Tuesday, May 28, 2013

My Thoughts on Xbox One

Last week, Microsoft held a little conference to unveil the successor to the Xbox 360. The name of this successor is Xbox One, making reference to the apparent "all-in-one" philosophy behind the development of the console. Some aspects of the Xbox One are controversial, some are expected, and some are simply intriguing. The reaction to the Xbox One has been very interesting to observe, with many rallying against the system while others place themselves on the defense. It has some good and bad things going for it, and so far it really doesn't seem like it's for me but there's potential for that to change.

I guess I'll start out by addressing the name. It's bizarre. Microsoft chose not to give it a quirky name like Wii, but instead an additive name like Super Nintendo. What's so odd about it, though, is that is uses a number that doesn't indicate which it is in its series of platforms. Sure, the same can be said about the Xbox 360, but nobody hears that and thinks it's the three-hundred sixtieth Xbox platform. When someone hears "Xbox One"? Many would instinctively think of the first Xbox home console, but now they're going to think of the third, unless they haven't heard of it yet. In that case you'll have conversations like the following: 

"Man I love the Xbox One. Such a great system."
"All I really liked on there was Fable."
"Which Fable?"
"There was only one Fable on the first Xbox."
"No, I'm talking about the Xbox One, not the original Xbox."
[after a long pause and an incredulous look] "What?"

So, yeah, we can't call the first one "Xbox 1" anymore. In all fairness I've always called the first Xbox the "original Xbox," but this name still needlessly complicates things. When someone hears that the "Xbox One" is coming out, will they instantly think it's a step up from their Xbox 360? Will people think I don't need a One, I already have a 360, in a similar fashion as those who thought I don't need a Wii U, I already have a Wii? Maybe. It also draws attention to the multimedia functions of the console, which distracts from what many would assume its main function is; playing video games.

The conference held last week was not focused on gaming, in fact. A lot of it was on the UI, the cable television functions, and apps like Skype. The multitasking looked cool, besides the sketchy Kinect controls. Being able to switch from television to games to music on the fly sounds great, and it's technically impressive. But it's controlled by voice commands and gestures? What happens when you say something in conversation similar to a voice command? What happens when you have a person (like me) that constantly gesticulates? There's going to be annoying miscommunications between the Kinect and its users, and that's excluding those with disabilities (like speech impediments) and troll friends and family members that will fiendishly shout out obtrusive commands. 

The cable television integration seems fine, I guess, but it really doesn't interest me, personally. I don't watch TV. If the Kinect controls actually work well or can be avoided, and Xbox Live is as impressive as before, it's likely that if I owned this it would be my main source of multimedia entertainment on a television; especially because of the blu-ray drive, which was one of the 360's multimedia Achilles' heels. However, I definitely wouldn't buy this for that purchase, as I spend more time on a tablet than a television anyway, and also because my Wii U and PS3 do the job just fine. What's going to sell this to me is viability as a gaming platform. 

Not much has interested me so far, in that regard. Microsoft had a few sports games to show off with EA, all of which doesn't do much for me, as I'm not into sports. A new Forza will be there at launch which is great, but I'm not into cars at all, so simulation-racers don't appeal to me. Call of Duty: Ghosts looks impressive, but military shooters don't get me excited, and that's not exclusive anyway. Quantum Break is a neat concept that I'll be looking into, but not only does its tv-show integration sound personally unappealing for me to get into, but details are vague. The only things I've seen that are exciting to my tastes are the enhancements to the controller (like the novel vibrating sticks), power on par with PS4 (no longer lagging behind Playstation in that department like in the 7th gen), and the announcement that there will be fifteen exclusives in the first year; eight of which new IP's.

The Xbox 360's line-up of games doesn't appeal to my tastes nearly as much as that of the PS3 and Wii, and I've honestly never been interested in buying an original Xbox due to its seemingly weak supply of exclusives that I want to play. Exclusives games are a good thing, and fifteen in the first year is not bad. It's good for me that over half will be new IP's, because Microsoft's established game franchises aren't amongst my favorites. I like Gears of War but I don't love it, I loved the Fable series for the first couple of hours of Fable 2 and then I lost interest, Halo has always seemed cool but I've never actually bought any of the series, etc. It would take a lot from new entries in these franchises to get me to buy this console. 

And now, let's get to the elephant in the room; the controversial features of the console that fight against used games, borrowing and trading, as well as the connecting-once-a-day thing. I don't like these things. I'm not going to precisely describe these things because Microsoft isn't either, so you can just look into specifics on your own as they are at the moment and as they progress. The basic idea is that Microsoft, with Xbox One, is trying to push physical games into a direction more akin to the format's handling in the realm of PC gaming, which is antithetical to the point of a gaming console - convenience. Being able to borrow games and lend them out, trade games, not having to worry about installing huge games, not having to connect online in order to play games, not having to register games, etc. all adds to the convenience of console gaming. How will the less-than-tech-savy - like children, for example - respond to this?

I have a job now, but before I did, I relied heavily on trading in and selling games to get new games, so if I didn't have a job, this would be a big deterrent. Why treat the physical format in this way? GameStop ganking cash from publishers through used sales may be a problem, but there are much better ways of handling this, such as including additive digital incentives for buying new (like discounts on DLC or a digital copy of an older game in the series) and online passes. These new things also make these games less durable in the sense that you may not be able to play them decades after they release like you can with physical console games right now. As I said, these features are not clearly defined and could change, but as it all stands - yuck. 

Many seem very against the Xbox One for these controversial features, some calling for a boycott and already placing themselves in a battle against Microsoft. If the Xbox One seems like it's worth my money, I'll buy it. If the cons (like these controversial features) outweigh the pros, I won't buy it. I don't want to deprive myself of a system I may like in an attempt to win a war against these features. If you can't wrap your head around the value in a system with these new features, I totally understand not buying it. By not buying it, you're showing through your dollars that what Microsoft is producing isn't reaching you as a consumer. For me, while I am against these new features, it's not enough on its own to stop me from buying the system.

Anyway, as it stands, the system isn't particularly enticing to me. As I said, the original Xbox has never appealed to me. The Xbox 360 was a hard sell, but they eventually got me once the slim model came out, finally completely stamping out the "Red Ring of Death" catastrophe. What truly sold me on the 360 was the impressive library of smaller downloadable titles that were console-exclusive, like Super Meat Boy and Splosion Man, and the superior social experience for multiplatform games because of Xbox Live. I actually sold my 360, but during a period in which I wasn't very into games. So the system itself wasn't the main reason for selling it, but it was the main reason I chose that one over my other systems. 

I already bought a Wii U and price is the only thing that has me holding my breath on the PS4. What's shown so far may be great for someone that just wants to watch Netflix and play shooters and sports games with their friends online, but that's not quite what I'm looking to buy. But things could change, and unlike some that have already given up on it, I'd love that. Let's hope the folks at Microsoft bring their A game to E3 this year: They need to. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Dredd (Film) - Review

 When Dredd was announced and trailers started coming out for it, the response seemed pretty negative. I saw people write it off as Hollywood frigidly attempting to make a quick buck off of the nostalgia of its audiences for the 90s Stallone film and Judge Dredd comic book series. When the movie actually hit theaters, the reaction was surprisingly positive. Those that saw the movie generally had great things to say about it, and the movie was critically well-received despite being a financial flop, actually losing money at the box office. I haven't extensively read the comics, nor have I seen the Stallone movie, but my interest was piqued. I just got done watching it on Blu-Ray, and I'd say it's a pretty good action-filled romp, despite some problems with characterization. 

The movie starts off with an incredibly awesome intro sequence establishing Dredd as a badass cop [called a "Judge"] trying to establish justice in a city filled to the brim with crime. After that, Dredd is introduced to a rookie named Anderson that just narrowly failed her exam to become a Judge. He is instructed to take her out on duty and judge whether or not she should be hired, because she not only shows potential but she has psychic powers. The two decide to investigate a block at the scene of a triple-homicide.

They encounter a man that Anderson's psychic powers tells her is responsible for the triple-homicide, but Dredd decides rather than trust her "ninety-nine percent" certainty, it's best to take him in for interrogation. This intimidates drug-lord Ma-Ma, who has employed this man in her gang's murderous domination on other gangs and the production and distribution of an illegal drug called "Slo-Mo." She devises a plan that sends the entire block into lockdown, and intends to kill Dredd and Anderson in order to stop them from taking in the man for interrogation and spilling the details on her operation. The basic premise is established: Dredd and Anderson have to get themselves out of this block alive, and ensure justice is served. 

It's a pleasantly simple premise. This allows for tons of action, and the action is good. The violence looks great. It certainly leans on the cheesy side, but that doesn't take away from the entertainment value. People's faces get torn apart, mush that looks like bubble gum is underneath of skin, the "Slo-Mo" drug allows for some sweet slo-mo sequences, and the various applications of Dredd's weaponry are fun to watch. It's brutal, but rather than being uncomfortable, the brutality serves as spectacle when it's supposed to be spectacle and service to the story when it's supposed to be service to the story. The low budget makes the film look noticeably less produced than other movies you'd see at the theater, but it's not much of a problem. The story is unaffected and what they do with the budget is creative and looks good, so I can't knock it too much for its noticeably low budget.

My biggest issue with the movie is a rather annoying plot hole dealing with Dredd's characterization. As I said earlier, Dredd decides at the beginning of the movie that Anderson's "ninety-nine percent" certainty wasn't good enough to execute the man for the triple homicide, so they have to take him in for interrogation. This implies that he needs a spoken confession or hard evidence for an execution. However, later in the movie, in an act of rage, Dredd decides to do a makeshift interrogation of his own, and eventually allows Anderson to read the man's mind. "If you leave it to me he doesn't have to speak," Anderson says. She learns about Ma-Ma's operation in full through just her psychic interrogation, and not through a spoken confession or any hard evidence. Dredd doesn't object this time, and even formally accuses Ma-Ma of the new information he acquires from this moment shortly after. Is this because he gained more trust in Anderson from the start of the movie up to that point? Maybe that's what they were going for, but nothing here substantially makes that implication. By the end Dredd certainly seems to have gained trust in her, but I think the moments that made that change in him happen after this troubling scene. As it stands, Dredd seemingly makes a decision during this makeshift interrogation that contradicts the decision at the beginning of the film that gets them wrapped up in this predicament in the first place. 

Looking past that, the performances are great and the film does some great things thematically. Karl Urban plays a badass Dredd and has some really satisfying dialogue. The movie establishes him as an uncompromising function of the law that isn't against executing those that the law finds guilty of such a punishment. This of course raises ethical questions about government-sanctioned execution, that is thankfully challenged through Anderson's character, played by Olivia Thirlby. She hesitates to use her power to execute as she is more empathetic and kind, seeing the good in people and the problem with the coldness of government execution. Lena Heady plays a detestable bad guy as Ma-Ma that sets up a conclusion that has Dredd giving her a taste of her own medicine. How Dredd does what he needs to do comes off as uncharacteristically cruel from him, but brings her story arc full-circle in an inventive way.  

The action really is great, and unabashedly violent without being uncomfortable. The characterization of Dredd takes some head-scratching turns towards Unchallenged Contradiction City, which really hurts the film. But the characterization at its best is when the movie really shines, portraying Dredd as an utterly badass but ethically questionable function of law-enforcement and Anderson as a sympathetic counterweight, both fighting against the despicable baddy in Ma-Ma. As a whole, it's pretty good. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Iron Man 3 (Film) - Review

Iron Man 3 may just be the best super hero movie of all-time. This flick is jam-packed with sweet action, near-perfect characterization and great laughs, all tied together with smart story-telling. Like Tony Stark's suit, it's not free of its rusty parts, but dude, it's still a freaking Iron Man suit.

Robert Downey Jr. is out of the suit quite a bit in this movie, which actually works to the film's benefit. The movie displays the man as the human being he is. As a line of dialogue accounts for, Tony is, on the surface, just a guy in a suit, in a world filled with aliens and super soldiers and demi-gods. Throughout Iron Man 3, it's made clear that Stark is a serious force to be reckoned with, and made more badass by the deck of cards he's dealt. It's awesome. This character is impossible for me to root against. He's the ultimate super hero.

His weaknesses really add to to his ultimate super hero status. Stark has developed severe cases of anxiety and insomnia from the events of Avengers, and when a terrorist called Mandarin is crafting disasters around America, he's pushed to the brink. Stark has severe panic attacks (which are depicted realistically, speaking as someone who has had panic attacks), makes some irrational decisions, and loses the trust of love interest Pepper. Instead of beating the character down in a way that makes him less compelling, this humanizes him, making him more compelling. Iron Man is the ultimate super hero because he's awesome despite the odds.

There's a major plot twist around half-way through the movie, and it just makes the main antagonist cooler and more intimidating. The origin of the bad guys actually ties in thematically with the demons and fears of Tony Stark, albeit not as strongly as it could. And it's just clever, and rather original. For the most part the performances for these baddies are great, creating utterly detestable faces to punch, but the most important role, while great, isn't superb. The character's performance is just one piece of the puzzle, though - the writing and placement in the story still rocks.

As I said, it's not without its issues here and there. The biggest issue is that the final fight scene, while purely satisfying from an emotional angle, is a lot to take in from a logical standpoint. After the credits rolled I was able to piece everything together to a point that made sense in my head, but that doesn't excuse the head-scratching. Besides that, the president of this film is frustratingly dopey, which is such a small complaint because, within the context of this movie, it doesn't really matter how smart he is, but I wish there would have been a joke or two thrown in or a scene of explanation to calm my mild frustration. And sometimes, I felt like it tried too hard with the comedy. 

But don't get me wrong, it's funny, and also just fun in general. Robert Downey Jr. follows up his stellar performances from before as a one-liner-filled powerhouse of amusement. Stark meets a tech-savvy kid that helps him out as the plot unfolds, and all of his bits don't miss a beat, at best managing to not only be funny but also charming. Don Cheadle is better than ever before as War Machine, and even Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper gets an upgrade in some respects. The action is fantastic, with some invigorating set pieces of pure visual splendor. These set pieces are often quite creative, the best of which being the scene with the plane in the sky from the trailers, forcing Stark to link save everyone in a fashion similar to, as he says, the game "Barrel of Monkeys."

Iron Man 3 is such a great movie. It gives viewers the ultimate super hero, who's incredibly awesome despite the odds. It's funny and purely entertaining, but it's also compelling on more intelligent planes. It's not perfect, but to quote the man himself, "glitches happen." Director Shane Black and all others involved have crafted one of the very best super hero movies.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Nintendo Made a Big Goof

I'm a big Nintendo fan. And I'm not even one of those Nintendo fans that says things like "Nintendo used to be good but now they've lost their way." No, no, I bought a Nintendo 3DS on launch day and don't regret the $250 purchase one bit. I think that Super Mario Galaxy 2 is one of the best video games ever made. I'm even willing to call myself a fan of Waluigi, folks. This is why, dear readers, it really saddens me to hear that Nintendo is cracking down on Let's Players.

Let's Player Zack Scott was the dude who kickstarted conversation about this new policy of Nintendo of America. He claimed that Nintendo forced ads onto his videos which shoots the ad revenue completely to Nintendo, not himself. Nintendo issued the following statement:

"For most fan videos this will not result in any changes, however, for those videos featuring Nintendo-owned content, such as images or audio of a certain length, adverts will now appear at the beginning, next to or at the end of the clips. We continually want our fans to enjoy sharing Nintendo content on Youtube, and that is why, unlike other entertainment companies, we have chosen not to block people using our intellectual property."

I love how Nintendo is trying to paint this as a good thing. Those other companies have these videos taken down, we just want to take these Let's Players' money!

There are some problems with that line of logic. For one thing, those "other entertainment companies" are, a vast majority of the time, not video game companies, they are music and film companies. I'm not going to necessarily defend or bemoan the actions of those companies, but there is a fundamental difference between what they do and what the big N is doing. What those "other entertainment companies" typically do is remove uploads of full songs and clips of films, that may include lyrics or subtitles, which are of course owned by the company and not the uploader. Let's Players film their own personal gameplay experience, and a huge component of the video is their entirely original commentary. 

If somebody uploads a full movie onto YouTube, the people who view that video have watched that movie. When someone uploads a video of New Super Mario Bros. Wii with their voice playing over it the whole time, the viewers aren't watching New Super Mario Bros. Wii in the same way that one would be watching a directly uploaded, say, Skyfall. Gamer X's playthrough and commentary of New Super Mario Bros. Wii is a different thing than the video game New Super Mario Bros. Wii. If you want to play New Super Mario Bros. Wii, you have to play New Super Mario Bros. Wii, you can't just watch a Let's Play of it. If you want to watch Skyfall? Sure, if some dude throws it on YouTube, you could - for the most part - get a proper viewing of the film.

Now, hey, sure: I don't deny that some people watch a Let's Play and, because they watched it, no longer have a desire to buy and play the video game. I watched a playthrough of Heavy Rain, and when I was done, my desire to actually pick the game up and play it was vastly diminished. I totally understand not liking that. But to use those situations as a means of justification for doing what NOA is doing is far from reasonable, especially on a pragmatic level. 

In a broad sense, I feel safe in saying that Let's Plays help game sales much more than harm because the experience of playing a video game is vastly different from watching someone else play the game. I've been motivated to buy and play a game more than I've had my motivation diminished, when it comes to watching Let's Plays. I think most people would agree that watching a video of someone playing a game is more likely to entice someone to play the game rather than take away that potential desire.  At least, surely, it has massive potential to create interest in the game.

And yeah, Nintendo isn't saying that these videos can't exist, but these big time LPers that build a career off of their videos - some of whom playing mainly or perhaps even exclusively Nintendo games - aren't going to waste their time on Nintendo titles if there's no money in it for them. There are similar websites like Blip that could be used as an alternative, but YouTube is much more popular - everyone reading this knows what YouTube is, but Blip? Not so much. I only know about it because of ThatGuyWithTheGlasses, and you may not know what the heck that is either. 

It's not just LPers that could be affected: Reviewers, for example, could fall into this trap as well, if it meets NOA's criteria. Shouldn't there be a legal issue in what Nintendo is doing? I'm no lawyer, but I don't think it's out of the question to say that these LPers' videos are completely legitimate, based on Fair Use law for their criticism. 

I think Peer Schneider of IGN hit the nail right on the head with this tweet:

"@PeerIGN: Only possible outcome: fewer Nintendo Let's Plays by the most influential YT elite + less Nintendo mindshare on the biggest video network."

Copyright infringement makes me queasy. For example, while I'm no SOPA supporter, I think I'm more anti-piracy than a lot of people. But I can't wrap my head around this decision from Nintendo. As a big fan, I'm disappointed. Here's hoping this doesn't become a large-scale, long-term issue, as it seems it will be at the moment. As it stands, Nintendo is on a road that will continue what may be their biggest problem; a distinctive negative stigma of Nintendo within the gaming community.


Remember Me?

I haven't thrown any new content up on this blog in... awhile!

Hey. What's that? What have I been up to? Well, I've been writing for this comics blog I created called The Comic Current.

It's a good blog. I'm very proud of it. Tweets linking to various posts have been retweeting by folks like Dan Slott (main Spider-Man writer for years), Charles Soule (current writer on Swamp Thing), Allison Strejlau (artist on the Regular Show comic), etc. My main hobby has been comics for the past two years or so, and that's one outlet in which I share my love for it all.

I still have other things I'd like to write, but I haven't been doing that as much! I wrote about Homophobia for my personal blog on Tumblr this one time. It was good stuff. I also wrote something today that is relevant to this blog.

I'm coming back. I've been writing a lot for The Comic Current, but I don't just want to write about comics. I want to write about video games and movies and politics and music and maybe even some creative stuff, and this is where that's gonna happen. Tumblr is pretty trendy and is a slick and cool way to get your work around the web, but Blogger one-ups it when it comes to accessing older work and stuff like that. So I'll have content firing on both outlets.

Expect cool stuff soon, and frequently; both here and on The Comic Current.