Short Game Review: Gloom

I bought this card game as a present to my girlfriend (and to me) for Christmas, thinking it seemed like a cute little Edward-Gorey-inspired time waster. Little did I know that there would be some very clever mechanics and strategy behind all that delightfully sour flavor text. The premise is simple: Ruin the lives of everyone in a particularly horrible family (of serial killers, mad scientists, etc.), and then kill them off. You must bring felicity to your opponent’s family and misery to your own, as the winner is the one whose family suffered the most before being wiped out. The clever part is that the cards are on partially transparent sheets of plastic, so you stack them directly on top of one another, selectively obscuring some text or modifiers, potentially leaving others visible and in effect. The mechanic is so simple and intelligent that I’m kind of shocked it hasn’t been used elsewhere (especially considering how overwhelming some card games can get with half a dozen modifier cards stacked on each other). I got thoroughly trounced in our first game, but I can’t wait to play another. Maybe I’ll have better luck tormenting the family of carnies.

Short Game Review: Dead Space

Once the semester ended I started up Dead Space which was at the top of the small stack of games I had purchased but not yet played. (I know our usually silent partner Kai has also been working through it so perhaps he’ll weigh in with his thoughts.) I’m about two thirds through it and have been surprised how much I’ve enjoyed it given that survival horror games have never really grabbed my attention. 

Dead Space takes place in space (surprise!), specifically on a stranded mining ship you’ve been sent to repair. You battle zombies (they’re called necromorphs but lets be honest here) as you explore the many part of the ship patching things together and being creeped out by shadows and spooky noises. The gameplay feels very much like Resident Evil 4, which is probably  a big part of why I’m enjoying Dead Space given that RE4 was the only other survival horror game I really got into. Whereas Resident Evil 4 frequently distracted me with bizarre puzzles and story twists (now you have to go to an island! now there’s a giant walking statue!) Dead Space seems to stay much more rooted in cultivating a scary deep-space environment. The ship is dark and desolate, usually pretty empty but not without peril in frequent undead and industrial environment forms. The story is at times cliche, but reasonably interesting and feels reminiscent of  both Alien and one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes. Even the way they’ve implement menus, the inventory,and an interface without a constant heads-up display adds greatly to the immersive qualities of the game. I’ll let you know if my opinion changes by the time I finish it, but I’ve been told this game actually has an ending so that is certainly something to look forward to.

Short Game Review: Gears of War 2 (Tony version)

I very much enjoyed the single player component and worked my way through it in co-op mode with Jason or Dan. It plays relatively similar to the first game (ie. enjoyable) but with a few new weapons and some prettier levels. You do have to be wiling to overlook a fair share of plot holes and about 95% of the dialogue will hurt your brain. Also be aware that Gears 2 has only slightly more of an ending than Halo 2.

Horde mode on multiplayer is good fun if you can round up three or four friends to play with, and is responsible for keeping me up well past 2 many a night (a mark of a good game.) Jason’s assessment of the rest of the multiplayer is pretty spot on though: it is broken. When Gears 2 first came out matchmaking effectively didn’t work; they’ve since improved that with a patch, but I wouldn’t call it fixed as it can still take an exceedingly long time to locate matches. Once you do find a game they have a tendency to end abruptly when the host leaves (which seems to be often.) Purportedly some kind of skill system akin to Halo is employed to select your opponents, but most of the matches I’ve been in have seemed pretty lopsided. The interface itself for setting up multiplayer games is clunky with a two-lobby system that is probably reflective of what is happening behind the scenes, rather than what makes sense to the players. Even playing with a group of friends is broken compared to Gears 1, in so far as you can no longer set up a map rotation or banter with the other team between rounds. This travesty seems the worst, to the point where playing Gears 1 with friends is effectively easer than playing Gears 2, (of course then you miss out on the new weapons and maps).  To have so many steps backward is a rather bad mark for any sequel, let alone one as hyped as Gears 2. My hope is that for Gears of War 3 they’ll hire a few people to design a multiplayer system that works and is usable, even if they have to lay off a few people on the team responsible for making sure it is “bad ass.”

The one sentence version: the campaign mode was fun but why struggle with lousy multiplayer when I could be playing Left 4 Dead?

Short Game Review: Gears of War 2

I don’t quite know why this game keeps getting such awesome reviews. I will agree that it’s really fun when it’s working, but that is such a rare occurrence as to be unforgivable. The plot is acceptably horrendous, as the game was really made for multiplayer. Unfortunately, it takes an unreasonably long time to find games online, it doesn’t do a very good job of matching up opponents based on skill, and, most frustrating of all, an entire match can come grinding to a sudden halt if the host quits—an issue that you’d think had been fixed since Halo 3. Yes, you can now take felled opponents as human shields, chainsaw fights are now exciting rather than frustratingly cheap, and there are some smart multiplayer modes. In terms of multiplayer functionality, though, this is a huge step backward for a franchise that already had a pretty badly designed multiplayer setup.

Short Movie Review: Constantine

I haven’t read much of Vertigo’s *Hellblazer* series, and that’s probably a good thing going into watching *Constantine* the movie, which bears only a superficial resemblance to the comic books on which it was based. It’s not a bad movie, though: it’s well-plotted, with clever twists and turns, and great production design and special effects. There’s also a pretty good cast, with the likes of Tilda Swinton, Gavin Rossdale, Djimon Hounsou, and yes, even Shia LaBeouf—which made it that much more frustrating to me to have to spend most of the movie watching Keanu Reeves plod woodenly through the title role. Jason and I differed on the quality of his performance, but I just wonder how the movie would have turned out with someone a little more charismatic playing John Constantine (I’m not suggesting you make some sort of David Bowie-Sting lovechild, but…okay, maybe I am suggesting that). Hounsou’s one of my favorite actors and even though his role as Papa Midnite is somewhat limited he makes the most of it; likewise, Peter Stormare as Satan and Max Baker as Beeman do nice work. And there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance by future leading lady Michelle Monaghan (opposite Shia LaBeouf, no less!) as a demon. Make sure you watch all the way to the end of the credits, too.

The best new shows of the fall

I’ve been putting off writing this list for some time, for a couple of reasons, but as we’ve reached the midseason point, I think it’s about time to run down my list of the top new TV shows for the fall.

Unlike last year, the pickings this year are pretty slim, due in large part to the [writers’ strike](http://doombot.com/2007/11/18/solidarity-baby/) that hit the industry at last year’s midseason. That meant fewer television pilots got developed, and since only a few pilots make it to series to begin with, fewer shows. By midseason, we’ve also already begun to thin the field—two of my [favorite shows from last year](http://doombot.com/2007/10/23/watch-this/), *Pushing Daisies* and *Dirty Sexy Money*, have already been, er, “not picked up for a full season” (diplomatic talk for “cancelled”). And we’re only a short while away from the launch of the new mid-season shows, the most hotly anticipated of which is probably Joss Whedon’s *Dollhouse*. But that’s a matter for a different post.

I’m not going to bother ranking these shows, because that’s a sucker’s game. Besides, the difficulty with reviewing a television show versus, say, a movie or a book, is that you can’t take a single episode as an indication of quality. Most shows (and especially the kind that I like, that really use the serial medium to its fullest) take a few episodes to develop (of course, sometimes they just get worse; right, *Sarah Connor Chronicles*?). But at the end of the day, my only metric for a show is: is this worth your time? And, by virtue of being on this list, my answer for all these shows is obviously “yes.”
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Short Game Review: Left 4 Dead

There’s a reason none of us have gotten around to reviewing Left 4 Dead yet: We’re too busy playing it together. I think someone described it last night as “the perfect game,” and you know, it’s not far off. Even though you can “beat” any of the four campaigns in an hour or two, it stays new and fun to play because the game throws you enemies and items in different patterns and positions each time. The game requires multiplayer cooperation more effectively than other games by incapacitating players who don’t follow the buddy system. Plus, it’s the friendliest multiplayer game I’ve played in terms of allowing people to join or leave part-way through; if anyone goes idle (or specifically opts to take a break), that character gets taken over by the generous/sharpshooting AI. And, while it’s not the kind of game you play for story or character development, the zombie-movie cliches are spot-on, and the little snippets of dialog are a nice touch. In short, if you love multiplayer games and loathe the undead as much as we do here at Doombot, do yourself a favor and go pick up this game.

Short Movie Review: The Da Vinci Code

I guess I enjoyed it well enough while watching it, but only because I was trying real hard. The plot was dull and predictable, and Tom Hanks plays a very boring person perhaps a little too well. Ian McKellen was pretty good, though. At least it was free via On Demand, thanks to the exact same three ads cycling every five minutes or so. And, to its credit, the film version doesn’t make you read the worst sentence ever or attempt to pretend that there’s bar soap in the Louvre washrooms. That’s something, I guess. Oh, and it also put me in the mood to watch National Treasure. Not sure if that’s to this movie’s credit or not yet.

Short Movie Review: For a Few Dollars More

The second part of Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy is, I’d say, better—or at least more fully realized—than the first. Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name (here often called “Manco”—one-armed—because he does most everything with one hand, leaving the other free to shoot with) teams up with bounty killer Douglas Mortimer (Lee van Cleef) to track down ruthless bandit El Indio (Gian Maria Volontè, who also played the chief villain in the first installment). The characters are better drawn: Indio, in particular, is a more compelling villain, and we see Manco meet his match in crack-shot Mortimer. While the two ostensibly have a partnership to catch Indio, they’re clearly rivals, and we see Manco’s flaws as he keeps trying to one up Mortimer and failing. The plot’s also tighter than *Fistful*, and the characters have more interesting motivations. There’s a great shootout in the street when Manco tries to get Mortimer to leave El Paso and the final fight in the little town where Indio and his bandits have holed up is a classic gunfight presaging the likes of the concluding scene of later Westerns like *Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid* (albeit, with a happier result). Van Cleef would return to play the villain in the final installment, *The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.*

Short Book Review: Anathem

It’s long. Really long. Nowadays, that’s par for the course for Neal Stephenson, whose books have tended towards the weighty since 1999’s *Cryptonomicon*. It’s interesting to see Stephenson’s progression: the technological fascination of *Snow Crash*, probably his most influential model, carried over into *Cryptonomicon*, which shared characters and some scientific elements with his subsequent three-part Baroque cycle (*Quicksilver*, *The Confusion*, and *The System of the World*), which began to veer into the philosophical. It’s the philosophical that’s front and center in *Anathem*, which takes place on the familiar-yet-alien world of Arbre. On Arbre, philosophers and scientists have largely been cordoned off from the “Saecular” existence of everyday people, leading to a “mathic” world that strongly resembles the religious in our own world. The plot of *Anathem* largely concerns itself with what happens when that equilibrium is disrupted from an outside source. In terms of action, the novel starts slowly, though it takes that much time to get grounded in Stephenson’s world. At first, I thought his constant re-branding of everyday objects and terms was merely, as Jason put it, wankery, but the more I progressed and got comfortable with the world he was creating, I began to realize how important this defamiliarization was. There’s a definite point to it in the plot, especially apparent towards the end of the book, but another facet of it is that Stephenson’s philosophical ideas are so *big* that it required the creation of this entirely separate foundation just to support them. I’d started the book thinking that perhaps Stephenson had finally jumped the shark, but upon finishing it I’ve concluded that he maintains his position as one of the most fascinating, versatile writers in speculative fiction.