Short Game Review: InFamous

I thought about writing a short review for this 2009 PS3 game, but I figure you can just reread what I wrote about Spider-man: Web of Shadows, a 2008 Xbox 360 game, replacing any references to “webs” with “electricity,” and any references to “Spider-man” with “guy with electricity powers.” It even has pretty much the exact same shortcomings. Handy! I will say, however, that while InFamous‘s detailed buildings and cityscape are much more impressive (if smaller in scope) than Web of Shadows‘s cookie-cutter New York, I’m pretty sure web-slinging is still more fun than sliding along power lines. Overall, though, definitely worth the “classics” discount price tag.

Short Game Review: Heavy Rain

Heavy Rain is an “interactive drama” about several people trying to track down a serial killer. “Interactive drama” basically means that it’s pretty much like a movie with occasional prompts to do things. Many or most of these prompts are extremely mundane and simple (“press joystick this way to open the fridge”), meant to encourage greater emotional engagement and to act as practice for when you get a bunch of quick prompts to fight for your life (“QUICK HIT THIS BUTTON OR BE ELECTROCUTED AAAAAAAH”).

I was impressed that someone finally designed a game that is meant to be played straight through, and that takes some risks in genre (well, for a video game), rather than the usual repetitive action/sci-fi shooter. I hope we see more games like it, and I encourage you to give it a try. I don’t think we’ll look back on it as a classic, though, if for no other reason than that the story has so many plot holes you can practically feel a draft—and for a game like this, plot is actually a big part the whole point. Still, I look forward to the day when games that follow in this legacy do away with the common statement, “It has a pretty good story (for a video game).”

Short Game Review: Demon’s Souls

This game is notorious for being very hard, and rightly so. The problem with it is that the difficulty is more boring than frustrating after a while. There’s a lot of repetition and little variety for a long time. Once I resigned myself to the fact that grinding until you memorize it all and level your character to being unstoppable is actually the entire point of the game, it almost ceased to be frustrating—but shortly thereafter, I discovered that any other player can invade your game and anonymously kill you. It’s a fascinating feature for a single-player game. I would’ve appreciated if there were as many players anonymously volunteering to join your game to help you as there are joining games to kill you, but I’m picking this up late, so probably everybody did their good-guy playthrough first and is now on their jerkhole playthrough. Ah well.

Anyway, if you find yourself addicted by point allocation, limited inventory management, and repetitive grinding with occasional flashes of interesting material, Demon’s Souls is definitely for you. By the time I reached the end, I was sort of enjoying the strategy of it, but the enjoyable part of the game for me turned out to be very brief compared to the part of the game killing the same few enemies and collecting items that weren’t as good as the items I already had.

Triple Nerd Score

I love Scrabble dearly, but I recognize that it has its faults. At a certain level of play, it ceases to be about coming up with fascinating words, and becomes something about knowing as many valid combinations of tiles as possible so as to maximize the chances of getting 7-letter “bingo” scores. That’s fine if your friends play that way too, but if they don’t, it isn’t long before people refuse to play with you because you beat them on the challenge for “gar” and followed up by playing “agar,” hooking the A for your seven-letter word off a word they were pretty sure didn’t exist to make two more words they’re pretty sure don’t exist.

On and off, I have mused about a sensible way to do the rules to Scrabble that would allow more interaction between players, and actually prioritize spelling interesting words over killer combos. The best I’ve come up with so far is a hypothetical computer-based variant that would allow you to swap letters and would award points to words based on how uncommonly they appear in web searches. It’d be hard to keep track of word score values in an actual board game version, though.

So, I am looking forward to trying out these alternate Scrabble rules someday. Basically, instead of each person drawing letters randomly, you bid competitively for letters after everyone’s made a play, and then subtract the bid from your score. It sounds like it would make the game longer, but as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong with a little more Scrabble in our lives.

Short Movie Review: The Mutant Chronicles

I watched this movie today because I was feeling sick. It did not help. It is the worst game-to-movie adaptation I have seen since Mortal Kombat Annihilation. I might have forgiven it if only there had been an ezoghoul, but there was not. I don’t know which is funnier: that I actually finished it, or that the end implies that they actually thought this might get a sequel.

Short Movie Review: The Parent Trap (Lindsay Lohan version)

You know, I can’t just leave my complaint with this movie as an offhand joke at the end of a post on Bruce Willis’s Surrogates. This movie is messed up. I assume you know the premise: Two girls meet at summer camp, discover they are long-lost identical twins who were split up when their parents divorced, and decide to switch places as part of a plot to reunite their family. This is not the implausible part yet.

The implausible part is that everyone lives happily ever after. We never really find out what separated the parents in the first place, but it would have had to have been pretty bad, I’d imagine, for them to consider splitting up their children like chattel and then lying to them for the rest of their lives. I mean, that’s pretty messed up. And I’m supposed to buy that they’re all happy to get back together again some day? Golly, I can’t imagine where these kids get that lying, manipulative streak from.

In summary, The Parent Trap is a heartwarming story about how Disney is full of filthy lies.

Short Movie Review: Surrogates

Bruce Willis stars in a movie about how nobody leaves the house except in an android body. It’s probably a commentary on something or other, but mostly it reminded me of how people who are horrified that anyone would walk anywhere when they could drive. In terms of my level of enjoyment, it fell somewhere just above sitting around bored, and several steps above the second movie in that day’s double-feature, the Parent Trap remake.

(Not Quite) Short Game Review: Mass Effect 2

I’ve enjoyed Mass Effect 2 immensely, but I have to concede that it’s practically a different game from its predecessor, which is one of my favorite of all time. Certain changes seem like simple, direct responses to common gripes, such as including bathrooms on your space ship; others completely throw the baby and the bathwater alike right out the airlock. The much-maligned inventory management system—which included tons of useless items that needed to be deleted regularly—has been scrapped entirely for no real inventory management at all. The somewhat tedious, optional vehicle missions—which included unreasonably unnavigable terrains and battles with guns that took forever to destroy anything—have been replaced by a much less optional, much more tedious “minigame” which essentially amounts to “a metal detector looking for quarters,” which is precisely as dull as it sounds. The somewhat lackluster third-person-shooter mechanics have been replaced with a more intuitive system akin to other shooters, complete with extra damage from head shots and crippling effects from leg shots—but the characters’ sci-fi super powers have been rendered much less effective and interesting to compensate for being so overpowered in the previous game.

All of that said, the interaction between characters is where this series really shines. Mass Effect had a fairly interesting dialog system, allowing you to choose between short statements that would then be acted out and elaborated upon by the protagonist. It allowed for a sense of control by the player but also some room for surprise when lines get delivered in unexpected ways. Mass Effect 2 improves upon this with better facial expressions, better gestures, a greater variety of cinematic camera angles, and generally better dialog writing. While some players have criticized the story for not being as straightforward and epic in scope as the previous game, I think it’s worth comparing to a mid-series season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: There are a few “episodes” here and there about the apocalyptic evil that must be stopped, but mostly you get self-contained stories about dealing with your friends’ and allies’ personal problems so that everyone is comfortable working together when it all hits the fan.

It’s not a perfect game, and playing it has made me realize just how much room for improvement the first game had. Both games are still way ahead of the pack in terms of telling an interesting, interactive action story, though. If you haven’t played Mass Effect, I recommend borrowing a copy, doing only the plot-relevant missions, and carrying the character over into the sequel, which follows up on key choices made in the first game. I complain a bit here, but I think those of us who have been playing way too much of these games sometimes forget just how amazing this whole series is in its ambition and scope.

Short Book Review: The Magicians

Lev Grossman’s urban fantasy novel The Magicians starts off reading like a self-aware, toughened-up blend of Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia. It ends up being a character study of a nerdy guy who likely reads as disturbingly familiar to a decent portion of the intended readership, and a metaphor for the existential dilemmas of the intellectual elite. It also contains the line, “Look, who’s the talking Bear here? … Is it you? Are you the talking fucking bear? All right. So shut the fuck up.” Despite the odd scene of animal sex here and there, I believe this warrants my endorsement.

Short TV Review: Glee

People kept recommending Glee to me last year—a sitcom/drama/musical about a high-school glee club, the tension of high school hierarchies, and the faculty advisor’s tangled love life—often with the caveat, “It’s stupid, but it’s still really good.” Well, I just finished the first season, and I’d contend it’s one of the smarter comedies on television.

While it does stumble in places (particulary when it focuses on self-contained episodes over the overarching story), and perhaps never again really achieves the same level of savvy satire found in the director’s cut of the pilot, it’s still painful enough to be believable, and ridiculous enough to be funny. It’s also relatively daring as network TV goes, with love triangles hinging not just upon adolescent crushing (though there is plenty of that), but upon issues of marital fidelity and pregnancy. The defensive remarks that it’s “stupid” probably refer to the soap-opera trappings in its storyline, if not the patent absurdity of the way that musical numbers are worked into each episode. Still, I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that when it’s stupid, it’s stupid on purpose, and usually effectively so. Plus, you will have an a capella cover of “Don’t Stop Believing” stuck in your head for days, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.