Friday, May 30, 2008

Lost - Season 4 - Finale

I think we've finally felt the backlash of getting the flashforwards handed to us.

The one thing that separated this season of lost from the previous seasons for me, was predictability. The flashforwards essentially have told us the end of the season before-hand, so we're just trying to figure out the "HOW" and not the "WHAT" of what is going to happen.
How would you feel if someone told you the ending of last season's superb finale, and then you just watched the episode to find out all the in-between details? That's what it basically felt like for this season's finale, and almost the whole season.

In essence, I thought this season's finale was the weakest of the four thus far. The way the transitions were made into the "future" flashforwards, seemed awkward at best, especially Locke telling Jack that he is going to "have to lie." Also, the way the show went back to the previous flashforwards of last year's finale didn't seem inventive to me; it seemed compulsive. It seemed like the writers had no idea where the show was going last year and needed to go back to these flashforwards to tie up the loose ends, and because they finally decided what the characters would say to each other instead of adlibbing it all.
The setup for next year's season seemed to make every character as dead-serious as ever, and the final twist of the episode wasn't even a twist, thanks to the three minute conversation build-up that practically said, "SO-AND-SO IS IN THE COFFIN LOL WE'RE ABOUT TO SHOW YOU HAHAHA."
And then I was like, 'great, now we can't be worried about that character's fate anymore.'

I really think the writers had the show like this:
Season #1) Season 1 story Arc Covered + Maybe Two + A little of Three
Season #2) Two + Three Arc covered
Season #3) Season Three + Four Covered - But NOT Five, or Six.
And then they got to season 4 and they finally, Finally, decided on which of the many remaining theories they could end the show on over the next two years, and finally set course on that heading.

As for where I think the show is headed next year?
Season #5: It will be the LOSTies trying to get back to the island (haha, a clever switch from season 1), and there will be flashbacks of what happened on the island up to the present day.
Season #6: The LOSTies, the Whidmores, the Others, and all other interested parties (because they're bound to multiply) will finally confront 'The Secret of Lost Island­™' and discover it was all a dream thanks to LeChuck.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Warning: This review is longer than the actual game.

If Quest for Glory was remade today , it would be very close to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Both games have day/night cycles, thieves guilds, fighters guilds, mages guilds, goblin caves, trolls, tons of side-quests, a huge world to explore, a horse-like creature that you can buy for fast travel, at least three different character classes to choose from, stats that level up in real time as you preform them, a weight system in-game for everything you carry, magical spells, and the list goes on and on (and QFG is a 20 year old game, mind you).

That being said, Oblivion is more of an interactive world than an interactive story, as opposed to other games like Half-Life. Oblivion's main selling point is its enormous depth and size, which easily puts every single Final Fantasy and Zelda game to shame. The world in Oblivion is massive, and just to explore it, without completing any quests, would take dozens of hours and even days to do. In terms of size you could say it's about as big as a small San Fernando Valley, and your horse is as fast as a car. It is this world and the attention to detail in it, that makes the game such a joy just to be in, much like in other games such as Freelancer.
Though despite all of its detail and sheer number of locations, the world in Oblivion feels copied and pasted many times over. After trudging through one small section of the land, you can run into all the game has to offer, which would be shrines, wells, caves, ruins, forts, and towns. Every single section of the world has these same landmarks, and because of that, none of it feels unique. In Quest For Glory, every single landmark was clearly identifiable from the rest. There were locations like 'Erana's Peace,' 'The Druid's Tree,' and 'The Troll's Cave.' Every location in Oblivion feels like a generic copy of each other, and so, that is one aspect of the world that makes me as a player lose my suspension of disbelief.

Oblivion's main fault however is due to its main strength. Because the world is so huge and massive, and the designers wanted the player to be able to roam freely in whatever direction he chooses, this creates a situation where the designers don't know which direction the player will take. Most games today are very linear (like Portal), where the designers specifically create each section of a level to evoke a certain response from the player, and they essentially hold the player's hand until the ending, making sure the player experiences everything he was intended to. In Oblivion, this is impossible since the designers don't know in which order the player will experience the game.

Continuing from that, the designers don't know what level the player will be when he reaches a certain cave. He could be level 2, making all the enemies too hard, or he could be level 15, making all the enemies too easy. In many other RPGs, like Final Fantasy and KoTOR, the games are on a set path of progression, so the designers have a good idea of what level the player is, at a certain section in the game. Because of this they can appropriate the player's skill level and set the enemy's skill level accordingly.

Now, since Oblivion can't do this, rather than risk making certain sections of the game too easy or too hard, the game scales all the enemies whenever the player levels up. This means that whenever you get to level 17 and get a nice set of Glass Armor and a 20 Damage sword, all your enemies will get similar weapons and armor. This is understandable, but it really destroys the game internally.

Role Playing Games are all about a sense of achievement. When you gain a new skill, level up, or kill an enemy and get enough gold to buy that new set of armor, you feel like you accomplished something. You want to feel like your character is getting stronger as you keep playing. But if all the enemies followed you every time you made progress to get better weapons and improve yourself, that sense of accomplishment is lost and everything feels pointless. That's what kills Oblivion on the inside, since leveling up and acquiring better items often feels in vain as your enemies will just get better too. To be fair to the game, your character does get better than a few sets of enemies, but these are mostly the weaker creatures like rats and mud crabs. Any character that wields a weapon or armor is always scaled to match you. There is no easy way to solve this problem, but their current solution doesn't seem adequate.

Moving on, Oblivion, like all RPGs, has an epic main storyline. The main quest itself is quite good, although it does take a few pointers from Lord of the Rings, and can probably be beaten in under 20 hours (assuming you skip the side-quests associated with it). However, there is a real lack of tension or building momentum up to the final battle. One of the reasons that attributes to this is the fact that you can drop the main quest for up to dozens of hours to do something else and then come back to it only to finally finish it at your own pace. You can literally leave the main story, right after a critical battle takes place where they need your help, and come back fifty days later to find it waiting for you again.

Now, if you don't want to embark on the main quest, there's plenty of side-quests for you to chill out in and explore this world. There are four main guilds, each with its own quests, requiring you to do special tasks to raise your rank, plus there are normal side-quests that you can do as any character.

But once again, there's a couple of serious issues with all of the side-quests. First of all, the point in doing side-quests for me is to
a) Gain Experience to level up my character for the main quest.
b) Gain Gold to buy new items.
You can scratch (a) out, since all the enemies scale up with you, and you can scratch (b) out as well for one main reason: most side-quests reward you with between 100-300 gold. By the time you actually do most of the side-quests, your character is such a high level that slapping the occasional passer-by on a city road means he drops 2000 gold worth of loot in a 1 minute battle. Now who wouldn't take that any day instead of spending 30 minutes on a lame side-quest that gives you only 200 gold?
I also would've liked it if there were more choices in each quest, like KoTOR's quests, where you could end each quest a good or evil way. Most quests in Oblivion only let you end the quest the way the game wants you to.

There's also another problem with many of the side-quests: Loading screens. Loading screens for cities run as high as 25 seconds, and for houses run as high as 10-15 seconds. This isn't that bad, but when you're traversing this world as much as I am, it becomes a serious nuisance. Many side-quests which you MUST complete in order to raise your rank in the guild of your choice are pretty much summed up like this:
1. Go to the guild hall and get your quest, which requires you to go to another city. (25 seconds of loading to other city)
2. In the other city, enter so-and-so's home to get your task. (10 seconds of walking, 15 seconds of loading)
3. They tell you to go to "blah-blah" cave and kill "blah-blah" (20 seconds of talking)
4. Do it. (25 seconds of loading to outside of cave, 15 seconds of loading entering cave, X# of minutes killing said bad guy)
5. Report back to the guild hall and repeat. (25 seconds of loading to city, 10 seconds of walking to guild hall, 15 seconds of loading to interior, 10 seconds of talking)
This literally has you staring at loading screens for more time than actually playing the game. And sometimes, you're not even required to go kill anything, so you just go back to the return city for another loading screen. And you have to do this about 8-14 times for each guild, each time the reward being a basically useless ring or an insignificant amount of gold. When you're trying to complete all the side-quests one by one, this is the only way to do it, and it becomes extremely tedious.
That's also one thing I liked so much about (Resident Evil and Call of Duty)4--The loading screens in those games were virtually non-existent. I didn't even realize I was in a loading screen by the time the location changed. It was great!

Lastly is the issue with the gameplay's economy, specifically of gold and things you can do with it. I'm a believer in that there should always be something better to buy or something to use your gold on, otherwise there's no point in collecting more gold, thus killing a whole gameplay element. In Oblivion, the extravagances of buying every house, one or two horses, and anything actually useful prices up to about $200,000. I got to that mark faster than I realized (especially due to the fact that every passer-by dropped $2000 worth of loot), which meant that after I bought every house for sale in the land of Cyrodiil, there was nothing more to buy, so I was basically left with another $200,000 in my pocket and truckloads worth of potions and magical scrolls that I would never use.
Knights of the Old Republic didn't have this problem, because there was a special space station in the game that had highly valuable items always up for sale, and it was nearly impossible to acquire every single one, so you always wanted to get more money in that game.

Still, despite its issues, the majority of the gameplay in Oblivion is well-balanced and incredibly deep. There are many ways to achieve each of your goals, whether that be killing people, making money, or getting a quest done. One example of this would be the degradable weapons and armor. System Shock 2 also had this, but it was very unbalanced in that game. In System Shock 2, weapons usually started at health level 3/10 when you picked them up, and lost a level only after firing them for several shots. With few replacement weapons around, and only one way of repairing them (through small tools that cost money and were hard to find), the degradable weapons became a nuisance. In Oblivion though, you have a lot of choices of how to solve this problem. You can repair the items yourself with repair hammers (easily acquired anywhere in the world), or you could have them repaired by an in-game smithy, or you could drop the weapon and pick up another one like it, also easily found all over the game world.

The only real issue with the combat is that there is no sure-fire way to take on multiple enemies at once. This can be considered as a feature, forcing the player to tackle one enemy at a time, but it seems odd since every other First Person (shooter) gives you a way to kill multiple bad guys at the same time, usually in the form of grenades, a rapid-fire weapon, or some kind of rocket launcher. The only thing close to this in Oblivion is a splash damage fire/ice/lightning spell, but if you're not a magic character, then you're basically all out of luck.

In conclusion, is Oblivion worth playing? Yes, it is! The sheer depth of the world and everything you can do in it is worth experiencing, much like it is in other huge games, one of those being Freelancer. The first half of Oblivion is excellent, sending you on a variety of different tasks and quests, but then the game has you enter way too many Oblivion Gates, and sends you to a ridiculously hard nightmarish hell for one hour over and over.
As a superficial experience, Oblivion is a great game and a very enjoyable ride. Only if you care about internal game mechanics--and only if you notice it about fifty hours in--will you dislike the game, assuming you have 100+ hours of your life to throw away anyway. As a game, I would recommend it, but if you want a more concise gameplay and storytelling experience, you're probably better off with KoTOR, Zelda, Final Fantasy, or even the twenty year old Quest For Glory series.

Final Score:



Tuesday, May 20, 2008


1. Characters in Cyrodiil are a very friendly ol' bunch. They will often come up to each other and greet one another with the phrases, "Well met," and "Hello," then proceed to talk about how vile Mud Crabs are, or another topic of equal conversational value, then end the conversation with a simple "Goodbye" and walk away.
2. In the land of Cyrodiil, insulting a character is totally A-Okay, just as long as you butter them up afterwards and tell them a joke. All will be forgiven and forgotten.
3. All of the caverns in Cyrodiil are made of the same 5 sets of tile pieces, intricately put together in different orders. By opening and blocking different paths, it creates the illusion of a new cave.
4. About 400 years ago, the emperor decided to build approximately fifty forts scattered around random locations in the land, then all at once abruptly abandoned them to decay, only after installing special death traps and dumping treasure chests of loot in conveniently placed locations and dead-ends.
5. There is a 95% chance that the terrain you are walking on is actually above an underground passage, whether this be from a Fort Ruin, a cavern, an Ayleid ruin, a Labyrinth, somebody's Hideout, or some other odd place.
6. When walking along a main road to another city, there is a:
a. 15% chance you will encounter a dangerous wild-life animal, such as a bear, lion, or wolf.
b. 25% chance you will run into a bloodthirsty bandit who wishes to kill you for entering his or her terrain.
c. 10% chance you will run into a goblin, or another monster of equal fighting value.
d. 10% chance you will run into a Highway Man, who wants you to pay up, but you can just out-run him up to the next city.
7. Every shopkeeper in every city offers the finest wares at the lowest prices in all of Cyrodiil.
8. When you ask for help in the epic battle (equivalent to Helm's Deep) from each city and they say 'yes,' this really means them each sending two soldiers while the fate of the world is in their hands.
9. Due to the nature of melee combat and inaccurate archers in Cyrodiil, you can pretty much run through the entire game without killing anyone, as long as you are either:
a) Fast - Achieved through spells or enchantments.
b) Invisible - Also achieved through spells or enchantments.
Best Side-Quest: Knights of the Nine - It's better than the main quest.
Best Accessory: Skeleton Key - You will never break another lock pick again.
Most Boring Guild: Fighter's Guild - Repetitive contracts and tons of loading screens.
Best Spell: Invisibility - You will never have to fight anyone, ever again. (Runner up: Feather - it allows you to carry another sofa back to your house!)
Most Annoying Enemy: Anybody who can summon a monster - This doubles your pain as you have to fight two baddies at a time. (Runner up: The velociraptor - when you try to block its attacks, it still damages you and shakes your screen, and when you try to slash it, it slashes back harder.)
Best Combat Tactic: Shoving the enemy off a high ledge (preferably into a pit of lava at the bottom) - Very useful in the planes of Oblivion!

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Iron Man

Spoilers Follow
Iron Man was pretty good and enjoyable, if not rather predictable. I thought it was great how they made the plot so the main character was forced into "becoming" the 'iron man' in order to escape from these terrorists, but then I started to see where the plot was going after that. When you see that enemy terrorist leader get shot at with the rocket but it slightly misses, you know his face is going to be scorched and he's going to come back for the second half of the movie to take his revenge. And that scene where Tony is testing his boots at 10%? You knew he was going to fly away and break his neck, seriously.

Iron Man seems to share a screenplay in common with a lot of other successful blockbuster movies that are equally enjoyable. This screenplay, which has been employed in Minority Report, Batman Begins, to a lesser extent in Casino Royale, and probably in more movies basically runs like this:
1 - Introduce the main character and the first plot problem of the two-goal story-arc. Also introduce secondary characters like love interests and mentors. All four (including Iron Man) of the above movies sort of do this.
2 - Flashback to show the main character's life and history up to this moment. All of the above movies did this except it didn't really happen in Casino Royale, as far as I can remember.
3 - Flashforward back to the present where the first main problem has been solved. In Minority Report, you could probably say the first main problem was solved in the intro, or it was actually introduced here as the second problem of a three-goal story-arc.
4 - Develop the character and have him change his views (or not). This would be where Batman learns to become Batman in Gotham City, or Iron Man tests out his equipment.
5 - Introduce the second problem of the two-goal story arc. Batman must now save Gotham from the scarecrow. Iron Man must save the middle-east from villainous weaponry. In Casino Royale and Minority Report it's a little more muddled and hard to see.
6 - Twist the story by making one of the secondary characters the TRUE villain (this would be the mentor in Batman Begins, Minority Report, and Iron Man). Now the characters we introduced in (1) have more importance.
7 - Go down to the final showdown and end the movie with some kind of moral statement.

There were some plot holes that I would've jumped at, but they were skillfully, if not patiently resolved at the end of the scenes they were introduced, such as:
- How can you build an iron man suit while terrorists watch you? Oh, he's doing it BEHIND the curtain!
- How can you build an iron man suit in what feels like only a week in movie time? What? It was really THREE MONTHS? Oh-kay!
- If the terrorist's mission was really to kill Tony Stark, why did they keep waiting for him to build the missile? What? They didn't know that he was the real target and so had to negotiate a new deal with their employers about how to kill him? Okay, that makes sense!
But it all worked out in the end.

I don't know if it's me or the CGI, but the whole time I was watching the movie, I wasn't consciously aware that I was watching CGI. Of course you know it's fake, but it just looks so good and blends seamlessly into the live action scenes.

All in all, Iron Man is a pretty entertaining movie that is well structured, makes good fun of superhero cliches (especially the ending), has excellent CGI, and is an enjoyable romp.
Recommended. See it.


Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Golden Compass (Movie)

Three things about the Golden Compass:

First off, the Golden Compass as a movie would benefit from one main thing: more exposition. Every scene and dialog between the characters would try and cram as many story and world elements as possible, and each scene would pass much too fast, without any time for the viewer to become established in this world. I never felt particularly engaged in the story, because it seemed like the movie didn't fully develop anything long enough for me to get settled in it. And to top that off, it seemed like the movie was introducing a new character in every scene.

Second, another thing to note here is the re-ordering of a main section of the plot. In the book, Lyra (Laura?) goes to the North, finds the ghost-kid, goes to the Aperture Science Center for Learning, then to the Bear Kingdom, and then to her fathers observatory for the grandifantasticaluous finale. In the movie, the sequence of events is switched up by sending her to the Bear Kingdom first, and then to the Science Center. The 'people who make this movie' must've did this for a reason, but I can't really see what it is, and I don't particularly see how it strengthens the story at all (or weakens it for that matter).

Thirdly and lastly, they chopped the ending of the book to smithereens by ending the movie at about page 170/200. Having read the book, I was expecting the movie to end at a certain time, and since the plot wasn't fully comprehensible about what the characters were trying to achieve, the ending just seemed to be slapped on out of nowhere. It was basically like the characters said, "We are going to solve the final problem set out upon by the beginning of the movie!" But instead of them spending the approximately needed twenty more minutes to do that, the movie ends. However, I can see why they didn't want to end a happy children's' tale with a little boy getting killed in order to open up a portal to another world. But then you have to start the second movie with that, so I guess it would just be postponing the inevitable.

Final Score: It's not as good as Enchanted.


Saturday, May 03, 2008

LOST - Season 4 - Ep 11

This last episode of LOST pretty much embodies everything I currently loathe about the show.
1. I hate it when they create more flashbacks/forwards (as it doesn't matter when there's no plot progression) that don't build up character, but instead create melodramatic sequences about people we no longer care about. Even when the flashbacks/forwards create a nice little self-contained story they're still hard to like as they're chopping away time from the main plot.
2. What's the point of letting Jack have a life crisis when we know he gets off the island and is safe?
3. The main thing that I'm interested in is the mystery - Dharma - The Others - The Hatch - Scientific Experiments. When we have these "filler" episodes that supposedly do something other than progress the plot, all it does is make me wait for the next "real" episode where something actually happens. The only thing that happened in this episode is that Claire ran off chasing a hallucinatory vision of a lost family member. And seriously, that gimmick is getting annoying. It might've been cool the first couple times, but they've been using it over, and over, and over for 4 seasons now in the exact same manner with no explanation. And if making Claire run off into the jungle is supposed to be plot progression, then I am sad.

I probably liked LOST best back in season 2. It was the tale of the survivors, and Locke and Jack, in a mysterious hatch on a stranded island, where unknown forces would kidnap the children and certain people on lists, while also loving to play mind games with you; 4-8-15-16-23-42 would repeat on an endless signal that a Navy outpost man heard and went to a madhouse for, and that also happens to be the code for a button which the characters don't know if they should or should not push; and then crazy zany maps of dharma hatches appear on the wall when you put the hatch in lock down mode.
It was mysteriously suspenseful and every element of that mystery was just so intriguing and I loved it.

Now we have the story of characters splitting into so many sub-groups we can't count (The Good Others, the Bad Others, the Jack LOSTies, the Locke LOSTies, the Good Boat People, the Bad Boat People, the Whidmore People), all fighting for something, but we know the ultimate outcome thanks to these flashforwards.
Something feels missing.

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy (Book)

Once upon a time there was a book called Douglas Adams written by a guy called Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy. Lots of SCI-FI fanatics loved this book. It was later turned into a movie that was kind of random, nonsensical, not very funny, and pointless.

But this is a review of the book, not the movie.

HHGTtG (hooray acronyms) is meant to be read as a comedy book. And as such, it lacks any real form of plot such as the kind you would find in any Star Trek or Star Wars movie. For that matter anyway, the book also lacks any real conflict, tension, or suspense, and the plot is basically pointless until the last quarter when there is a small revelation that puts the whole sequence of events into perspective but then the book just quickly ends. If the book didn't have that revelation, the whole story would basically be, 'earth man gets world destroyed --> hops on a ship of random alien men --> they frolic around the galaxy for no apparent reason --> the end.' Actually, that's pretty much the entire story, in both the book and the movie, minus the plot revelation.

Since there's no real conflict in the story, the movie tried to fix that by adding in a whole subplot where the crew go save one of their fellow kidnapped crew members from ugly aliens on an enemy world. This didn't really save the movie, but just turned out to be a pointless attempt to add a plot to a comedy story that didn't have one.

Speaking of which, the comedy in the book falls under two categories: narrator comedy, where the author goes off into whimsical facts about this odd universe where everything is so ironic, or, situation comedy, where strange things happen to the characters or they make jokes and have quirky mannerisms.
Narrator comedy works fairly well, but to me, it easily seems to fall under the pretentious category and as such, I can't enjoy it as much while the author blabbles off about space ships and galactic wars about a misunderstood transmission from a planet never yet discovered.
The situation comedy works better for me, but most often times the characters seem to fail to be characters just to create these oddly comical scenes for the narrator.

In the end however, I would recommend the book, as it does have its truly funny laugh-out-loud moments, but as a coherent story, there's not much substance here.
Final Score: 8.1/10

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