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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Splatoon infographic

So I woke up this morning, checked my eMail, and found this Infographic from Nintendo waiting in my inbox. It details some features of the upcoming Wii U game, Splatoon.
I wish I could say I was excited, but I don't have a Wii U, and I'm unlikely to get a game for a system I don't have.
That doesn't stop you guys from being excited, though! What do you think? Are you looking forward to Splatoon? Why?
Got any complaints about the lack of online voice-chat?
Let us know down in the comments!

Source: http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20150528005457/en/

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

So, Mockingjay. The last book in the Hunger Games series has been made into two movies.
It finally happened. Lionsgate finally figured out that there's not enough room in one film for all of the detail, character development and intensity of The Hunger Games.
Unfortunately, they haven't taken a page out of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy and decided to turn this into three movies, because apparently there wasn't enough space in two movies to tell the story of Mockingjay unabridged.
It's not as badly butchered as The Hunger Games was, but it's still had obvious bits chopped out of it. My memory of the Mockingjay novel isn't as clear as my memory of The Hunger Games was when I reviewed its movie adaptation, but I'll do my best.
My first criticism of the movie is this poster. The imagery of Katniss with the flames and silver wings behind her is cool looking, but all they did was edit Jennifer Lawrence in front of the original poster, and they didn't even bother removing the birds beak.
Fans of Agents of Shield might notice that Katniss's Mockingjay suit looks a lot like Melinda May's outfit. Also, since this poster is in high-definition, you might also be able to tell that all of Katniss's arrows are all fletched black, like her normal arrows are in the film.
When Katniss puts on this suit in the movie, she's never seen without some yellow and red arrows in addition to her regular black ones. The only time she's seen with a quiver of all black-arrows is one time when she's hunting. And that time she was hunting, she wasn't wearing this outfit.
And that brings me to another issue. Katniss only has around nine arrows in her quiver. Three regular, with three incendiary, and three explosive arrows. And that's all the weapons she's shown having in the film.
As far as the audience knows, she's only got a single quiver of arrows, without any refills, without any backup weapons, and therefore under-prepared.
Katniss's primary strength is her ability to go unseen and unheard, and survive to fight another day. And even though her main purpose as The Mockingjay is to be the poster child for the rebellion, she's still a target for The Capitol. And as such, needs the ability to defend herself in any situation.
In the novel, it was explained that she had weapons hidden all over the suit, along with light-weight armor plating around the suit, with extra reinforcements to protect her vital organs.
Something else they cut out was the fact that Cinna, the guy who designed the suit, had included a suicide pill in the collar of the suit in case Katniss was ever caught and tied up by Capitol operatives, and rescue was impossible.
And since she's a stealth operative, it doesn't make any sense why she's only got three arrows that don't blow up, or spurt fire all over the place, both of which will reveal your location. And we know that the explosive arrows are pretty powerful, since the one scene from the trailer that everyone remembers is where she shoots down a Capitol gunship with a single explosive arrow.
I know where this plot-hole originated. In the book, Katniss had a lot more arrows at her disposal, and she also had a system for recognizing what arrows she's looking for. I had originally thought that she had a voice-activated arrow-dispenser that gave her whichever of the three types she asked for, but I'm not sure where that idea came from, since upon re-reading the book, I didn't find anything that even resembled that.
They also left out Katniss's combat helmet, as well as certain suit details from the book, but that's a bit of a nitpick.
Now, let's talk effects. They've obviously got more to spend on effects than they did in the first movie, since they spend a bit of time showing it off. While the budget is slightly smaller than that of Catching Fire, they do manage to keep the effects looking good. While I think they might have been better off with a few hundred-million more in funding, they did well with what they had.
Anyways, I might as well tell you guys what's been cut.
Most of the evidence of District 13's tight-fisted totalitarian management has been removed, along with most evidence of their bigoted attitudes and manipulative schemes. I say most, because there are some bits and pieces left of 13's evil left. But as far as I can tell, most of their evil intentions and actions have been erased. We'll have to see how Mockingjay Part 2 turns out before judging to what extent Lionsgate has whitewashed the plot. And let me just say that if they keep this up, they're looking to ruin the whole point of Mockingjay's ending.
If you'll think back to the first movie, then you'll remember that Peeta's parents were all but cut from that film. And even though they're implied to be dead in this film, the fact that they were complete non-entities in the last two movies means that their deaths are utterly pointless in this movie.
The good thing is that the display of all of the dead spread out on the road in District 12 is still a sickening sight. Unfortunately it lost some of the impact it could have had if they'd developed (Or just included) a few more characters that were killed. I remember how I felt when I first read that District 12 had been leveled. I remember exactly how I felt when I found out who all was among the dead. It was hard to read.
And again, while I do really like this scene, I feel that if they'd done a little more character development in the first movie, instead of rushing to get to the titular Hunger Games, then this whole sequence would have had an even better impact.
A lot of scenes with Gale have been cut, or shortened, as they were in the last two movies. And at this point, I know I've been banging on about this in my reviews of the last two movies, but shifting from Katniss's perspective, without any voice-over from Jennifer Lawrence to fill the gaps means that a lot of the character the made the books interesting is just lost.
At least they're not doing what they did in the first movie and having the sports commentators tell you what's going on, because that seriously broke flow.
The good thing is that there aren't a whole lot of cuts away from Katniss to what other people are doing. The one that I really hated was left in the deleted scenes, fortunately.
Just to make a quick note, I don't totally dislike the idea of cutting away from Katniss's point of view. It can be very effective if used correctly. I'll get to that in a minute.
If you'll think back to last year, you'll remember Philip Seymour Hoffman died nine months before the release of this movie. Fortunately, all of his scenes in this movie were recorded before his death, and most of his scenes in Mockingjay Part 2 were finished by the time he died. Time will only tell if his death negatively affected the quality of the last film in the series.
One of the only cutaways from Katniss's perspective in the movie is to a scene with Hoffman's character, Plutarch Heavensbee talking with a pair of other characters about the propaganda shorts they recorded. And for what it's worth, that's not a bad scene. Especially since it's one of the few scenes that actually illustrates the manipulative motives of the operators of District 13.
I remember that most of the cutaway scenes from Catching Fire were to Heavensbee making deals with President Snow, which helped illustrate what District 13 was up to, and how little they really cared about their own people.
As always, I'm sure that this movie could do with an extended cut. Unfortunately there's no way they could shoot more footage after the fact with Heavensbee, since Hoffman's dead.
And unless I'm remembering incorrectly, I believe that there were a few action scenes cut or shortened.
Now, let's talk about one of my favorite scenes in the movie.
While Katniss and her camera crew are showing the Districts what The Capitol did to District 12, Gale tells them a story about the evacuation. About how after the feed from the arena was cut, they saw Capitol bombers inbound, and he rounded up as many people as he could to break down the fence, and flee to the woods.
Some of the residents of District 12 decided to go a different route, and after Gale got all of his people into the woods, the bombers let loose, blasting buildings to rubble. And then they doubled back, and bombed the road. And then they pan over to the burned and blackened corpses.
After that, they stop for a break by a lake, and at the urging of the camera-man Katniss sings a song to the Mockingjays that was a continuing feature of the books, "Hanging Tree"
My first comment has to be that Jennifer Lawrence sounds amazing. Her voice lends a great deal to that song, which hit at #12 on the Billboard Hot 100.
That song becomes the anthem of the rebellion, and after they show a few scenes from the completed short of Katniss and her crew walking through the ruins of District 12, they cut to a rainy night in District 5, with the rebels marching through the darkness, while singing Hanging Tree, and charging the Capitol guards.
This scene is powerful, and is one of the best pieces of the entire film.
Speaking of which, the propo short they filmed in District 8 was an awesome short. If they didn't use that as a trailer for the movie itself, then they should have!
The level of emotion and power that Jennifer Lawrence can convey in a scene like that is part of what makes this movie good. The fact that she can bring across both the anger and frustration of Katniss, and then shift right to spent, weary sorrow in the same scene is why she's able to pull off the role. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see much of Katniss's thunderous personality in the first movie, and it's good to see both Catching Fire and Mockingjay making up for that. The fact that they're willing to show her weakened and injured means that they've finally realized what made Katniss a great character. The fact that she took a ton of abuse, survived even the harshest of situations, and was able to come back and keep going. That she could find a spark of defiance even after being put through the wringer.
And when she came back, she came back a changed person. Not the same as when she started.
I might as well make this clear, I'm putting all of the blame for the failure of the first movie to capture the personalities of the characters on the shoulders of the film-makers. The actors are all great, and they put on great performances in this film and Catching Fire.
For instance, Josh Hutcherson was great in the few scenes he had as Peeta. His performance really captured the essence of how those sections of the book went.
And while Sam Claflin wasn't given a whole lot of screen-time in the film, what he had was excellent. When Finnick is telling the districts about what Snow forced him to do, and how he got the Capitol back for it, I could have sworn the words were leaping right off the pages and making that scene.
There's a lot to like about this movie, but it does have some issues.
All in all, I don't necessarily think this was a bad movie. It's got a lot of good moments, but it's a little too short, and it doesn't have the same density of awesome that Catching Fire did.
In the end though, I'll give it an 8.0* rating. I might wind up going back and updating Catching Fire's rating at some point, but don't hold your breath.

Image from WWW.Impawards.com

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies

Well, The Hobbit saga concluded last December, and guess who watched it this weekend?
I'd have reviewed it earlier, but I was fiftieth in line to get the DVD at the library.
This film was originally subtitled There, and Back Again, one of the many, many subtitles that the original novel had. It made sense at first, because the other Hobbit movies used the subtitles of the novel to differentiate themselves from each other. But they decided that it didn't make a whole lot of sense, because it didn't represent the core theme of the film.
Unlike The Desolation of Smaug, Battle of the Five Armies starts off right from where the last film left off. So if you're planning to watch it, you might want to rewatch An Unexpected Journey, and The Desolation of Smaug right before this, since there's no recap at the beginning.
So, let's go ahead and get this out of the way. I'm a fan of the original novel. I love it to death. And I love this trilogy. I was a little iffy at first about splitting it into three films, since the book is about as big as a single Lord of the Rings novel, and each of those books was made into a single film each.
But they've managed to handle the expansion very well, fleshing out the story, and expanding the world.
I make a lot of fuss about pacing in movies and games, and this trilogy has paced itself out very well.
That's something that comes from producing all three movies back to back, like they did with The Lord of the Rings. Everything flows very naturally from one movie to another, with no inconsistencies between films in character portrayal or special effects.
Speaking of the effects, they're still great. They look good, and above all, they look consistent.
There's one little effects failure, where Bilbo's sword, Sting, doesn't glow when Orcs are near. But it's only in one scene, and it's fixed immediately afterwards. Aside from that, I didn't think anything was out of place.
Everything blends together naturally. Even scenes that you'd think would have to be entirely CGI look like they're taken right from Middle-Earth. For instance, the battle against Smaug looks like it would have to be a complex piece of computer animation, since a lot of it is Smaug running around, smashing things.
And when the titular battle of the five armies comes around, the sheer multitude of soldiers begs the question. Did they generate all of them with computers, or are they all people? I'd love to know.
Anyways, the issue with reviewing a film like this is that I don't know what all to say about it. What can be said about the visuals I've already said. And I don't want to ruin the film for others who haven't seen it.
Okay, the acting is excellent all around. From Martin Freeman's Bilbo, to Ian McKellen's Gandalf, to even Benedict Cumberbatch's short appearance as Smaug, to his stellar performance as The Necromancer, and beyond, the cast and direction are great. I don't think you could ask for any better casting or production on this trilogy. It's simply astounding.
Speaking of astounding, I would have sworn that the guy playing Bard The Bowman was Orlando Bloom, but he's actually played by Luke Evans (No relation to Chris Evans) who looks just like Orlando Bloom did in The Pirates of the Caribbean movies. As I'd never seen the original Lord of the Rings movies, nor looked into the cast, I didn't know that Orlando Bloom actually plays a different role in The Hobbit, that of Legolas Greenleaf.
As the movie went on, I kept wishing for it not to end. The Hobbit saga has been an enchanting experience, and I loved every single second of it. If you want to spend a day watching all three Hobbit movies, then it's one of the best things you could ask to spend eight hours on. Or nine hours if you're watching the extended cuts.
The Hobbit movies have raked in a good three-to-five times their budget in revenue, at about a billion dollars each. This particular movie was the second highest-grossing film of 2014, a scant $45 million or so behind one of my other favorites of 2014, Transformers: Age of Extinction.
The fact that this movie managed to spend three weeks straight at number one and rack up enough money to cover its $250 million budget in twelve days is a testament to its status as part of one of the biggest media franchises of all time, and one of the best movie series of the entire decade, if not the century.
Now, I might as well talk about something that I've heard some people complain about. An original character named Tauriel.
Some people didn't like the fact that she was added to the film. I don't know how many people didn't, but I don't agree with them, I like her. And her relationship with Kili was one of my favorite parts of both this movie, and The Desolation of Smaug.
The added scenes with Gandalf were also a welcome addition, because I remember him simply vanishing for a while in the book with absolutely no explanation. And from what I've read, most of the material for the original scenes was taken from a companion book that Tolkien wrote, and additional bits and pieces mentioned in the other Lord of the Rings books that were just kinda there to explain why things happened the way they did in The Hobbit.
To the best of my understanding, a lot of that had been cut from the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, so it made sense to include it where it actually fits into Middle-Earth continuity. Always better to show something happening, rather than having to explain it in an exposition dump. Better to just not explain it than to have the characters waste ten minutes of the audience's time figuring out what the hell's going on.
And if you choose to do the latter, remember that you're depriving the audience of a good scene, boring them out of their minds for a few minutes, potentially raising troubling questions about the plot, and breaking down a movies pacing. Even if you have to sacrifice accuracy for the sake of pacing, you should always go for the best pacing you can.
Even if you need to make the movie super-long, or even make it into multiple smaller movies, the pacing is paramount to keeping the movie interesting.
All in all, this movie hits all the good buttons on the cinema machine, and pretty much none of the bad buttons. I give it a 10.1* rating.
I'll see you guys next week with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Legend of Zelda

So, after one thing and then another, week after week, I wound up deciding I needed some time off. I've only been doing the bare minimum of work for these last two weeks, letting myself get back in the Let's Playing mood.
Since I needed an article out this week, I figured I might as well review the game that I've been playing almost non-stop since I got it, the original Legend of Zelda.
While I've owned the original NES version, as well as the GameCube re-release for a while, I've never managed to beat it. But since Club Nintendo was offering it as part of their last round of rewards, and they didn't have much else I wanted, I figured I might as well get it.
Before I talk about the game itself, I might as well get this out of the way. I know that a lot of Virtual Console ports have a bad reputation for slowing down, introducing graphical issues and other glitches not present in the original version of the game, and for being relatively over-priced.
Not to mention the fact that the selection isn't exactly great. Milon's Secret Castle can see a re-release, but not Final Fantasy II, III or V.
Criticism of eShop pricing and selection aside, this port does have a few issues. As far as I can tell they're limited to a few sprite-flickering issues when a load of enemies are on-screen. And coupled with that usually comes slowdown. As someone who's extensively played the original Zelda, I don't remember noticing anything like that on the NES.
Now, let's go ahead and talk about the game itself.
Everyone remembers the first Zelda game they played. For me, it was the original on NES.
My NES was a gift from my grandmother. I still remember unpacking it, and seeing that gold cartridge.
Up until then, the only system I had ever played on was the SNES, and the only games I'd ever played were platformers, like Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country.
And a top-down fantasy game like The Legend of Zelda intrigued me. I used to spend so much time roaming around, looking for secrets, and fighting enemies with my sword.
And when I stumbled upon the first dungeon, I was a little freaked out by the music at first. But I roamed around, finding all the rooms I could, and stocking up on items.
When beating the boss rewarded me with another heart-container, I was surprised. Throughout all of Super Mario World you could only take two hits, and then you were dead. But this rewarded you beyond just unlocking a new area to explore. You got items, and extra health, and upgrades for existing items.
But unfortunately, the NES got packed away, and I stopped playing videogames for a while.
Later on, after I'd played Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask The Adventure of Link, and A Link To The Past, we got the NES back out, and I played it extensively. Multiple times, because the battery seems to be dying, and my progress was erased several times. I never beat it, though.
That's changed now, though. I know I promised an LP, which you'll get in the future, but it'll be the second quest.
So, the original Zelda is one of the most iconic games of all time. It defined a genre of gaming, it influenced gamers more than most titles could ever hope to. And it ripped off a game that hardly anyone has heard of, much less liked.
A game called Hydlide. Fans of the Angry Videogame Nerd or ProJared will have heard of Hydlide, an action-adventure game which pre-dated The Legend of Zelda by two years. It had an uncreative loop of the Indiana Jones theme-song as its sole source of music, the screen juttered when you moved around the map, and the game is full of small glitches.
Honestly, calling Zelda a ripoff of Hydlide is something that doesn't really work. Zelda is so far removed from Hydlide in concept and production (Considering that it was produced in concurrence with Super Mario Bros, which was released in 1995, which means that they spent longer on Zelda than T&E soft did on Hydlide.) that I doubt that much was even borrowed from Hydlide.
The Legend of Zelda was a revolutionary title, using extra space on Famicom floppies (For the newly released Famicom Disc System) to save the game, rather than a complicated password system, the way Hydlide did.
In addition, they made use of 128 kilobyte floppies, because the same size ROM cartridge would be pretty expensive to produce. It's amazing what used to be large and expensive. When we have 50GB blu-rays, 4TB hard-drives, and 32GBs of RAM at our disposal, and 128 kilobytes was pushing the limit!
They also made use of the extra sound channels provided by the Famicom Disc System for sound-effects, and made use of the second-player microphone as a method of killing the Pols Voice, a huge-eared rat-creature that populated later dungeons.
It's too bad they didn't include this as a way to kill them in the 3DS version, since the 3DS has a microphone. I wonder if they preserved that method in the Japanese version...
Since the Famicom Disc System was never given an international counterpart, all versions of the game released outside Japan (as well as the later release of the cartridge version in Japan) had to use the MMC1 chip, which allowed the game to switch between ROM banks, as well as allowing for use of battery-backed RAM to save the game.
The original Zelda was revolutionary in more ways that one, becoming a game that proved to the world that games could be epic adventures in exploration and puzzle-solving to a public that considered them toys.
The title-screen is one of the most famous of all time. The waterfall, the music. That music, destined to become one of the most iconic themes in all of gaming.
And when you start the game, that theme keeps playing. That very theme that's become the embodiment of adventure, and wonder.
The adventure begins in a field, with four ways you can go. Go into a cave, and an old man gives you a wooden sword, telling you that it's dangerous to go out alone.
Waxing poetic and nostalgia aside, there are some issues with the mechanics. Some of which are probably just issues with the lack of memory space for player data, rather than programming issues.
For instance, when you die in the overworld, no matter where you are, you go back to the beginning of the game. You start out with three hearts in your meter, no matter how many heart containers you've collected.
And if you die in a dungeon, you start in the first room of that dungeon with three hearts, no matter how many containers you've collected.
This wouldn't be so big an issue if fairy-fountains were a little more wide-spread, but there only exists two of them in the entire game. And odds are that you'll be too far from either of them to make the journey worth it.
This is easily overcome in the 3DS version through use of manually-created restore-points. Unfortunately, the process by which you pause the game, create a new restore point, confirm that you want to erase the last restore-point, exit the confirmation, and get back to the game.
And then when you die (Or in my case, take any damage whatsoever, because I can't stand not having the sword-beams) you have to pause the game, load the state, confirm that you want to load it, exit the confirmation screen, and then unpause the game.
It's tedious, but it gets the job done.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that it is still a great game, it hasn't held up as well as A Link To the Past did. But fortunately it still holds up better than Zelda 2 does.
Graphically, it looks pretty good. Some things do look better than others. For instance, the Zora's, the Darknut's, and Octoroks look a lot better than Link does.
But Link only looks weird up-close. From a distance, he looks fine. The fact that they managed to pack in a decent bit of detail into him, and into the other sprites in the game for NES sprites.
Unfortunately, the same courtesy can't quite be extended to the level design. All of the dungeons are mostly populated by open rooms, and rooms with two blocks in the center of them, or rooms with diamonds made out of blocks in the middle, or blocks arranged in diagonal lines.
The overworld has much more creative design, with hedges, rocks, trees, and lakes populating it. 
Not that I dislike the dungeons. The first few, and the last couple are pretty good, but the ones in the middle are a little over-populated with samey-rooms populated with Darknuts.
And the others are populated by Wizrobes.
The good thing about most of those rooms is that you can hide in the doorway, safe from damage, but unable to attack. I don't know if that's a glitch or not, but it helped me out to no end. Being able to avoid damage like that meant that I was able to clear rooms a lot faster than I would have been able to had I not known about that ability.
And the funny thing is that I discovered this without even looking it up on the internet. I've never even heard about this little thing with the door in all my time on the internet, in all my years as the Zelda fan.
Some of the bosses are repeated, and some of them are kinda easy. I actually beat Manhandla accidentally, having forgotten to assign the bow-and-arrow to the B button, and wound up chucking a bomb at it, and killing Manhandla in a single hit.
For some reason this didn't work for the mini-boss versions, but the fact that I beat the boss with a single bomb was kinda funny.

But for me, I think the final boss, Ganon was the most disappointing. For being one of the best dungeons, Level 9 lacked a great boss. You gotta run about and attempt to hit Ganon with your sword and then tap him in the head with the silver arrows. There's no real strategy to it. You just gotta stand in one place and keep hitting the A button until you hit Ganon with your sword.
Once you beat Ganon, you meet up with Zelda, and the credits play.
Then you've got the second quest.
The second quest is an arrange-mode created because they didn't wind up using all the space they had on the disc.
Any other company might have released that as another game. Nowadays it'd probably be DLC, but Nintendo added it on as an unlockable bonus if you beat the game.
And that's what more companies need to do. Less DLC, and more unlockables.
Rule of thumb. If you can include it in the base product, you should. You want to add more costumes for characters? Add it in as an unlockable. You want to add more characters or quests? Unlockable. Got extra space on the disc once you finish the main game? Add in unlockable concept-art, extra little bits and pieces of content that makes the customer happy. The kinds of things that will ship more copies of the game, and make people come back to you for more. You'll make more money in the long-run, because people will be more likely to buy your games new.
Anyways, I've never played the second quest, but I've heard it's pretty good. I do have to save something for the Let's Play, don't I?
All in all, even with the issues I have with The Legend of Zelda, I still like it. And if you're hesitating getting it from Club Nintendo, you should jump on it before they shut the website down, if you have 200 coins left in your account.
I give it, this classic game that almost everyone loves and has fond memories of....
See you next week!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Mandate of Earth

The Mandate of Earth is a Sci-Fi novel released on March 17th, 2015 by indie author, game programmer, and one of my personal heroes, Johnathan S. Harbour.
I'm a member of John's forums, which I've visited frequently for years.
I've been kinda busy most recently, so I haven't been visiting the forum as much as I did in the past. But I make it a habit to try and visit it at least once a month if possible, just to keep up with the community.
And there I discovered John had published this book, and was offering a free copy to regular members of his forums.
And since then, this book has dominated my time for the last two-and-a-half weeks. I intended to have it up on the twelfth of April, but I didn't get to the end by that point, thanks to the PDF readers on my Nook refusing to read past page 35.
And the reason this is being published mid-week, instead of last Sunday as I usually do is thanks in part to the other PDF reader on my Nook refusing to read past page 115. And the fact that I can't look at a white screen with black text without having to take long breaks. That's an issue I have with reading books on an LCD screen, the fact that I can't read them for long periods of time without needing to take a break.
Now, while the cover immediately struck me as kinda cheap-looking, the book itself was fascinating to read.
I'm a science-fiction lover, I will admit. I've never really been able to get into hard Sci-Fi, though. I was always more of a Star Wars or Star Trek kinda Sci-Fi guy.
Pretty much every hard Sci-Fi novel I've read gets a little too into the reality of the science, and doesn't really let the fiction part of the book shine through. And they usually end with humanity using up all of the resources in existence, and then the heat-death of the universe, or something along those lines.
Or everything evolving to a bizarre and incomprehensible energy being with the last of humanity aghast with what they've done to the universe and what they've become. And that's been the fundamental plot of almost every hard Sci-Fi novel I've ever read.
Mandate doesn't really have that problem. It keeps its focus on the characters, and their actions, rather than trying to make some grand statement about the end of time that winds up being more depressing than meaningful.
The book starts out at some point in what I presume is the near future, the way Sci-Fi tends to do.
To the advantage of Mandate, the future presented isn't too outlandish. And the progression of time, while somewhat abrupt, does flow pretty nicely.
The main character is a guy named Jack Seerva, an inventor and philanthropist with a dream of taking humanity to the stars.
Throughout his life, he's built a company with the express purpose of funding research to take humanity into the rest of the solar-system.
And then, boom. A comet hits the earth.
And annihilates a city, while also causing massive destruction along its path.
So, Jack and his company decide to amp up their production, and manage to "Bootstrap" their way into space in an astoundingly short period of time. And in a relatively realistic sort of way.
As time goes on, events unfold in such a way that I can't help but compare them to human history. A seemingly random series of issues come up in such a way that it strikes me as a realistic depiction of the progression of human history. Or human future, as the case may be.
I think the best part about this novel is how it presents the events contained within. An issue I have with a lot of hard Sci-Fi is the fact that presentation usually comes second to the science. The fact that this book stays within the realms of feasibility without needing a physics or engineering degree to understand all of the explanations. Then again, I am admittedly a huge nerd, so that might be my science education showing.
What I really like about this book is the fact that it has a good focus on the characters, rather than getting caught up in the events, and leaving the characters kinda bland.
Even with such a large cast as Mandate has, every one of them seems like someone who could actually exist. Sort of like how The Hunger Games managed to make its cast seem like a group of actual people. If I'd been able to read the book non-stop without needing long breaks, I might have had it all finished in a day, the way I did with The Hunger Games.
Even the most outlandish bits of story are still pretty reasonable in presentation and explanation.
Speaking of explanation, I was astounded by the elegance of it all. A lot of Sci-Fi relies on clunky dumps of exposition to justify their utterly impractical technology.
Considering that the level of technology in Mandate isn't too far-removed from where we are now, compared to how certain novels approach it, it doesn't require a ton of exposition.
That and the fact that the biggest leaps in technology tend to happen on-screen makes for a consistent flow.
Although I will have to disagree with John on one count, I don't think that computer mice will ever really go out of style, or be replaced by touchscreens, since the general consensus seems to be that touchscreens are fidgety and imprecise.
The good thing was that I didn't really have to make any big leaps of faith to allow the story to make sense. I feel that it all moves pretty naturally. It goes from us being an earthbound society to having a foothold in the universe without having to skip a whole lot.
Now, I might as well move on from talking about the pacing, and actually spend a little time talking about the plot. I'll try my best to not give any major spoilers away.
A lot of changes come on because of the comet impact, and Jack speeds up the launch process to get essentially a "backup" of humanity into space just in case a major extinction event happens.
Despite some criticism for their actions, Seerva Inc. keeps on with their mission to bring space-travel into the mainstream.
The complete series of events is a bit depressing, and winds up weighing heavily upon the characters.
But eventually, as I said before, they do manage to establish what appears to be a successful colony in space.
The book then ends on a cliffhanger, leaving the fate of the characters in question.
All in all, I liked The Mandate of Earth, and I'm not just saying that because the author is someone I look up to. I think it's a pretty good read, and well worth picking up. Considering this is a self-published work, it's certainly a massive step-up from the pack.
In the end, I give it an 8.4* rating.
If you guys are interested, here's the amazon link to the book. It's 25% off today: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00UUMAHPQ/

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Cowboys & Aliens

I remember thinking that this movie was going to be really good back when it came out. I saw the trailer in 2011, and I figured that it was going to be a good movie to watch. Then, a few months later, the reviews started rolling in, and I was surprised by how badly it was received. Looking back at the revenue, it only made just over its $163 million-dollar budget. It brought in about $175 million.
Thinking back, they probably should have chosen a different week to release it. The Comic-Con screening was only four days after the release of Captain America: The First Avenger.
Which is one of my favorite movies of all time.
And you know something else? Deathly Hallows Part 2 was released earlier that same month. I've never seen it, and I don't really know if it was any good, but I know it's not a smart move to release a movie, even a movie with a cast like this one had in the same month as major installments in blockbuster franchises.
So let's just say that despite the star-power of the cast, and the fact that this is probably the only movie where you can see James Bond and Indiana Solo team up with Quorra and Justin Fleegman to fight aliens.
Hey I just realized, this is the closest thing we're ever gonna get to a Galaxy Quest, Tron and Star Wars Crossover!
Too bad they chose to release it in the same month as the finale of one of the highest-profile fantasy epics since The Lord of the Rings, and what might just be both one of the greatest war-movies and superhero movies of all time.
And despite my opinion of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, that movie was still going strong well into the next month. And Final Destination 5 was coming out at the start of the next month, which would be joined literally the next day by Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Two massively grossing movies getting released a few weeks after it, combined with one of the hugest films of all-time being released the month before, and another of the hugest films of all-time being released in the same month with one of the greatest films of all-time....
Yeah, even if they'd ironed out a few of the problems I wound up having with the film, this movie was never destined for any kind of success, despite the sheer power of the cast. It was released at a really bad time in 2011, it had some big issues with presentation and storytelling, and it lacked a decent ending. I'll get into this later in the review.
But yeah, this was definitely gonna drop right off the charts pretty quickly. Sad to say something like that about a movie that's actually pretty good, but it's the truth.
So, let's talk about the plot.
Daniel Craig's character wakes up in the desert with a mysterious wound in his torso, and a massive silver bracelet on his left wrist that certainly doesn't belong in 1873. He runs afoul of some dudes, and winds up leaving them all for dead, and taking their weapons and horses.
He rides into a local town, and gets locked up, because he looks like a wanted outlaw by the name of Jake Lonergan. And because he assaulted the local mafia don's son because the kid was being a stupid and spoiled brat.
The aforementioned mafia don is actually a former Civil War Colonel and cattleman by the name of Woodrow Dollarhyde, played by Harrison Ford. They run into each other because Lonergan apparently stole a bunch of gold from Dollarhyde, and the Colonel wants to know where he stashed it. He also wants to punish him for hurting his son, because despite the fact that he despises how his son lives his life, he still wants to try and find some way to whip him into shape, and he can't do that if his son is dead.
During a standoff between Dollarhyde's men and those of the local Sheriff's, the aliens strike and abduct many a citizen of the town, Dollarhyde's son included.
Because Lonergan has a pretty effective weapon against those aliens, in the form of his mysterious bracelet, the townsfolk include him in the posse they round up to go get the abductees.
Fortunately, the following scenes are all decently made, at least until they get to the chase-sequence, where it transitions into a strange hallucination, akin to that one similar scene from The Big Lebowski, only more perplexing, and a lot less funny.
In this chase, Lonergan rescues an alien in the form of a beautiful woman, and around a campfire with some Native Americans, who had some of their people abducted by the aliens.
The woman is apparently some kind of Time Lord, since she manages to come back from the dead through a burst of golden-light.
She explains what the aliens are up to, and that her people were killed by those aliens.
See, I don't usually have an issue with exposition, but it has to be executed well. And this has been executed poorly. It's boring, and I wish it had been either cut entirely, or heavily re-written into something that:
A) Made a bit more sense
B) Didn't bring the pacing to a stone-cold stop.
And, C) Hadn't brought up some troubling issues with the ending.
Honestly, I think that the alien woman should have been written out entirely, because her presence and abilities raise a whole bunch of questions that are never answered.
From this point on, the movie picks up a bit, with the alliance of townsfolk, Apache's, and lone alien woman locating the ship that the aliens used to get to Earth.
They put together a decent plan to rescue the townsfolk and prevent the aliens from taking all the gold on Earth, and laying siege to another planet.
Jake goes back to his old gang and forces them to help the ramshackle defense force out with the siege.
Dollarhyde and the Apache's lead the ground assault, while Jake, and the alien girl, named Ella, sneak into the ship and free the captives.
And it's towards the end of this battle where things started getting real dumb. Ella takes Jake's wrist-gun to blow up the reactor core, instead of just taking one of the ones from the many, many dead aliens with the same kind of guns. And this leaves Jake defenseless aside from his useless human guns.
And then everyone acts like Ella's dead, despite the fact that she completely reconstructed her body earlier in the film.
Because his love interest is dead, Jake decides to leave Dollarhyde's town.
Dollarhyde offers Jake a job, but Jake turns it down and leaves.
And I could not understand why he did this. Why would you leave when you could have a decent job and a decent life in the town? And maybe they could have shown Ella coming back to life (again)and Jake could have settled down, and the ending might have had some kind of impact aside from pretty much everyone having resumed the state they were in at the beginning of the film.
All in all, I think something must have gone wrong in production. The issue being that the whole thing could have been improved with a few small changes to the script, and it would have become a much better movie.
And as it is, it also seems like a movie that's had a few scenes chopped out and re-written to be a lot shorter.
Maybe being about a half-an-hour longer could have improved upon the plot, but that's no guarantee to that effect.
Honestly, I still think it's worth watching. Rent it or borrow it from the library. There are certainly worse ways to spend two hours. There are also better ways, but I think this is still a decent film, despite the issues.
It certainly deserves a sequel that improves upon everything in this film, and more. But I don't think it will get one.
In the end, I'll give it a 7.2* rating.
Funnily enough, I had a book I was planning to review this week, but my packed schedule, combined with some issues with my Nook, prevented me from finishing it in time. As such, I had to hurriedly re-write an article from last year that I forgot to publish, namely this one.
So, hopefully I will see you guys next week with my review of that book!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Transformers: Age of Extinction is the latest installment of the mega-successful, but polarizing live-action Transformers series.
Released in June of 2014, the movie managed to make back a whopping five times its budget.
And honestly, I can see why.
My opinions of the second and third movies in this series are well on record, so I won't go into the details too much here.
Suffice to say, that I didn't particularly like them.
I thought they were pretty good at their best moments, and a little insulting at their worst.
But I really liked the first one. The story was well-told, the characters were well-written, and the whole film was competently made, especially compared to what came after it.
Honestly, they weren't quite Alien 3 level of bad, but they weren't X-Men 2 level of good either.
And now we're at the third sequel. They've ditched the Witwicky's, Mikaela, Sam's replacement girlfriend, and most connection to the rest of the movies in the series, aside from The Transformers themselves, and the fact that the events in this film were directly affected by what happened in Dark of the Moon.
Our new human lead is Cade Yaeger, played by Mark Wahlberg. A struggling inventor and single father.
Cade's story starts when he starts rummaging around in an old theater with his annoying stoner assistant, Lucas Flannery. He talks to the theater owner and buys a few old cameras.
And while fooling around with a football, he finds a rusty and broken Marmon 97 semi-truck that had crashed into the theater years prior.
He buys the truck and tows it home, where his daughter, Tessa, has just gotten back from school.
Cade gets to work on the truck in his barn, and finds out something strange about it.
It is way too high-tech for its age. It doesn't run on a standard engine or fuel system.
Cahe, Lucas and Tessa suspect that it's a Cybertronian. Lucas and Tessa want to turn it over in case it's an injured Decepticon, but Cade wants to fix it up and see how it works.
After some effort and macro-surgery, they manage to revive the Autobot, which turns out to be Optimus Prime.
Optimus was attacked in Mexico City after the Chicago incident, and took on the form of the Marmon because his original disguise became too well-known. Unfortunately, that didn't help him get away, as he was heavily wounded, and wound up in the Cybertronian equivalent of a coma.
Cade does his best to fix up Optimus, but some government black-ops group named Cemetery Wind shows up looking for Optimus.
And this was one of the defining moments of the movie for me.
As one might be able to guess, these guys aren't here to help Optimus out. They're not affiliated with NEST, and Sam Witwicky is not among the group.
Cade hides Optimus and goes out to run interference with the soldiers. This doesn't work, and the soldiers put guns to Cade and Tessa's heads, threatening to shoot them if they don't tell where Optimus is.
Up until this point, I wasn't entirely sold on the movie. There were some issues with annoying characters, Mark Wahlberg's acting was a little shaky, and the five-year time-skip from the end of Dark of the Moon almost lost me.
But at this point is where the movie picked up.
Optimus Prime is hidden away, essentially safe from danger if he plays his cards right. But these people helped him, they found him, refused to turn him over to certain death, and are still, even in the face of their own imminent demises, are refusing to turn him over.
Optimus badly injured, and he knows that saving them could kill him.
And do you know what he did?
He saves them anyways. Broken, hurt, and running low on resources and fighting spirit alike, he gets up, and helps them. He refuses to quit.
Because life, is the right of all sentient beings. Because his name is Optimus Prime, and that is what he stands for. Across the universe, the Autobots fight, sometimes at the cost of their own lives, to protect others.
And he is their leader. He refuses to let these people who helped him in his time of need down. Optimus Prime gets up and fights, even in the gravest of circumstances to protect the lives of innocents.
Because when all hope is lost, Optimus Prime is there to rekindle that fighting spirit. Optimus Prime fought and died to protect planet earth. And he was willing to fight and die again to protect those who helped him in his time of need.
Optimus Prime fights, and he does his best. And for the most part, he succeeds.
With help Tessa's boyfriend, Shane, Optimus and the Yaeger's manage to escape Cemetery Wind, and flee to rally the last remaining Autobots to one final showdown.
Cade finds out they've frozen his bank account, with the help of a drone he took from Cemetery Wind in the previous fight, and confirms that they're looking for them, when soldiers show to take them in.
Unfortunately, they don't manage to escape this, and Shane's car winds up getting destroyed, and Lucas gets melted by a grenade thrown by a Cybertronian bounty-hunter named Lockdown (Voiced by Mark Ryan).
With help from Optimus, they manage to escape to an abandoned gas-station en-route to rally the four remaining Autobots. There they stock up on supplies, and stay for the night.
The next day, they make their way into the desert. On the road, Optimus scans another semi-truck, and transforms into a shiny new form.
This scene was pretty awesome to watch as well.
 In the desert, they meet up with Bumblebee, Hound (Voiced by John Goodman) Drift (Voiced by Ken Watanabe) and Crosshairs (Voiced by John DiMaggio)
Cade figures out that the drone he took was made by a company called Kinetic Solutions Incorporated, or KSI. They manage to pinpoint the company headquarters in the rebuilt Chicago.
And from the footage they pulled from the Drone, they find out that KSI has been killing Autobots and Decepticons alike.
Footage of Leadfoot and Ratchet (Voiced by Robert Foxworth) being killed is accessed, and Optimus vows to kill the man behind it all, Harold Attinger (Played by Kesley Grammer)
And this is when you realize he is seriously mad. And that Attinger is a dead man. It takes a lot to make Optimus Prime mad, and there's no better way to seal your own death warrant than hurting his friends.
They infiltrate the KSI compound, and begin looking into what they're working on.
Among many other things, they appear to be making artificial Transformers out of the Transformium they've harvested from Autobots, Decepticons, and mineral deposits alike.
Despite valiant efforts by Autobots and humans alike, they get found out, and Attinger gives chase with two of KSI's prototype Transformers, Stinger (Based on Bumblebee) and Galvatron (Based on Optimus Prime and Megatron)
While Bumblebee takes on his imposter, Stinger, Optimus is locked in combat with Galvatron. Optimus finds out that Galvatron doesn't have a spark (The Transformers equivalent of a soul, but something that can be physically destroyed) where other Cybertronians do.
During the fight, Lockdown injures Optimus, and hauls him off to his ship, taking Tessa with him.
While inside, Tessa grabs a tire-iron and fights off some of Lockdown's drones, while Lockdown jails Optimus with a group of unknown Transformers.
Lockdown explains that the creators of the Cybertronians has put a bounty on the head of Optimus Prime, and they're calling back their creations so they can rebuild the universe.
While Lockdown's henchmen give the members of Cemetary Wind a Seed (An alchemical device for creating Transformium) the remaining Autobots, along with Cade and Shane, sneak onto the ship.
Cade and Shane split off to find Tessa, while the Autobots go looking for Optimus.
The Autobots make their way to an escape pod where Lockdown keeps his trophy collection, and separate the ship as Lockdown jumps into Hyperspace.
Cade and Shane loot a weapons cache and manage to find something about their size, and escape the ship, joining up with Bumblebee and Crosshairs.
When they land, Optimus tells the others about what he felt while fighting Galvatron. The essence of his brother-in-arms turned enemy, Megatron. Brains, an Autobot they rescued from the KSI compound, confirms that Megatron repeatedly infected all of the Galvatron prototypes until he finally had a chance to break free from KSI control.
Optimus decides it's best to leave humanity with the mess they've created, thinking the last nine years a futile effort, but Cade convinces the Autobots to stay and fight.
Cade warns the KSI head , Joshua Joyce (Played by Stanley Tucci), about Attinger's plans to detonate the Seed in a populated city to seal humanities hatred of the Cybertronians, and he cuts ties with Attinger.
Funnily enough, that's similar to what Galvatron wants to do, use the Transformium to create more Decepticons. As it is, he just hijacks all of the KSI prototype Transformers and uses them as his army to beat down the human and Autobot resistance.
Attinger's right-hand-man, James Savoy (Played by Titus Welliver) goes after Joyce and the seed, with Galvatron hot on their trail.
Cade and the Autobots manage to get Joyce to safety, but the ship the Autobots took gets shot down before they can get the seed away from Earth, and Savoy catches up to them.
Cade and Savoy engage in combat across many rooftops, while the Decepticons close in on their position.
Optimus knows that they're outnumbered, so, working off something Lockdown told him, pulls a sword from the armory inside the ship they grabbed, and confirms something. I'm not sure what, but I think Optimus might have been one of the knights of the round.
He then sets free the other prisoners in Lockdown's trophy-room, who turn out to be the Dino-bots.
With that extra backup, the Autobots manage to subdue the Decepticon uprising, but Lockdown returns to reclaim his trophies.
Attinger has followed his now dead field-commander to the general location of the Autobots, and holds Cade at gunpoint, but Optimus makes good on his promise, and blasts Attinger away.
Unfortunately, Lockdown uses the sword Optimus pulled from the armory to impale him to a wall, just barely missing his spark.
Bumblebee arrives just in time, and he and Cade run interference while Shane and Tessa free Optimus from the wall.
Optimus kills Lockdown, and the Autobots finish off the remaining Decepticons. Galvatron retreats, vowing to come back and finish the fight.
Optimus sets the Dinobots free, and leaves them and the other Autobots to protect Earth, while he jets off into space with the seed in hand, set to confront the Creators.
All in all, this was an excellent movie. It started out a bit rocky, but really picked up after about twenty minutes.
And a good thing too, because this movie is almost three-hours long.
For the most part, my only issues with the movie are limited to that stretch of time. Mark Wahlberg is a fine actor for the most part, but his calm demeanor in the beginning was a little out-of-touch with the situation at hand. I'm not sure if it was an issue with direction or the script, or if the character was just trying to calm his daughter down by not panicking himself, but even if it was the latter, it still came off a little strange.
The best approach to that would have been a comment on how he was being so calm, and then maybe he could say something about not being calm inside.
Anyways, he's fine throughout the rest of the movie.
And honestly, I think some of the issues with Transformers 2 and 3 were the fact that the joke characters took up too much screentime. Fortunately, Brains doesn't make too many jokes.
And not to be cruel, but I think that Lucas's best scene was the one he died in. He didn't serve much purpose otherwise.
The most common complaint I've heard about this movie was that it didn't make much use of Steve Jablonsky's theme song for the series, known commonly as Arrival To Earth.
Honestly, I think the soundtrack arrangement was pretty spot-on. Arrival to Earth is a very upbeat song, suited for battles where the Autobots are winning, or where a victory is overwhelmingly in their favor.
And this isn't a very upbeat movie. Most of the time, the odds are stacked against the Autobots, and any victory can barely be called such.
But when they used it, it was very effective. That's the thing about iconic themes, they have to be used at the right time for the perfect effect. When Arrival to Earth starts playing in this movie, it's at the right moment, with the right effect. When it starts, Optimus rides Grimlock into battle, the tide of a hopeless fight turning, just when all hope seemed lost. When that song starts playing, you know they're gonna fight and win.
And even though they could have followed that up with The Touch for slightly greater effect, I think it worked fine as it was.
Age of Extinction is rated the lowest out of all of the live-action Transformers movies, with an 18% on Rotten Tomatoes. That's one point below Revenge of the Fallen, and eighteen points below Dark of the Moon, my personal pick for worst of the series.
Even my previous pick for best in the series, Transformers, is rated above it, with thirty-nine percentage points, placing it at a 57% rating.
And I think that's pretty unfair. Even though I think there was some room for improvement in some areas, I still like it better than Revenge of the Fallen or Dark of the Moon.
And even though Transformers is a movie I really liked, I have to say that this was slightly better.
In the end, I give Transformers: Age of Extinction a 10.1* rating.
Some may wish to dispute this, and I won't try to argue with them. There are a lot of people who don't like Michael Bay movies. I don't personally understand why, but I won't try to argue with them.
And do you know what? I think it might be as good as Days of Future Past.
This is Alex, signing off for now. I'll see you next week, and we'll see what I've got up for review!