Friday, November 22, 2013

Additional Thoughts Re: "Contrast"

In my initial thoughts on the PS4 from earlier in the week, I mentioned that I rather liked "Contrast". I also mentioned that I hadn't actually finished it yet.

As of yesterday, I finally got around to finishing it.

And... well, my opinion has shifted somewhat.

See, when I discussed it before, I talked about how the game felt unfinished, but the story and unique mechanics elevated it enough to feel worthwhile to me.

However, having now completed the game, I think I can safely say that the whole thing basically falls apart in Act III.

Act III feels more than rushed. It feels like the original creators of the game all died and then the janitor swooped in and tried to finish it.

The first two Acts of the game, while somewhat unpolished, served as a solid foundation for the story and the game mechanics, but the final Act decides to rob the story of any dramatic weight and scrape together poorly-designed gameplay to bring about the finale, which has an ending tonally incongruous to the rest of the game.

To be more specific, I need to go in SPOILER territory, so forgive me.

Alright, so the first two Acts establish an interesting -- if a bit cliche -- setting in a noir style about a young girl, Didi, and her imaginary friend, Dawn (the playable character). Didi's mother, Kat, works as a cabaret singer and is struggling to make ends meet due to her deadbeat husband, Johnny, getting the family in trouble and then skipping town. Then, of course, Johnny shows up wanting his family back. He has another ridiculous plan to start a circus funded by mobsters, with the highlight act being a man named Vincenzo, a sort of hybrid between Houdini and Tesla. His plan seems to be coming together, but Kat still doesn't want him getting the family involved. She pulls a gun on him and reveals that Johnny isn't even Didi's real father, and that, in fact, Vincenzo is. Didi stops the fight, leaving Kat little choice but to give Johnny one more shot.

The next act is about trying to get the circus up and running. Johnny, being a natural-born screwup, needs Didi and Dawn's help to fix basically everything in order to keep Vincenzo from leaving. You succeed and the circus seems ready to go. Didi also wishes to talk to Vincenzo to learn more about him, but he seems hard to get ahold of.

To me, this was a pretty good setup. Johnny was depending on the guy his wife cheated on him with in order to try and win his family back. Dramatically, that's pretty dynamite. Simultaneously, you have Didi who at once wants to give her father another chance and have him around again, but also wants to learn more about Vincenzo. And last, you have Dawn, whose origin and identity is very much a complete mystery, particularly in regard to her powers. Is she a ghost? An actual imaginary friend? Didi from the future? A manifestation of Didi's latent psychic powers? It seems like a great setup for a killer Act III.

So Act III begins with Didi wanting to go find Vincenzo to talk to him. We find out that he's hidden in his lab. Now this was the first big failing for me. The lab of someone like Vincenzo should have been a much more interesting place than it was. Sure, there were tons of gadgets and gizmos all over the place, but almost none of them actually come into play. On top of that, the level design is just ridiculous and needlessly complex. There's no clear sense of space or logic to the layouts.

Anyway, you get through this and Didi finally confronts Vincenzo. And Vincenzo basically reacts about how you would expect... he never wanted her, he's too busy, she's better off with Kat, etc. Still, this scene felt weird to me. The context of the scene is that Didi seems to want to run away with Vincenzo, but the game never really gives us a clear indication of why. Up until this point, Didi has been very dedicated to wanting to bring her family back together, and now she suddenly wants to leave? I mean, granted, if I were a kid, I totally would have wanted to go on an adventure with Houdini-Tesla, but her sudden desire to ditch her family seemed to come out of nowhere.

Still, the scene could have had dramatic weight. After all, her father also left their family to pursue his own ambition, and so her desire to leave could have been used to mirror her father's mistakes. That could have made for some interesting drama, but it never materializes.

Anyway, the big climax in Vincenzo's big performance, which of course has technical difficulties. Didi is suddenly very upset with the fact that she has to fix Johnny's screwups -- something she never seemed upset about before -- and she goes to the nearby lighthouse to save the day.

Now here's the first problem. Didi has shown that she doesn't want to live with her family. She's shown that she doesn't like Vincenzo for abandoning her. She's just now explained that she's tired of fixing Johnny's screwups. So why then is she bothering to go to the lighthouse? Why does she care about the self-centered, witless, frustrating adults enough to go through the trouble of fixing everything?

More importantly, Didi hasn't really done much of anything. Dawn does pretty much all of the heavy-lifting. Particularly in Act III where Didi is nowhere to be seen for the majority of it.

So you climb the lighthouse, a task which is really not that difficult and only introduces one new mechanic that you use twice. Along the way you discover Dawn's identity: she was Vincenzo's assistant that he somehow got trapped in a parallel dimension. Then you get the lighthouse pointing at the stage, Vincenzo does his performance, and then we get our big finale.

Johnny tries to get Vincenzo to take his daughter with him because he's a screwup. They praise Didi for being incredibly thrifty and for saving the day (even though it was Dawn that did it), and Johnny says that Didi should travel with Vincenzo rather than stick around and cover for Johnny's mistakes. But then Kat, Vincenzo and Didi all tell him that it's OK and that everything is better now and their family can be happy again now that his insane mob-run circus somehow turned a profit. Then we get a brief scene where Vincenzo thanks Dawn for looking after Didi, revealing that he was aware of her presence and also possessed her abilities of hopping into shadows. End credits.

OK, what the fuck?

First of all, if Vincenzo knew about Dawn, why did he praise Didi? He knows she didn't do jack shit. Second, why are we OK with the fact that Vincenzo is a terrible person? He got his assistant trapped in an alternate dimension, he slept with a married woman and then abandoned the resulting child for purely selfish reasons, he decided to help out the cuckolded father, but only for money and unreasonable demands (and was a major dick about it the whole time), and in the end, we're supposed to be... OK with this? We're supposed to care that he thinks that Johnny is a suitable father? What gives him the right to have an opinion? He's clearly an asshole!

Next... what kind of ending is that? Everything works out? Kat, Johnny, and Didi live happily ever after? What about the mob? Are they going to still be extorting Johnny? What about the circus? Is it going to have to keep running indefinitely? Will it remain successful without Vincenzo? If the circus was just a one-time thing to settle some debts, what is Johnny going to do now? Is Kat still going to try to become famous? Why does Didi suddenly love her family again after all that huffing and puffing and wanting to run off with Vincenzo? Why does the world seem to be falling apart from Dawn's perspective? What did we learn? What was accomplished?

It's incredibly aggravating. The game has a very intriguing setup and then attempts a resolution that is unearned, tonally dissonant, and lacking any real dramatic weight or climax. Everything just works out and everyone is happy. No one learns anything, no one loses anything, and what the characters gain seems undeserved and possibly doomed.

It's beyond clear at this point. This game needed at least another year in development. Not just to correct the numerous bugs, glitches, and half-finished levels, but also to find a fitting conclusion to the story. The shadow mechanic is fun, but unlike a game like "Portal", the player is never really challenged to master those mechanics or use them in creative ways.

I wouldn't say I hated "Contrast", because it certainly kept me engaged the whole way through, and while the ending was massively disappointing, I was more or less satisfied with the experience. Though it probably helped that the game was essentially free thanks to PlayStation Plus. But $15 is way too much for a game this unfinished.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Initial Thoughts on the PS4

I've talked a number of times about my history with Sony in regards to video games. I had never owned a PlayStation until college and the PS3 was the very last console from the previous generation that I purchased, and I mostly only did it because a friend of mine got me hooked on the "Metal Gear" games. And after using it for a while and warming up to it, I ultimately decided that I should have purchased the PS3 in the first place.

The PS3 was the best system of the previous generation, at least for me. I'm not big on online multiplayer, which I think the Xbox 360 clearly did better, but pretty much everything else the PS3 did much better. I've gone over this before. Better media sharing, better hardware stability, better exclusive games, better indie support, better controller (I'm sorry, I'm not a huge fan of the 360 controller), better digital game support, easier to upgrade the HDD, better paid subscription service, better interface... Honestly, the only reason I still have my 360 is because that's where all of my "Rock Band" DLC lives and it has a Blip and HBOGo app. That's basically it.

So my decision to get a PS4 wasn't born entirely out of the fact that Microsoft completely screwed the pooch on their initial console announcement. And while we're on the subject, yes, I know they've recanted most of the things that made people edgy, but based a recent statement from Albert Penello, it's pretty clear that Microsoft is probably hoping to go back to their original plans later on:

"We just think that's the way the future's gonna go... We may have been right. What we were wrong about was that it's just too soon. People just weren't ready to make that leap right away."

But no, I didn't just get a PS4 because it cost less, lacked an online requirement, and had a lot of support from indie devs. No, I also got it because in spite of my own admitted biases, Sony won me over last generation and I felt like I kind of owed them the benefit of the doubt. I regretted not buying a PS3 sooner last generation, so I felt it made sense to get a PS4 right out of the gate this time around.

So on Friday, my PS4 arrived, I got it set up, and I gave it a whirl. I didn't play with it excessively over the weekend, but I do think I've had enough time to give my initial impressions.

The Setup

Unboxing it was fairly painless. It comes with an HDMI cable, which, yeah, I think this is the first system to do that. Hope Best Buy doesn't mind. The first problem I ran into was... well, finding the power button.

Seriously, because of the way this thing is designed it took me about 5 minutes before I could find the "On" switch. I had to point my lit-up phone at it to see the tiny power and disc ejection buttons sitting wedged in the middle of the front face. Say what you will about the PS3's weird-looking design, at least you could tell how to turn it on and eject a disc.

Once I got it to turn on and connected it to my WiFi, it started downloading the initial Day One update almost immediately. I was actually pleasantly surprised by that. I had heard that the network was really congested, so I actually came prepared to load the initial update manually. Turns out I didn't need to. The update downloaded and installed pretty quickly. I think the whole process took about 5 minutes. Perfectly painless.

Then I tried to log into my PSN account. That... was less smooth. I had to go at it for roughly an hour, sometimes getting errors, sometimes just seeing it spin its wheels for about 10 minutes before backing out and trying again. Eventually, though, it let me through. I still got warnings periodically about PSN Maintenance the whole time, but my connection seemed more or less stable for the rest of the night.

I thought it was a bit strange that the initial update was fine, but logging into my PSN account was a nightmare.

In any case, I needed to connect to my PSN account before I could play any games.

The Games

I was initially going to purchase "Knack", since I kinda liked the colorful design and unique mechanics, but pretty much all of the reviews I've read have panned it, so I decided to cancel that order.

But that wasn't too much of a problem, thankfully. Since I have a PlayStation Plus account (which has more than paid for itself several times over in free games and discounts), I decided to go all-digital this launch. It was a bit of a problem due to the whole PSN Maintenance debacle, but once I got through, it was less of an issue.

On day one, I was able to get "RESOGUN", "Contrast", "Warframe", and "Blacklight Retribution" all for free.


"RESOGUN" is a fun little game. It kind of feels like a hybrid of "Gradius" and "Missile Command". It's a side-scrolling shoot-'em-up, but you are confined to a single circular area and you have to defend and save 10 humans in the map while simultaneously avoiding getting killed yourself.

It's a really well-designed game and I enjoyed playing it, but I think my only problem with it is that it's not terribly addicting, which is kind of a death-knell for a shmup. I played the first couple levels, had a pretty good time, failed on the third one and then just kind of moved on to other games.

I think part of the problem is that each level feels sort of self-contained. In "Galaga" or something like that, even if I die right out of the gate, I still might feel the urge to keep trying in spite of myself. In "RESOGUN", however, if I lose a life early on or a human dies early on, I feel less inclined to keep going since surviving ten waves of Keepers, which are green, glowing smaller fleets of ships that have to be destroyed to free one of the humans. If they are not destroyed quickly enough, the human just dies. If you destroy them, the human is freed from its cage and you have to fly over to it, pick it up, and bring it to an evacuation point.

Let me just say that this very critical aspect of the game took me way too long to figure out. I knew I had to "save the last humans" as the game tells you at the beginning of every level, but I had no idea how to. I couldn't figure out who the Keepers are, what I was supposed to do to them, and how their deaths affected the humans.

All that was probably my own fault for not paying as much attention as I should have, but I'm just saying the game isn't necessarily terribly intuitive. Also, I still don't quite get why letting the Keepers live causes the humans to die. I would think it would make more sense if the humans got captured or directly attacked, but it seems like the humans just die as a result of the Keepers existing. And when the Keepers are destroyed, the human it frees could be anywhere on the map, often causing a rather intense mad dash to the other side of the map to find them before they get killed, and rushing in this game can be tricky since, like any decent shmup, touching another ship will kill you.

All in all, though, I liked "RESOGUN", I just don't think I'm crazy about it. It certainly is the prettiest game of the bunch.


"Contrast" is probably my favorite game of the bunch. I haven't beaten it yet, but I really enjoy playing it.

I'm not 100% sure what exactly is going on (again, haven't finished it yet), but it seems that you play as Dawn, an imaginary friend to a girl named Didi, who lives in a noir-style world. Didi is the only character you can actually see. Everyone else in the game is shown only in shadow. Similarly, it seems no one else other than Didi can see you, though it seems they can see your shadow (though they most seem not to notice you at all). Also, the rest of the world seems very... unfinished. It's unclear whether or not this is just the way the world appears to Dawn, if her ability to interact with the world is limited through Didi, or if the world truly is this collection of concrete islands trapped floating on a void of nothingness.

In any case, the core gameplay of the game is platforming with a slight twist. Dawn has the ability to slip in and out of shadow form, resulting in some very clever level design and puzzles. The puzzles thus far haven't been terribly difficult, but they are still engaging. The platforming itself is a bit flighty and glitchy. Reminds me a lot of "Psychonauts". Clever ideas, but lacking the polish of a platforming game like "Banjo-Kazooie" or a Mario game.

The real highlights of the game, however, are the story and the atmosphere. Didi's story of a girl caught between two parents teetering on the brink of annihilation is a bit cliche, but still engaging. Didi understands more than her parents think, but she also is more concerned with the simpler side of the situation. She understands that her father is in trouble with the wrong sort and she knows that his plans tend to not work out so great, but she just wants her family to stay together and for everyone to stay happy. Her motivations as a character are clear and sympathetic and inform the gameplay by providing simple goals.

The gameplay might be a bit buggy at times, the assets might have needed a bit more polish, and the level design could be tighter and a bit more complex, but the game manages to engage me far more than "RESOGUN". I'd say they are almost complete opposites in that way. While "RESOGUN" has a great deal of polish and balance, it lacks any kind of hook to draw the player in. Meanwhile, "Contrast" probably needed more time for polish and balance, but manages to hook the player in through its unique ideas and compelling story.


"Warfram" is free-to-play game for everyone, not just PlayStation Plus subscribers, but I think you might need PS+ in order to play it online. I could be wrong, I don't know.

In any case, this isn't a new game as it's been out on the PC for close to a year now, but this is the first console port.

It's a cooperative third-person shooter where you play as a sort of cyborg going through and fighting aliens. Part of the gimmick is that it allows for a handful of different play-styles. Some levels can be played with stealth rather than constant running and gunning, though if you're playing in a team, good luck using stealth.

Your characters get a number of abilities and the use of a melee weapon (a sword), which is pretty cool, but the gameplay isn't terribly unique.

For what it is, though, I certainly don't regret playing it and I might go back to it. I'm always a fan of compelling cooperative play and as a free-to-play game, it handles microtransactions responsibly. If you have patience, you can unlock everything in the game without paying a cent, but since a lot of gear is obtained randomly by purchasing blueprints and fusing upgrades, spending real-world money to get a particular piece of gear you want would probably save you time. I personally think that's the best way to handle free-to-play in the current marketplace. Meanwhile, games like the upcoming "Killer Instinct" claim to be free-to-play, but there's no way to get all of the content without paying. Sure, you can play for free if you only want to play as one character, but no one in their right mind would do that.

But I had my problems with it. The art design is way too dark, making it really difficult to spot a lot of enemies. I'm also not crazy about the melee attacks. When you use your sword, you lunge forward, so if you space it improperly or your opponent strafes, you may have to spin around wildly to get your bearings straight again.

Still, I'd say it's worth a go. It is free, after all.

Blacklight Retribution

When I tried to play, there was apparently some server trouble, so I wasn't able to play it. The game is still in Beta anyway, so it probably wouldn't be fair to give it a whole review at this stage.

Back to Games In General

So in spite of the fact that I didn't buy any games at launch, I had a pretty good time with what I was able to get for free. Game installations took a lot less time than they did on the PS3, multiple games could download simultaneously, and once I got PSN to connect properly, the downloads went along pretty quickly. My guess is that they were throttling the number of PSN logins so that the download speeds would remain optimal for update and game downloads. Kind of an irritating trade-off, but I guess it makes sense.

I really do wish that they made an effort to have more PSN games from the previous generation to have some compatibility on the PS4. I've downloaded a lot of PSN titles and it would have been nice to see some of those purchases carry over. Also, yeah, the whole backwards compatibility thing is a bit of a drag, but I understand why it's a problem and I hope that the Gaikai streaming service will prove stable. In the meantime, I still have a perfectly functional PS3.

I will say that I can understand the hesitance regarding the 500 GB HDD. On the PS3, 500 GB was plenty. Even for someone like me who has been binge-downloading games from PSN could fit dozens of games without any problem on a HDD that size. However, I did tend to buy my AAA titles via physical copies just because those sorts of games can take up a lot more space. The PS4, however, will need to install all of your games, in full, no matter what. Again, I understand why. I mean, our PCs already do this. But our PCs aren't limited to one 500 GB HDD. We can have external drives and multiple drives and larger drives. The PS4, however, can only have one 2.5" HDD for game installs, and that's pretty much the largest HDD you'll find that will fit within that form factor.

Honestly, though, it shouldn't be as huge of an issue this generation. The ability to play certain games from only a partial download/install will make it less of a hassle to delete games that you aren't playing anymore. Plus, even though 500 GB is by no means "more than you'll ever need" (which is always a doomed statement to make at any given time period anyway), it should be plenty for about a dozen AAA games, which is certainly more than I can typically juggle at any given time, so I don't really have a problem with this. At least not yet. We'll see how I feel in the future.

In general, though, I feel like the games I got were enough to quench my thirst for at least a weekend, and the fact that I didn't have to pay for any of them makes that even nicer. I would have liked to be able to play "Watch Dogs", but I'm willing to let Ubisoft take their time to get that one polished. It looks great.

The Features

The PS4 is more than just games, though, and people expect more from their video game systems as well. So what else do we got?

Well, the controller is very nice. I haven't had a lot of games that used the touchpad much, but it's easy to reach when I have needed to use it, so I think I'm OK with it so far. The rest of the controller is very ergonomic and comfortable and it has an audio jack port this time, which is probably the only feature from the Xbox 360 controller that I would have liked the DualShock 3 to have. Bluetooth was always a nightmare for chat audio. Also, the controller uses micro USB, so you can charge it with most mobile device charge cables if you don't want to plug your controller into the PS4 itself. Overall, the controller is great. No complaints.

One feature that I had a fair amount of fun with was the built-in streaming. Without needing to buy anything extra, you can set up any game to stream directly to for the world to see. It was easy enough to set up and you can share announcements for your streams on Facebook to let people know when you're online by spamming their Facebook timeline (sorry about that). I liked the feature, but I have some minor issues with it. The overlay takes up about 1/4 of your TV real estate to show you that you're on the air, whether or not your mic is active, how many people are watching, and what people are saying. That's all well and good and I like being able to read the chat as I play, but I really think popup notifications could have been plenty for me. The ability to turn off the overlay would have been nice. Also, while it tells you how many people are connected, I wouldn't mind knowing who is watching, even if it's -- again -- just as a popup notification. It's pretty cool and I think I'll keep using it, but it could be better.

The new interface is fine, though there's really not much to say about it than that.

Not all of the apps that were available in the PS3 are available in the PS4 yet. Most notably the YouTube app, which I thought was a strange omission. Still, I imagine it will be carried over soon. And yeah, I really would like it if they could get apps for Blip and HBOGo so I could stop using my Xbox 360.

Probably my biggest complaint is that there doesn't seem to be any media server support. Look, Sony, I get it, most people watch movies and TV through Netflix and Hulu and stuff these days rather than downloading and streaming locally. But seriously. How hard would it have been to support media streaming? The PS3 has been able to do this since launch. There are $50 devices made by startups probably working out of a garage that can do media server streaming. It's just frustrating, that's all. Thankfully, this can probably be added fairly easily in a software update.

I didn't get the PlayStation Camera, mostly because it's voice control features are severely limited and there aren't really any games that really use it yet. Unless I want to start including my face in my streams, I don't think I'll be rushing out to get one yet. Maybe if they release a better version in a few years or if more games start supporting it or if Harmonix ports "Dance Central" to the PS4. I could get down with that.

The Takeaway

Here's probably my biggest takeaway from this experience so far:

I still use my PS3.

If I want to watch YouTube? I switch to my PS3. If I want to stream a video from my laptop? I switch to my PS3. If I want to play "XCOM: Enemy Within"? I switch to my PS3.

This is a problem, and it's a problem both new systems share. I understand that the PS3's current incarnation lacks backwards compatibility, but it didn't at launch, and that's probably when you need it the most. Games are still coming out for the PS3 and not all of them will have PS4 versions right away, if ever. Gaikai is still months away at the earliest, and even that is probably optimistic.

The PS4 doesn't feel like a replacement to the PS3 or even a successor and I worry that it might take a very long time before it does.

On the one hand, I guess I'm kind of OK with that since I love my PS3 and I would feel weird disconnecting it and putting it in storage, but my PS3 is also really getting old. I finally got the Yellow Light of Death a number of months ago and had to send it back to Texas (read "Mexico") twice to get it repaired. It's working fine now, but I doubt it will have the same kind of longevity that my N64 has. It won't last forever and I have a terrible sinking feeling that when it dies, I will have to either repair it myself at considerable cost (probably from a third-party) or buy a replacement (which would lack PS1/2 backwards compatibility) in order to be able to play most of the games for it. Maybe I'm underestimating Gaikai or perhaps the PS4 can one day natively support some PS3 games through emulation, but this transition feels rocky at best.

I plan to keep using my PS4, but I feel like I'll still be using my PS3 far more often. I'm hoping that will change in the next year, but I think that's the other problem.

While I don't necessarily regret buying the PS4, I feel like I probably could have waited a year and it wouldn't have bothered me much. In a year, I'll probably be done with most of the PS3 games I'm still playing, most if not all of the new games will be available on the PS4, Gaikai might be working, YouTube might be supported, and maybe media streaming too. But I feel like until that day comes, my interaction with the PS4 will be sporadic at best. I still stand by my initial feelings from long ago that Sony and Microsoft would have been smart to hold off for another year and really come out swinging rather than do the usual "rush it out and fill in the blanks over the next year" that most consoles have done in the past.

Still, it feels like a worthy investment. I think I will get good use out of it, just not right out of the gate. I'm hoping that the somewhat sparse launch line-up leaves some room for indie devs to crash on the scene and build names for themselves. I'm hoping that the new hardware gives devs more freedom to push the boundaries of both visuals and game mechanics, especially when it comes to AI. I'm hoping that the PS4 will eventually be my new media hub that I turn on first thing when I get home from work every day.

So... I'd say my feelings are mixed. If you're reading this hoping to get a fix on whether or not you want one... well, I guess my feelings are that if you already have a PlayStation Plus account and you know you'll probably buy one within the next year or two, you might as well go for it now. It probably won't get any cheaper for another few years and if you've already got a PlayStation Plus subscription, you can take advantage of the free games that will come out in the meantime. Build up your library. If you're debating between getting this and an XBOne, I'd say that if you like to play smaller, indie games and you don't want to always have your system connected to the Internet, you should probably go with the PS4. But honestly? I don't really know if the PS4 is a clear winner yet. I've heard the stories about how devs are saying off the record that the PS4 has more hardware power, which is great, and yeah, while Microsoft has said that they're taking steps to be more indie-friendly and they've taken away their online requirements, I find it difficult to trust them. The reaching out to indie devs feels like little more than a token gesture at this point. They say that indies will get equal treatment, that they'll set their own terms, that the XBOne will work as a complete SDK eventually, and that publishers will no longer be needed, but for now those are only words. I'm hoping they prove me wrong, but they rarely do. As for the recanting of the online requirements, as I said near the beginning of this post, Microsoft rarely truly gives up on anything. If something they create doesn't go over well, they take it away, change it up a bit, rebrand it, and try again (see also Vista, Zune, Windows Phone, Windows 8, Microsoft Surface, etc.). I'm willing to bet that in about a year, they'll try again with the online requirements. Maybe offer a new feature that you can only use if you opt into the always-online feature. Then eventually, if the feature is adopted by a large enough percentage of users, they'll make it a requirement. If they get blasted in PR, they'll probably just cite some metrics saying that the majority of their users are always connected anyway or something like that. The only reason they're recanting now is because they still need people to buy the damn things, but that's a problem that will go away after launch.

But that said, if those things don't really matter to you... If you really only play AAA titles, you always have a stable Internet connection, and you think Kinect is worth $100, then... well, yeah, the XBOne is a pretty comparable choice at this stage. It will probably support most of the same 3rd party games and the graphics probably won't be very different. They've started doing the free games thing that Sony started with PS+, though the selections have been pretty underwhelming so far. The Kinect is undoubtedly better than the PlayStation Camera and the system in general has a lot more app support, even if most of those apps are stuck behind a paywall.

But if you like indie games, you're worried about Microsoft changing their minds again, and/or you really don't care whether or not the Kinect is better than the PlayStation Camera... yeah, the PS4 is probably your best option.

Of course, people like Yahtzee will always say that you don't have to choose between the two and that you can just as easily get a PC. And yeah, that's true, but honestly, while Steam has improved the PC ecosystem dramatically in a short amount of time, I just prefer console gaming. With PC gaming, everything feels a bit like a roll of the dice. Usually everything works the way it should, but every once in a while, something just doesn't and sometimes it can be a nightmare to fix it. Consoles offer consistency. A promise that I will be able to use this hardware to play most of the games that will come out in the next decade or so with no serious game-breaking problems. For example, I just got "XCOM: Enemy Within" on my PS3. My PS3 is over 5 years old. So here's a challenge: find me a 5-year-old PC that can play "XCOM: Enemy Within" as well as my PS3 can. Then tell me how much that PC cost 5 years ago. I'm willing to bet any PC you bought 5 years ago with a graphics card capable of playing the PC version without overheating or significantly reducing the settings probably cost somewhere around two or three times what I paid for my PS3 five years ago.

I like PC gaming, I think it can be a great option for certain types of games and Steam often has great deals. But I don't think I could ever make it my "primary" method of gaming. And the Steam Machine coming out next year isn't really a solution either as far as I'm concerned, but that's a whole other ball of wax.

I feel like the PS4 was a good choice. I might not get a lot out of it for a while, but I stand by it nevertheless. At least for now. Hopefully I'll still feel that way in a year.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"Thor: The Dark World" Review

I'm going to break this review up into two parts. Non-spoiler and then spoiler. The non-spoiler part should be more or less complete, the spoiler part will just be where I get into the nitty-gritty geeky specifics that I love to go nuts over.


The first "Thor" movie, despite being pretty good, had a number of problems. Asgard looked too pristine and unused for a multi-millennia-old kingdom, the side characters were often under-defined, and the whole plot felt overly rushed and compressed into a short period of time when it didn't have to be.

"Thor: The Dark World" manages to at least fix those first two problems. While Asgard still looks gorgeous and impressive, it feels like people actually live there. Less Naboo Starfighter, more Millennium Falcon. Additionally, while the side characters probably have about as much to do as before, what they do actually has more relevance to the plot than it did before. Also, the background characters aren't just completely ignored either. When soldiers die, the movie finds subtle ways to make you care. The bodies (when bodies still remain) are left strewn across the once-spotless halls of the All-Father. They are mourned.

It is fairly easy to say that "Thor: The Dark World" is a notable improvement over its predecessor for the reasons above as well as a few others that I'll get into later. However, one thing that remains unchanged from the original film is that this sequel feels even more rushed and compressed.

Very little time is devoted to giving characters room to breathe. It can often be a bit exhausting. While the first "Thor" movie suffered partially because it was hard to believe that Thor could change so much and fall in love within the span of a day or two. Thankfully, there's not a lot of enormous character whiplash this time around, but instead we simply end up with a movie that kind of feels incomplete.

Characters are introduced and then ignored. New conflicts emerge and then are left to be dealt with in a sequel. A lot of people say that a good movie should be able to stand on its own, and I don't entirely agree with that, but if a movie CAN stand on its own, that's usually a point in its favor. The fact that "Thor: The Dark World" is in no way a self-contained movie doesn't make it a less enjoyable movie for me, but it does mean that I'm far less likely to watch it on its own rather than as a part of a Marvel movie marathon or something.

Still, while what we got was a bit rushed and perhaps slightly incomplete, it was still incredibly entertaining.

Probably the one thing about "Thor: The Dark World" that I didn't expect was how incredibly funny it was. The "Iron Man" movies were funny, but "Thor: The Dark World" is hysterical. I was laughing almost the entire way through. The movie realized that one of the best things about Thor is how much he stands out. The best parts of the first movie were the parts where he clashed with modern-day Earth. It was funny, not just because he didn't understand the nuances of Earth culture, but because he genuinely didn't care. He treated the whole thing as just another adventure where he would mix and mingle with the local populace and then move on. Eventually it meant more than that, but at first, it was just very funny to see Thor throw a coffee mug on the ground or ask for a dog large enough to mount and ride like a horse.

While Thor doesn't spend much time on Earth in this one, that element of Thor and his kin having a very larger-than-life persona is never forgotten. Some of the best comedy is built on confusion or contradiction, and Thor is very much an inherently funny concept. That an advanced alien race would behave like characters written by Shakespeare is comedic gold when played right, and this movie manages to do that without straight-up making fun of the source material. It never apologizes for it's apparent silliness, but it does acknowledge how peculiar it is.

Most importantly, the movie always remembers to have fun. Too many action movies lose that element of fun and it can often make the set-pieces feel dull and detaching. This movie doesn't have that problem.

The only other criticism I can give is that Thor doesn't really have a lot to do in his own movie. Oh, he's in most of it and he does things and feels things, but almost every critical detail of the plot is acted upon by someone in his supporting cast. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Thor is often the one arranging all of the moving pieces and making sure they're in the right place and ready to do what they need to do when he needs them to do it, but when all is said and done, Thor's role in pretty much every plan he directs is to show up and the right moment and hit things. And perhaps Mjolnir deserves more credit for that than he does.

Still, despite Thor's lack of doing stuff, he remains an interesting and entertaining character to follow through the story and his supporting cast is really given time to shine and develop.

Overall, I'd say the movie is thoroughly enjoyable, I just think it's a bit... peculiar. Not necessarily bad, just... particular. Slightly off-putting.


OK, time to get detailed and nit-picky. This part is going to be more stream-of-consciousness than anything else.

First and foremost, I'm still disappointed that they killed Frigga. They really didn't need to. I'm glad she at least got to die a hero and all that and it's good that the movie doesn't lack for proactive female characters, but a fridge is a fridge. The movie wanted a reason for Loki to cooperate, and so they decided that Frigga was expendable to achieve that end. I find that upsetting and while it didn't ruin the movie for me, it certainly didn't help.

Next, the reveal at the end, while pretty cool, is incredibly maddening. Too many questions are left unresolved. Where is Odin? Is he alive? Will Loki continue to pretend to be Odin? Will this mask his presence from Thanos, who I imagine is still pissed at him for failing to get the Tesseract? It feels like a huge cliffhanger with serious potential consequences and it's pretty irresponsible to just leave this hanging.

Speaking of the Tesseract, I was a bit surprised that they decided to make the Tesseract one of the Infinity Gems. Er, Infinity Stones. Presumably the Mind Stone, since the Mind Gem was also blue and Loki's staff, which was somehow connected to the Tesseract, had the ability to possess people's minds. Similarly, I'm assuming the red aether is the Power Stone as it seemed to give its users the ability to perform impossible feats of strength and power. Also, yeah, because it's red. It's interesting because this basically means that any artifact, regardless of shape or form, can be an Infinity Stone. Makes you wonder if they've hidden any other Infinity Stones in plain sight.

On that same note, HOLY CRAP BENICIO DEL TORO IS PERFECT AS THE COLLECTOR. "Guardians of the Galaxy" can't come out soon enough.

I really liked how Sif and Jane didn't do the whole love triangle bullshit outside of Odin being an ass and implying how much he ships Thor and Sif because Sif won't die on him.

Loki tends to get over-praised, but he really deserves it here. They kept me guessing from beginning to end and Tom Hiddleston just had so much fun with it. Loki did a lot of frowning and brooding in his previous two outings, but in this movie, he's the grinning mischief-making chessmaster full-tilt. And it's incredible.

I was worried that Jane would be possessed through the majority of the movie a la Hawkeye in "Avengers". Thankfully, she was never robbed of her character or agency and actually probably did more to move and resolve the plot than Thor did.

Odin was way more of an asshole in this film than he was in the first film, which was a bit aggravating, but it is how he usually behaves in the comics, so... yeah, I'll take it.

The Captain America "cameo" is utterly hilarious. Absolutely brilliant. Vaguely surprised that Chris Evans can do such a convincing Loki, but not that surprised.

Darcy is also absolutely great. I love how she cares so much even though by all accounts, she probably shouldn't. Wasn't she interning for the credit? Why is she still there two years later? Did she change her major?

I find it curious that S.H.I.E.L.D. ignored what was going on, possibly because Darcy was the one who reached out to them. I am surprised they didn't do anything about Selvig's naked craziness at Stonehenge. I do hope they devote an episode of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." to dealing with that random monster from Jotunheim that's bombing around London, but it's probably outside of their budget.

It feels like S.H.I.E.L.D. in general has been pretty hands-off lately. Maybe it's because they wanted to decrease the saturation or maybe it's because something is corrupting S.H.I.E.L.D. from within. Perhaps we'll find out.

Malekith, much like Laufey in the previous movie, felt very underdeveloped. Why did he want to destroy the universe exactly? What did he stand to gain or lose? Can he not survive in a world with light? Does he just prefer the darkness? Did he used to rule the universe when it was enveloped in darkness but lost control after light showed up? If so, why does he want to rule the universe? What agenda is he pushing?

Kurse was pretty awesome though. At least I got that he was completely loyal to Malekith in a Waylon Smithers-esque fashion.

I thought it was pretty much bullshit that Hogun got dumped off on Vanaheim to be with his people. Apparently Hogun isn't an Asgardian in this universe. Whatever. I get that he didn't provide as much comic relief as Fandral and Volstagg, but did we really have to ditch the only Asian dude in the movie? It would be interesting if in MCU continuity Vanaheim is to Ancient Asian mythology as Asgard is to Ancient Norse mythology. I think I could maybe get behind that, though calling it "Vanaheim" seems kinda dumb if that's the case. Maybe this is the realm where K'un L'un is located. Maybe Hogun will show up in the "Iron Fist" miniseries. Maybe this whole convergence thing is how he discovers K'un L'un. I dunno. I guess we'll see.

I touched on this before, but I really liked Loki's master plan. He starts out the movie with a number of problems. His family hates him, he's in prison, and Thanos is presumably after him as well for not holding up his end of the bargain. So what does he manage to do? Get out of prison, regain his honor, avenge his step-mom, fake his death, AND stick it to his father and reclaim the throne of Asgard. Gotta say, he played his shitty hand really well. He's my favorite kind of villain. He doesn't let his petty bullshit get in the way of his true goals. He may not be fond of Thor, but he knew that he would be better off playing nice with him than trying to off him. And he may be an ego-maniac, but he's fine with pretending to be dead and posing as Odin simply because he knows that's the only way he can get what he wants for now. He's smart and selfish, not single-minded and pointlessly evil like, say, Malekith.

I thought it was a nice touch to illustrate how Loki learned his magic stuff from Frigga. It made his devotion to her a lot more believable.

I also like that Loki is perfectly amicable towards Jane. He really has no reason to hate her and so he doesn't. In fact, I think he saved her life at one point, though that was probably just to help convince Thor that he was OK again.

What the hell was with Jane's new boyfriend, Richard? He seemed nice and all, but he seemed to serve absolutely no purpose that couldn't have been fulfilled by something else that already existed in the movie. Maybe he'll be important later? I dunno. He kind of reminded me of Doc Samson in "The Incredible Hulk". He was just sort of... there. Maybe he originally had more to do but they cut it out.

Darcy's intern, Ian, was pretty OK though. I mean, he was about as pointless as Richard, but at least he was funny and had good chemistry with Darcy. He reminded me of Rory from "Doctor Who". 

I loved loved loved the spaceship battles. I dunno, I just have a thing for that sort of action sequence. Maybe that's once reason I love "Star Wars" as much as I do. Man, I am going to have a cow over "Guardians of the Galaxy".