Heavy Rain [PS3]

Posted in Video Games on March 14, 2010 by Scott

To begin, I would like to tell you how I feel about a trend in gaming that has gained a certain spot in most action games; the Quick-Time Event (QTE). As a player of many action games, I have grown accustomed to the QTE, for better or for worse. For those of you not sure if you can recognize a Quick-Time Event, here is a handy guide: Does your game include cut scenes? Can you use these cut scenes as pee-breaks from your mega long sessions of gaming, or are you required to sit there and watch them because there is a button press (or sequence of presses) that you must complete in order to successfully conclude the cut scene? If this is the case, you have experienced the QTE. Quick-Time Events have become the bane of most action gamers’ experiences, since it becomes a lazy way of making you stay connected to the television when most people would tune out. For a better explanation of the evils of QTE, see many, many of the reviews on Ben Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation site, he has a humorous and accurate portrayal of the QTE.

Resident Evil 4, regarded almost universally as the best in the series, and without a doubt one of the top 10 action games (if not top 10 of any genre) of the last decade uses QTEs. The same can be said for the God of War series. My use of these two specific examples is mainly to serve one purpose; to show you, the reader the 2 examples of QTEs in games that I can remember liking. Until this past weekend, at least.

Heavy Rain, an “Interactive Drama” according to developer Quantic Dream, follows in the footsteps of an incredibly ambitious but ultimately failing project called Indigo Prophecy (or Fahrenheit if you live outside the US). Indigo Prophecy placed you in the role of a number of characters, one a murderer who is being possessed by some manner of evil, as well as the 2 detectives trying to arrest this murderer. The story unfolds while you switch between these people; covering your tracks as the killer, and trying to dig up those very tracks as the detectives. The interesting thing about it, and why it ultimately disappointed, was its reliance on the use of the right analog stick to control your actions, and how the whole game seemed to be one big QTE. For some reason I was unable to figure out, Indigo Prophecy didn’t do it for me, but I saw the huge potential it had, which is why I was very excited for Heavy Rain.

Right away, Heavy Rain became a must play for me, the graphics alone sold me on it. The more details that were released, the better it sounded. But the control system still bothered me. How does one control a game where you must hold a button to walk, and interact with your environment not with the buttons on the controller but with the right analog stick? Let me put your mind to rest, the learning curve of Heavy Rain was well worth the effort.

You take the place of 4 characters, a father named Ethan, a private detective names Scott Shelby, investigating the case of the Origami Killer, an FBI agent Normal Jayden, who uses a sweet pair of sunglasses and a glove to investigate crime scenes in a seemingly virtual world (and whose GUI would put Tom Cruise’s Minority Report computer to shame), and a photographer, Madison, who plays an unknown role until later in the story. The story involves the Origami Killer, a man who has killed 8 victims, all by drowning them in rainwater and leaving their bodies in a wasteland area with an origami figure in one hand and an orchid on their chest. Without giving out any more spoilers than I already have, it become immediately apparent that Heavy Rain is going to be (for lack of a better word) heavy. Play the first scene (roughly an hour) without any emotion, and you aren’t human. You start as Ethan, waking up, showering, shaving, brushing your teeth, looking around your kid’s room and juggling if you like. You have a button solely for showing your characters thoughts and desires. if you get stuck, see what you are thinking and it will help you get moving.

You realize while playing that you are just seeing a tutorial level, but by god it is the best and most useful tutorial level in any game I have played. You may find it silly to waste time brushing your teeth or shaving in a game, but once you get into the meat of the game you will certainly be thankful that those actions were given to you to try out the innovative control scheme. Example 1 of the innovation in Heavy Rain: After choosing to take a shower as Ethan, select the shower, push the right stick up and remove your shirt, then push it down to remove your boxers. You get in, make a half circle motion to turn on the water, another to turn it off, and then you shake the entire controller up and down to dry your hair, and shake it side to side to dry your back. Does this seem to be too much? Yes, on paper. But in game, it become second nature. Want to turn on your car? Make a half circle with the right stick to turn the key. Driving your car? Tilt the controller right and left to steer. But all of this is done in the form of Quick-Time Events. Do yourself a favor, before playing Heavy Rain, get very familiar with your Dual Shock 3, or plaster a diagram under your TV so you can participate in the action of the game without looking away.

Example of innovation in Heavy Rain #2: The story is an actual branching story, with important choices to be made. The tagline of the game is “How far would you go to save someone you love?”. This is important to the overall tone of the game in ways I would be amiss to explain to you. Suffice it to say, there is a free-form ability to make choices in Heavy Rain, and the game does NOTHING to quantify or qualify your choices as correct or incorrect. They are just choices. You make them, you live with the consequences. I will admit, there were times that I was completely shocked by how I responded to choices in the game, and felt instantly remorseful or excited, not because the game told me to, but it was a natural human emotion to a stressful situation. A benign example of these choices is in the very beginning, as Ethan. He has a choice to watch TV and listen to music while doing yard work until his wife and children get home. or you he can do some work (he is an architect, and you draw an entire concept drawing if you choose this option). Either way, the story progresses, and you may never know the consequence of the other choice, unless you play again and make it. A final point that struck me about the story was the finality of your choices. If one of your characters died, the game will carry on without them. An amazing idea to be sure, it is just one more example of how must flexibility there is in the story, and the way it is told.

I would like to make a couple of gripe though. The game save almost every time you make a choice. While this is a great feature so that you don’t lose progress due to the game crashing or an emergency of some sort causing you to flee the game, it also left you unable to save the game in multiple slots. There was no manual save option, so if you were caught making a choice you didn’t like, you were stuck, there is no reloading last checkpoint in this game.  The story, however amazingly detailed and immersive  it is, has a couple of gaping plot-holes, big enough to cheapen the reveal just a little bit. The replay value is there, as there are multiple endings, and there are infinite combinations of choices that can be made, you will always know who did it. Its like watching The Sixth Sense again, you always know Bruce Willis is dead.

There is something to be said for being able to control a story as completely as you can in Heavy Rain. It is amazingly well written, animated, and acted. It is a tightly paced piece of art, and it will make you think. It is exceptional in its ability to show what games can be, if taken as art and if someone is willing to take a risk. It is not without its faults, though, as venture into such uncharted territory is, but for the most part they are easy to look over, and don’t harm the overall experience as much as they could have. It’s gritty, it’s scary, it’s unlike anything before it (Indigo Prophecy included).  It won’t be for everyone, it won’t set the gaming world on fire, but it is worth a play specifically to see what possibilities are present in Interact Drama. Play it, tell me about your experience, tell me how it turned out for you, and I will do the same. Be warned, you will feel awful for your choices in this game, you will have a very difficult time discerning wrong from right, and you will question how or why you could have done what you did. But savor that experience. It may never come again in games, and if this is the first and last game of its kind, then so be it. At least it happened once, and it was important. Not just as a game, but as a work of art. Heavy Rain is almost perfect, it gets a 5/5 from me.

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Epic Incarnate: DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS (PC)

Posted in Video Games on December 1, 2009 by DTB

        

Introduction        

Originality.  It’s what’s missing from most modern fantasy.  Certainly there have been some exceptions, but most authors and filmmakers seem content to imitate Tolkien, Lewis, Leguin, and more recently Martin and Salvatore.  Fantasy has become several hundred thousand variations on the same theme, and I’ve been waiting for years (and am trying myself) to introduce something new into the archetypal mix.  If something revolutionary was to come along in the world of fantasy, I assumed it would take the form of a novel or film.  Little did I know that a video game would put years of lacking literary and cinematic creativity to shame, successfully fusing the realistic, political realms of George R. R. Martin’s work with the high fantasy of Tolkien to create something fresh, new, and entirely original.      

Enter Dragon Age: Origins, Bioware’s “spiritual successor” to my self-proclaimed “favorite game of all time,” Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn.  Set in an original fantasy world (the Baldur’s Gates and Neverwinter Nights occurred in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign setting), it establishes itself as more than worthy of such a title, easily donning the mantle of its predecessors while simultaneously introducing us to a living, breathing place at once familiar and wholly different than what we’ve seen in the past.  The nation of Ferelden is a political wasteland filled with civil war, squabbling lords, inept royalty, and an inexplicable nationalist pride.  The Dwarves of Orzammar live in a rigid caste-based society rife with betrayal and strife, though all look for hope in the most unlikely of places.  Elves, once proud and immortal, have been tainted by humans and lost virtually all semblance of their millennia-past identity, becoming short-lived servants, second-class citizens, or gypsy-like nomadic wanderers.  All who practice magic risk possession by the demons and evil spirits that walk within the eldritch realm from which they channel their powers.  A zealous religious order militantly polices such magic-users, slaying all who stray.  And atop this massive heap of despair and hopelessness comes the Darkspawn Blight, countless legions of corrupted demonic minions flowing forth into the land of mortals, killing all in their path.  Only the Grey Wardens, an ancient order of warriors drafted from peasants and nobility alike, can stem the tide.      

Revved, ready and raring to go...

  I’ve never wanted to save the world so much in my life.     

    

Origins       

The word “origins” is in the title for a reason.  According to Bioware, it alludes to the company’s return to its high fantasy RPG roots.  “Origins” also refers to the six origin options available for players at the onset of the game that establish a back-story for your character and color the ways in which characters interact with you forever more.  These origins include the following, some of which are considerably more impressive than others:       

Dwarf Noble:  You are the middle and favored child of King Endrin Aeducan, king of the dwarven city of Orzammar.  You have lived your life amongst the intrigue, blackmail, and power struggle that is dwarven politics.  Brother often turns against brother, and on a day of celebration in your honor, betrayal strikes.  This is a very strong origin, as the writing truly establishes your character as royalty.  Your character is accompanied at all times by his/her servant Gorim, who may be asked to speak to commoners in your stead.  Dialogue options are almost always appropriately arrogant.  The conclusion of this origin is tragic and quite moving, and Gorim is the most fully realized companion available in these origins.  The Dwarf Noble origin also showcases the magnificently rendered city of Orzammar, amongst the most graphically impressive areas within Dragon Age: Origins.     

A Dwarf Player Character

Dwarf Commoner:  You are a member of the Casteless, dwarves born and branded as the lowest of the low.  Having fallen in with the powerful crime lord Beraht, you and your sister Rica are forced to do his bidding as your ailing alcoholic mother withers away.  While Rica trains to become a concubine, your character does the muscle work for the crime ring.  Ultimately, an unlucky job goes awry and the authorities within the Warrior Caste get wind of your transgressions.  The Dwarf Commoner origin is very well executed, and probably includes the most combat-oriented gameplay.  There is far less roleplaying here than in other origins, though RP aficionados will still be delighted with what they’re offered.  Dialogue can also be quite amusing at times, as dwarf “street talk” is explored.  Additionally, the conclusion of this origin had a bit too much closure for my liking.  The primary antagonist is essentially dealt with, which lessens the urgency of the game to come.  This origin also takes place in Orzammar, though in different districts than the Dwarf Noble origins.

Dalish Elf: You are amongst the few Elves seeking to preserve their ancient, long-lost culture; a reclusive nomad who strongly resents the transgressions humans committed against your kind many centuries ago.  You and an old friend encounter and intimidate human salvagers who direct you to a cave wherein lies an ancient evil.  The Dalish Elf origin is without a doubt the weakest of the origin stories.  With no primary antagonist, there is little opportunity for emotional investment.      

An Elf Player Character

 City Elf:  You live in the Elven Alienage, a walled-off ghetto within Ferelden’s capital city of Denerim.  It is the day of your arranged wedding, and your best friend since childhood will also be joining you.  Before the ring-giving can occur, the human Arl’s son claims his right of primae noctis and takes the brides and bridesmaids to his estate.  If your character is male, you must mounta rescue of the young elven maidens.  If female, you must escape the vile man’s clutches.  Racial tensions explode as the proverbial pauper must defeat the prince.  I think the City Elf origin is perhaps the most original of the lot.  Having Elves as second-class citizens has never been done before in fantasy, and the writers of Dragon Age: Origins do an incredibly vivid job of depicting the racial tension and resentment between humans and elves.  Vaughan, the Arl’s son who abducts your character’s bride, is written very well.  The only origin character I hate more is Rendon Howe from the Human Noble origin.  Upon the conclusion of this origin, there are strong feelings of loss and regret, further immersing the player into the game world.     

Mage:  You are an apprentice of the Circle of Magi and one final test away from becoming a full-fledged Mage.  All that remains is the Harrowing, where you must venture forth into the Fade (the realm of dreams and magic) and confront the demons that lurk within its twisted, muted paths.  Upon completion, you are asked by an old friend to aid his escape from the Tower of Magi.  The Mage origin is the most visually beautiful, as the Circle Tower’s high, arched ceilings, stacks of bookcases and magical spells are nothing short of breathtaking.  The Harrowing itself is quite an enjoyable adventure, though the events that occur afterward are rather dull in comparison.  Why follow up an epic battle against demons with a basic “I want to get out of school” plotline?  Still, the origin establishes the world of the mages with absolute clarity, which is crucial should you decide to play a spellcaster.       

Davyn Cousland, my Human Noble character, with the companion Wynn to his left.

 Human Noble: You are the younger child of Teyrn (Lord) Bryce and Teyrna (Lady) Eleanor Cousland.  As your father and elder brother prepare to join the King against the Darkspawn, a covetous and traitorous rival nobleman named Arl (Earl) Rendon Howe (voiced by none other than the great Tim Curry) finds the time ripe for betrayal.  I found this origin to be the best of the lot, partly because it was the first I tried and the only origin I played all the way through to complete the game.  I have a more “personal” connection with it.  The Human Noble origin offers a larger variety of companions than the other origins as well, which includes your faithful Mabari war dog (who helps you on the proverbial rat hunt).  Your character’s relationship with his/her family is firmly and believably written, and each voice actor does a superb job of conveying the chivalric virtues and noble intents of each family member.  Tim Curry is wonderfully seedy as the insidious Howe, his voice dripping arsenic with each delivered line.  It’s a truly “epic” origin, the easiest to become emotionally invested in, and probably the most immersive as well.       

Also of note are subtle dialogue adjustments in each origin based on the gender of your character.     

Plot     

With your character’s origin complete, they are tasked with traversing the civil war embroiled lands of Ferelden to invoke ancient treaties that demand the aid of human lords, elves, dwarves, and mages against the Blight.  The stakes are set high, and the importance of this task feels real and urgent.  This is amongst the first games I’ve played where the side quests, while often interesting, pale completely in comparison to the game’s mission itself.  Yes, it’s fun to get extra armor, rescue captives, or rid a town of an undead plague, but fetch quests are simply silly when compared with the gravity of your primary task.  I never actively sought out a fetch quest, though if I circumstantially fulfilled the requirements along my travels, I’d certainly collect.  This speaks volumes about the quality of writing within the game.       

Story and character are what propel this game forward

It’s this intensity of story that propels Dragon Age: Origins forward.  While I loved Oblivion and its world of seemingly endless exploration, its main quest was somewhat lacking and character development of NPCs was nearly absent.  DA:O has a significantly more linear storyline, but its characters and writing are absolutely top notch.  While certain aspects may seem derivative, as the plot unfolds, its originality shines forth.  For a first-part game in a potential series, the plot of Dragon Age: Origins is as good as it gets.   

    

Characters     

 As in most Bioware titles, your companions are an essential component of the gaming experience.  However, there has never been a game with such fully realized NPC companions as Dragon Age: Origins, which shames even Mass Effect and Baldur’s Gate II with its eclectic assortment of party members.  Within the entire span of the game, it is possible to recruit ten unique characters (one of which is a secret so they won’t be revealed), all of whom have different morals, opinions, histories and dialogue.  Friendships can be forged, “romances” experienced, and even duels declared depending on your character’s actions throughout the game.  These characters feel more like fully fledged book or film characters, due in no small part to the voice actors and brilliant writing.  Main companion characters include the following:     

Morrigan - "I have prowled shadows that you never dreamed existed...am I an unnatural abomination to be put to the torch?"

Morrigan – Morrigan is the “flagship” character that Bioware has used to exemplify Dragon Age: Origins and with good reason.  She’s a mysterious beauty, bitter, often Machiavellian in her philosophy and a wicked witch to boot.  Claudia Black’s voice work for Morrigan is of a top-notch quality rarely even seen in animated films.  Her dialogue is elegantly written and often beautiful, with many Shakespearian flourishes that Black delivers with relish.  In the game itself, Morrigan is a wonderfully useful character, adding a massive offense of destructive magic.  She is also a “romance” option for male characters.   

   

Alistair - "Now that the warm fuzzy part is over with, we can get back to the ritual dismemberment. Oh wait, it's not Tuesday is it?"

 Alistair – According to the writers of DA:O, Alistair is roughly inspired by Xander of Buffy the Vampire fame.  The witty comic relief companion, Alistair is also morally sound and loyal to the bitter end.  Steve Valentine does some wonderful voice work here, bringing a naive cheekiness to such a grim game world.  In addition to his comic and dramatic merits, Alistair is also extremely useful with a blade.  He just might be my favorite character in the game.  Alistair is a “romance” option for female characters.   

   

Dog - "Happy bark!"

 Dog – In the Human Noble origin, Dog (you have the option to name him in the game…I called him “Jasper”) is the first real companion you can recruit.   Other origins find him later.  A Mabari War Hound, Dog is fiercely loyal to his owner and quite useful in a fight as well.  Other party members will react differently to the dog, adding a degree of comedy.    

   

Leliana - "Walking corpses? Do you think it's something in the water?"

 Leliana – A “lay sister” of the Chantry (the Church of Dragon Age: Origins), Leliana has not yet taken her vows when she joins your party.  Eventually, it is revealed that her past is far more colorful than expected.  Leliana hails from the nation of Orlais (essentially medieval France), and has a beautiful French accent.  Through dialogue, she reveals the culture and politics of this foreign nation in such detail, one wonders whether a Dragon Age sequel will be set in Orlais.  Her voice-over artist, Corinne Kempa, does a magnificent job conveying the dual natures of religious purity and roguish tendencies.  If your player character isn’t a rogue, Leliana may be the most useful member your party can have.  Adept at ranged or close combat, she is formidable in battle and equally comfortable scouting ahead for traps or unlocking treasure troves.  Leliana is a “romance” option for either a male or a female character.   

    

Oghren - "Let's show them our hearts, and then show them theirs!"

 Oghren – An alcoholic, down-on-his-luck dwarf, Oghren is the stereotypical, red-headed member of the “stout folk” used so often in fantasy…but with a twist!  Voice-over artist Steve Blum thankfully eschews the usual Scots accent for a very mid-western one and delivers a convincingly drunken performance.  In-game, Oghren is useful as a support warrior and is somewhat interchangeable with Sten in regards to functionality.

   

Shale - "Death to all pigeons!"

Shale – Shale is a Golem who despises birds because they defecate upon it.  Inspired by the hit character HK-47 from the Knights of the Old Republic games, Shale is quite amusing but also intriguing.  Its dialogue and plotline are written extremely well, and Geraldine Blecker delivers a hilariously sarcastic voice-over performance.  Shale is also very useful in a fight, bashing any and everything that assails it.  

 

Sten - "I like swords. I follow orders. There's nothing else to know about me."

Sten – A steadfast, cold, introverted member of the Qunari (an original race to the Dragon Age world), Sten is a convicted, confessed murderer who is on a mission from the fanatical rulers of his people to discover what exactly the Blight is.  Sten is one of the most multi-layered characters within Dragon Age: Origins, due in no small part to Mark Hildreth’s excellent voice work.  Also useful in combat, Sten is a mighty mystery of a companion and an original contribution to fantasy.  

  

Wynne - "I'm not the sort of person who leaves things unfinished. I'll see this through. I promise."

Wynne – A grandmotherly mage of the Circle, Wynne is kind, compassionate and the best healer in the game.  Her plotline and dialogue, as well as her concern for the well-being of your companions are solidly written, and Susan Boyd Joyce lends a calming, maternal vocal interpretation.  In game, Wynne was possibly the one character I almost ALWAYS included in my party while travelling.   

  

Zevran - "We all do our fare share of murdering around here, don't we?"

 Zevran – An assassin and philanderer, Zevran sounds like Antonio Banderas as Puss in Boots from Shrek.  Like Leliana, Zevran is not originally from the nation of Ferelden.  He is from Antiva, a land of merchant princes and cloak-and-dagger politics that sounds a heck of a lot like Renaissance Italy.  During his very well-written dialogue, he reveals a great deal about this nation.  Zevran is unabashedly immoral, crude, and shamelessly details his life of debauchery.  Beneath it all, though, is a sensitive character forced by circumstance into his murderous life.  Jon Curry’s voice-over work has flawless timing and inflection.  Zevran is a “romance” option for both male and female characters.      

In addition to well-written characters, Dragon Age: Origins is also a shockingly progressive game.  Within the core companions, issues of racism, morality, sexuality, religion, and even philosophy are addressed and discussed at a highly adult level.  Conversations between your companions are superbly written, often hilarious, and surprisingly thought-provoking.  Including bisexual or homosexual “romance” options and the depth and breadth of topics addressed during conversations raises the bar in video game subject matter.  I’ve never seen such richly drawn and developed characters in a game.      

      

Gameplay       

Basic gameplay is excellent, and includes elements of past and present games to create something at once nostalgic and fresh.  Controls are intuitive and simple, with a quick bar for spell and potion access, well-displayed health/mana/stamina bars and a decent map system.  Like most Bioware games, your decisions will determine your companions’ opinions.  Should their approval rating reach a certain low point, they may leave your party or challenge your leadership.   Party selection for exploring and missions is similar to Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic, in that a screen appears where you can create combinations for your four-member team of adventurers.     

The Party Selection screen

Development of characters is quite intuitive, influenced significantly by the Knights of the Old Republic series rather than Dungeons and Dragons or the Oblivion leveling systems.  The three basic start classes each allow for nearly endless combinations of abilities and talents.  Additionally, you may add up to two specializations depending on class, which further narrow and refine your character’s strengths in combat and conversation.  Thankfully, there is no level cap in Dragon Age: Origins.  The pace at which one levels up is brisk and generous, as are the rewards garnered from gaining experience.  It’s a near-perfect character progression system.

Combat, even on easier settings, is very challenging (which is how it should be, dang it!).  Area of effect spells allow for friendly fire.  Terrain is crucial to executing well-timed attacks and counter-attacks.  Boss battles actually feel like boss battles, and may require reloads and re-assessment of strategies.  Of essential note: DO NOT try to tackle a dragon until you are at least Level 15.  Death is handled in a way similar to past Bioware titles – each time a character falls in battle, they will not rejuvinate unless the last enemy is dead or a suitable spell is cast upon them.  Additionally, trait-reducing wounds are added to a character each time they fall unconscious, which is remedied either with healing or returning to the party encampment.  This is a significantly better system than the usual “rest it off” solution experienced in most RPGs.     

Combat is tough, fast-paced, and brutal. The Top Down camera angle is a significant tactical dvantage in such situations.

Camera views are handled very well.  While most of the game is easiest to play from a third person perspective, you always have the ability to zoom out into a Baldur’s Gate-style top-down view.  This is most advantageous during combat situations, where a tactical view of the battlefield is crucial.  The Top Down view is a PC-only feature, and it is absolutely INVALUABLE.  I cannot imagine the game lacking the feature on platform versions.

Most impressive, however, is the replayability of Dragon Age: Origins.  The game world around your character changes drastically depending on factors as crucial as your origin to elements as seemingly insignificant as a dialogue choice in a merchant conversation.  This allows for a near-infinite number of plotline permutations, creating the most fully realized game world I’ve yet experienced in a single-player game.

      

Graphics

When the Darkspawn are horded together, the appearance is a bit derivative of the LOTR films.

Graphics can range from somewhat derivative standard fantasy images to the truly grandiose, grotesque, breathtaking and beautiful.  Character, armor, weapon, and creature designs are often very original in appearance, though when a Darkspawn army approaches I cannot help but think of WETA Workshop’s Uruks, orcs, and goblins from Peter Jackson’s LOTR trilogy.  Environments are, more often than not, incredibly done and original.  From human cities to Elven land-ships, abandoned Dwarven colonies, caverns, forests and high mountain peaks, everything seems to have a “used”, often gritty, sometimes pristine quality.  The color palette is earthy, grounded, yet vivid, harkening back to the days of the Infinity Engine RPs (and consequently the Baldur’s Gates).  Combat animation is simultaneously brutal and beautiful.  My only major graphical complaint occurred during the much advertised “sex scenes”, which were awkward at best and hilariously terrible at worst.  The “choreography” was so blocky and unnatural I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit.  I’d have preferred for such scenes to take the form of a “fade to black” moment.  Additionally, occasional character facial expressions don’t quite match the tone of their intent (there is a scene where a character sings a lament, but it looks like her face smells an awkward passing of gas).  These are but minor complaints.  The majority of Dragon Age: Origins is magnificent to behold.     

However, scenes like this dusky dragon battle are nothing short of breathtaking...

Sound       

Bioware’s really upped the ante in the sound department with Dragon Age: Origins.  Not only has Inon Zur (composer of the original Baldur’s Gates) scored a beautiful and haunting soundtrack, but the battle effects, environmental sounds and voice-over work are rock solid all around.  As I mentioned in the Characters section, the voice cast is impressive.  Tim Curry, Kate Mulgrew and Claudia Black head an all-star cast that adds believability and emotional power to every character you encounter.  There’s a rumor that Bioware hired a different voice artist for each of the hundreds of NPCs in the game.  While I swear I’ve heard two or three instances of recycled talent, the majority of characters have distinct voices that truly add depth and realism to the gameworld.  This game may be the greatest aural achievement in video gaming yet.  Oh hyperbole.

 

Bugs     

There weren’t many bugs that I experienced within DA:O, especially considering that no patches were released during my playthrough.  The usual Bioware clipping issues are nowhere to be seen, and AI path finding is very good with few exceptions.  However, if you have an AMD processor like I do, there is a common problem that Bioware is working on fixing.  When playing the game for over half an hour at a time on a PC with an AMD processor, framerate decreases drastically even at lower resolutions and detail settings.  Load times also increase.  I didn’t mind all that much because it reminded me of the Baldur’s Gate days of CD swapping and Pentium 166 Mhz processors.  The problem’s easily fixable (save and restart), but still a bit annoying after the first few occurrences.       

 

Conclusion       

 
 

A glimpse of the final battle of the game...

Dragon Age: Origins is not simply an extraordinary game, it is a brilliant contribution to the fantasy genre itself.  Intuitive gameplay, sharp graphics, few bugs, and excellent sound contribute to the ultra-high quality of the game, but it is the story, characters, writing, and game world that will keep you coming back for more.  This is a brilliant game that deserves a place within the upper echelons of fantasy.  It’s as good if not better than Baldur’s Gate II.  Bravo, Bioware.  Bravo.       

      

In Short:       

Plot: 10/10       

Characters: 10/10       

Gameplay: 9.5/10       

Graphics: 9/10       

Sound: 10/10       

Overall: 10/10       

Movie Review: OVERRIDE (2009)

Posted in Movies on November 17, 2009 by DTB

The action thriller Override is an intense, gripping, well-crafted independent film made all the more impressive when one realizes it was shot for $12,000 (to put things in perspective, most major Hollywood blockbusters have a price tag of well over $100 million).  Tightly scripted and edited, with some strong acting and brisk direction, Override tackles its topics of Islamic extremism, infidelity, depression, loss, acceptance, vengeance and redemption with a straightforward, no-nonsense candor sorely lacking in many of today’s thrillers.  Screenwriter/producer/star Randall Krongard has crafted a convincingly tortured protagonist, surrounded him with a memorable slew of heroes, villains and antiheroes, and set them loose in the prestigious Hamptons of Long Island’s South Fork.  A wild ride ensues.

Override‘s plot itself could have been standard thriller fare: Taylor Braithwaite, a father who lost his daughter to a terrorist’s bomb, wallows in self-induced squalor, addiction and depression while his ex-wife attempts to move on.  A high profile oil kingpin becomes the target of said terrorist, and Taylor becomes entangled in a web of intrigue, deception and bloodshed as the FBI realizes he may be their only hope of preventing the assassination.  What sets Override apart is its characters, none of which are the typical archetypes we’ve become so jaded with in current cinema.  Perhaps the best example of such a character is FBI agent Abie, a Muslim-American who deals with Taylor’s bigotry while remaining the most singularly virtuous character in the film.  In essence, Override takes familiar themes and fleshes them out with a straight-forward thoughtfulness.

During my forthcoming interview with Randall, we discuss the casting process for Override.  Many actors in this film were taken from the pool of non-equity Long Island/NYC locals.  Others came all the way from California.  The resulting variety in experience and training is somewhat obvious, though all involved are able to hold their own.  I was particularly impressed by several actors.  Samrat Chakrabarti stood out immediately as Abie, the afore-mentioned Muslim FBI agent.  His portrayal of a selfless, genuinely good man dealing with prejudice and fear from the citizens he seeks to protect generates sympathy and understanding.  I almost found Abie to be the most relatable character in the film.  Abie is contrasted by Randall Krongard’s Taylor Braithwaite, the main protagonist of Override.  Randall’s portrayal is intense to say the least, and he’s truly up to the challenge of the rollercoaster ride of mental and physical obstacles his character needs to face.  Eileen Shanahan’s portrayal of FBI agent Diana Crowley is unlike many of the “boss” performances we’re so used to.  She’s not pushy or classy or edgy.  Rather, Shanahan infuses Eileen with a world-weary experience and common sense.  As far as villains go, the seedy, oily creepiness of Al Nazemian’s Prince oozes through his performance.  Lines are almost unnecessary for him, for with one look, Nazemian can instill a shudder.  Lastly, Demosthenes Chrysan’s Ibrahim Harazi is a great embodiment of the mastermind Islamic fundamentalist terrorist we’re so used to seeing.  However, there is a strength and bravado to his performance that borders on the Shakespearian, which works very well with his interpretation of the character.

Being an independent film, special effects in Override aren’t exactly present.  Makeup and choreography, however, are really quite excellent and believable.  Cinematography is quite good as well, and I’m thankful that absolutely none of the fight scenes use a “shaky cam.”  Joseph Minasi’s editing contributes greatly to the film’s quick pacing.  I was gripped for the majority of Override‘s length, though there were a couple of spots leading up to the climax that I think could have been trimmed.  Specifically, an exposition scene between Taylor and his ex-wife seemed a bit too lengthy, though it was also critical to the plot.  Otherwise, Override‘s pacing is break-neck at the very least.

Sound and music are, well, quite bad unfortunately.  Override‘s low budget status reveals itself aurally.  In regards to sound effects, my most specific criticism stems from the fight sequences.  Hits are almost always accompanied with a very 1960s Batman-esque whacking sound that definitely doesn’t fit in with the seriousness of Override.  The music isn’t exactly present for several scenes either.  While excellent as they are without music, these scenes would benefit immensely from being scored.  When there actually is music in Override, it’s ambient and atonal.  I’d love to see some full-fledged orchestral fanfare and a distinct theme song instead.

Still, director Robert Frank has overseen the completion of quite an excellent film.  Override is proof that low-budget movies aren’t restricted to pretentious, heady, stuffy affairs that appeal only to wine-sipping grad students.  It’s fun, fast, gripping and highly recommended.  Just try and ignore the sound effects and music.  Easily an 8.5/10, and the score would go up with some aural tinkering.  Necca out.

What’s On Deck: OVERRIDE, Renovation, and Some Other Goodies

Posted in Uncategorized on November 12, 2009 by DTB

I had the privilege of working with a Mr. Randall Krongard in a recent production of Macbeth for Northeast Stage in Greenport.  The show itself went extraordinarily, and the cast was very closely-knit, a rarity not meant to be forgotten.  It was during conversations amongst the cast backstage (I played Malcom, Randall was Macbeth himself) that I found out Randall wrote, produced and starred in his own independent action thriller entitled Override.  I was very curious about watching this film, which Randall is trying hard to spread the word about, and have his permission to write a review right here in the LBR!  Additionally, I conducted a video interview with him last Sunday, which I hope to have posted as a supplement to the review.  Both will be posted shortly.

In the meantime, here’s a link to Override‘s website for your viewing pleasure: http://www.overridethemovie.com/

Also, I’m hoping to renovate the “About” section soon.  Seeing as we don’t post as regularly as we claim, I should probably tweak a few things.

Last but not least, I have a few other drafts on deck that’ll be posted soon, such as a mass recap of films since Potter 6 I’ve seen, more Song of Ice and Fire casting, a full-fledged review of Dragon Age: Origins and a book review of Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.

Return to Form – DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS Character Creator

Posted in Upcoming Entertainment on October 14, 2009 by DTB

dragonageoriginslogo

It’s been quite a long time since anybody’s updated the LBR.  I can’t guarantee the frequency of updates, as we’ve all had some crazy real-life happenings going on.  Still, I told you all we’d have periodic updates.  My hope is that we’ll soon have regularly scheduled posts.

 So what grabbed me enough to post?  Well, it’s not my compilation of “Movies I’ve seen since Harry Potter 6” (which is still in development).  It’s not the latest “Song of Ice and Fire” casting buzz (another work in progress).  It’s not even my book review of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (coming soon).  

 No, it’s the brilliant Bioware release of the Dragon Age: Origins Character Creator.

 I’ve gathered from Bioware’s official DA:O website that this game is going to be EPIC.  Derivative as all hell, but what fantasy isn’t?  We’ve got demons invading, a last bastion of defenders in need of reinforcements, blood splattering in magnificently artistic spouts, a seemingly diverse, original and quirky team of companions and an incredibly detailed bit of world building.  With the game’s release delayed to later in the year, Bioware has released a FREE Character Creator tool to entertain all us RPG freaks that need to tweak the perfect character.  And let me tell you, I am HAPPY with what I’ve seen so far…

 dragon-age-origins-character-creator

 “GAMEPLAY”:

I can’t exactly review the ACTUAL gameplay of Dragon Age: Origins, but the character creation process is easily amongst the best of any RPG I’ve yet played.  Mercifully simpler and more streamlined than Oblivion but with significantly more options than Neverwinter Nights 2, the process is somewhat similar to character creation in Mass Effect, but without the obnoxious “loading” and “decoding”.  The tool is detailed enough for those who prefer to micromanage every facet of their character’s facial structure (like me), but it’s also potentially speedy enough for those who just want to jump right in.  Statistic distribution is fairly standard, depending on the race and class you’ve chosen (there are only three starting classes).  We have a glimpse of special powers your character can acquire throughout the game.  I also like how there is a list of voices to select for your character.  Overall, it’s a very solid character generation system.

 

GRAPHICS:

Graphics look pretty dang spiffy.  I’m especially impressed with the eye options.  They’re vastly better than those provided by Bioware for Mass Effect.  My only quip is that the lighting seems a tad too dark.

 

SOUND:

There is no in-game music played in the character creator, but selection sounds and voiceover work seems top notch.  However, there is a sampling of music that plays at the game’s menu which is absolutely out of this world.  It’s epic, but not overly so.  There’s subtlety to it.  Can’t wait to see what the rest is like when the game’s actually released.

 

CONCLUSION:

This is a solid character creator and has served its purpose of whetting my appetite until the game itself is released.  For a free download, it’s worth checking out if you plan on buying the game itself.

Temporary Hiatus

Posted in Uncategorized on September 16, 2009 by DTB

Hello All,

All of us here at the LBR are sorting through our lives right now, and are currently in a transitional period where regular LBR updates aren’t entirely possible.  Once things simmer down, expect more from us!  Seriously, patience can be a virtue.

Thanks!

The LBR Team

P$ dusts off his Wii and reviews Wii Sports Resort!

Posted in Video Games on July 30, 2009 by dparkhurst

It's back!

It's back!

The haters can no longer say it’s a gimmick!

I know who you are. You, like many, are tired of a gimmick “motion sensing” console that simply replaces a button with a wave from the remote. You want full immersion into your gaming experience. Picture yourself holding a Frisbee, and with every turn of your arm and wrist your character mimics your movement. Imagine holding a sword in your hand and you’re swinging your arms, attacking enemies as they move closer to your position. You then block their attacks by holding that sword close to your body. It’s been three years and Nintendo has finally accomplished this. Welcome to the Resort.

Wii Motion Plus brings a 1:1 response to the player’s movement and the movement on the screen. Back in 2006, Wii Sports had something like this. It was small, so if you missed it I wouldn’t blame you. Remember baseball? The 1:1 response came when you were up to bat. If you twirled the top of the Wii remote in a circle, like you would a real baseball bat, it would copy your motion. That was probably the coolest thing about baseball on Wii Sports… and baseball in real life. While the original Wii Sports was a wonderful game/demo of the Wii’s initial capabilities, it wasn’t exactly what fans had hoped for… even when we faked our excitement. (Who am I kidding? I was stoked!)

You start out on a plane miles above the island of Wuhu. You hear the pilot shout: “Get ready!” You press A, and out the cabin door you go, plummeting towards the island. As you’re free-falling you can perform flips and grab onto the other sky-divers. Every twist and flip you perform is executed by the Wii remote with help from the Wii Motion Plus. Every single movement you make is replicated on the screen to a T. There is no hesitation, nor lag.

I have just described mere minutes of what will likely turn into hours of gameplay. There are a total of twelve different game modes, including Archery, Swordplay, Frisbee, Basketball, Table Tennis, Golf, Bowling, and Air Sports. You will also unlock other activities within each sport. Each game plays smoothly. Your grandmother will want to pick up and play. The one gripe that I have is that single player mode is a bit shallow. It’s fun initially, but after a while you might get bored with the lack of competition. The AI does not compare to the unpredictability of an actual friend. So go make some. (Anyone up for a game… please?)

GAMEPLAY

  • Gameplay: Simple yet fun. The Wii Motion Plus adds depth to what would otherwise be shallow sport games.

I have broken down each game mode for you in a straight-to-the-point manner. Simply scroll down to the sport you’re interested in playing.

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You can be this awesome too!

Archery: This is probably one of my favorite sports in the game. You hold the Wii remote in your left hand like you would a bow and you hold the nun-chuck in your right as if it were the arrow. You pull back the nun-chuck while holding Z and you aim with the remote. Release the arrow with Z and you will hopefully hit the target. It feels great! You have to compensate for wind and distance just as you would if you were actually shooting an arrow. Thumbs up!

Frisbee: The hardest game in Wii Sports Resort. The Wii Motion Plus is so sensitive that you actually have to mimic the motion of turning your body to throw left or right. The remote will know if you’re sitting down since you won’t throw accurately, just as in real life. Thumbs up!

Wakeboarding: It’s a very simple game. You move your surfer left and right by mimicking the act of steering with your arms. When your Mii flies up from a wake you can perform a few basic tricks, but nothing too fancy. You then have to land correctly. Nothing too exciting… moving on. Thumbs down!

Basketball: Another hard game. Either the presenters at E3 had to be really good or they were just playing along to a pre-rendered video. This is another game that benefits from you actually standing up and jumping to make free-throws. If you swing your arms too hard you will whip the ball at the basket. If you release too early your ball will hit the rim. Even scoring one basket will be a big accomplishment. This game truly mimics reality. Personally, I am terrible at basketball and it shows. Thumbs up!

Table Tennis: This plays like an updated version of the original Wii Sports tennis. It’s a lot of fun and a tad faster than its predecessor. The game takes into account all of your wrist movements. Have fun with this one. Thumbs up!

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Swordplay: This is hands down the best multiplayer mode in the game. You hold the remote like you would a sword and you swing away. You block by holding B. It’s that easy. I now can’t wait to see what they will do in future titles. I’m looking at you, Ubisoft and Lucas Arts. Multiplayer is a blast! Most new players will just flail the remote around without trying to find an opening. This may have worked for boxing on the original Wii Sports, but no more! For those who hate playing with non-gamers because of this, you may now quit your bitching. I personally can’t wait to beat certain people. Thumbs up!

Golf: This is where the Wii Motion Plus shows its strength. Remember how frustrating the original game on Wii Sports was? This fixes every problem. It actually follows your movements when you bring the club back and forth! What a concept! This new version is better than the original. It’s also harder, since you can actually splice when you hit the golf ball. You have to re-center yourself if the remote senses any unnecessary body movement. For example, if you move your body left and right when you bring the club back you’re going to hit the ball that way. It’s awesome that they fixed the sensitivity problems… it sucks that I actually have to try now. Thumbs up!

Bowling: Nothing too cutting edge. You’ve played this before. The Motion Plus makes a small difference in gameplay. In general, it will increase the sensitivity to make the bowling experience more authentic. It’s virtually the same game with some fun extras. Thumbs up!

Power Cruising: This isn’t the most enjoyable experience in the game. It is reminiscent of Wave Race 64, except you steer with your remote and nun-chuck. You can speed up the cruiser by twisting your remote. It’s enjoyable when you’re racing friends, not so much when you’re playing alone. Pass. Thumbs down!

Canoeing: This game is loads of fun with friends; it’s not so fun playing alone (much like Power Cruising). You switch sides to steer and move your boat, much like in real life. Neither exciting nor interesting by yourself… seriously. Thumbs down!

Cycling: You move your arms up and down to pedal. Your bike will go faster or slower depending on how fast you move your arms. I honestly don’t understand why they put this in the game. You don’t actually have to steer the bike and if you try to steer it’s hard to get back on track. I suppose the race around the island isn’t too bad if you like a nice competition. Try it out for yourself and see what you think. I give it a thumbs down!

Air Sports: There are three different air sports. You can sky dive like you did in the intro to the game, fly an airplane around the island picking up information bubbles, and there is a dogfighting game that you can play with friends. You fly the plane by holding the remote like a paper airplane. It’s sort of relaxing and the admittedly useless information bubbles around the island are cute. The only gripe I have is that there is a time limit in the Island Flyover game. The dogfighting mode is fun, even if you are only shooting balloons. God forbid you shoot down the actual plane. I look forward to future flying titles.

GRAPHICS:

  • Everything flows well in this game and the graphics are easy on the eyes. It doesn’t push the capabilities of the Wii, but it keeps things easy for the casual crowd… that’s the point, right?

There has been a slight improvement in the graphics since Wii Sports. The style fits the gameplay, which is simple, but I honestly can’t complain. It looks pretty, especially when you fly around the island and take a look at the different sporting locations from above. Your Miis have their own world to play in. Plus, everything runs at a nice sixty frames per second.

SOUND:

  • A nice tropical theme. The music doesn’t get annoying and the sound effects are clean.

There are a wide variety of musical styles. The sound effects are crisp and you’ll enjoy the thwacks of hitting your friends with a wooden sword.

MULTIPLAYER:

  • Your Wii will once again become the center of focus at parties. Prepare for some late nights with friends.

This game will be the next big thing at parties. The casual and hardcore crowds will play this game together for hours. Whether you’re going head to head at swordplay or trying to beat each others’ scores at archery, you’re going to stay up all night playing this game.

WILL YOU COME BACK?:

  • YES! Your Wii’s processor may not sweat, but you will. You may even get sore from playing too much. There are just so many games and achievements within Wii Sports Resort. Your other consoles may get jealous.

I’ve been playing Wii Sports since I bought the system back in 2007. I have a feeling that I’ll be playing its sequel even longer. Nintendo has a way of making great games that keep people playing for years. (Mario Kart anyone?) Each sport will present you with the chance to reach pro status. Plus, there are achievement stamps that you can collect while playing each game. This game is just one of many gems that the company has made over the past 25 years. The re-playability is immense. You’ll be introducing your Wii to friends all over again.

CONCLUSION:

Nintendo has done it one more time with Wii Sports Resort. It doesn’t push the limits of the system in terms of graphics, but what it does have is a reason for you to pick the remote back up. If this is just a glimpse of what the Wii Motion Plus has to offer, then I am incredibly excited to see what the future holds for this system. Is it worth the fifty bucks? Definitely! Pick this game up. You’re not just getting a ton of content, but also an extension on the life of your console. You could pick up the Motion Plus extension by itself, but you would be missing out. This is a better deal than Wii Play which, while it was packaged with a remote, sucked. Wii Sports Resort comes with an excellent game, the Wii Motion Plus, and a new grip to put over the remote. Pick this game up today!

9.6 out of 10

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