heinous of evils in God’s name, and a female protagonist who screams a lot and whose likelihood of dropping any given item increases proportionate to its usefulness in the given situation. (Honestly, who can be bothered to keep a tight grip on a flashlight in a super-spooky hellscape where the lights habitually flicker and die right behind anyone racing down a hallway?)

Silent Hill: Revelation 3D takes those clichés and spices them up with elements distinctive to the Silent Hill gaming franchise. The town is draped in a constant rain of 3D ashes, making for plenty of spooky visuals and the constant possibility that something horrible lurks just beyond the town’s draw distance. Perennially moaning, herky jerky stitch-faced stabby things are plentiful, so much so that they probably have their own ethnicity checkbox on the town’s census form. And of course, Pyramid Head.

Ace Attorney likewise brings its source material’s distinctive elements to the big screen. But in a truly novel twist, it leaves the genre staples by the wayside. Directed by auteur Takashi Miike (who is equal parts prodigious, versatile, and deranged), the Phoenix Wright movie is hands down the most literal game-to-movie adaptation yet. If you’ve played through the original DS game, you pretty much know the script already. You know the court case twists and turns, the revelations and the order in which they will come. Miike has taken the insane leap of faith in assuming that the story told as it was in the game can stand on its own in a cinematic setting. And damn it, he was right. Ace Attorney dutifully does its best to follow the look and style of the game, from exaggerated manga haircuts to near constant posing. It is arguably the best game-to-film adaptation yet, and certainly boasts the most heart-wrenchingly poignant cross-examination of a parrot ever committed to film.

What Silent Hill: Revelation 3D and Ace Attorney have in common is that they reference their source material, but not its medium. They are not about video games; they are about Silent Hill and Phoenix Wright. There are no cartoonish villains cackling “Game over!”, in the same way that movies based on books don’t start with the title card “Chapter One” or make jokes about dogears and papercuts. If the viewer doesn’t happen to know the source material, these are films that could have been adapted from comics, or books, or board games. There is no sequence filmed to look like a first-person shooter, no M. Bison waggling on an arcade joystick. They are telling stories without feeling the need to apologize for their inspirations, or point out the novelty of trying to tell a story that came from a video game. They are what they are, good or bad, and make no apologies for their origins.

There is a scene in Silent Hill: Revelation 3D (and yes, I hate that “3D” is part of the film’s actual title and apologize for inflicting it upon you repeatedly) where Sean Bean tells his teenage daughter Heather, “Your roots are showing.” He is overtly talking about her hair, and referencing her demon-spawned origins on the sly. But the triumph of Silent Hill: Revelation 3D and Ace Attorney, admittedly mild though it may be, is that their roots aren’t showing, because their roots aren’t relevant.