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I have toted with checking this show out a number of times, but have always been cautious taking on a gay themed series sight unseen.

But with JB Hifi currently selling the series at a dramatically reduced price – $14.95 NZ – I decided to take the plunge and bought the first season. After only two episodes I have now gone back and bought the rest. It is that good.

Beyond just being witty and about the GLBT community, the series really does present a fairly accurate portrayal of the minefield of issues that face gay men and women on a daily basis. Yes, it is slightly exaggerated, but when one of the character’s states “There are only two types of straight people. Those who hate you to your face and those who hate you behind your back” in reference to gay people.

That’s not only a ballsy statement to have a character make, there really are actually gay men out there who think like this. Presumably this guy is going to have this view challenged before the series ends.

While the series is an ensemble show, there are three clear leads out of the cast of seven. Mike is the narrator who occasionally breaks the fourth wall for comic effect. He’s nice, friendly and clearly a bit of a romantic. Brian is the gorgeous cocky manwhore who doesn’t believe in love just sex for fun. He’s arrogant, but there is a hint that this is to protect himself from a world he feels is just out to get him. Justin is the supernaturally beautiful 17 year old virgin who is just entering the gay community. I say supernatural because the actor is just stunningly beautiful in a very angelic manner. Even when he’s being adorably goofy – for example he is in bed and asked “what do you like?” by a naked Brian and he starts listing his hobbies and after school activities.

I love that the show has a reasonable cross section of the community, including a lesbian couple that don’t look like a crass stereotype.

From a perspective of “would heterosexual viewers like this show?” I think many would. The cast are great, the dialogue is witty and fun. The show is very frank about what the gay community is like, to the point that it may surprise some people as to what it is like to be a part of that community.

I think QaF succeeds in presenting a gay perspective that can engage, shows the sensuality of the lifestyle without being porny and has some bluntly honest observations of how the world looks from a gay perspective.

Two thumbs up. Genuinely good television.

Conan

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I have just finished playing Ninja Theory’s Enslaved, and I felt that I kind of need to get my finishing thoughts about the game out there.

For those who didn’t know about this game, Enslaved is a post-apocalyptic third-person platformer with a melée combat element. It retells the classic Chinese tale, Journey to the West – better known in NZ by the television version, Monkey.

Enslaved includes a very cool looking post apocalypse over-run with abandoned war machines that were programmed to kill all humans.

Much like Heavenly Sword, another Ninja Theory game, Enslaved left me feeling wanting more. But not in a “that was awesome cool” way but in a “what? Is that it?” way.

There were many similarities between the two games – a desperate desire to tell a compelling story, and a desire to be a fun game. Unfortunately it felt to me in both instances that Ninja Theory kind of gave up half way through the process.

But I’m going to focus on Enslaved here.

Gameplay
Many reviewers have compared Enslaved to Uncharted 2 – and it isn’t a surprise. UC2 has kind of set a new benchmark for production of a third person game both in storytelling and gameplay. Uncharted 2 is not innovative in its gameplay, but it is innovative in how it uses established gameplay. Naughty Dog clearly decided that reinventing the wheel isn’t necessary, focus on good solid and engaging gameplay – then produce exciting set pieces around that gameplay that really lets the player cut loose and have fun.

Enslaved’s gameplay was solid, but also very lacking. The platforming felt unnecessary and used only to pad out the game, the fighting felt anaemic and limited, and there really wasn’t much strategy to the game. It often felt like the gameplay was just there to get you along to the next cut scene.

The cinematic chase scenes were at times cool. but often annoying too.

It wasn’t awful, and was fun at times – but generally I just felt like the game didn’t want to let me really experience the setting.

Graphics
I get that a lot of developers love using the Unreal engine – but why do they do such a sloppy job of it. And why did Ninja Theory drop the ball so badly this time. Heavenly Sword was a gorgeous game that rarely experienced the glitches so common in Unreal engine games. But here the game was constantly plagued by glitches – slow texture loading, clipping, characters mysteriously vanishing… but more than that the game would enigmatically boost the volume on the music, or keep a track playing when it should have cancelled – often drowning out dialogue…

In one instance, Monkey fell but didn’t die, requiring me to reload the game.

Which is all a shame given that most of the time the game does look gorgeous. The set design and character models are great. Monkey grew on me as a character, and the Mechs were all very cool designs.

Story
So with gameplay not really rocking my world, and graphics being glitchy, it kind of comes down to the story.

Yes. The story.

While I do think that the In Media Res opening could have started a little differently, the story does start off well enough, and the initial chapters are well told. The game slowly reveals to us the city, we get some teasing hints about the characters and it all seems a very promising start. Unfortunately as the game progresses, all that promise – the interesting location and vision of a post-apocalyptic world kind of gets dumped in favour of a cliché heavy second half.

It’s a real shame that after presenting the ruins of New York City with it’s teasing hints of how the world collapsed – interesting posters that suggest the slow decent of civilisation, the state of the ruins – and then the minute Trip and Monkey are out of the city all that haunting and intriguing history is summarily dumped.

The middle part of the game, with the arrival of a third member to our merry band, does have some amusing banter and great visuals, and again teases some possible ideas of what happened before – but this gets lost in the hokum cliched plot development.

As if the characters didn’t already have a good enough reason to find out what happens at Pyramid. Instead a good 3-4 chapters are wasted on fetch quests that were unnecessary. I would have excised all but one maybe two chapters from that tripe and focused on getting to Pyramid. Which does bring me to the epilogue.

The ending is, in my opinion, crap. I saw it coming from a mile away and it was not an original finish to the story. It cheapened the whole experience for me because of two things:

a) It contradicted nearly everything leading up to it.

b) It lacked decent foreshadowing.

c) It kind of felt slapped on at the end. It was one of my most hated clichés in storytelling – the twist for the sake of a twist. And it wasn’t even a “ZOMG! I didn’t see that coming!” It was more “oh, so that’s how they decided to spin it this time.”

It felt to me like the writers suddenly felt that the story wasn’t profound enough and tried to have some moral quandry at the end – but it was so poorly handled and sloppily resolved it just felt like a lame duck ending. There isn’t really any room for a sequel either.

What this game and story needed was to firstly be twice the length it ended up being. It needed to draw more plot inspiration from it’s source material Journey to the West – it had some nice parallels at the beginning, but again dropped these in favour of bad lazy game clichés. There should have been more characters. There should have been more communities shown struggling to exist in the world. The arrival to Pyramid should have been the beginning of the third act of the game, and the final chapters should have been about exploring Pyramid and learning its secrets.

And those secrets should have been more profound and uncomfortably challenging than the lame-ass ending that Ninja Theory went with.

Apparently there is a DLC episode planned that will be a story that runs in parallel with the main one.

Given how disappointed the game left me feeling, I don’t intend to waste my money on it.

Ultimately I felt that Enslaved was a squandered opportunity. There was a lot of promise in the setting and characters, but the game cops out rather than does any justice to those inspired ideas.

Conan

Sorry for not posting in a long time, folks. I’ve been a busy beaver trying to get a few projects underway and kickstarting some stymied projects. But I’m back with a review on a recent film – Jennifer’s Body.

Be warned, there may be a couple of spoilers in the following review. I’ll try to avoid them where possible.

The reason this film has kickstarted me into posting is because it exemplifies the issue of how even with all the right ingredients a film can fall apart very easily.

Needy is your stereotypical Hollywood high school geek girl. We know this because her hair is frizzy, she wears glasses and usually has her hair in a ponytail. She is best friends with high school cheerleader, Jennifer. (Played reasonably well by Megan Fox.) They live in the small hick town of Devil’s Kettle – so named after a mysterious waterfall and sinkhole on the outskirts of town. After escaping from a bar fire, Jennifer allows herself to be driven off by a visiting indie band who are devil worshippers in disguise and ends up possessed by a demon who proceeds to eat the local jocks and boys. But when she sets her sights on Needy’s cute boyfriend, Chip, the war between BFFs is on.

Despite being penned by Diablo Cody of Juno fame, and despite a number of talented actors – this film never knows what it is trying to be. It is clear that Cody is trying to tell a metaphorical tale about the pitfalls of an abusive friendship -the boy eating takes a backseat to Jennifer and Needy’s friendship and the strain put on it by Jennifer becoming demonic.

However the director’s lack of confidence unhinges the film, as does the weak set pieces and Cody’s error in writing the characters as more in depth than the archetypes they are meant to subvert.

While making things have a very real foundation, the failure to decisively be a comedy or a humorous horror ends up making for an uncomfortable mess of a film.

That, in my view, is the director’s responsibility. Despite casting a pretty girl as Needy, she never transforms into an attractive character. She remains geeky throughout. Even though the promotional posters have her sexied up.

Jennifer is presented at times in a sympathetic light, but nothing ever really comes from this.

Often humorous lines are delivered in a flat manner, and are accompanied by totally inappropriate music that steals from the scene.

By refusing to take one position over another in style, the film is just an awkward mess. The big face-off even happens at the beginning of the third act rather than the climax, leading to another weaker climactic face off that is far too emo for its own good and leaves everything feeling flat and undercooked.

A comedy, even a dark comedy, should never make you shy away from finding the humour. It should make you feel uncomfortable for laughing – but it shouldn’t make you feel too awkward to even laugh.

This film lacked that decisive directing that would have kept the film balanced. Which is a shame. In the hands of a more capable director, this did have the potential of being another Heathers. Brilliant, witty and dark. But what we got was wishy-washy and awkward instead.

So when the new Doctor Who came out, I was a might impressed with it. The series managed to upgrade the series into something modern, while still keeping that essentially “British” feel to it. I have only been able to see the first season of the New Doctor and a couple of snippets of David Tennant’s run.
Torchwood was a spin-off that arose around the second season of Doctor Who, and was one that I avoided watching for some time. The reports I had received from people watching the series had left me uncertain as to whether I’d be keen to watch it or not. Sex, violence, gore, sex… it sounded a bit… different.
Finally on Baz’s recommendation, I got a hold of Seasons 1 and 2 of Torchwood to finally judge for myself whether the show was for me or not.
Season One: If sex makes things racy, bisexuality makes it racier!

Okay. So BBC Wales wanted to make a sexy, more Americanised science fiction action series. The first season of Torchwood is insanely inconsistent. There are some fantastic episodes in the series, but the writers clearly don’t “get” the genre mix they are aiming for.
As Lee puts it, the show is decidedly Welsh. However, rather than play up to Welsh cultural behaviour, the show struggles to be more American action show. Which makes the whole production kind of feel like a weekend project made on a big budget.
Within a few episodes, every major cast member had a same sex kiss – ooooh racy! Except it isn’t, even I found it kind of awkward watching. It felt less like the characters legitimately were bisexual and more like a purile “we’re so sexy we have sex with ANYONE!”
Which is a shame, because one of the best storylines is a bisexual storyline we only see play out in the background of season 1. Ianto, one of the team, loses the woman he loves and eventually takes comfort in a sexual relationship with Jack Harkness – the only openly and believeably consistent bisexual on the show. I loved how their relationship was scripted as it was foreshadowed from the very first episode and carefully built with simple scenes like Jack laying a hand on Ianto’s shoulder, or Ianto sharing a glance…
This is a great example of how this show struggles through the first season. It has some atrocious scripting where characters speak lines that just don’t ring true – and come across flat in those strong Welsh accents. But when the show just embraces it’s British culture, it works – such as an episode where during an investigation, Owen comes over with “four pasties for a pound” and a small scene plays out with the distinctly British feel of the characters sitting talking with their pasties.
By the end of the season, the characters have been better fleshed out and were really what kept me watching. I was more interested in Gwen’s struggle to balance her homelife with boyfriend Rhys, Tosh’s attempts to feel included, Owen’s struggle with finally falling in love to have the woman he loved leave him and of course the beautiful Ianto developing a love for Captain Jack Harkness…
Unfortunately the finale smacked of needing to be big without really having a good explanation. I think if they had built it up over four episodes rather than rushing it all into one with a limp leadup episode – it might have been better. As it was, the final crisis felt like an idea that was never really developed properly… which is a shame.

-Ianto Jones, gorgeous and with a sexy accent.
Season 2: Now this is more like it…
Fortunately, the Torchwood team seems to have fired all the previous writers – or sent them to a hard core writing camp – because the tone and feel of the first episode of season 2 is lightyears better. There is still a case of some motivations not really matching up – the bad guy kills someone and tells a witness “I was never here” then promptly walks into a local bar and threatens all the clientele with guns.
Worst is the decision to make Gwen fall in love with Captain Jack. I get the need for a love triangle to keep the Ianto and Jack storyline interesting – Jack is a promiscuous bisexual, which leads to all manner of potential conflicts – but it was so badly developed. In the first season, the relationship between Jack and Gwen never really felt sexual or passionately motivated. It felt like two people who respected each other – but were more friends than potential lovers.
Season 2 opens straight out with Gwen and Jack in a moment where Jack tells Gwen he wants her and she acts all lusty about it. Say what?! I don’t mind the triangle aspect – but it should have been built up more slowly over the season. Furthermore, why are Ianto and Gwen into Jack? He’s cute- but a slut. And openly so. Are they really that naive to think he will ever want to be just with one person?
I’m curious to see how this is developed over the rest of the season.
The show definitely aims for a bigger brassier action approach – and the dialogue is considerably wittier and more natural.
Check it out!
Love and Huggles

Conan

Continuing my trend of watching shows that have been canned by braindead American television executives who don’t understand how to handle polling or scheduling, I was finally convinced to watch Veronica Mars.

I had always given this show a bit of a wide berth. Sure, it had been talked up heaps – but I kind of fell into that Joan of Arcadia mentality of thinking it was a teen show for girls.

Boy. Was I wrong.

Although the first two seasons were often promoted as such – one viewing of the first episode presented a show that was really the kind of Noir that Brick aims for. Just with a little less pretention and more focus on being intelligent and engaging.

There are so many things about Veronica Mars that won me over. Well paced mysteries, an excellent storyline, great actors – it’s all there.

For those not in the know, Veronica Mars is about a teenage girl whose life gets turned upside down when her rich best friend is murdered. In the process of this occuring, her father is fired, her boyfriend dumps her, her mother goes missing and Veronica goes to a party where she believes she may have been date-raped.

Hardly the start of a teen girl television series.

We quickly learn that Veronica is a strong willed young woman who teams up with her father – who becomes a private investigator after being fired as sheriff for arresting the wrong man for the murder of Veronica’s friend. In the pilot episode we learn that Veronica is feisty, intelligent and independent. She stares down bikers, stakes out seedy motels to get shots of unfaithful spouses and is secretly investigating the murder of her best friend.

Nancy Drew just can’t keep up with this teen detective.

The first two seasons present two big mysteries that arc over each season, each being revealed by season’s end. The third season takes a different approach of having a number of smaller arcs that present several mysteries while the various storylines from all three seasons are brought to a head.

I ended up loving both models. By third season the over-arcing mystery just seemed a bit of a stretch. The second season’s mystery did sometimes feel that things were being padded out. I liked that in third season, each mystery was wrapped up just before they could get tired.

What is so great about the mysteries is how they rarely feel like the writers pulled the resolution out of their butts. Each of the big mysteries felt well established, and that the clues were all there if you looked for them.

Further, the cast were great at keeping everything at a reasonably believeable level. Kirsten Bell who plays Veronica is a true find. She is hugely talented and the series allows her to really show her range and ability. The relationship between Veronica and her father, Keith, are pure gold moments of television – as are the interactions between Veronica and Logan Echolls, her dead best friend’s boyfriend.

As each season develops, loyal viewers are constantly rewarded with references back to previous episodes and characters are regularly brought back – even when they were just bit parts in an episode shown during the previous season. The series treats its viewers as intelligent thinkers who are engaged with the mystery as much as Veronica is.

I’d also like to mention that this is a truly wonderful show for computers. For the first time in a long time, it shows computers working like they do in real life. Virtually all the software used is recognisable as real software – not some cheesy computer graphic for dumb dumbs.

Veronica uses search engines that present logical search results. When she is watching a file on her mac, it opens in Quicktime. She uses Photoshop. Files take realistic amounts of time to download – websites look like real websites. Even her PI database site looks like a genuine site without a whole bunch of stupid flash special effects.

This is a series that wants things to be believable. That deserves credit.

In short – Veronica Mars is a funny, witty, intelligent, thrilling, enjoyable and oddly resonating show that should never have been cut. It successfully shows that television can be as engaging as cinema and is populated with a cast of characters that you grow up with and fall in love with – even the assholes. 😀

Top viewing! Get it now!

Love and Huggles

Conan

Currently Reading: Reign
Currently Playing: Exalted: Lunars
Mood: Still perky from Veronica Mars

What is wrong with television executives? Especially in the States. These guys are supposed to be trained in business, marketing and a little bit in the entertainment business. And yet a great many shows have been hobbled by poor programming and promotion – only to be cancelled because there was no apparent audience according to the “ratings.”

Have these guys just never actually looked at the possibility that showing a programme inconsistently and out of order could be at fault, and not the show itself?

Think I’m talking about Firefly? No. I’m talking about Judd Apatow’s follow-up series from Freaks and Geeks – Undeclared.

Hampered by many of the same clumsy and unprofessional mistakes caused by programming, Undeclared – like it’s spiritual predecessor, Freaks and Geeks – made TIME’s top ten television shows of 2001. It was universally acclaimed and hit a chord with its audience.

That is, when they were able to catch it. The show was shown at odd occasions, and often out of sequence. A pivotal episode never screened, and generally everything was done to ensure that it would die in ratings limbo.

Which is a shame. Because it is a DAMN good series. Thanks to my brother providing me with the complete DVD set for Christmas, I have had the chance to once again see why Judd Apatow and his friends are some of the funniest and coolest people in America.

Undeclared takes place in a modern day campus where freshman Steven Karp has started his life at College. (Or as we in the Antipodes like to call them, University.)

Finding himself sharing a dorm suite with a sarcastic business type, a flaky music major and a suave British acting major – ex-geek Steven sets about befriending his room mates in the hopes of a new start.

And that’s pretty much the initial set-up for this comedy. Much like Freaks and Geeks, the series is about the characters. Each episode follows from the last, but focuses more on the people and how they related to each other.

Unlike Freaks, Undeclared is a half-hour format and is purely a comedy. This means that the jokes often come hard and fast. But in true Apatow fashion, each character has layers to their personality – even the most comical ones.

The result is a remarkably honest and familiar telling of life in University. Even though it is set in America, I found several episodes mirrored my own University experiences – the excitement, nervousness and horror. The characters are hilarious, while managing to be likeable. Even the arch-nemesis figures are painted with depth and believability. They are not simple people to hate, there is a likable side to them.

Featuring many Freaks and Geeks alumni, the show proves how Apatow has the wisdom and eye for picking people who he isn’t afraid to let loose. Like Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared’s true genius comes from the rare synchronicty of all the people working on the project – not just one man.

A great crew, talented and eager cast who never seem to try to upstage each other – but rather give everyone room to shine… it was a delight to watch this show. And a shame to know that it never got continued.

I’ve studied how polling works, and you simply cannot rely so heavily on ratings alone. Fox’s exec should have been asking why the ratings were low. If no programming gaffs had been made, then they may have had a case. But any idiot should know that a series being shown out of sequence loses its audience. Most choosing to wait for re-runs, by which point the series is usually canned.

I do wonder how Undeclared would have done if it had been allowed to run in sequence as intended…

If you haven’t seen it yet – GET IT! This is pure gold. And if you loved Freaks, you ought to love Undeclared too.

Conan

Currently Reading:
Currently Playing: Exalted: Nexus of the Sun
Mood: Buzzing from lots of Undeclared!

Introduction

An ancient threat returns. One final hope emerges.

How many times have we heard that or something similar? The usual theme of computer RPGs arises again in Mass Effect, a game that manages to plunder every sci-fi cliche under the sun and produce a truly compelling and enjoyable gaming experience. However it is not without faults.

Mass Effect enjoys quite a pedigree. Designed by Bioware, it draws upon the design themes of their two previous hit RPGs, Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) and Jade Empire. Many of the people associated with the development of these games have also been involved in Mass Effect’s development, so it should be no surprise that it is a sort of evolution of these two games.

Story

Derivative to the point of robbing every space opera and sci-fi since the early 70s for ideas, Mass Effect still manages to make a compelling and vibrant universe from its pillaged resources.

The main plot itself is very much a celebration of all things space opera, with homages and sly asides abounding. After discovering an ancient alien observation post on Mars, humanity unlocked the technology required to travel to the stars. They end up discovering a millennia old galactic civilisaton that has an uneasy peace. As the young race in the galaxy, humanity is struggling to gain political advantage within this civilisation.

Along comes Saren, a Spectre – a sort of James Bond meets the Texas Rangers-type agent for the Council that rules over this galactic peace. He has gone rogue and allied himself with a long lost race of sentient machines. You, as human Commander (insert name here) Shepard quickly learns that Saren is up to something far greater than it initially appears, and thus begins a quest to stop Saren – at any costs.

Naturally there is more to the story. Players choose Shepard’s gender and appearance, then his/her history and known psychological profile. This is important to note because the story changes based on how these permutations link together. Often they are subtle changes, but sometimes there are some big twists.

Every NPC you meet will react to you based on these choices, and some quests are only available to certain histories. The rationale behind Shepard’s main quest, and how s/he can react towards Saren during a face off are also dictated by these seemingly simple decisions.

For example, taking a Spacer character ends up involving Shepard in a conversation with his family via commlink when a particular NPC shows up and claims to know his mother.

Choose Colonist, however, and this never happens. Instead, it is revealed that your character survived a brutal raid, and Shepard has to face the horrors of what happened there when s/he meets another survivor from the same raid, who was tortured and abused by alien slavers.

This is where Mass Effect’s story shines – your decisions have many, often subtle, effects on the flow of the story. While mechanically there seem to be only one or two directions, the permutations are much wider – effected by which characters from your squad of six accompany you, what your past history is, and what choices you made over the course of the game. This kind of story development is amazing.

Gameplay

KOTOR and Jade Empire both involved the player creating a character, often based off a template, and then wandering around locations talking with Non-Player Characters (NPCs) and getting into the occasional fight. Not much has changed with this formula, but Mass Effect does provide a few twists.

Drawing more on the idea of having active combat over turn-based, most of the fighting is similar to a third person shooter, with some clear inspiration from recent gaming hit, Gears of War.

You gain experience from fights, completing quests and achieving various other little victories. When your character gains enough experience, s/he levels up, allowing you to allocate talent points to each character’s various abilities. While it initially appears that talent points don’t have a major effect on your shooting ability – they end up improving the chance of hitting an enemy rather than firing wild, and provide special abilities that can be utilised by hitting the right bumper.

Combat can be fast and furious, and firefights are often over quicker than in many shooter games. While it is possible to button-mash your way through most fights, the combat system is designed more around creating a personal style of combat rather than figuring out the “winning” combination. After three playthroughs, I have had three very different combat play experiences. Take something like a Soldier or Vanguard, you are often running ahead of your squad firing wildly at your enemies while occasionally stopping to call up special abilities to help finish them off.

Play as an Adept and you find yourself hanging back in the fight, constantly attacking with mysterious biotic powers which have opponents flying around the battlefield crashing into each other. Take engineer and you hack into Synthetic opponents to cause them to go on a rampage attacking other enemies, or neurally shocking organic opponents to knock them out – leaving them vulnerable for your squad mates to pick off.

But this is not without flaws. Squad control is virtually non-existent, and often the squad member’s AI is woefully inadequate. The number of times you or another squad member is caught in friendly fire because the third member of your party didn’t think to walk *around* friendly targets before opening fire happens often enough to be a little annoying.

Sometimes squadmates will randomly draw weapons they are not skilled in rather than using the preferred weapon, causing you to hit the left bumper, pause the game and reselect the proper weapon.

Yet the enemy AI is pretty good. Enemies take cover, they co-ordinate attacks and for the most part show a great deal of smarts. However some do just charge into melee against oncoming gunfire. *sigh*

Another great aspect of the game is the addition of the conversation wheel. Unlike previous Bioware games, where you had a drop down menu of dialogue to choose from whenever talking with major NPCs; Mass Effect has a wheel with six “slots” for dialogue. Usually a short precis of what you intend is presented, then when you select it Shepard will speak his/her own dialogue that captures the intent.

For example, you select “I don’t trust you” and Shepard might say “That is all well and good, but your actions aren’t exactly matching with what you are claiming to me at the moment.” Or, depending on where on the wheel the slot is (there are fixed “types” of intent) Shep might say “That’s crap. I’m keeping my eye on you.”

The other beauty is that because the wheel keeps choices to the point, it pops up mid conversation, allowing you to select an option without seriously breaking up the flow of conversation – making for a much more cinematic feel to the dialogue sequences. The choice of giving the PC a voice and actions means that you genuinely feel like you are part of a great sci-fi film.

But again there are little flaws. The wheel is not utilised enough in the way it was intended. There are occasions where it simply is just another way of conversing with characters. Also, there are times where you only have two or three options, which boil down to “be nice, be neutral, be an a**hole.” But when the wheel is fully utilised in conversation, you get some genuinely memorable sequences – such as the conversations with Wrex; the face off with Saren; a dramatic decision making segment on the world of Virmire.

It is at these points that Mass Effect elevates itself above its normal gameplay and really shows what kind of game the developers truly had in mind when creating it. It’s just a shame that large parts of the game don’t reach this level.

Visuals

Visually, Mass Effect is one of the most amazing games on the market. Many of the story locations are truly memorable and stunning to see, and the detailing on the characters is second to none.

This game sometimes shows exactly what a next-gen console is capable of. But it isn’t without some gripes.

Firstly, many of the minor NPCs suffer from what I call “Oblivion-syndrome.” Apart from some very rare examples, the world is full of ugly human males that look like the hillbillys from Deliverance. Women tend to be attractive, although they too suffer from a number of weird drag-queen like characters.

HAIR. I know it is hard to do natural looking hair, and when you have this many NPCs wandering around you can’t afford to be too fancy. But some characters look like they have plastic molds of hair slapped on their heads like some dire space version of Polly Pocket! While some characters, like Ashley and your Female Shepard, are fine – a lot of women look ridiculous. In particular there are two sisters you talk to in a casino sequence who look like they are naturally bald and have some weird red hat slapped on their heads.

Having said that – the aliens are all uniformly impressive. The amount of detail on the Salarians, Turians and Krogan in particular are brilliant. While they initially might look similar, you soon notice that each character has differences. Different Salarians have different skull shapes, the Turians all have different head spines and tattoos.

And the detail of scales, slime and even alien irises are impressive. Which brings me to another great feature of the visuals – the eyes. This is likely the first game I have seen where the characters have eyes that seem to show a depth, a reality to them. This carries over to the impressive detail of movement. Eyes “track” and “scan” like real people. Nobody stares all the time like some fish, their eyes move around rapidly and in short random fashion – like real eyes. Facial expressions change, the eyes shift naturally when characters talk rather than just have a randomly moving mouth.

This is most evident in Krogan squadmate Wrex – whose complex facial movements are stunning to behold. He looks almost alive and real. That is something that Bioware can be truly proud of how they have managed to do this.

Negatives

However there is a down side to all this brilliance. By trying to have too much, Mass Effect ends up almost having too little. Odd decisions, a buggy graphics engine, a main plot that’s too short and repetitive sidequests that are too long help to drag this game down.

During development the story goes that Bioware realised that they didn’t have all the resources to be able to do everything that they wanted with the game. It was decided that rather than cut an entire element out of the game, each area took a cut, the reasoning being that they could have everything they wanted and build up from there in later developments – but to be able to meet all promises and show what they had in mind.

Unfortunately this ends up making a game that is full of different elements, but master of none. Squad control was virtually removed in favour of an anemic system that doesn’t quite work anymore. The side worlds that you can visit – of which there are dozens – are all the same world with different textures and slightly different mountain layout. The Mako – a vehicle you drive around in sidequests – is not upgradeable, which is frustrating when opponents do scale with your level.

Graphically, the game suffers from the worst framerate issues I have ever seen in a console game. Frame rate stutters to a near standstill just by moving the camera around too quickly at random points. Texture load up happens mid scene – and in some cases doesn’t load up until the sequence is nearly over.

There are random loading times as the game streams info off the disc and this happens at virtually random points in the game.

In the aim to have some 50+ sidequests, most end up being simply collect missions with no pay off – a tour around the galaxy to find text boxes.

The codex, an intergalactic tome of information accessible from the menu, has vast swathes of spoken dialogue that repeats what is already written on the screen. I found myself wondering why this was kept – as the spoken dialogue would have used data and resources that could have been better put to use elsewhere.

Some of the writing is atrocious. While the main story is brilliant and full of great moments, it does suffer from some ill-planned sequences. One level – Noveria – is weak as it ends its sequence with a bit of an anticlimactic departure with no real denouement.

One of the areas most let down is the inter-relationships of your team. Jade Empire excelled at creating the illusion that the various characters were interacting and talking. Being able to stop and talk with characters at any point in the game allowed the player to develop and foster believeable friendships – and often there are moments where the characters talk to each other about their lives. Most popular was the romance subplots – where players could interact with romanceable characters and build a lasting relationship that was referred to during the game.

Mass Effect has seriously taken a step back in this regard. Characters only quip when riding elevators in one location of the game – one world, where you rarely use elevators either. Also, these dialogue moments are in a lower range so any loud sound effects nearly drown the characters out.

Characters rarely talk to each other at any other point. On only a few occasions near the end of the game does this change. Worst though is that most of the romances in Mass Effect feel like they were written by a thirteen year old sitting in his maths class. The dialogue is often stilted and unnatural. Where Jade Empire made the player interact and build a relationship with the romanceable characters, Mass Effect virtually starts with “I would like to shag you sometime” and kind of stays on that tangent.

The only exception I noticed was the Female Shepard and Kaiden romance, where Kaiden takes time to build a rapport with your character.

All this leads to a rather tasteful, but seemingly pointless, sex scene near the end of the game. It’s kind of sad that the pay off for building a relationship is just to get to see some blurred out butt and a potential “blink-and-you’ll miss it” nipple shot.

Worst yet, the relationship does not exist outside of its limited storyline segments. Whenever you are on location or talking to the character outside of your ship – it’s as if the relationship does not exist. Again, I found Jade Empire handled this much more effectively.

My final comment is about the choices of romanceable characters. It has been stated that Bioware chose to only have three characters so that they could focus all their attention on making those characters interesting and do the romances justice. I would say that Bioware can comfortably say… mission aborted. While the characters have some depth, their storylines are clumsily handled. Furthermore, Bioware have limited the range of romances available. Sorry to all you gay guys out there. The military don’t mind lesbian sex with alien women, but normal male-male fraternisation is a no-no. Bioware are likely unaware of the fact that by not having a male-male option in a supposedly “mature” R13 game – even one that is as tame as Jade Empire’s – they are saying something about gay relationships by not saying anything.

I will discuss this further at the end of the review, as I don’t feel it is something that should effect the overall score – considering a great many players will be heterosexual.

Positives

So that’s a lot of negative commentary about the game. Yet with even all these little faults, Mass Effect is an amazing game. When it gets the forumla right, it does so amazingly.

Despite the graphical issues, these happen only occasionally, and for most of the game it’s pure graphic gold. The expressive faces, the lush locations and stunning cut-scenes (all done with in-engine graphics) are awe inspiring.

The storyline is engaging and suitably dramatic. The game’s conclusion is simply one of the most satisfying finales I have played in a long time, and keeps the player involved with the outcome right up to the final frame. Despite claims of not many big choices, it is clear after three runs through the game that your decisions throughout the game have a number of subtle and interesting effects on the direction the story takes – and this keeps on going to the last frame.

The fact that the game saves your character and choices suggests that these decisions will also carry over to the next game! I’m keen to see how that works out.

Most of the characters are very interesting, and you really make a connection to a lot of them. While they don’t quite have the engaging appeal of Jade Empire’s classics (who can ever forget Henpecked Hou, Sagacious Zu and Black Whirlwind…) there are some great characters on show here.

Summing up

While Mass Effect has bugs and issues – it is still one of the best games of the year. It has laid a foundation that Bioware can build up from. With the promise of regular downloadable content for the game there is room to improve where the game has faults. What is there is impressive, and I suspect that as the amount of additional game content is created, the game has room to become closer to the vision that Bioware wants the game to be.

In a way its imperfections help to show what makes Mass Effect so great. It is a stunning achievement of a game that breaks the mold for RPGs and manages to be engaging and enjoyable despite its flaws. Even with my various gripes, it still is a game I want to just keep playing over and over. I haven’t even covered all the aspects of the game. This is an epic game that ultimately is worth the price of admission. Warts and all.

A Note about Romances

I want to bring this up as an aside more than a direct critique. As a gay gamer, I find that it is a rough life finding satisfying computer games with romances in them. A lot of developers don’t seem to grasp how media can affect the way people perceive themselves.

When you create a sandbox game with customisability – particularly a game like Mass Effect which wants you to out yourself in the shoes of the character and tell your own story through your actions and choices – there is a certain message being sent to gamers with the choices allowed.

By denying players the opportunity to romance a male character, there is a sense of disconnect for a gay gamer. It sends the message that it is not okay to want to romance a male character.

This negative message is further reinforced by allowing a lesbian love affair. Claiming “she’s an alien who is asexual” loses its validity when said asexual alien is rendered as a beautiful woman with clear female traits, and refers to herself as female.

I don’t think Bioware did this maliciously, but it is a serious concern. Jade Empire had a gay romance, and there was very little hoo-hah from the “moral” crowd against it. The precedent has been set. To not include a gay romance in a supposedly mature game is a step backwards, in my opinion.

Bioware is limiting players and is implying (even in unintentionally) that it does not approve of male-male relationships.

Some would argue that market forces dictate. But given that the gay market is a multi-billion dollar a year industry – and that there are a marked number of “gaymers” out there – it seems bad business sense to not try and tap into that market.

To argue that conservative gamers would boycott the game loses effectiveness when one looks at The Sims. It is a huge money spinner that not only has gay relationships, but gay marriage and simulated gay sex! And it isn’t even R-rated. The PS2, PSP, PC and Mac versions allow for gay relationships. Only the DS version is non-gay friendly. But then it also doesn’t have any sexual connotations at all.

So I feel the need to express my disappointment in Bioware’s failure to show support for a market that they initially won over with games like Jade Empire – which allowed gay relationships.

For me, this was a big let down that genuinely spoiled my enjoyment of the game. It is not sufficient to argue “that’s the way the world is.” As a producer of media, and making the claim that I can make the story I want, Bioware has failed me.

To that end, Mass Effect is not supportive of gay gamers – and that is a shame.

In the console gaming world there has really only been one name for skateboarding – Tony Hawk. The endless parade of button-mashing gaming has been the pinnacle of the genre, if not the only existing product.

Now, as Tony Hawk’s line of skating games is beginning to groan under the weight of mediocre game play – EA has burst out with a new type of skating game. Gone is the idea of skating gaming as a kind of arcady unrealistic experience. SKATE wants you to genuinely learn to appreciate the sport.

This is primarily done via the Flickit system – where Tony Hawk requires a Mortal Kombat style left, left, circle, circle, square combo to succeed at a trick, SKATE uses skill with the analog sticks.

Your avatar in the game never statistically improves, you – the player – do. This is a game where you freestyle your lines in any way that you can to perform realistic tricks and lines while exploring the vast city of San Vanelona (a fictional city that combines aspects of several famous cities of the world.)

After a very clever movie at that sets up why your character is such a newbie on the scene, you are literally dumped in the Skate Park of the San Van suburbs at the top of the hills, and given a short tutorial to accustom you with the controls. Then you are literally let loose on the city.


This game isn’t about winning any goal. It primarily is about enjoying skating for the sake of it. There are challenges to keep things interesting, and the basic idea is that you will strive to get onto the cover of one of two famous skate magazines (or both if you so choose.) Each photo shoot you end up doing unlocks more challenges and come cool hidden locations – but you could happily play the game for ages without ever taking up a challenge.

What impressed me about the challenges is that they are never released before you are ready to take them on. The game is well balanced towards challenging your skills and getting you to learn the system without ever becoming too frustrating.

By no means is the game easy, but it is well balanced to keep things interesting for hours. I literally lost a day to this game, as it is very relaxing and challenging at the same time.

What is also impressive is the ability to take photos and footage of your tricks then load them up to the internet. All the pictures on this post are of my character performing various stunts.

SKATE’s system is so fluid and intuitive, you seamlessly move from one trick to another – never having to look at the controller to pull of a trick. The controls aren’t perfect – some tricks are too similar in movement, and I had a bitch of a time working on a Nollie 360 Flip, and constantly getting a Nollie Pop Shuvit 180.

But with a game that looks this gorgeous, and with so many challenges, I was always able to skate away and try something else for fun.

I can highly recommend SKATE to anyone who wants to play a game that is entertaining and fun.

Love and Huggles

Conan

Currently Reading:
Currently Playing:
Mood: Loving SKATE!

If you ever thought that Firefly was an example of poor programme planning on the part of a network, you then have missed out on an even better series – Freaks and Geeks – which managed to garner the title of one of TIME magazine’s best television series ever, and yet was cancelled after eighteen episodes.

Part of the problem lies in the series being slot into the lost zone of late evening/night screening. Why? Who knows. But due to perceived low interest in the series it was canned. Which is probably a good thing, because without that happening Judd Apatow and Seth Rogan might never had made the brilliant 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up (which remains the funniest film of 2007 in my humble opinion.)

What makes Freaks and Geeks so cool? Well, much the same elements that make Knocked Up so brilliant a film. Judd Apatow is the rare producer/director/writer who knows that a quality show is not made by one man, but by a whole group of talented people with a passion for the series. Rather than cast big names in the series, he pushed to get unknowns who actually fitted the roles. He got writers, directors and crew who were professional and creative.

This and his talent for finding the humour in everyday life guarantees that this is a consistently funny show. Freaks and Geeks doesn’t try to win you over with its humour, the gags come fast and out of the blue – letting you either get it or miss it. Humour lies in realistic set ups, nothing is implausible – even when dealing with the more eccentric characters of the world.

Stand-out performances from every cast member along with wry editing and shot construction make the whole series just one memorable moment after the next.

Set in the early eighties, it tells the story of two groups of friends as seen through the eyes of Lindsay and her younger brother, Sam. Lindsay has grown tired of her academic lifestyle, and following her grandmother’s death she tries to strike out and make her own way in life rather than follow the path laid out for her by her family. In doing so she befriends the “Freaks” of the school. The dope-heads and drop-outs. Despite her intelligence and success at school, she finds a common bond with them.

Sam, on the other hand, finds himself labelled a Geek along with his two friends Neal and Bill (two of the geekiest guys you could ever meet…) However he is madly in love with one of the school cheerleaders, Cindy.

Each episode gently follows from the last, cleverly setting up jokes that sometimes pay-off only two or three episodes down the track – while having a sympathetic and real approach to each character. Despite the initial stereotypical characters, we soon learn that they have a lot of depth to them. As Henley, my brother, pointed out – each episode looks at cliches of the high-school milieu and then takes it somewhere you didn’t expect it to go.

Brilliant. Watch it. Love it.

Love and Huggles

Conan

Currently Reading: Sidereals
Currently Playing: Nothing
Mood: Loving the geeks…

Henley and I went and saw the much talked about NZ comedy film Eagle Versus Shark last night, finally.

For those not in the know, it is the story about drippy-but-cute Lily and her romantic adventure to find love with Jarrod, the absolutely useless and seemingly irredeemable twat who works in the video store up the mall from her. Initially blinded by love, a trip to see his family becomes a subtle battleground between the two of them for attention.

Ultimately we find what it is that Lily sees in Jarrod, but I have to admit that for the majority of the film I just hated the guy unconditionally. He was the epitome of self-centred, arrogant and deluded. But he does come around in the end… kind of.

So what did I think of the film. Well it suffered from the awkwardness that so many NZ films deliberately aim for. Not so pretentiously as it could have, but what it ended up doing was making the film less appealing than it could have been. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it mostly, and there were funny moments – but good comedy it wasn’t. More often I found the best moments were not carried by the leads but some of the secondary cast – and the awkward tone of the film made the first half almost agonising to sit through. In fact, if it hadn’t introduced Lily’s brother when it did, I was getting tempted to just walk out of the cinema.

This whole aim at making the audience uneasy and uncomfortable was great back in the day when NZ film-making was all self-reflecting and searching for an identity – it worked for such serious films like Sleeping Dogs, Vigil, The Quiet Earth – but NZ comedy has always fallen flat on cinema because of this style of film-making. Via Satellite, Goodbye Porkpie, even Came a Hot Friday (one of my favourites…) – NZ film-makers need to understand that there is more to comedy and, frankly, more to NZ’s identity than this.

Eagle Vs Shark felt, to me, like a great big step backwards for NZ comedy films. Seriously. It just wasn’t as funny as it could have been. But maybe I’m just being a bit harsh – I just felt that with the amount of characterisation given, there could have been a better way to tell its story.

Maybe I feel that it is time for NZ film-makers to grow out more – redefine what it is to make a film in NZ.

I think one of the reasons that comedy suffers in New Zealand lies in how we train our actors. I’ve been watching Freaks and Geeks, by the brilliant Judd Apatow – who knows how to get the most out of performances. Most importantly his films and shows identify that the visual media is not a stage. Stage acting is the anathema of good film.

To act on screen a person needs to either be natural or hyper natural. People need to talk like real people, and not annunciate every word. New Zealand television and film performances are a bit of a mixed bag – with many good actors, and a lot of bad television actors who are better on stage.

There is a fault in the mannersims given – on television you get NZ actors who either do nothing but deliver their lines with minimum facial reaction, or go too over the top and look terribly uncomfortable and self-conscious when they do it. As if to apologise to the viewer.

Not that Eagle Vs Shark suffered too much of this – if anything it was too awkward and understated, and I feel that was a lot to do with the director and the style chosen.

All in all, I just wish I could see an NZ comedy that kept me laughing rather than squirming in my seat during the obligatory “serious bits.”

Maybe I’ve just become a serious Apatow school of comedy guy – where humour is found in the everyday, and where even during the most serious and heart-touching moment we still find something to laugh about. That is good comedy.

Conan
Currently Reading: Sidereals 2e
Currently Playing: Nothing
Mood: Getting ready to write his own scripts…

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