Top 5 Non-Eastwood/Wayne Westerns

I love Westerns. Along with noir and musicals, they’re one of the three uniquely American genres, but Westerns stand way the hell out in that pack. It’s definitely a genre built on stereotypes: The badass outlaw, the snake oil salesman, the no-nonsense lawman… But when the hell has there ever been anything wrong with that? Everything from Star Wars to Black Lagoon practically vomits references to Western film lore. With larger-than-life inspirations like Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok and Doc Holliday, it’s no wonder half the characters played by The Duke and Clint Eastwood exude ridiculous amounts of machismo.

But this isn’t about those guys, because it wouldn’t be a fair fight if I let Eastwood and Wayne in on the action—I could fill this list twice over with the two of them. With apologies to The Magnificent Seven (which I haven’t seen), here are my top five Westerns.

5. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)

Determined to earn the reward money and the respect of his family, Dan Evans (Christian Bale) joins the posse transporting Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to Yuma Prison. When the group’s numbers begin to dwindle, Bale and Crowe butt heads more and more while also gaining a begrudging mutual respect. The interplay between the two is the film’s greatest strength, driving its plot without becoming a crutch. You’re always aware of what’s at stake for Bale and why it’s so important for him to finish the job. An out-of-place action sequence aside, 3:10 to Yuma is a great example of how one of the great American genres can remain fresh while relying on convention.

4. The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008)

A Korean-made Western? Hell yes. The Good, the Bad, the Weird is an action comedy set in Manchuria, but it borrows liberally from Western tropes and lore, not to mention the music and costume design. GBW’s story follows a bounty hunter (the Good), an assassin (the Bad) and a bumbling small-time crook (the Weird) in their journey to not only take each other down but find a mysterious treasure buried deep in the desert. Along the way, they fight Korean nationalists and the Imperial Japanese Army as they race to the treasure’s burial site. GBW doesn’t skimp on the well-shot action sequences or slapstick humor, but it also knows when to get serious, and the occasionally playful animosity between its protagonists is evident throughout: You know they’re going to try to screw each other over—it’s just a matter of when.

3. Serenity (2005)

I could rant about Firefly, but it’s been done to death and chances are good that you don’t care. What I will talk about is its legacy: Serenity is a post-Civil War Western in space, long after humanity abandons Earth That Was and colonizes dozens of newly terraformed worlds. When a ragtag band of mercenaries picks up a pair of fugitives, they get a little more than they bargained for: One of them is carrying classified information—secrets the government will stop at nothing to keep hidden. Cue armies and assassins pursuing our heroes. Serenity is interesting not only because it blends the two genres so seamlessly, but also because it throws out the “issues of the future” and suggests instead that the problems facing society today will more or less be the same ones we face hundreds of years from now.

2. True Grit (2010) 

What’s interesting about this movie is that the Coen brothers usually stick to original works or homages to classic literature, so tackling Charles Portis’s novel (also adapted into a John Wayne film in ’69) was a change of pace. Staying true to form, the brothers filled the film with dark humor and quirky characters. Their retelling of the Western classic is much darker than the John Wayne film, its characters and themes far less lighthearted and optimistic, right up to the somber ending. There’s no fanfare and no triumphant ride into the sunset. Though it’s not short on ballsy heroics, True Grit’s grimly realistic portrayal of the Old West sets it apart from its contemporaries.

1. Tombstone (1993)

Former lawman Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) is looking to lay down his guns and start a new life with his brothers (Bill Paxton, Sam Elliott) in the city of Tombstone. Not long after he runs into his old friend Doc Holliday (played splendidly by Val Kilmer), Earp finds himself drawn into a conflict with a gang of outlaws. To bring order to the city, the Earps, along with Holliday, take up their guns against the cowboys, spreading peace and justice by killing everyone who doesn’t like it. Tombstone is a great movie, but it walks a fine line: It’s both easy to poke fun at and really well-made. The dialogue oozes sarcasm and dry wit, friend and enemy exchanging jabs throughout, even when they’re about to fill each other with lead. Tombstone is a modern classic of the genre if there ever was one, even holding up beside the likes of Unforgiven.

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X-Men First Class Mini Review

One part prequel, one part reboot, X-Men: First Class tells the story of how Xavier and Magneto’s epic bromance began. The new entry in the film franchise drops the original cast of fan-favorite mutants and brings in a few lesser-known characters like Havok and Banshee. For the most part, this works really well, and the shift to a more character-driven story gives the narrative a little more impact.

The previous series was pretty much “Wolverine Meets a Bunch of Other Mutants and Saves the Day: The Movie,” but First Class tries to give every character a moment. Well, except Darwin, who, despite having the power of adapting to survive anything, dies before he accomplishes anything. And Angel was pointless. Seriously, why was she here, other than to include a strip club scene? (I guess I just answered my own question.)

Anyway, like its predecessors, First Class has a great cast—besides one member. The other films had Halle Berry as Storm, and this one has January Jones as Emma Frost. I wouldn’t exactly call Frost a great character to begin with, but seeing her lines delivered this poorly is sure to make you cringe. As Bush 41 would say, “It’s bad.” Luckily, the only scenes Jones manages to ruin are the ones in which she’s featured prominently. So, most of her scenes, really. It is a shame that this version of Frost features none of the dry wit the character is known for in other media. She’s not even deadpan here; it’s like she’s reading a newscast.

The script also ham-fists the allegorical comparisons between mutants and homosexuals. I’m all for messages of equality and acceptance, but, “Mutant pride!” came up a few too many times and the paper-thin reference to DADT was a huge eye-roller. It’s not that including the message of gay acceptance is misplaced—it’s that it’s so unsubtle it’s cringe-worthy. But given how unsubtle the message was in X-Men: The Last Stand, it’s not all that surprising that it’s more evident in First Class.

But really, ham-fisting aside, this is a very good movie. The dynamic between Charles and Erik really works, and seeing their stories unfold in the early chapters of the movie is a real treat—especially when Erik kills a few Nazis. The subplot between Mystique and Beast also goes a long way in humanizing the characters—both are considered outcasts because of their physical appearance their mutations give them, so they’re drawn to one another and come to accept or reject their mutations.

First Class plays a difficult balancing act with its multiple plot lines—I guess that’s bound to happen with a dozen or so main characters, several of whom die anyway. Toward the middle and end of the film, some of the transitions from one place or sequence to another are a little jarring and distracting. But it doesn’t hurt the flow of the movie for the most part.

The acting, like I said, is generally pretty good. Kevin Bacon makes for a decent villain as Sebastian Shaw, though he occasionally seems to be phoning it in. But McAvoy and Fassbender steal the show. They interact really well with each other and the other mutants, serving as mentors for the confused youths. And really, that’s what X-Men has always been about: Coming to terms with who you are and finding your place in the world. First Class explores that theme pretty well, though it does get hung up on some ideals more than others.

It’s a fun action movie, but there’s also a bit of good symbolism and allegory beneath the surface—even if it does occasionally beat you over the head. It wasn’t up against much besides the great casting of the previous movies, but First Class is the best X-Men movie to date. If there’s a sequel in the works (probably two of them, considering how much Hollywood loves trilogies), I’m looking forward to the continuation of this new take on the franchise.

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Top 5 Unofficial Game Soundtracks

One of the best features included in Microsoft’s Xbox 360 (as well as the PS3, which I don’t own) is the ability to listen to your own music files while playing games. Setting up playlists for your favorite games is really gratifying when you find something that clicks. If you’re anything like me, you’ve found some unlikely soundtracks while experimenting with your music and game libraries. For instance…

5. Lady Gaga and Assassin’s Creed

It’s hard to see the glamor of Gaga and the grit of Assassin’s Creed being used in the same sentence, but bear with me here. The game’s movement is quick and fluid, like a midnight drive on traffic-less city streets—perfect time to blast the Gaga. Assassin’s Creed’s combat, on the other hand, is a little slower and more deliberate. It’s still quite fluid, but it’s more rhythmic and deliberate. Altaïr’s parries and counters are a sight to behold, flowing nicely with his regular attacks and blocks. It’s almost like a dance, and what is Lady Gaga’s music for if not dancing? You know what? This doesn’t fit at all, but The Fame Monster is fun as all hell.

4. Norah Jones and Grand Theft Auto IV

Yeah, because bluesy jazz really fits blowing up cops with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. But that’s part of the charm of listening to Norah Jones’s smooth vocals and wistful jazz piano melodies while playing Rockstar’s open-world crime game. I’m no stranger to nerd rage, and the fantastic-but-brutal Three Leaf Clover mission kicked my ass. Hard. After breezing through the first half of the game, the almost controller-throwingly difficult mission had me re-loading time and again. Jones’s “Don’t Know Why” (played on repeat, of course) got me through that mission by calming my nerves. From then on, it was a match made in heaven.

3. Arctic Monkeys and Mass Effect 2

“Isn’t Jack Wall’s original score good enough?” you might ask. You’re damn right it is: Mass Effect 2 has one of the best game soundtracks ever. But I occasionally like to mix things up, and the Sheffield boys deliver. The thing I like most about Arctic Monkeys is that they throw out all pretense of depth in lyrics in favor of upbeat rock tunes about clubs, dancing and pretty lights—and occasionally the more depressing side of the night life. Not a soundtrack that really fits the dark atmosphere of BioWare’s RPG-shooter hybrid, but damned if it doesn’t fit the fast-paced shooting.

2. Jesse Cook and World of Warcraft

You can thank the classic “World of Roguecraft” videos for this one. But there’s something really fantastic about roaming the massive world of Azeroth with Cook’s Latin/jazz music playing in the background. Some of his songs are even good for a listen during fights because of their quick, percussive rhythms—even though little of his music uses violent imagery.

1. Reel Big Fish and Devil May Cry 4

Probably the most fitting choice on the list, Reel Big Fish and DMC4 make a perfect couple. The upbeat, balls-to-the-wall fun of the ska band’s music goes a long way in enhancing the frantic, hacky-slashy combat. Now, if only it went a little better with the kinda boring puzzle-solving sections… Most ska bands don’t really have the best vocals around—that’s just not the emphasis of the jazz-based rock—but RBF distinguish themselves by having a couple of good vocalists who grasp the concept of harmonizing. That might be why they were able to garner a little mainstream appeal in the mid-’90s.

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The 10 Worst Pokémon Ever

I’m ashamed to admit that, yes, I’m a Pokémon nerd. I got really into the games back when I first played Pokémon Red on the GameBoy in ’98 and it’s not something I ever really grew out of. Sure, I realized the anime was crap (as most tend to be) and the trading card game was an expensive time sink (…as most tend to be), but I’ll be damned if the main series games aren’t still a ton of fun.

While a lot of the creatures look really cool, there are some Pocket Monsters—from every generation—that either have really terrible designs or just annoy me for some other unrelated reason. For your pleasure (or nerd rage), here are my 10 least-favorite Pokémon.

10. #313 Volbeat: Firefly Pokémon

Generation III.

I hate Generation III’s designs (expect to hear that more than once), but I almost left this one out because it’s so unremarkable. Then I noticed the resemblance it shares with Ian McNeice as Baron Harkonnen and I raged all over again. Never mind that the “Dune” miniseries was an almost five-hour snoozefest. This guy was an asshole! And don’t even get me started on how ham-fisted Frank Herbert’s characterization of this villain was. (You mean he’s a greedy, backstabbing murderer and he rapes little boys? Gasp!) Anyway, you might think by looking at Volbeat that it’s a dual-type (Bug/Electric), but no, it’s just another terrible insect. So much for that glimmer of hope, you ugly cocktease.

9. #310 Manectric: Discharge Pokémon

Generation III.

Another from the third generation. Noticing a pattern here? God, I really hate Generation III’s designs. Manectric looks like Napoleon Dynamite made a furry fan comic about the Coneheads. There have been numerous attempts by fans (and even the trading card game’s art) to make this thing look cool, but they’ve all failed. If I had to guess, I’d say that’s because of its big, stupid head, but I’m not an art critic. Electric-types have traditionally had great designs, but this thing encapsulates everything that can go wrong with one. Also, it looks stupid as hell.

8. #206 Dunsparce: Land Snake Pokémon

Generation II.

I’m going to stop waving my hate boner at Generation III for a second here, taking aim now at my favorite generation. Unlike a lot of these awful things, Dunsparce has a cult following. As for how it managed that, your guess is as good as mine. Apparently, this little guy is based on a Japanese mythical creature called the tsuchinko, which few people have ever (supposedly) seen. If only we could be so fortunate. Dunsparce is considered “rare,” but I couldn’t set foot in Dark Cave without getting gang banged by a horde of these useless turds. And sure, it looks stupid as all hell with its giant, useless eyes and its pitiful wings that let it learn an astounding one Flying-type move (in Generation V, no less)… But really, it wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t have such awful stats to boot.

7. #122 Mr. Mime: Barrier Pokémon

 

Generation I.

Psychic-types are awesome. You’ve got Alakazam, Espeon, Gardevoir… And then there’s this guy. Besides being the objectively worst-designed Pokémon of its generation, Mr. Mime is, well, a mime. Being systematically butchered in Penny Arcade Adventures aside, what have mimes ever done for us? Chances are, you’re like me and came up with nothing. You know how a lot of people complain about later generations of Pokémon having “too much stuff shoved on them”? Well, Mr. Mime is the prototypical overwrought design. The garish pink-and-white outfit, stupid kneepads and curly jester shoes compound to create an unsalvageable mess. By the way, he’s not always a man.

6. #149 Dragonite: Dragon Pokémon

Generation I.

I hate Dragonite so much it’s unreal. I know it’s really popular, but Dragonite was the biggest case of evolutionary blue balls ever to my 10-year-old self. I spent hours leveling my Dragonair, wondering what its next stage would look like. I was excited. I was hyped. I couldn’t wait. Finally, my Dragonair hit 55 and I was rewarded for my time and effort with… this? Are you kidding me!? Dragonite looks like Pete’s Dragon’s uglier cousin. Serendipity the Pink Dinosaur looks tougher than this fat idiot. When my Dragonair evolved into this thing, I punched my GameBoy so hard the batteries flew out. What a waste of time. Fuck Dragonite.

5. #213 Shuckle: Mold Pokémon

Generation II.

It seems like a creepy tentacle monster is a requisite for designing a new generation of Pokémon, dating back to the precedent set by Tangela. It’s Japan, so let’s not rule anything out. Shuckle is supposed to be mold, or a barnacle, or something. Let’s review, for those slower readers: Shuckle is made up of a series of moldy phallic symbols, some erect, others flaccid, in a porous lump of rock. If you think this sounds like porn fodder, you’re right—making this a rare occasion where something is as hilarious as it is disgusting. Think about that for a second: Somebody actually thought this thing was good enough for Rule #34.

4. #505 Watchog: Lookout Pokémon

Generation V.

Every generation needs a NotRattata to fill the shoes left by the far superior (and quite adorable) original and its badass evolution, Raticate. I almost picked Bidoof for this spot, but it’s just too easy a target. Watchog looks like it’s supposed to be some kind of meerkat road worker or crossing guard, but the “vest” of stripes clashes just enough with the rest of its body to make looking at it an eyesore. And speaking of eyes, how much weed did Watchog smoke to get red-eye like that? I haven’t seen a stoner that attentive since my old roommate caught a Yo Gabba Gabba marathon.

3. #108 Lickitung: Licking Pokémon

Generation I.

Do I have to point out why this thing sucks? Lickitung is a fat, pink reptile whose sole defining feature is its gigantic tongue. That’s it! I’ll be among the first to say Generation I had some of the best creatures in the Pokémon franchise—but its bad ones are abominable, and Lickitung is among the worst. The only positive thing I can say about Lickitung is that it at least isn’t as ugly as its evolution. “Why isn’t Lickilicky on this list, then?” some of you may well be asking. Well, Lickitung was slightly more original in its stupidity, while Lickilicky just built on the established design.

2. #569 Garbodor: Trash Heap Pokémon

Generation V.

God, please… Just don’t make me talk about this literal pile of trash. What were they thinking? It looks like Domo-kun and Pippi Longstocking just finished having rough sex in a dumpster! How did Garbodor pass whatever quality assurance test Pokémon undergo? (And why am I asking so late in the game?) I know Poison-types are no strangers to looking stupid, but Garbodor’s design has the important distinction of being both terrible and lazy. I can only imagine the discussion that led to its birth. “We just finished the ice cream cone. What’s next?” “How about a bag of garbage?” “Brilliant! And it can be Poison-type, because… get it… haha, garbage!”

1. #362 Glalie: Face Pokémon

Generation III.

That break from Generation III had to end sometime, and what a terrible Pokémon I chose to end it with. It seems like the artists got on a really weird floating head kick when they made Generation III, because there are a few in there and they’re all fantastically stupid-looking. Glalie is the proud chieftain of the retarded floating head tribe. If looks are any indication, it’s a terrible leader because it’s prone to murderous lakeside rampages. “Glalie” is a portmanteau of “glacier” and “goalie,” which makes sense, considering it looks like—

…oh, dammit.

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The 5 Worst Things About E3 2011

E3 isn’t always great. (Remember 2008, Nintendo fans?) Occasionally, it flat-out sucks on all sides. E3 2011 was a great show, to be sure—at least for Sony and Nintendo—but it still had its missteps. In true Dead Horse fashion, several days late, here are the five worst parts of this year’s show.

5. The absentees (BG&E2, GTA5, etc.)

Will we ever see more than this trailer?

Where the hell were they? Especially Beyond Good & Evil 2! Don’t get me wrong. I know Michel Ancel wants to keep the BG&E2 team small for artistic reasons, and I know that Rayman Origins comes first. But give us a little teaser, just a tiny morsel of what’s coming as a token of good faith. Not too much to ask, right? What about GTA5? I know we’ll see it sometime, but the wait’s killing me.

Final Fantasy vsXIII has been in development for a long time now. Longer than its mediocre counterpart. Hopefully, it’ll make an E3 appearance next time around. This is, of course, assuming the impossible doesn’t happen and it comes out before then.

The Last Guardian is taking a while, too, I guess, but we’ve seen and heard a good amount of stuff on it. It’s just kind of a shame it hasn’t been at E3 since its reveal in 2009.

(By the way, Ancel announced that BG&E2 won’t even be coming out this generation. I smell vaporware!)

4. The Wii U reveal

See? It really IS a new console!

Before you start posting hate comments (comments…hah!), stay your weapons. I think the console itself looks great. The name? Well, let’s just say Nintendo surprised me when it beat the pants off Sony’s Vita for the worst hardware name. But the real failure here was how confused Nintendo’s demonstration of the hardware was.

Most of the gaming community probably knew that this was a whole new console, but the heavy focus on the controller and little emphasis on processing power didn’t help. A lot of the stuff they demo-ed had current Wii graphics, and I don’t think Nintendo stressed hard enough that the Wii U is, in fact, a new home console. I still see comments about the Wii U being a new “handheld” or “yet another Wii peripheral.” Nintendo blew the reveal, impressive hardware features notwithstanding.

3. Mr. Caffeine

Ubisoft, fire this man.

What a raging douchefire. Who hired this obnoxious idiot? When Aaron Priceman, aka “Mr. Caffeine,” wasn’t rambling like an awful grade school motivational speaker, he was making dick jokes and stupid sound effects. Mr. Caffeine wasn’t the most annoying part of E3, but he was definitely the most annoying person—and beating out Kudo Tsunoda for that title ain’t easy.

2. PS Vita’s 3G service from AT&T

How? WHY!?

Despite the stupid name, I was on board with the high-end PS Vita until I saw that the contract for its 3G service is with AT&T. Hey, guys, remember when the iPhone came out and everyone loved having AT&T as a provider? No? Me neither. The Vita looks like a fantastic platform, and its price is pitch-perfect—but AT&T will do nothing but hold back the otherwise great handheld.

1. Microsoft’s entire press conference

The best thing to come of that awful show.

What a travesty. Like last year, Microsoft got off to a decent enough start. For the most part, the MW3 demo went all right, despite showing us nothing new or more impressive than MW2. Mass Effect 3 looked fantastic, of course. But Gears 3 aside, it was all downhill after that. Microsoft showed almost nothing but—sigh—“family-friendly” Kinect titles.

Star Wars lagged like hell and barely seemed to work half the time. Disneyland Adventures looks pretty much like Kinect Adventures, but with a more annoying demonstration (Who really says, “Fist buuuuump!” when performing a fist bump?) than Kinect Adventures. Lionhead Studios also screwed the pooch on the Fable: The Journey demo, which looked like a boring rail shooter. But apparently it’s not, Molyneux says! What a relief.

But hey, at least they threw us a bone with Halo HD and… Halo 4. Really, Microsoft, I thought we were past revealing two Halo games a year. Then again, keep bleeding exclusives like you have been and I guess I can’t blame you.

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DHR: Uru: Ages Beyond Myst (PC) Review

Pros:  + Beautiful environments and lighting  + Excellent sound effects and voice acting  + Great soundtrack  + Compelling puzzles  +Sense of reward upon completion or discovery of new pages and areas  + Faithfully captures the essence of Myst in full 3D  + Rich, mysterious story

Cons:  – Awkward third-person controls  – Poorly realized online content  – Stiff, awkward character animation  – Shallow character customization  – Inability to pick up items makes some puzzles a chore  – Not much replay value

Though its popularity has no doubt diminished with time, the Myst series is one of the most successful franchises in gaming, selling millions of copies over the years. Sometime around the turn of the century, Myst’s mainstream popularity began to dwindle. Uru: Ages Beyond Myst is a series reboot by Cyan Worlds, featuring an original story and a new 3D engine.

Despite taking place within the canon fans had come to know, Uru, like realMyst before it, uses real-time rendering in the place of the pre-rendered environments most of the other games have. This gives Uru a very different atmosphere from its predecessors and allows for much better use of sound and lighting. It’s also the first and only game in the series to take place in the third-person perspective. Myst’s fanbase remains divided on Uru, but the game’s earned a devoted following all the same.

Uru’s story begins under the premise that an ancient city of the lost D’ni civilization is discovered in New Mexico. The fate of the inhabitants is largely unknown, but details come to you over the course of the story via audio logs by the enigmatic Yeesha (the daughter of Atrus, whom many Myst fans will recognize) as well as detailed logs of D’ni history left by the D’ni Restoration Committee, an archaeological expedition dedicated to the city’s restoration and repopulation.

The rich history of D’ni is entirely optional for you to explore, but the good folks at Cyan Worlds, as always, have written a wealth of detailed folklore and history for the fallen civilization. You can skip reading all the journals, but the lore is fascinating and provides you with not only context to frame the story and give you a better sense of the civilization you’re working to rebuild, but also with hints for the game’s many complex puzzles.

Uru’s gameplay centers around the same basic principles as the rest of the series. You enter a strange, beautiful world (or Age, as the series calls them) and uncover clues to solve complex puzzles and advance toward your goal. Progression slowly reveals more details about the troubled past of the D’ni empire and the events surrounding its eventual collapse.

Exploration and puzzle-solving give you a great sense of reward. In one early Age, you’re tasked with exploring a defunct factory. Early on, the facility is totally silent, but as you reactivate machinery and open new areas, the silent complex comes alive with the screeches and groans of ancient equipment. Another Age starts you off inside what appears to be a stone temple. As you make your way higher into the structure, you discover that the entire building is rotating, eventually using this to provide power to an elevator that takes you to the roof and reveals the massive jungle in which the spinning fortress is located—and an even larger tower directly adjacent to the one you’re on. Little moments like this give you a great sense of scale and push you to explore more and more to find out what’s next.

As you press on, you’ll encounter puzzles that vary in complexity from simple logic to intricate mechanisms that test your problem-solving skills in increasingly obscure and fascinating ways. All these puzzles are integrated seamlessly into their environments, as are the hints you’ll need to solve them. Again, this is pretty standard Myst fare and really speaks to the creativity behind the development team. One example features an art gallery that serves as a companion to a vault Age containing a deceased noble’s riches; this gallery’s various works of art are all cryptic hints to the vault’s numerous puzzles, which serve as a security system.

Besides puzzles, your main objective is finding Journey Cloths, seven mysterious tapestries scattered throughout each Age. As you find the cloths, the glowing hand symbol on their face will glow to indicate how many you’ve yet to find. When you find a new cloth, it acts as a check point in the Age. If you fall into an inescapable pit or some kind of death trap, you’re immediately taken back to your hub world, a floating island called Relto, from which you can link back into the Age and (hopefully) not mess up again.

Unlike previous entries in the Myst franchise, you have virtually no inventory. Apart from a Linking Book, which you use to return to your Relto island, and the KI, which functions as a camera and GPS to save hints and find hidden items, your only “inventory” is your wardrobe, which features customizable clothing. While this bucks the often annoying trend in adventure games of having dozens of one-use-only items that are often only vaguely related to puzzles, it also works to your disadvantage in a couple of puzzles that require you to move objects into position or use them to form makeshift bridges. What this means is that you have to spend an unreasonable amount of time moving objects around by nudging them with your feet instead of the obvious solution of picking them up and placing them in the necessary locations.

The “tank controls” don’t help that strange design choice, as they’re not suited for precision movement or manipulation of objects. Because of this, some of the object-manipulation puzzles can quickly become frustrating. While there are only two of this particular type of puzzle and neither is particularly challenging, the control scheme was dated in games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, and time hasn’t sweetened it.

If Uru’s graphics were its sole selling point, it would still be worth it. This game is very, very pretty, due in large part to incredibly detailed textures and outstanding art design. Particularly surprising about the impressive visuals of this game is the fact that it’s only the second title in the series to be rendered fully in 3D, after the “director’s cut” realtime remake of the original game. Some of the Ages are small and limited to a single “room,” while others are positively massive and make great efforts to give you a sense of scale. Even in the huge environments, the framerate stays smooth.

The surreal environments are varied nicely and all have their own unique visual style. The industrial Teledahn is perpetually in twilight on a vast sea. Misty crags and skyscraper-sized trees conceal Kadish Tolesa’s ruins. The fortress of Gahreesen is nestled in a lush valley amidst a dense jungle. All of these Ages have their own identity and color palette that make them easily distinguishable from one another, but there are minor consistencies in things like architecture that tie them together.

The graphics aren’t without their drawbacks, however. Some Ages can take a long time to load and occasionally suffer from textural pop-in on higher settings. You’ll also encounter some occasional bizarre physics glitches, such as objects continually moving as if being nudged back and forth.

The biggest chink in the armor of Uru’s otherwise outstanding visuals is third-person avatar (the first and only instance of this in the series) you create at the beginning of the game. Though you’re given a decent amount of options for customizing his or her appearance, some of the physical attributes you can alter look very awkward, such as an overweight character’s body mass going entirely to his or her stomach, giving them a ridiculous beer gut. The facial options are a little better, but no matter how you tinker with your avatar, they always have a not-quite-human appearance. Avatars also don’t animate very well, and their running animations look stiff and clumsy. They also have a way of sidling up to objects with which you can interact in a very unnatural way.

Even better than Uru’s visual design is its incredibly lifelike sound. Heavy machinery grinds to life as you progress, sounding totally realistic as it fades in and out as you approach or leave. Sounds of wildlife and wind echo and distort realistically as you round corners or walk in and out of rooms. Water sloshes and gurgles as you trudge through it.

The voice acting, though it’s heard only so often due to the lack of characters to interact with, is very good. Series staple Atrus narrates the beginning with a warning to his missing daughter, Yeesha. Yeesha’s audio and holographic logs you encounter ominously detail and deride the history of the D’ni, coldly condemning their actions while hopefully imploring you to continue your journey of discovery. Her first message to you begins in another language, whereupon she interrupts herself and starts over in English. Another recorded informal speech by a DRC member convincingly has the speaker pause to say, “Um,” going off on a brief tangent and coughing here and there, which adds a subtle touch of realism.

You don’t hear much of the soundtrack, and that’s a shame. The brief soundtrack contains some of the most gorgeous and original music in recent memory, blending traditional African music with country and European classical elements. The result is unlike any other soundtrack out there, so it’s unfortunate that  it was so understated.

The main story is a fairly short 10 hours (give or take), making the game feel a bit incomplete, but there are two expansions that add 2- to-4 hours of gameplay each. Beyond that, there are a lot of hidden areas that contain new clothing items and additions to your Relto hub world (like a waterfall, trees and a music player). That’ll only hold you for so long, but the extended story and two additional Ages make for another fun outing that extends the value.

Uru featured an online component, but it was unfortunately realized pretty poorly. There wasn’t much interaction and it seems like the online was only added as an afterthought or for the novelty factor. You could explore Ages with friends and visit each other’s customized Relto islands, but there was really nothing in it for you if you didn’t. A nice idea in theory, but in practice it just didn’t do anything for the game. The game really could have benefitted from complex cooperative Ages built from the ground up for two or more players, but no such effort was made.

Despite a few minor visual blemishes and some bizarre gameplay choices, Uru is a fascinating entry in the venerated series. High production values and a compelling narrative help to alleviate some of the pains of dated controls and a couple of annoying puzzles. Uru is well-made and you can tell a lot of thought went into its design, but a couple control issues and a feeling of incompleteness hold it back.

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DHR: Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360) Review

Pros:  + Decent story with well-developed characters  + Characters are more expressive in conversations  + Great visual design  + Great soundtrack  + Combat is fast, fun and smooth  + Great side missions  + Variety of difficulty levels  + Lots of little variations on story options  + No more Mako

Cons:  – Infrequent gameplay and graphical bugs  – Some classes aren’t very good  – Mining is a chore  – Downplayed RPG elements hamper customization  – Lacks the sense of “place” the original had

It’s almost impossible to talk about Mass Effect 2 without comparing it to its predecessor. Simply put, the sequel surpasses the original, but not in every way. A lot of effort was put into streamlining the experience, definitely to make it more accessible to mainstream audiences.

Missions are fairly linear, keeping you moving toward your goal while occasional conversations break up the action. But the improved mission pacing comes at a price. If you liked the more open mission structure of the first Mass Effect, the sequel’s less-downtime-more-action philosophy may put you off. The clumsy Mako is also gone, leaving you on foot for all the story missions; that’s good, but there’s less variety as a result.

The cut-and-paste side quest design of Mass Effect’s has been done away with in favor of a couple dozen unique side quests with different objectives and stories. Every side quest has a unique location, and some of them mix up the gameplay by emphasizing exploration or puzzle-solving over combat. Several of the character-centric recruitment and loyalty missions are among the best in the game, featuring great action sequences and heavy decisions that shape your characters’ stories.

The cluttered inventory system is also gone. You now permanently upgrade weapons by using resources mined by probing planets (try using a probe on Uranus for a couple snide remarks from your ship’s AI) or picked up during missions. It gets rid of the annoying “micromanagerial” process of sifting through dozens of upgrades and armors to find a preferable setup for your mission. On the other hand, you lose out on a lot of customization, and scanning worlds for resources is pretty tedious.

Customization is also limited in terms of what abilities characters can use. You still pick your class and upgrade your powers as you level up, but you have less powers to choose from and can upgrade them fewer times. This makes every class a little more focused but also limits your options. The end result is a game that feels a little like Gears of War with dialogue trees.

That said, the good far outweighs the bad. The original Mass Effect was a great experiment and a resounding success, but clumsy execution and weak side quest design kept it from achieving greatness. What Mass Effect 2 does right is give you more and better missions and plenty of interesting characters to help you through them.

The story picks up months after the original game with Commander Shepard still looking for clues about the Reapers, a race of genocidal sentient machines from beyond the stars. To cut a long story short, Shepard winds up working with Cerberus, a strongly pro-human organization with a bad reputation. The Illusive Man, Cerberus’s head honcho, tells Shepard that entire human colonies have been disappearing and those responsible may be working with the Reapers. Needless to say, Shepard’s back on the job.

While it throws fewer twists at you than the original’s story, Mass Effect 2 does a pretty good job of keeping you interested. That’s due in part to the sci-fi/Lovecraft/Dirty Dozen mash-up it has going on, but the big draw in Mass Effect 2 is the characters. This game is a lot more character-driven than its predecessor and you’ll need to get to know your squad mates and help them get past their own problems (usually with a lot of gunfire and explosions) if you’re going to succeed in your mission to stop the Reapers.

Pretty much every squad mate you didn’t kill in Mass Effect shows up for at least a cameo and a couple even join your party. Garrus and Tali become permanent fixtures, while Liara, Wrex and Ashley/Keidan get bit parts here and there. Even minor characters from Mass Effect come back for appearances of varying significance. You get to see how a lot of your choices impacted people and places across the galaxy. Although most of it is done through nods to offscreen locations and characters that don’t really impact the main storyline, it’s nice to see choices you made in a previous game being acknowledged.

The core shooting has gotten an overhaul, integrating ammo and revamping cover to become more like mainstream tactical shooters. Taking cover is now not only a viable combat technique but almost always an essential one. Cover is touchy, though. Climbing over cover and ledges is cumbersome, requiring you to first get into cover and then move forward while holding the A button to jump it. You may also sometimes have a clear shot at enemies and end up shooting an invisible wall while in cover. In tough battles, that’ll cost you.

Most of the battlefields are laid out well, and you get a sense of progression as you advance on your enemies. Capturing a more strategic position is important in several later battles, but while you’ll need to have tactical awareness to get by on the higher difficulties, the lower ones aren’t demanding. Actually, you might want to bump up the difficulty a little if you don’t want to sail through the game.

Enemies are a little smarter now, many taking cover so they’re not immediately shredded by gunfire. (At least they don’t shout, “I will destroy you!” every three seconds anymore.) Certain powers or ammo types work better against enemies, depending on what armor or shields they have. Fire ammo works better on armor, Overload works better on shields, and so on. If you lose track of what’s good against what, there are visual cues in the battle menu to set you straight; dimmed skills are ineffective while highlighted ones are stronger or moderately effective.

They don’t break the game, but you may run into bugs during combat. It’s possible to get stuck in objects or cover, sometimes requiring you to load from your last save. Your teammates can also be pretty stupid, running in front of cover instead of shooting from behind it. If you direct them into cover, they might decide to stay there until ordered otherwise, leaving you to fend for yourself in later fights unless you constantly tell them where to move. While none of these bugs happen often enough to ruin the game, you’ll probably run into each one at some point.

Besides the dialogue wheel options that let you choose “nice” or “mean” responses, you can now use interruptions to, well, interrupt conversations with either Paragon or Renegade actions. Paragon actions boil down to diplomacy and generally non-violent solutions, while Renegade actions usually involve shooting people until they die or pushing them out of very tall buildings. It’s less of a moral choice system and more of the choice between which kind of badass you want to play. Through the dialogue, you shape your character and parts of the story, personalizing the narrative to your liking. Seeing what happens if you make another choice in a mission adds a lot of replay value to the game and makes replaying with different classes or characters all the more rewarding.

The writing is where Mass Effect 2 really shines: Most of your squad mates are exceptionally well-developed throughout their lengthy conversations. Talking to them will reveal their personality and history, making them a lot more interesting than they seem at first. Learning what makes your squad mates tick can be very rewarding, and you may find yourself liking characters you initially thought you’d hate.

Mass Effect 2 lacks the sense of place its predecessor had. It might seem like a nitpicky detail, but standing in elevators and loading docks while going from place to place gave Mass Effect a greater sense of immersion while also covering up loading screens. Now that all that’s been replaced with generic loading screens, it sometimes feels disjointed, especially when cutting from the polished deck of the Normandy to the scummy streets of Omega.

That said, the locations look a hell of a lot better this time around, occasional texture pop-in notwithstanding. Mass Effect 2 uses color and light to set the mood, giving the worlds you visit a vibrant, lively feel, even though some of them are pretty empty. Weather and atmospheric effects like fog, rain and sandstorms add to the atmosphere of missions while you let fly with fireballs and biotic energy attacks. Even the galaxy map is a sight to behold as you hop from arm to arm of the Milky Way. Star systems are saturated with bright oranges, indigos and crimsons, smoky trails of gases weaving between and engulfing the solar systems you explore.

As you might expect from a BioWare game, the sound is outstanding. Most of the voice actors turn in top-notch performances, particularly Michael Beattie as Mordin Solus and Martin Sheen as the Illusive Man. The voiceovers bring their characters to life with great dialogue and delivery that make up for the sometimes wooden facial animation. Environments are full of tidbits like shouted conversations in bars or indecisive shoppers. Occasionally, you’ll hear news broadcasts or ads for products and services playing over speakers as you pass by a storefront. It’s little touches like this that really bring the worlds to life.

And then there’s the music. Composer Jack Wall took everything that was good about the original Mass Effect’s soundtrack and turned it up to 11. The result is easily one of the best soundtracks in video gaming. Orchestral sections combine with downbeat electronic tunes to create a sound that often calls to mind classic science fiction properties like Star Wars and Tron. The amount of variety at play in the music is certainly an impressive one, from the somber “Reflections” to the haunting, ominous “Samara,” which features a combination of Middle Eastern instrumentations and vocals that stand out from the bunch. Probably the best track is the end theme song, “Suicide Mission,” motifs of which can be heard throughout the game. This sweeping, bombastic track perfectly captures the essence of the story’s dramatic struggle against impossible odds and rarely fails to get you pumped for what’s coming.

The question is, does Mass Effect 2 meet the lofty standards set by its predecessor? The answer is an emphatic yes. Though the change of tone to a darker, more sinister one may be jarring to some, the setting and characters feel more alive than ever before. Despite the lighter RPG elements, the core gameplay is stronger through the addition of new elements and the trimming of others. Outstanding art and sound bring the galaxy to life in new and exciting ways, despite a slightly disjointed flow. The polished presentation and satisfying gameplay will fill hours upon hours of your time, giving Mass Effect 2 tons of replay value. It’s not only one of the best games of 2010, but one of the best this generation.

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