Criticisms and other heavier things

This is where I place all my reviews and other interesting quips about comics and literature.

Feel free to speak your mind about what's said at Speedygi@techemail.com, my email address, and I can be found on Facebook as well (Speedygi@hotmail.com).

Regards,
Jeremy Cai

Singapore

Feb 23

The Walking Dead: 400 Days (a Telltale Games adventure, reviewed)

image

If you have played Season one of The Walking Dead, there is probably nothing to stop you from getting into this immediate follow-up episode, but just for the sake of record, reviewing seems to be in order, and here I will do it to build on the previous review.

Obviously, if you have not played Season one, you absolutely should play it for the amazing storytelling and tense emotional undulations, you will not regret it and it will be the best thirty dollars you can spend on a good narrative-driven video game right now.

400 days, quite simply touted as the companion episode to Season one and the prequel of sorts for Season two, isn’t going to be that all-encompassing experience just like the first series of episodes, but more an attempt to bring the serial storytelling dynamic to a new place. Clementine, the main protagonist of the first season, isn’t going to be here, and neither would any of the story arcs from previous episodes be featured here in any shape or form. This is a brand new story, and a fresh smorgasbord of characters appear in a story compressed like a single comic issue.

The analogy of a single comic issue applied here seems apparent when you first dig into the episode, with it featuring five different groups of characters who have no seeming relation to each other. Telltale has said it’s going to feed into the main bulk of Season two, and while you wonder how that will pan out, a little testament to the efforts to create a polished serial story, that point isn’t going to matter much once you work your way through these nuggets of gameplay.

They all have a story to tell, and of the heart-tugging variety too. It no doubt follows on the same dilemmas of living in a post-apocalyptic Zombie-infested world. To save someone means to sacrifice another, and to do something that looks right to you may have consequences on another front, but the gameplay looks improved here, like Telltale has learned many lessons from making adventure games thus far and applied them.

The improved gameplay would do well to satisfy the hunger anyone waiting for Season two may have. Lots of gunplay, lots of exploration yearns to show just what to expect from further episodes, you will cling onto these stories like a person clinging onto the vignettes in a themed short story collection. Curiosity will kill the cat, and you begin to feel invested in these people’s lives.

Not all of them are put-together individuals but are fractured in their own vices and struggles, and Telltale is brilliant for creating a link between them, a clever ending and way of pointing towards the cloudy future. The episode is clever, although short, and if you want more Adventure game goodness from Telltale this is a no-brainer.

For those who haven’t played the first season, what are you waiting for?


Jan 20

XCOM: Enemy Unknown (for PC, PS3 and Xbox360)

For someone who has played his fair share of turn-based games, there are certainly more bright moments than there are dull ones. There are the Civilization games which stand on a plateau all by themselves, and the Alpha Centauri games that were spawned with such great success into the market. Looking for more examples of great franchises is easy, Heroes of Might and Magic was a powerhouse in the Fantasy genre and even if you added the Art of War military franchise into the picture, you’ll get nothing to complain about.

So, what about XCOM and why should one care about this game? XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the reboot of the hugely acclaimed UFO: Enemy Unknown, which was surprisingly a cult hit in its time. For a game that applies such a simple premise as Earth’s forces repelling away strange and dangerous extraterrestrials, it delivered a deep turn-based strategy game that holds up to the test of time. This modern remake brings with it a huge, new coat of polish and an engaging combat system that amplifies the depth even to the point of excellence unseen in the genre.

You can certainly play this game like a mad man and ignore all aspects of cover and concealment, but you will slowly get your *** handed to you. Your soldiers will drop like flies. You will cry a great deal. You will lament the game’s unforgiving difficulty, when it throws yet another impossible-to-kill mini UFO that can possibly wipe out anyone of your soldiers with a single blast at any time. You will be get so angry and get pulled into this tactical strategy game, in the vein of Company of Heroes but with a turn based slant.

Deceptively complex under a simple system is how I would describe this wonderfully made game in which you attempt to repel an imminent Alien invasion. It sounds epic because it is, but you aren’t the hero like in Halo, but a commander of common men and women, all required to be equipped with tech more similar to Doom’s or Quake’s, maybe with just a little more sophisticated science fiction feel.

You’d often question every tactical decision, which are, in fact, dilemmas brilliantly presented perhaps as a unintended consequence when every known urban combat practice is thrown in. You will discover a good deal of combat philosophies going in, and that makes for pretty much all the fun you’d want to take away from the game.

If a game studio sees fit to put on some rather impressive stylized and 3D graphics on a game that really has unlimited ways of expanding itself, XCOM isn’t to be taken lightly. Stable, very intriguing and the poster child for the idea of games as a benchmark for a gamer’s respectability, XCOM can pull you in and not let you go.


Jan 14

An unforgettable story (The Shawn Michaels story, heartbreak and triumph)

image

I don’t normally splash for DVD boxsets,  but when I watched trailers of Shawn Michaels talking about his life journey and his struggles both in the WWE and out of it,  I knew I needed to watch the story in its entirety. The content looked like gold,  the interviews were intimate and went deep into the emotions behind what happened in the celebrated career of Shawn Michaels. 

The clips of in-ring action looked high quality as well,  although not High Definition by today’s standards. It was everything I was looking for in a wrestling documentary. I have watched single matches online,  and on various (and most of them, dreadfully grainy)  YouTube video channels,  but I have watched very few wrestling documentaries. There was Eddie Guerrero’s story,  but that was about as much as I fancied out of the lot.

Now,  now,  I watched wrestling a far bit in my childhood and youth,  largely because they were something to watch on Television and my parents never stopped me from watching. I came in at the time way after the Hulk and Andre,  but it was surely something I never regretted.  It was the attitude era,  and staples like Big Daddy Diesel,  Razor Ramon,  and a young wrestler with fire in his pants,  Shawn Michaels.

I would never forget how Shawn Michaels could take as much physical  punishment while still being so acrobatic,  and that was a big part of his resiliency. He had battles with the Undertaker,  and Mankind,  one of three alter-egos of Mick Foley,  but none showed his dogged determination, his seamless ability to dictate the flow of a wrestling match and his seemingly endless appetite to entertain and to perform,  than the match between him and Bret ‘The Hitman’  Hart. 

That was a truly amazing match,  as are many of Shawn’s matches. Every single one of them showed his heart,  the very same heart that turns out to really beat throughout every single second of this film,  and I’m glad I had bought it.

image

It includes,  within the multifold DVD case,  three discs of content,  the first disc featuring the main documentary itself and some bonus scenes. The main clip is chronological and goes from his very beginning as a child,  Shawn Hickenbottom, who had a dream to perform as a professional wrestler,  much to the dismay of his parents.

It is all at once poignant,  and when time and time again the struggles are documented there a deeper build to how truly great Shawn Michaels is,  as a man and as a professional,  despite his shortcomings. He stands tall as the highlight of a storied career and in the discs itself. He takes full center stage,  occasionally providing the basis for far more,  the memorable and, some of them,  intriguing times in the WWE.

Disc 2 and 3 top off the collection with some of the best matches you will ever see,  Shawn’s phenomenal win at the 95 Rumble as a number one entrant,  ending with an equally surreal rematch between him and Cena. It is a disc collection for the ages.

If you even remotely have a pulse for the WWE and professional wrestling,  you need to have the one disc collection featuring arguably the greatest of all time. Good way to start off a wrestling video collection,  if you are just beginning.

image


Jan 7

Motostorm RC (PS Vita)

First off, I must say that Evolution Studios did a truly commendable choice of going with a niche idea for a racing game rather than go down the realism or over-the-top-SciFi route. If you have ever seen any gathering of enthusiasts maneuvering these minute remote control cars around in a track before and competing with vigor, you would immediately recognize the appeal as soon as you start to negotiate the turns in this game. There is no mistake in assuming you would get into that remote controlled racing mentality fairly quickly.

The two control schemes you can choose to play with ensures that you will set off on a racing tear in no time. One allows you to control relative to the track orientation, and the other option, relative to which direction your car is pointing towards, but the idea is that with such a good game engine in place you would never lose a beat with these smooth running controls. Evolution clearly knew the priorities of a racing game, and it shows on every vehicle and on every single turn.

With a RC theme going, the surprising realism that every track practically demands from the player is ever more amazing. Get a nudge from an opponent’s car, feel the physics work against you on the following turn. Using a muscle car on an Ice surface? Prepare for a slicker turning challenge. It even brings up tutorials on drifting later on, just because you will very likely need to employ the same in a later challenge on festival mode, Motostorm’s version of the career mode. Every single effort to make the controls as intuitive as possible goes towards the goal of isolating the difficulty to just you, the gamer, and what an addictive series of races ensue.

There is no sense to when the dynamic decisions put into this labor of love ends and where it starts. There is, however, an elaborate sandbox to relive your most obscure RC fantasies. Opting to use drifting strategies and so, different driving lines in the earlier races to gain the top reward of three medals are often on-the-fly and unconscious decisions that pay dividends in the fun department. There are DLC cars to suit your every lust, drag cars and huge smorgasbord of types. Furthermore, you can even choose to complete the game with all of the medals attained with the stock cars provided on there, and it is indeed a possible achievement in the game, although it will tax your driving prowess just enough to think about flinging your Vita across the room.

Different racing and driving challenges are here, ala Wipeout, but you want the driving to never end, and you never want to stand down from that impossible track lap time. And even if you have completed every single track and challenge, a free for all mode prolongs the frenzy even longer. If you have never had any liking for RC cars, however, at least give it a few races on the basis that the driving mechanics along with some impressive visuals are up there with the best on a portable system. Motostorm RC is a game the Vita desperately needs more of to fill its struggling library.


Jan 5

Guacamelee (for PS Vita)

With an influx of indie platformers coming to almost every platform imaginable, we can see a resurgence of platforming as a popular genre within gaming circles. Limbo was responsible for introducing radical ideas into the platforming mix, and that was kept the genre fresh amongst the countless rehashes of staples like Rayman and Super Mario. So then, welcome Guacamelee into the elite indie platformer mix.

It is hard to argue with the charm that Guacamelee delivers in spades, almost from the introduction onwards. It splashes the screen with stylistic 2D cel-shaded graphics that not only suits the luche-libre and mexican-myth hybrid theme, but also serves to show that a game can impress graphically without elaborate and often overdone 3D environments. The endearing quality has a dual function of keeping that indie feel and also keeping the action snappy, and thus bringing to the forefront all of the platforming goodness it brings to the table.

First thing you probably would notice while spelunking through the levels is that every jump, special attack, or pretty much any action you take in the game is as precise as should be. There is a need to define the rules and the boundaries in which your character can function, and in the later stages exploit to your advantage, in order to advance. Guacamelee nails it perfectly, while throwing you through impressive stage after impressive stage, never letting up in intensity and platforming difficulty, a trademark of all good platformers.

There is a deep variety in the enemies to face in Guacamelee, and none of them are, like anything in the game, impossible to defeat.  They are not easy to deal with and more often than not, you will find yourself flail at the controls while you die to a smorgasbord of creatures coming at you simultaneously, or even as the boss of a stage does a damaging attack, but once you get a hang of what special moves you must do in order to dispatch them at any given time you start rising to the challenge and as a result enjoy the game more as you go deeper.

The story keeps it interesting with you featuring as a luchador, and how often can we tout that? It has commendable polish in storytelling as well. Simplistic as it may be, you actually get a little taste for what Mexican wrestling is all about without being forced into ostentatious explanations. The aspects pertaining to Mexican myth and ‘magic’ relate to the game mechanics just as much as the wrestling, all of which are critical for negotiating the stages, especially in the later parts.

Think of this as Super Metroid’s spiritual successor with a Mexican twist. You are going to have a hell of a time trying to beat some of the more difficult moments, but your love and faith for the platforming platform, indie or otherwise, will increase to top-rope heights. There is no better platformer for the PS Vita.


Jan 1
Tomb Raider can be described as an action game, brought up to go beyond the genre and series it expands on, and yet it never feels like it lost much of the acrobatics we have come to expect from the resilient Lara Croft. That can confuse the directions of many a game studio, because to break through in an overdone genre and yet stay faithful to its trappings is like going in opposite directions.
This is why, although Lara Croft looks very much like a true vision for an action protagonist with a soul within, she is almost like a seasoned actor brought to go through yet another lackluster scene, but with perhaps a more extravagant budget. Usually a high budget movie has a plot like this, a shipwreck and a conspiracy theory that allows for plenty of tension and adventure, but feels like they could have pushed for higher levels of polish and intricacy. 
Lara looks prettier and well developed in demeanor this time around, which is applaudable.  They set out to create a realistic and less sexualixed version of Lara,  but after close inspection it feels like it pushed the feminine side of Lara far more than before,  keeping it in that same category of sex appeal or probably higher,  especially when the graphics have become good enough to be considered as Next Gen,  so for an action shooter it is a visual treat on par with Remember Me or Assassin’s Creed 3. 
However,  the combat system and the climbing sequences you have to go through for the sake of scene advancement are nothing to shake a stick at.  There are variables that keep the difficulty respectable,  but they usually involve shield-wielding enemies,  sheer numbers and  boss characters with the usual gimmicks to beat them. Then you realize a single overwhelming shotgun buckshot can be that get-out-of-jail-free-card and the challenge diminishes a little,  changing the game into basically chunks of carefully curated battles to get to the next cut-scene or save point,  the latest bane of modern gaming stemming from action games having to be on-rail experiences instead of deeply involved-and sometimes impossible challenges that keep the player on the toes. 
You can’t argue with how genuinely nostalgic the action feels though.  The combat has evolved into a gritty and savage affair.  You can feel every crunch and force of a hit,  and every thunk from an arrow hit feels satisfying,  so you keep playing with a certain weird joy of wanting to get through unscathed and advancing deeper.  
If that is probably its strongest point,  then I’m happy it is.  People coming into Tomb Raider don’t typically look for an extremely deep experience but rather appreciate the character for what she is,  a strong female protagonist.  Take it how you will,  if you aren’t looking for the spiritual successor to Half life 2 in any sense of facet,  you would find a decent adventure that attempts something new to reinvent and to mature an established character.  It’s really just a beginning rather than an end.

Tomb Raider can be described as an action game, brought up to go beyond the genre and series it expands on, and yet it never feels like it lost much of the acrobatics we have come to expect from the resilient Lara Croft. That can confuse the directions of many a game studio, because to break through in an overdone genre and yet stay faithful to its trappings is like going in opposite directions.

This is why, although Lara Croft looks very much like a true vision for an action protagonist with a soul within, she is almost like a seasoned actor brought to go through yet another lackluster scene, but with perhaps a more extravagant budget. Usually a high budget movie has a plot like this, a shipwreck and a conspiracy theory that allows for plenty of tension and adventure, but feels like they could have pushed for higher levels of polish and intricacy.

Lara looks prettier and well developed in demeanor this time around, which is applaudable.  They set out to create a realistic and less sexualixed version of Lara,  but after close inspection it feels like it pushed the feminine side of Lara far more than before,  keeping it in that same category of sex appeal or probably higher,  especially when the graphics have become good enough to be considered as Next Gen,  so for an action shooter it is a visual treat on par with Remember Me or Assassin’s Creed 3.

However,  the combat system and the climbing sequences you have to go through for the sake of scene advancement are nothing to shake a stick at.  There are variables that keep the difficulty respectable,  but they usually involve shield-wielding enemies,  sheer numbers and  boss characters with the usual gimmicks to beat them. Then you realize a single overwhelming shotgun buckshot can be that get-out-of-jail-free-card and the challenge diminishes a little,  changing the game into basically chunks of carefully curated battles to get to the next cut-scene or save point,  the latest bane of modern gaming stemming from action games having to be on-rail experiences instead of deeply involved-and sometimes impossible challenges that keep the player on the toes.

You can’t argue with how genuinely nostalgic the action feels though.  The combat has evolved into a gritty and savage affair.  You can feel every crunch and force of a hit,  and every thunk from an arrow hit feels satisfying,  so you keep playing with a certain weird joy of wanting to get through unscathed and advancing deeper. 

If that is probably its strongest point,  then I’m happy it is.  People coming into Tomb Raider don’t typically look for an extremely deep experience but rather appreciate the character for what she is,  a strong female protagonist.  Take it how you will,  if you aren’t looking for the spiritual successor to Half life 2 in any sense of facet,  you would find a decent adventure that attempts something new to reinvent and to mature an established character.  It’s really just a beginning rather than an end.


Dec 26

Musings of a new Galaxy S4 user coming from BlackBerry 10

Coming from the BlackBerry Z10 I must say that the Galaxy S4 smashed all my expectations for a phone. It’s not even been close in terms of overall set of features and the app ecosystem which is not only plentiful but more useful than even iOS’. Apps like TubeMate can be sideloaded as are apps like Mega through unofficial app markets.

Bittorrent is here as well,  which is something iOS probably will never have,  and the result of having such freedom in an operating system means you can do pretty much everything a full desktop computer can,  barring heavy intensive video editing tasks probably.  With the S4 you are literally using a full fledged computer in your pocket. 

I was initially worried about the touch keyboard on the S4, given that the BlackBerry Z10 is a very good typing phone,  with the swipe up suggestions being a huge highlight in BB10.  The stock keyboard of the TouchWiz interface,  however, is a monstrosity and I could never hit the keys I really want because of how small and narrow they are.

That is where I discovered SwiftKey and I never looked back. The ability to download things to replace aspects of the native experience you don’t like is invaluable and is something I view as a strength of the Android platform. Once I had SwiftKey in there,  I was tapping predictions on top of where the keyboard was.  It is a small price to pay when you can’t swipe up like in BB10 but when you are so used to tapping predictions on top you hardly notice any hassle.

The camera and battery life are much better on the S4 than on the Z10,  as is the screen resolution and size.  You can do DLNA with the S4 through third party apps. There is truly a comprehensive set of features here,  barring the lack of an FM radio which I wouldn’t mind that much. 

To run at least half a day on this thing is refreshing given the treacherously poor battery life of the Z10. Plus it has a removable slot for batteries and Micro SD card slot so you never have to worry about battery or storage.  What’s not to like?

All in all,  I rank the S4 among the highest of this year’s best phones,  and I think with such phones around,  BlackBerry is going to struggle a huge deal.  It is really hard to beat such abundance even at this price point.


Dec 22

Carrie by Stephen King (a review)

There are few writers that can capture the imagination of their readers as well as Stephen King. Carrie is, as told by Stephen, a rough and raw novel written by a younger writer whose craft is taking form. But if books are judged by the level of visceral tenacity and wild idea-slinging, Carrie ranks highly in the halls of fiction.
The yarn, if one considers a pulp-like horror story as such, lies between deep western boogie myth and an admittedly unpolished slant on the effects of ridicule on the female psyche. It will win very little approval from literature critic circles but it possesses more of the deeper truths than most books would ever have. That speaks of pure boldness, almost as if Stephen King has a bead on the topic like someone having a feud.
His heart and mind knows paranoia and yet he feels at home, or even in the right place, when darkness is involved. We feel for the awkwardness of Carrie, and in a high school setting where that almost always equates to social outcasting, creating a tense, invoking scenario that unfolds and captures.
At first glance, the clunky nature of the ideas does force the reader to perceive them as afterthoughts, not constructed in any sort of coherent logic, but they do provide a glimpse into a writer’s workings. The seeming explanations for Carrie’s awkwardness in school, with the rigid religious beliefs of her parents being a large part, are not as concrete in the way Thriller novels explain, but mostly vague clouds that form a shape of terror. It is a tribute to Clive Barker or Jack Ketchum’s school where terror lies there’s always a source of grief.
The grief is in many ways a precursor to the actions of the characters, whether good or bad, and belies the pragmatism of these Stephen King books. The cause and effect of what these characters do are rooted in grief, and sometimes guilt. Some express them in anger-like Carrie herself- and some in repentant resolve, but as in real life, but people never have great vision, or a sense they would get there in the end, spurring a microscopic view of a realist’s ideal that life is unexpected and sometimes cruel.
The climax and the ending may have been constructed with more technical aplomb but it really carried on the record that Stephen King already had set in place. The book must end in darkness and despair, but even he had the sensitivity to inject a little hope, or at least a movement of progress to the future, a grim future that our dull reality could well have hidden. A worthy piece of reprieve from terror written by the master of dark stories, has to be remembered even if it lacks literature credibility.


Dec 20

Max Payne 3 (a review)

image

Rockstar knows sequels, and more importantly how to progress characters in their sequels. For Max Payne, there was only one way to take him, creating a grittier, older and more wrinkled version of Max, with all the usual, noir-ish characteristics intact. More violent, more scarred, that makes for a greater shooter experience these days, and one can’t help but think that Rockstar could be heading down a boring and familiar path yet again.

When you actually start playing through, you can see the work being put in, that they perhaps have earned their chops here, story and gameplay. There were earnest in the scenes and the style values that have gone into the game. They also used the flashback narratives as the way to progress the story in the present. It is certainly grander in scale, like Rockstar combined and amped up Max Payne 1 and 2 into one big, bad monster.

Max Payne 1 had the noir and Max Payne 2 had the darkness. Max Payne 3 makes those two look dirtier, more visceral. A Max Payne that has nothing to lose, and yet could lose the very same people he, with a loyal sense of heroism underneath, had to protect (and fail, of course, which is Rockstar’s signature slant). There was not a moment where you feel the story dragged on, and if a scene felt like filler the action in the gameplay that compensates most definitely did not feel mediocre. It is a close examination of modern shooter storytelling, told the Rockstar way, and in that alone the game already succeeds tremendously.

If anything, you can sense how they distilled the whole Max Payne bullet-time mechanics down to a science. You have the weapons and the upgrades, and now you also have the overused cover and fire movements, which you know is just required for you to survive. Compounded with the way they created the disintegrable environment, you will need to appreciate a situation far more. Do you take cover behind a wooden board when you are facing a heavy weapons soldier as opposed to someone with a sub machine gun? The economy in every move you make and every cover you take is critical to success.

Which makes the good old Bullet-time all the more satisfying…as sometimes style in the bullet-ballet needs to be sacrificed for the sake of safety, or would you see the situation beatable by and only by running into the fray and diving in between visible bullet shells. You decide and you reap the rewards (or failures), and that gives the player power in being Max Payne (or your own character in multiplayer, which has balls-out firefights in spades).

After all, you want to be him, the greatest reason why you play these Max Payne games, and for Rockstar to have a sense of taste to realize that is worthy of potent admiration.  The good old noir hero is back, and I must say, pretty impressively in the ways that matter for fans and newcomers alike.


Aug 10

Sweet but a little too short

The first novel for adults since Anansi Boys in 2006, Neil Gaiman succeeds in big ways and small ways, but he also fails in many ways that matter. However, he manages to create a concoction that enchants much like Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing,’ and entertains, even for the short while.

It takes a little while to realize that you were never going to find out who the exact narrator’s name was, but you figured it never really mattered. Even the place where he lived seemed unremarkable. He grew up in a small town, the unmistakably English town of Sussex, and it seemed the magic he would soon encounter was going to make sense within the context of the locale, but it doesn’t.

Neil Gaiman, master author as he is, intended this to be about the happenings and the going ons. It may sound questionable at first but at least when you are halfway in, it becomes somewhat like that young adult’s novel. Never mind the little hints towards adultery, no one’s going to put this book down.

It’s even structured to read in one sitting, and while it felt like Neil Gaiman did a sort of cop out by phoning it in, well, let’s say this plot isn’t bad at all because Lettie, Neil’s obvious effort to get in some sort of ‘boy meets girl’ mechanic, seems like a caricature, like everything else was a caricature. The narrator’s parents were a caricature, and so was his sister.

Neil Gaiman suggested a notion that maybe the magical adventure is far more important than who these people actually are, and that maybe this is how we felt when we ourselves were little lads and lasses. If purely seen as that, it succeeds both in terms of sheer resonance and entertainment. It does make us recall possibly terrible memories like a good 200 plus page novel.

Seen from the other angle, it can also be seen as a lazy attempt at carelessly plodding through a nonsensical plot where everything seemed to be steeped in myth and in made up stuff. The narrator had often found himself in situations where deep powerful forces reigned, but it seemed a device where Clive Barker books thrived on, largely unbridled imagination with no true source or origin.

Even the ending feels like it was unfinished, with little insinuation that maybe we could be pushed beyond the point of almost non-existent characterization into substantial character development, which Neil instead deems to employ in a really strange manner in this book.

Neil’s language abounds and delights as always, but don’t expect anything of the caliber of American Gods, or even Anansi Boys here. Expect to be enthralled by the terribly audacious ideas for a day or so, Neil’s most risky work in awhile.

Now, wait for the more powerful Neil.


Page 1 of 9