Sunday, June 24, 2012

Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes

            I’ve always loved the Lego games.  They’ve just been fun to play from the very beginning.  Of course, the main problem has always been the stagnation.  While each game has its own quirks, very rarely do they break formula.  Lego Batman 2 doesn’t change things up too much, but what it does change is pretty big.
            This is only the second Lego game with an original story (the other one being the first Lego Batman).  Lex Luthor (Clancy Brown, reprising his role from Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League) breaks Joker (Christopher Smith) out of jail to help him rig the presidential election.  It’s up to Batman (Troy Baker) and Superman (Travis Willingham) to team up and stop them.  The first major change for the series is, as indicated, the fact that all the characters have actual voices now, not just grunts.  Not only does this feel natural and help with the story, but it’s clear that Traveller’s Tales haven’t lost any of what they’ve learned about pantomime.  If they don’t need to have the characters talking, they don’t have them talk.  Most importantly, this carries over to gameplay.  The characters don’t suddenly have 3 stock phrases they keep shouting out, they’re entirely silent, letting you focus on beating up bad guys and the environment.
            I’m not going to spend too much time talking about the core gameplay of the game, since it is very similar to…every other Lego game.  You run through the levels, solve simple puzzles, and collect lots of studs.  It’s a case of not fixing what’s not broken.  The major feature of the gameplay here over the other games is the suit system.  Batman and Robin have four suits each that they can use in the levels.  In story mode, it works well for the puzzles.  One great instance has Batman running above in one suit while Robin is below in his suit, each of them doing things that let the other proceed.  In freeplay mode…it’s a hassle.  Just because it’s so much fun to choose a character like Superman where he shouldn’t be and fly over the entire level, skipping all the puzzles, and then find out that you need to have gotten Batman in his suit at the start.  Suits don’t save if you change characters, so you have to play things the way the game wants.  Part of the fun of freeplay has always been getting to play by your rules for a while, and this just takes it away.
            Let me talk about playing as Superman here.  Because it’s awesome.  Developers have struggled with Superman, mainly because he’s so powerful.  After all, the game would be too easy if you were invincible and didn’t even flinch when bad guys punch you.  So what did Traveller’s Tales do?  Make you invincible and you don’t even flinch when bad guys punch you.  It’s a Lego game, so it’s not like it really changes the difficulty that much.  And that means you get that feeling of power.  Superman even gets all his main abilities.  He has heat vision, freeze breath, flying, X-ray vision, super-strength, and even super-speed when he’s building things.  And it’s just cool the first time you’re in Gotham City, you take off to start flying, and John Williams’ Superman theme starts playing.
            You’re going to spend a lot of time in Gotham City.  The other main change of the game is that, instead of having a standard little hub level where you access the levels, Gotham City is a full open world with villains to fight, characters and vehicles to find and unlock, and a ton of gold bricks to get.  Seriously, you can’t walk 5 feet without stumbling over a building to climb with a shiny gold brick at the top.  And the open world turns into a playground with the more things you unlock.  With 70 characters featuring the Justice League and plenty of Batman villains (along with a handful of other characters’ villains), it’s just fun to explore and do stuff.  I personally enjoy playing as The Flash, getting the Batmobile, and then firing the guns nonstop as I run down civilians.  There’s always been a catharsis to the destruction you enact in the Lego games, and combining that with a punishment-free open world is just fantastic.  If I suddenly decide I want to turn into Hush and ride a gorilla over people visiting the Gotham Zoo, the game just says “Go for it!”
           Unfortunately, the open world is also the source of most of the game’s problems.  For one, the map is terrible.  It shows all the gold bricks, red bricks, anything you’d want to find in the world.  But it does this by having you press a button and showing them on the map for a second until they fade.  There’s a lot of constantly going back to the map, and there’s no dedicated map button.  You also can’t zoom in on it at all.  It’s at a fixed view the entire time.  Flying is also frustrating.  If you just want to get somewhere, it’s fine.  If you’re actually trying to land on top of a specific building, there’s a lot of trying to get it just right, since the only way you can move forward in mid-air is by pressing A.  In the actual levels, you fly up and down with A and move around with the control stick, which works fine.  There’s just a lack of precision in Gotham.  And this combines with a camera that’s amateur work.  Rather than the normal fixed camera, there’s a more standard third-person camera.  But you can’t invert the look directions, and it likes to give you terrible angles.  Too often did I end up with a great view of Superman’s cape and nothing else.
            Despite the open world’s problems, this is easily one of the best Lego games yet.  The idea of the open world works fine, the character selection is great, and there’s just a lot of stuff to do.  Getting 100% will take some time, and even once that’s done, it will always be nice to have the option to come back and just explore.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

            I was not looking forward to Madagascar 3.  While I definitely enjoyed the first two, this seemed like the downfall, the same spiral down that Shrek the Third hit.  So it’s rather surprising when I found out that, yes, this really is the best one yet.
            Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria (Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, and Jada Pinkett Smith) are still in Africa after the second movie and still wanting to get back to New York City.  With the penguins having apparently abandoned them, the gang heads to Monte Carlo to try and find them.  Thanks to a series of events, they end up being pursued by animal control captain Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand) and hiding with a troupe of circus animals featuring Gia, Vitaly and Stefano (Jessica Chastain, Bryan Cranston, and Martin Short).
            Yes, there are a lot of characters here, especially when you include the fact that side characters like the penguins and King Julien are still around and still have their own sub-plots.  And yet surprisingly, the movie doesn’t feel bloated.  They’ve balanced the characters well.  The penguins still get some great scenes, but they never become the stars of the movie.  That’s what makes them work so well.  Likewise, Melman and Gloria may not get as much screentime as Marty and Alex, but their moments work well enough and it just shows that the writers knew which characters to focus on more, especially since this can be seen as the real conclusion of Alex’s character arc that’s been going on since the first movie.  The new characters are also done well.  In particular, DuBois is almost like a French Cruella De Vil played up to eleven.
            Which, really, everything in this movie is done to.  It definitely seems like there’s two sides of the Dreamworks coin nowadays: the real heart that makes movies like How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda, and the part that wants to do nothing but make the audience laugh.  Madagascar is definitely embracing the latter one.  Oh, sure, they throw in a few token emotional moments, but the movie is so good because of its comedy setpieces.  The early chase through Monte Carlo goes about as far past reality and physics as it can go, and then goes a bit further.  The jokes approach rapid-fire comedy level at times, going by so fast that you’re probably going to miss half of them just from laughing at the other half.  Vitaly comments on his act at one point that “People enjoy the ridiculous” and that seems to be the same philosophy the movie is made under.  Screw realism, go for whatever’s funniest.
            Madagascar is showing that it’s still got a reason to exist.  It’s full of Looney-Tunes-esque comedy, great setpieces, and just a feeling of fun.  For a movie that didn’t impress me with its early trailers, it might mark itself as one of the summer’s must-sees.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Dragon Age Vol. 1

            Let’s talk about comics.  Comics are comprised of two things: the art and the writing.  That’s it.  This means that, if one of them is horrendously bad, that’s 50% of the book that’s bad right there.  And I don’t know of a book where the bad art has managed to completely overtake anything good about the story like Dragon Age.
            The story takes place in the same universe as the games, but features none of the characters you’ve grown to love.  A templar falls in love with a mage in the Circle Tower and ends up having a child with her, which is bad since templars are supposed to be oppressing the mages.  So the mage runs away and gives birth outside the tower, which leads to her daughter being adopted by a blacksmith.  And then 17 years later…stuff happens.  This is one of those cases of something I nodded along with at the time, but thinking back on it, it’s really a series of random events.  Bandits kill the blacksmith, a dwarf comes to the rescue, various random people help the main character develop her magic powers.  It’s like the writer was saying “This has to happen next because I say so”.  And I would be fine with this as an amateur book, but one of the writers is Orson Scott Card.  Yes, THAT Orson Scott Card.  I’ve read Ender’s Game, I know he can do better.  And ultimately, what happens in this book seems like it’s just setting up events for later.  This is the exposition and the backstory, but it’s not fun to read.
            And, as I mentioned before, it’s not fun to look at.  To start with, Mark Robinson’s art isn’t a good match for Dragon Age, period.  I feel like I should be reading an Avatar: The Last Airbender comic.  The characters are all drawn in a very cartoony, anime-ish way.  Never mind that this doesn’t fit Dragon Age, period, but the book’s simply too serious for it.  At one point the main character is crying and it just looks ridiculous.  And when it’s not just inappropriate, it’s often confusing.  At one point I thought a battle was still going on simply because the art didn’t give a good indication that it was over.  I read two panels and thought I had somehow missed something because there was a gap between the actions.  And any characters outside the main cast just look generic.  That’s fine for a game, but this is a comic.  You can do better.
            The collected edition’s only special feature is a cover gallery (the digital version, at least, already has all the covers in place, making this redundant) and some random sketches.  It’s a start-to-finish disappointment that I couldn’t recommend to Dragon Age newbies or fans.  Stick to the games.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Men in Black III

            The original Men in Black may be one of my favorite movies.  It blends sci-fi and comedy together so well, providing a fascinating universe that’s presented to you through two endlessly witty characters.  The second movie was…forgettable.  And so I came into the third endlessly wary, not sure whether the “He smiles like this” joke was the only gag the movie had or if there was more to it.  And I was pleasantly surprised.
            After Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement with an incredible make-up job) escapes from prison, he goes back in time and kills the man who put him there in the first place: Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones).  So it’s up to Agent J (Will Smith) to go back in time and stop Boris, teaming up with the younger K (Josh Brolin) along the way.
            The original movie pretty much lived on Tommy Lee Jones’ performance, and yet his role here basically amounts to a cameo before Josh Brolin takes over.  And he does a good job.  He’s could just be doing an impression of Jones, but there’s a different side to it as we see a K that’s clearly not as world-weary as his 2012 self.  Perhaps most importantly, there was never a moment where I stopped and thought about how it’s Josh Brolin, not Tommy Lee Jones.  From the moment he takes the screen, I simply accepted him as a younger K.  The real winning performance of the movie, though, has to be Michael Stuhlbarg as Griffin, an alien who views multiple dimensions at the same time.  He hooked me from the second he came on-screen, and just keeps going as he speaks in a combination of riddles and ifs.  It’s a character built on the quirks, and Stuhlbarg just sells it.
            The movie’s main point that makes it work, though, is not sticking to formula.  I have trouble remembering most of MIB2, but I do remember it feeling the need to repeat jokes, bring back side characters, and just trying to capture the magic again.  MIB3 is more than happy to introduce new characters, new gags, and a new aspect to the world.  Unfortunately, it does sacrifice some of the original movie’s unrelenting wit in the process.  There are some hilarious moments, but 3 is definitely leaning more towards sci-fi and less towards comedy.  This doesn’t hurt the movie.  I enjoyed it even if I wasn’t laughing all the way through it.  The new alien designs impressed me, especially Boris, who’s definitely going towards the nightmarish side.  It also gets some more heart in the process.  One of the big things J asks the younger K is “What happened to you?” and by the end, we find out the answer.  It’s a good moment for the characters, and if there never is an MIB4, it’s a great way to end the franchise.
            It’s not as good as the original, but MIB3 is worth seeing.  It shows there’s still something to the series that we didn’t see before, and that’s as good a reason as any to revive the franchise.