Archive for April, 2008

24
Apr
08

Dante -TV Blitz

Welcome one, welcome all to Man versus Horse’s first recurring feature, Dante’s TV Blitz, where I watch the first three episodes (or ‘eps’ as my grammatically deficient freind Ludo would have it) of various new TV Shows in order to surmise wether they’re worth expending some of your all too short lifespan viewing.

Why three episodes? – Because as we all know pilots are not representative of a full series, there’s far too many introductions to be done, thus the second episode is the first ‘real’ episode, in that it follows the structure of the majority of the series. Of course it might still be finding it’s feet in laying down this template, so a third is required, if you’ve not got into your stride by then then you’re in trouble.

What will I be watching – New series, often american ones that have yet to reach the UK, because that way I can be ahead of the game for readers at home while still being reasonable current with those abroad. I’ll largely be ignoring long established, well known series, because most people (including me) will have watched more than three episodes. If there’s demand enough I’ll be happy to give you my thoughts on the Sopranos and the like but I’ll mostly be looking at things that are a) new and/or b) cult.

So let’s get the ball rolling with…

Pushing Daisies

Pushing Daisies

It’s about… a piemaker who can raise the dead. Well okay, it’s a little bit more complicated than that, well a lot more complicated actually. As neatly illustrated in the opening minutes, if he touches something dead it comes back to life, but if it stays alive for more than a minute something of equal life in the vicinity dies instead. And if he touches it again it’s dead again, forever. Of course, anyone who inexplicabley gains a superpower must immediatly chose between fighting crime and going completely psychotic, thankfully he chooses the former, and team up with a private detective to ressurect murder victims and ask who killed them.

The characters are… Ned (the piemaker), Charlotte ‘Chuck’ Charles, his boyhood sweetheart who is found dead in the first episode (and subsequently ressurected), splendidly grumpy private detective Emerson Cod and Olive Snook, waitress at the piemaker’s shop who has a crush on Ned. Chuck’s two eccentric aunts also appear often.

Episode One… concerns the murder of Charlotte Charles (I can’t get enough of that name), most of the exposition is gotten out of the way with blinding speed, with a combination of classical fairytale narration and a similarly fantasy style look, which puts one immediately in mind of Amelie, in fact I’m pretty certain that was a strong influence on both the look of the series and the narration. Where it differentiates itself however is in the high speed (and I mean like high speed, the kind of high speed that would give The West Wing a run for it’s money) witty dialogue and lashings of dark humour thoughout. As is inevitable if you’re going to have a series so closely linked with death that doesn’t make you want to slit your own wrists. And far from it, the series is seriously charming, with both Ned and Charlotte extremely sweet, but thankfully not in the insufferable way that invites throttling, but in the way that makes you genuinely sorry they can’t touch (see clause 2 of Ned’s powers). The plot of this episode itself is about Charlotte being killed on a cruise because of a pair of monkey statues she was transporting, and is really very slim and lacks resolution (in fact you never even see her killer’s face) here’s hoping they have time for a better plot next week.

Episode 2… is about a the murder of an engineer working on a dandelion powered car (which looks as ridiculous as it sounds), it’s probably a tad weaker than the pilot, as the plot is once again paper thin, as a whodunnit it lacks any real mystery whatsoever. The wit and style of it all continues, although the addition of a musical number did nothing for me the introduction of some lovely character quirks (Emerson loves to knit) makes an already charming show even more charming. And Ned and Chuck continue to be one of the sweetest couples ever, did I mention it was charming?

Episode 3… goes back to the original episode, dealing with the undertaker that died as a result of Ned bringing Chuck back to life. Contrasting at first to the rollocking adventure of episode 2 there is some subtle character work regarding Chuck finding this out. Later however when dealing with the mystery of where the graverobbing undertaker stashed his ill gotten gains it ramps up more, climaxing in a fantastic swordfight with a chinese confederate. And no I didn’t make any of that up, these surreal interludes are great fun but often seem to consitute more than they should of the episode plots.

So, to summarise:

It’s good because… it has a charming fairytale style, it has quick and witty dailogue, Chuck and Ned are really sweet, Emerson Cod is a great name.

It’s bad because… it rips off Amelie more than a little, episode plots leave much to be desired.

Watch more than three if… you have a soul.

22
Apr
08

Ludo – The Pros and Cons of Printing Money

The sad truth is that even the most frivolous games are Big Business. Long gone are the days when rogue coders would mould small masterpieces on clockwork PCs. Now dev teams run into the hundreds, and budgets run to Hollywood figures. Can games retain their charm and inventiveness in the face of The Man? Ludo strokes his man-beard and postulates…

The boomerang arcs between the three targets and sails faithfully back to my hand. The bats hang in midair for a moment, startled, and then drop to the floor and explode, leaving a collection of gently floating hearts and treasure in their wake.

I’m getting ready to put my Gamecube to bed for good, and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess seems like ideal send off. Things are progressing nicely, and I’m negotiating the rocky mountain passes, dodging flaming snails and irate rock monsters when a niggling thought disturbs me. I try to overcome it by skewering a fire breathing crocodile but it just won’t go away.

‘So it’s off to the fire temple again, is it?’

Of course! It’s Zelda, there’s a fire temple up here and I’m damn well going to conquer it!

‘And I suppose along the way you’ll pick up another piece of equipment that will solve all of the temple’s puzzles, and then you’ll beat the boss and gain a heart container and another piece of whatever it is you have to assemble to move the quest forwards.’

Half an hour later I have the hero’s bow and am using it to shoot down drawbridges.

Another hour and the bow proves to be especially useful against the boss and his giant glowing shoot-me-here weak spot. He dies, explodes, gives up his heart container and another fused shadow artifact. Now that niggling thought is a dry and cynical chuckle scratching away in the back of my head. I save my game and switch the console off.

This is the first time I’ve played Twilight Princess, but it isn’t really the first time at all.

Sure the characters were chunky and the textures were nonexistent, but in gameplay terms Ocarina of Time was the same game through and through. Windwaker looked different, it looked spectacular in fact, and there was sailing, but when it really came down to it, there was a fire temple which I beat using exactly the same control scheme, wielding identical items.

So why am I playing the same game again?

Put simply: familiarity. There are trends in these games that I wait for with fanboyish anticipation. I’m just waiting to get that next item and hear that familiar fanfare like a sweaty crack addict waits shivering for his next fix. The item gathering and fishing side quests are yet more tropes, as satisfying as seeing a femme fatale turn on the hero in a film noir, or predicting who did it in a whodunit an hour before the reveal. Familiarity is soft and comfortable and easy, for both players and developers.

“I’m just waiting to get that item and

hear that familiar fanfare like a sweaty

crack addict waits shivering for his

next fix.”

Not that Twilight Princess was an easy game to make, it’s vast and pretty, well paced and genuinely quite excellent, it’s just the same as that quite excellent game I played nine years ago and I realise that the pleasure I’m getting from it is based entirely on nostalgia. What’s more, I look to the future and only see Ocarina of Time, copied and pasted into infinity. Twilight Princess, like Windwaker before it, is aesthetically brilliant, but creatively lazy.

A light world and a dark world? Look no further than some of Nintendo’s other series. Metroid Prime: Echoes and Super Paper Mario have both utilised the same concept. It’s impossible to claim that Nintendo have run out of ideas after releasing some of the most innovative gaming hardware in living memory over the past few years, but it’s apparent that they’re not focusing their creative energy on their big games because in truth they simply don’t have to. This is because these are not merely games, they are, I’m going to say it: franchises.

Yes, franchises, the very word itself a plain admittance that these games I have so much affection for are nothing more than endlessly replicated money printing machines, each iteration guaranteeing first week sales in the hundreds of thousands worldwide. It’s not just Nintendo of course; every developer wants their own pet IP that they can turn out every few years to keep the balance sheets favourable. The worst offenders are often sports games, every annual release bringing a new gimmick or layer of graphical polish and updated roster sheets that could’ve been delivered with a patch. The biggest franchises trade almost entirely on a name. Many gamers bought Final Fantasy XII based entirely on a sense consumer loyalty, but were surprised and even enraged to find the traditional forms of their game altered. Gamers can be famously passionate about their favourite series, which is no bad thing, but certain vehement and vocal groups often try their best to enslave developers to a certain formula, and are famously resistant to ideas of change or development in the series they are attached to.

This kind of fanaticism has the money men rubbing their hands with glee. It’s a matter of ‘brand awareness’, or ‘mindshare’, expressions that turn to ash in my mouth as I speak them, but terms that serve to explain why hideously bad movie games will sell by the truckload while Psychonauts or Beyond Good and Evil lie weeping on the sidelines. Meanwhile the franchises grow larger and larger, making predictable remakes and raking in the cash. Swollen with profit they stalk the industry like colossi, crushing smaller games underfoot. New releases are fleeing to the furthest corners of the Q2 release schedule as GTA IV prepares to land, there has even been talk of movies feeling the effect of Rockstar’s next release.

“It’s a matter of ‘brand awareness’,

or ‘mindshare’,expressions that turn

to ash in my mouth as I speak them…”

But it’s not all doom and gloom for innovation. A modern trend has seen franchises becoming more fluid and changeable entities, capable of evolving against consumer boredom in spite of rampant forumites. Resident Evil 4, a superb game in its own right, completely redefined the Resident Evil format just as it was becoming stale. More recently Rainbow Six has released its more accessible Vegas incarnations, Call of Duty’s move to Modern Warfare has earned it unbounded critical acclaim, and for Nintendo Mario has moved in so many directions it’s impossible to keep track, even Zelda has its wonderful DS counterpart Phantom Hourglass. In the same way that the industry is coagulating into one colossal corporate Pangaea, the great franchises will become fewer and larger, with many forms spanning multiple genres. The Halo RTS is already in production and a Command and Conquer FPS has also been announced. If these new iterations sell well then we can expect sequels to those games too.

Consider also that large franchises give developers the money to fund the projects that they really want to make. The enormous and deserved success of the Dawn of War franchise has allowed Relic to make Company of Heroes, one of the greatest RTS experiences ever forged. Bioware’s leveraging of the Star Wars universe with Knights of the Old Republic has given it the freedom to create a brand new IP with Mass Effect. At the end of the day, creative developers with an interesting idea for a game can use the success of a franchise to justify their riskier projects. It’s business, and it works.

As publishers become larger and more successful, they can afford to devote more of their profits to developing new talent in the industry. Just as Fox Searchlight or Paramount Vantage would take an indie movie under its wing and make it big, Valve hired a pair of fresh faced graduates and gave them the resources and expertise to realise their ideas in the form of the inimitable Portal. Xbox Live Arcade and the Playstation Network also act as forums for smaller games to shine, ushering the next generation of developers.

The smiling orange light of my Gamecube is dark now. I can’t bring myself to turn it back on. I can’t help but feel that the modern gaming world has more to offer now than familiar and repetitive action, more than just another clone. Maybe now is the time to dip into Bioshock, or slot in my old copy of Deus Ex once again. Perhaps I will revisit Zelda one day, in a future time far from now. Maybe then it will be completely different, maybe then it’ll blow my mind all over again, like Ocarina did all those years ago.

Well, a man can dream.

Ludo out.

Excited? Enraged? Post a comment! Alternatively, vent your virtual spleen in the vague direction of Ludo at mvhludo@hotmail.com, or Dante at dantemvh@hotmail.com.

19
Apr
08

Dante – How Hollywood Lost the Plot

There used to be a certainty about the Oscars, it wasn’t nice, that’s for sure, and it certainly wasn’t right, but it was reliable, dependable, solid. It used to be that, whatever innovative new cinema a year produced, the big prize would inevitable go to a solidly plotted, middle of the road film, usually directed by Clint Eastwood or Ron Howard, uninspiring, but decent enough in it’s own way. At the last Oscars, the Coen brothers, the celebrated masters of surreal and funny, went home with the best film award, surely I should be ecstatic? delirious with happiness? Cock a hoop?

Unfortunately not, and for reasons not restricted to No Country For Old Men, for the first time in a long while I’ve seen the majority of Oscar nominated films, all near unanimously critically acclaimed (No Country has often been called the Coens best, by people who I can only assume, don’t like or haven’t seen any of their other films) and yet they all share on clear flaw: a total disregard for structure.

Now it is unusual that so many films would be released in such a short period that mess with the time honoured template of beginning, middle and end. Stranger still that so few would make it work. (don’t mistake me for some establishment hack, I’m all for subverting the form, but it is not always necessary or right to do so, ‘first serve the story’ has always been my credo.) But strangest yet is the fact that critics have apparently decided, in concert, to overlook these flaws, structure it seems, is out of fashion in Hollywood this year.

But of course I don’t expect you to take what I say to be true in the abstract, so sit back while I take you on a ride though the last crop of Oscar nominations, so many of which I expected to like. With each I’ll detail how they cocked up their structure.

There Will Be Blood – Beginning, Muddle and End

There Will Be Blood

Unlike many of the films here There Will Be Blood has a clear beginning and end, it was also directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, whose films I’m a huge fan of, which only emphasises the disappointment I felt at the huge gulf of, well, anything in the middle. It’s a yawning chasm that lacks purpose, drive, point and regular characters save Daniel Day Lewis. Everyone else comes and goes as the middle section simply charts a series of things that happen to Lewis, with no rhyme or reason. The beginning is bleak and artistic, the end is a comical farce, yet the middle does not lead from one to another, it wanders between comedy and drama with gay abandon. The individual scenes are marvellous on their own, yet they add up to a total lack of narrative.

What should they have done – The true crime of this film is that the only way to describe vast portions of it is ‘stuff happens’, yet they have a ready made dynamic in the battle of wits and wills between Eli and Daniel. The cure for this films ills is to focus on this battle as much as possible.

No Country For Old Men – Beginning, Middle and…

No Country for Old Men

95% of No Country is a wonderful film, it has a strong purpose, a driving force, the battle between Anton and Llewelyn over the money. It was lean and it was marvellous, Anton’s murderous drive carrying it off, so what if Tommy Lee Jones turned up once in a while and didn’t have much to do with anything, he’s probably going to be important at the end, and he certainly does, but not in the way one might suspect. Keeping spoilers to a minimum, the massively disappointing end of No Country goes thusly; the confrontation that we’ve been building up to all this time doesn’t happen, Tommy Lee Jones talks with people we’ve never seen before about being old, Anton kills a couple more people before getting in a car crash and stumbling off with a broken arm, Tommy Lee Jones muses about being old a bit more, the end. Again, I like that the Coens don’t conform to conventions, and I love them for it, but if you’re building up for a confrontation for so long and don’t have it, well that’s just going to disappoint people.

What they should have done – Have an ending! It’s all very simple to fix, give us the payoff. Or Alternatively if you’re determined that it be about growing old, then make Jones the central character, don’t spend so much time with the story you’re not going to resolve.


Charlie Wilson’s War
– Middle, middle and middle

Charlie Wilson\'s War

Now let’s get one thing down right off the bat, I love Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing is the finest TV series I’ve ever seen and when I heard he had a new film in the works I was literally jumping with joy (which proved problematic, as I’m a tall man and I was in a low ceilinged room at the time). So why is this here? Because it falls into the trap many films based on real events do, it lacks any kind of structure whatsoever. Real life, alas, doesn’t have a convenient three act structure, things simply happen, one after another with no driving point to them at all. In this respect Charlie Wilson’s War should be praised for it’s realism. But alas as I’ve said before, realism does not good entertainment always make, and in this case it results in an unsatisfying film that has no real point or drive.

What should they have done – Individual parts of Charlie Wilson’s War are still wonderful, like seeing a US Congressman shout ‘Allah Akbar!’ and the fantastic character that is Hoffman’s CIA agent. All it needs is a more conventional structure, surely that shouldn’t be too hard?

Micheal Clayton – Beginning, Moment and End

Michael Clayton

Seeing as this is the last film I’m covering I’ll go straight to the meat of the issue; Micheal Clayton has far too little plot for it’s own good. It’s a thriller without twists, it goes something like “This corporation is poisoning people!” –> “We must find evidence!” –> “Oh, here it is”, which I hope I don’t have to tell you, is very unsatisfying to watch. It isn’t an especially short film, so I’m really at a loss to say where all that time went, the only solution I can think of is that it got eaten up by the inordinate amount of time taken on Micheal’s character and life, his waster brother, his gambling addiction etc etc. The only problem is that none of this proves very relevant to the plot, resulting in both sides being stunted and half realised.

What they should have done – Pick a side, you can have a character study or a lean legal thriller, not both, personally I recommend the latter, because that way you get to keep the excellent Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson.

So there you have it, a concerted analysis of the plotting problems of four films, both praised by the critics and given Oscar nominations, despite their significant flaws. I can only assume some sort of mass hysteria was involved, similar to the brief but telling time when everyone in Hollywood managed to convince themselves Titanic was good, we can only pray it doesn’t continue.

NB: I haven’t seen most of the rest of the nominations, except Juno (which has no problems with structure but some of the most infuriatingly awful dialogue imaginable) but I feel these represent an adequate cross section.

14
Apr
08

Ludo – Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

It’s too late. The ceremony has already happened. There’s not even time for a dramatic last minute interruption, all the papers have been signed, those present have borne witness. I am now married to Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. We said our vows in Vegas and then flew back to grim England to begin our lives together.

At first it was the looks. The cute and gloriously colourful stylings of Windwaker have been brilliantly recreated in portable form, and the world is as vibrant and varied as its Gamecube predecessor. The characters, the locales, the whole package is irrepressibly charming. It was love at first sight.

Then it was the controls. The game will use your DS to its fullest capabilities. It boldly ties almost every action to the stylus, but implements this perfectly, and uses the stylus at the heart of its puzzles. The game does not use the stylus as a mouse pointer as many games do, but realises its full potential as a drawing tool. Sketch routes for your mobile bombchus, write notes on the maps to solve puzzles, and plot headings for your boat with aplomb. The other features of the DS are used as well. Shout at monsters with big ears and they’ll cower in a corner while you ruthlessly beat them to death with your boomerang, boss encounters will spread the fight across both screens . Every action in the game is perfectly honed and remains fun to the very end.

The level design and structure bear direct similarities to its console counterparts, this is Zelda after all, and you can expect the same item-gathering heart-container-increasing progression that you’ve come to expect from the series. The puzzles are less complex, but well organised and you are normally able to reach your next objective within half an hour’s play, keeping it within its mandate as a portable game.

There were a few arguments of course. I kept telling it that I didn’t want to have to keep revisiting the same central dungeon every time I completed a quest, but it kept on making me go back to redo puzzles I had done five times already. Not only that, but it timed me, put me under pressure, made me sweat. I hated it for that. But soon I was back on the open seas, and the dungeon was forgotten, because for its minor foibles, it had something else, something that I wasn’t expecting at all.

It was funny. Not just in the slapstick cut scenes, but in the dialogue too. The small cast of characters are brilliantly realised, most notably the rogue pirate Linebeck and the Anouki, a pragmatic race of antlered yeti. I laughed when I lifted a curse and its evil denizens, released from its hold, stammeringly apologised for trying to eat me. I laughed at all its jokes, and knew then that we would be together forever.

Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is not only the finest slice of portable adventuring out there, but an experience to challenge any fully fledged adventure game. I would recommend that you go and play it immediately but I won’t. You can’t. It’s mine. Forever.

Things that happened while playing this game:

-Had a massive and completely overblown argument about curtains. Slept on the couch for a few days.

-Carefully sidestepped the ‘lets have kids’ issue, remarking that men and DS cartridges aren’t really made for that sort of thing.

-Drew rude pictures on the map screens.

10
Apr
08

Ludo – Prey

//www.flickr.com/photos/kartooner/

It is very rare in life that I have ever wished to be in advertising, but Prey has managed this notorious feat. As a game, it’s the easiest sell ever.

This game has gravity rails that let you stand on the walls and have gun battles with enemies on the ceiling – Wow! This game has a gun that, instead of a scope, has a parasitic alien snake attach itself to your eye – Sick! This is the game that did portals before Portal – OMG! WTF etc. etc.

Yes, yes, it does have all of those things, but in the manner of a true advertising man, I have been cruelly lying to you by omission, raising your hopes so that I might dash them against the cold hard rocks of reality. You see, it does have portals, but as pretty as they look you have no control over them, they are, to all extents and purposes, just doors, and after a while they become as boring as doors. Ah another tear in space-time, I guess I’ll just step through there to get to the next level of dull and uninspired combat.

Whoops, third paragraph and I’ve already given away the game’s greatest flaw, because, as flaws go, it’s omnipresent and therefore impossible to escape. So I’m not going to do the thing where I’d build up from disappointment to disappointment before finally playing my ace and blowing the lid off the whole deal, instead I’ll just summarise the game’s greatest problem like this:

There is a very simple test you can do in any FPS to test the intelligence of your enemies. It involves lining yourself up with them, pressing forwards and holding down the fire button, perhaps screaming a war cry of your choosing. The minions in Prey will spectacularly fail to react to this, watching your approach as a rabbit would a gargantuan big rig, spending the last moments of its life being overwhelmed by the god-like massiveness of the thing heading towards it, not even sparing a thought for its rabbit wife and millions of little rabbit children, simply waiting to become a three foot purple smear on the vast grey highway of life.

You are not a colossal big rig, you are Tommy, moron extraordinaire, a man who remains steadfast in his skepticism despite the fact that he speaks with the ghost of his dead grandfather on a regular basis and possesses the ability to divorce his consciousness from his body and walk through walls at will. Luckily for Tommy his enemies are incontinent idiots who, among other things, seem to lack the ability to move and shoot at the same time. Mechanically the walk speed is too slow and the environments are claustrophobic, eliminating all element of strategy from combat. Oh, and you can’t die.

Yes, whenever your health reaches zero you are sent to the spirit world where you spend a few minutes shooting spirits to restore your health, and then you’re thrown back into the game exactly where you were. There is no way to possibly die or lose in the spirit world, so by the end I simply didn’t even bother shooting the spirits, as simply being there restores half of your health automatically. This mechanic attempts to replace the standard practice of reloading your last quick save but is awful for two reasons. One: it is a completely infuriating and pointless break in the action which simply makes you want to turn the game off and play Peggle. Two: realising that the player can’t die, the developers have structured the combat around sending waves and waves of enemies against you with the full knowledge that you will not survive, resulting in one of the most dull and frustrating final thirds of any game I have ever played.

I’m being cruel to Prey because it has an awful lot going for it. In fact, it’s very close to being great. The visual design is a brilliant mix of fleshy walls and glowing alien technology and there are interesting ideas in here. It’s fun to manipulate gravity, it’s fun to fight on miniature planetoids and to walk on the ceiling. The problem is that all of these potentially original mechanics have somehow been mashed into an incredibly generic core game that grows old after the first few hours. Here’s hoping that Prey 2 can fill in the gaps and raise this series to greatness.

Things that happened while playing this game (SPOILERS):

-Laughed hysterically as Tommy’s girlfriend, who you spend the entire game searching for, appears grafted onto a huge alien mutant, which then proceeds to attack you as she flops about on top screaming “I can’t stop it Tommy!”

-Endured an ’emotional’ scene in which Tommy’s girlfriend decides that she simply can’t live with being grafted to a large and now dead alien mutant, asking you to put her out of her misery, which I did, with the rocket launcher.

-Swore repeatedly at the stupid stupid enemies as they charged predictably in their waves.




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