Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

The Exasperated Calculator Game of the Year 2007

January 4th, 2009

Yes, I’m aware it’s 2009 now. But I still need to cover the games that I played in 2007, before I can move on to the 2008 edition.

The rule is that it has to be a game that I played for the first time in 2007 – not paying too much attention to the original release date.

The finalists are:

  • Bioshock

  • Mass Effect

  • Portal

  • Super Mario Galaxy

  • Uncharted

  • World in Conflict

So, without further ado…

In 6th place is Mass Effect. This is a game that I was incredibly excited about, but never got the energy together to play more than about three hours. I’m sure I’ll come back to it some day, but it’s a game where nothing quite comes together properly. Of course, it still beats out lots of games that didn’t make the list at all.

World in Conflict takes 5th place. The main reason I didn’t finish this one was that it kept crashing on my MacBook Pro. But it’s a lot of fun – an interesting take on simplifying the real-time strategy genre, with an interesting plotline. Makes good use of high-end PC graphics as well.

For fourth place is Portal. It’s a great fun game (which I actually finished, so it’s also pretty short). But I didn’t get as much out of the plot as a lot of reviewers, and the humor was just ‘OK’. But an interesting take on the first-person puzzle game, a genre without a lot of entrants so far.

Super Mario Galaxy takes third place. This game is just about the only reason to own a Wii. I haven’t finished it, mainly because I was spending so much time getting each and every star that I hadn’t finished by the time I moved on to the next game. Fantastic, pure platforming fun, with an occasional frustration from an inconsistent difficulty curve.

Second place goes to Uncharted. It’s a simple Tomb Raider rip-off, with a little bit of Gears of War thrown in for the combat sequences. But it’s so well done, with a great pulp plot, that it’s one of the most compelling games out there.

And so first place, the inaugural Exasperated Calculator Game of the Year 2007, goes to Bioshock. The main attraction is the strength of the story, but the RPG-esque shooter gameplay is a big part of the attraction as well.

I’ll try and get to 2008 before too much of 2009 passes….

Game Review: Mirror’s Edge

January 3rd, 2009

Mirror’s Edge, by DICE, published by Electronic Arts.

I don’t play a lot of games all the way to the finish. The current pile of unfinished games includes Assasin’s Creed, Oblivion, Fallout 3, Mass Effect, Super Mario Galaxy and Psychonauts. So the first thing to note about Mirror’s Edge is that I actually finished the game.

The game itself is a mixture of very entertaining and frustrating. The basic parkour free running sequences are a lot of fun. But some of the rest of the game needed more work.

There are really three types of game built in to the game:

  • free running parkour sequences, where you have to get from one end of an environment to the other, often chased by enemies.

  • puzzle sequences, where you need to use the parkour moves in a more precise way to navigate around a room, usually to get higher. Usually no enemies chasing you.

  • combat sequences, where you’re fighting enemies directly, either using hand-to-hand or weapons you’ve picked up.

I loved the first type of play – innovative, exciting, and has the best ‘fall of a cliff and die’ effects of any game ever. The puzzle gaming was also a lot of fun – occasionally frustrating (when you fall all the way down and need to make your way back up), but satisfying in the same way that most puzzle games are.

The big problem with the game for me, right up until the last bit, was the combat. Firstly I made a choice to play for a PS3 trophy for not using guns – a mistake, as while you’re encouraged to not use them, you need to from time to time. That made my life a lot more difficult. But even taking that into account it’s just not that enjoyable, a lot of needless death until you accidentally find the way to get through the sequence. Unlike the first two types, I never really felt like I was getting through because of skill, just luck.

The last fight sequence in the game turned me around, a little. I realised that you could plan everything out precisely, and treat the combat almost like another puzzle sequence. That made the (difficult) final encounter a bit more palatable, but still it would have been nicer to have a good running sequence instead as the finale to the game.

Overall, it’s a superb game worth playing. The plot isn’t really worth mentioning, but the gameplay is mostly a lot of fun.

(Hey, I’m back! Don’t expect too much – I’m just going to post stuff as it occurs to me. Some weeks nothing, some weeks lots of things).

2007 Game in Review

February 28th, 2008

For some reason, I played quite a few computer games in 2007.

Aftering buying a Wii in 2006, I got an XBox360 and PS3 to go along with it. And a few games as well.

Over the next few months I’ll do a series of game reviews (and there’s likely to be a fair gap before the last few, as I haven’t finished them yet…). I’m looking at games released in Australia in 2007. I’ll also review things that come out in 2008 as I play them.

Once I’ve covered them all, then I’ll announce gaming’s most prestigious prize: The Exasperated Calculator Game of the Year.

The shortlist (aka ‘Games I played’) for 2007 includes:

  • Bioshock (Xbox 360)

  • Mass Effect (Xbox 360)

  • Portal (Xbox 360)

  • Super Mario Galaxy (Wii)

  • Uncharted (PS3)

  • World in Conflict (PC)

I’ll try and review all of these by the end of 2008.

TV Review: The Palace

February 15th, 2008

The Palace, a new series from ITV in the UK.

The setup is pretty simple: The West Wing meets The Queen.

That’s a difficult premise to live up to – one of the best TV series of all time, and one of the best films of recent years.

Inevitably, it doesn’t live up all the way to the source material, but it does come surprisingly close.

The show really covers three overlapping worlds – the feuds and conflicts of the royal family, the intrigues of the politicians and the political staff, and the below stairs antics of the pages and valets.

The political side works best – it’s so reminiscent of The West Wing that you can almost assign characters. The problems surrounding the king are well imagined, and the consequences play out nicely. There’s also some lovely acting from the king and his staff.

The family side is a bit more arch – the Princess Eleanor in particular is a fantastic villain. There’s a bit more scenery chewing, but it’s still fun stuff.

The weakest point is the servants side – it’s played quite ‘camp’, and the cast of characters is implausibly small for a palace. Fortunately not much time is spent on this stuff, and it can be quite funny.

Only five episodes in so far (out of eight for the initial first season order), but it’s worth watching.

Book Review: Hyperion Cantos

February 11th, 2008

I just recently re-read an old favourite of mine, the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons.

The Cantos is a sequence of four books:

These were well received novels when they first came out – the first won the Hugo award, and three of them one a Locus Award.

I won’t try and summarise the whole story (it’s hard to cover the story of four books without spoiling at least three of them). The central setting is the strange world of Hyperion, with it’s time tombs travelling backwards in time, the labyrinth with its millions of miles of underground tunnels, and the vicious metallic Shrike. And beyond Hyperion, there are the post-human Ousters who live in space, and the independent artificial intelligences of the TechnoCore.

The writing of the books is interesting to follow. The first book is written in imitation of the Canterbury Tales model, with a series of tales told by pilgrims within a thinner framing story. The second book has a different framing device, but so much plot is included in the frame that it becomes difficult to really call it a ‘frame’. The third and fourth books resort to a very conventional framing device, the ‘condemned man’ flashback plot. The writing throughout is good, but I have to admit to enjoying the earlier books with their more ambitious approach more.

The quality of the story, on the other hand, gets considerably better in the second two novels. The story throughout is interesting, but the backing plot is overshadowed in the first book by the tales of the pilgrims, and the second book is weighed down heavily with picking up the dropped threads of the first book. The third book is a much more closely plotted, faster moving story with far more engaging characters – the most engaging character of the first two books is the artificially reconstructed personality of the poet John Keats.

While I personally enjoy the series as a whole, it’s hard to recommend to others. The first book is hard going, and has the least engaging of the pilgrims tales at the start. As a result I suspect that Hyperion is a much-abandoned novel. It’s also not very representative of the story and style of the later books, with pretty much only the setting and a few characters carrying over. Personally I enjoy the first book quite a bit, but it is (far more than the other three) not for everyone.

Movie Review: Cloverfield

January 21st, 2008

This weekend I went to see the new movie from JJ Abrams, Cloverfield.

I went in with fairly low expectations – I enjoy monster movies, but don’t really enjoy Abrams’ work very much.

I’m happy to say that I was completely blown away. This is a superb film, which anyone who can stomach it should see.

(When I say ‘stomach it’ I mean two things – firstly, it’s a tough film, and reportedly very tough for people who were in New York on September 11. Secondly, there have been a lot of reports of motion sickness from the handheld camera work).

I’ll put the rest of this review on the post page, so I can include some spoilers from this point on.

Read the rest of this entry »

Movie Review: No Country For Old Men

January 4th, 2008

No Country For Old Men.

Directed by Ethan & Joel Coen. Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin.

In West Texas, June 1980, a drug deal has just gone very badly wrong. A case containing two million dollars ends up in the hands of Llewlyn Moss (Brolin) when he comes across the aftermath. He soon finds himself being chased not only by the mexican drug dealers, but by shadowy psychopath Anton Chigurh (Bardem), who is not afraid to leave a trail of bodies behind while chasing the money. Following all this is Sheriff Bell (Jones), trying to save Moss from his one bad decision.

The Coen brothers have produced some marvelous films over the years: Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Miller’s Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy. But No Country is without question their finest work to date, and already one of the classics of cinema. The film is intensely visual, relying on the sweeping panoramas of desolate West Texas to tell part of the story. The dialogue is generally sparse, and much of the plot is told through the screen rather than the soundtrack. The acting is superb, with Javier Bardem’s chilling psychopath and Tommy Lee Jones’ desperate laconicism the standout performances. But Woody Harrelson turns in a great cameo, and Kelly Macdonald (as Moss’s wife) has a great scene towards the very end of the film. Inevitably this film will attract comparison with Fargo, with its own case full of money, but this is a far deeper, more downbeat piece than Fargo. And ultimately a (slightly) better film than the Coen’s previous masterwork.

Move Review: National Treasure: Book of Secrets

January 3rd, 2008

National Treasure: Book of Secrets.

Directed by Jon Turteltaub. Starring Nicolas Cage, Justin Bartha, Diane Kruger, Jon Voight, Helen Mirren and Ed Harris.

Treasure hunter Ben Gates (Cage) sets off on a new hunt, this time looking for proof that his ancestor was not involved in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. With only a page of the diary of assassin John Wilkes Booth to go on he must follow a trail of clues planted in the 19th century. Together with his assistant (Bartha), his estranged girlfriend (Kruger), his father (Voight) and mother (Mirren) he must try and race the shadowy Mitch Wilkinson (Harris), who has an agenda beyond simply showing that the Gates’ are descended from traitors.

This film rolls neatly down the rails set down by the first National Treasure movie. While viewed from a distance the premise and plot is completely ridiculous, the film maintains such a momentum and seriousness about itself that you end up being caught up in the ride. As before, there are spectacular sequences in ancient catacombs. But there are also some good character moments, with Helen Mirren’s appearance adding something to the overall picture other than her own paycheck. If you liked the first, you’ll enjoy this too. And if you missed the first film, come and enjoy this one anyway.

Movie Review: Hitman

January 2nd, 2008


Directed by Xavier Gans. Starring Timothy Olyphant, Dougray Scott, Olga Kurylenko, Robert Knepper and Ulrich Thomsen.

A mysterious, powerful organisation (known only as “The Organisation”) has created a series of genetically engineered super-assasins. Trained from birth, they are killing machines who complete the contracts the organisation takes from outside. The best agent, known only as 47 (Olyphant), is working on a contract to publicly kill the Russian president (Thomsen). But following the assassination attempt the president is still alive, a witness (Kurylenko) must be dealt with, Interpol (Scott) is trying to hunt him down, and his own organisation is now trying to silence him.

Hitman is based on a moderately successful series of computer games, which does not, from the history of such adaptations, bode particularly well for the movie. Fortunately the film is largely able to climb up above the somewhat ridiculous plots of the original game, but in trying for Bourne-style political intrigue the reach of first-time director Gans somewhat exceeds his grasp. The plot is pretty silly, with plot holes galore and plenty of suspension of disbelief required. But the actions scenes are frenetic and exciting, and the director shows a good (if somewhat unsteady) eye for a pretty scene. It just goes to show that the first rule of film adaptations still holds: good source, bad film; bad source, good film. And in this case: middling computer game translates into a middling film.