Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Becoming Batman: My Initial thoughts on 'Arkham City'

So it's now a week and a half since Arkham City was released here in Ireland.

It's safe to say that my anticipation for this game was probably almost as intense as the kind of anticipation I've had for actual Batman movies; such was the extraordinary power of what this game promised. The overwhelmingly positive reviews only served to pump me up even more, as it became abundantly clear that not only was this going to be the greatest superhero game ever, but one of the greatest videogames ever.

So what do I think?

Frankly, the game and the overall experience is outstanding. But the story is very silly.

Let's look at what I really, really liked about the game. First and foremost, the combat is back with a vengeance. The last game's combat was incredible and possibly the best combat system I've ever experienced in a videogame. I never felt more like Batman than when I was battering hordes of henchmen with crippling slow-motion moves. This game has a similar policy of not just throwing endless waves of the same kind of enemies at you. Many enemies wear body armour, carry shields or brandish knives or broken bottles at Batman, meaning that the player has to think on the move about what the best move is, in order to defeat the enemy, just like Batman does. I do have a few minor complaints in so far as the camera has been pulled back in this outing, so it's arguably not as spectacular. Also, when Batman ranks up enough of a combo, he goes into 'Critical Strike' mode, much like the last game. However, in this game, the screen goes all weird and shimmery when this happens, seemingly to add to the pulse-pounding experience which is somewhat distracting. In addition to this, streaks of red fly in Batman's wake; compared to the streaks of black which existed in the previous game.

Ultimately though, the combat is just even better than in the last game. While some of the visceral larger-than-lifeness of the experience might be a little bit dissipated, the actual system itself is greatly improved. Batman can use all of his gadgets in fights now, leading to some really badass moments. It certainly takes a bit of practice, but when you pull it off, it's awesome. The best thing I can possibly say about the combat is that if you were really awesome at fighting in the last game, you will effortlessly carry over and expand your skills even more. It's a perfect 'sequelisation' of the system.

Another awesome aspect of the game is how Batman moves around Arkham City. It was also going to be a problem having the non-superpowered Dark Knight climbing around a free-roaming city where Superman can fly and Spider-Man can swing on webs. This game has come up with a really clever and exciting method, where Batman can combine his grappling gun and his glider-cape to maximise his momentum and soar through the skies, like...well...a bat. If you remember the scene in The Dark Knight set in Hong Kong where Batman infiltrates a heavily-secure building, you'll know what this kind of thing is like. And you use this for the whole game. It's really, really awesome and it's a huge step up from the last game.

Honestly, the gliding alone is almost a reason to buy the game. It's that much fun.

The side-missions are pretty terrific too, and make a lot more use of Batman's detective skills. The Riddler is back and you have to find his Riddler trophies all over the city, as well as solve his sight-gag riddles. Finding Riddler trophies isn't as simple as just going to random spots in the city and picking up a small icon. Often you have to figure out puzzles or use your gadgets to get at the trophy. This can get really frustrating, but it's a good kind of frustration. The fact that I was sitting on the bus yesterday trying to figure out some of his riddles when I wasn't even playing the game speaks volumes about how much this game really makes you feel like you are Batman. I'd go as far as to say that the way these games use the Riddler is possibly the definitive depiction of the character.

One of the main criticisms of the last Arkham game was that in spite of the efforts of Animated Series scribe Paul Dini, the story was really a bit of a let-down. After promising something that seemed like it was going to be something larger-than-life and intensely creepy, the plot basically amounted to Joker turning himself into a monster and threatening to break a few helicopters.

This new game is probably worse in that regard. The story starts off strongly enough, but takes a huge dive in the final few acts, where the final reveal was aggressively predictable, shallow and just lazy. I don't want to completely give anything away, but needless to say, much of of the eerie warnings from Hugo Strange in the trailers leading up to the game ("Tonight...it will end, where it began!") don't even really make any sense. For the first time playing a Batman game, I really wanted to take all of the missions and characters and settings and just structure a different, more imaginative plot than the one used. Luckily, the voice-acting is tremendous, possibly better than the last game and Kevin Conroy is gloriously back on top-form as Batman himself, forever cementing himself as the definitive Dark Knight for all-time. I still can't believe how lucky Batman fans are to have the greatest Batman actor appear in the definitive Batman simulation.

If you can ignore the bizarre plot of the game however, I simply can't recommend this game enough. It's an outstanding videogame in its own right, but it's just the definitive Batman experience. The game rises above its insistence not to use any of Batman's vehicles and the gliding is so exciting that you end up being grateful that you don't have to drive some car around, when you can do this instead. The combat is elevated to the point of dizzy, dumbfounding brilliance and all of the wonderful stealth and detective elements from the last game are expanded and developed excellently.

Please buy this game.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Guerilla Warfare: Why George Lucas is a sad, spoiled little child

Pretty much anyone who's ever bothered to come here knows who these guys are.

What a lot of people from my generation don't know is that everytime those guys show up in a new home video release, something is different about them. Since computer-generated imagery began to get more advanced and realistic from the early 1990s onwards, George Lucas has merrily added in dollops of the stuff to the Star Wars films, withholding the original, much-loved theatrical versions from being remastered in any way.

The very first time I saw Star Wars was in the Summer 1997. It was a relatively recent VHS copy (see above) we had rented not knowing that it was any different from the one that had recently been re-released to the cinema. We watched it so much that it we ended up being far overdue in bringing it back and had to pay a whopping late fee, as was often the case with films we really liked.

Admittedly, the first time I saw 'The Empire Strikes Back' and 'Return of the Jedi', I did in fact see the newer, CGI-ridden versions of them (I didn't see the theatrical versions until years later, when it was finally, shabbily released to DVD).

What comes to my attention now, as an adult is that not only are a lot of these changes kind of awful in how they end up effecting the characters in the movies, the original Star Wars trilogy remains one of the only extremely popular film franchises I can think of that specifically don't have their absolutely-original versions available with remastered video and sound. The only way you can watch and enjoy the same films that were released in 1977, 1981 and 1983 is if you buy either the original videos or the recent DVDs, that came with completely-untouched versions of the films (which unfortunately meant that they look like they were taped off a video and not remastered at all).

And this is kind of ridiculous.

First and foremost, let's dispel a few myths. George Lucas didn't direct every Star Wars film. He didn't direct Empire Strikes Back (which most people regard as the best in the franchise) or Return of the Jedi. He didn't design many of the characters (including Yoda) and he didn't even write the screenplays for the aforementioned films. He played a very important part in the production of all three in the original trilogy, but the fact remains that he left enough of the work to other people that the films cannot entirely be seen as 'his' to change. Not to mention the fact that hundreds of millions of people loved the versions they went to see in the cinema and were suitably outraged when those versions stopped being readily available to buy on newer home video formats.

As a child of the 90s, I'm inclined to say that the versions with which I most identify are indeed the initial 1997 digitally remastered versions, with the newly inputted extra scenes. There's enough of the original theatrical versions intact and I've become so familiar with some of the changes (like the song in Jabba's palace and the Ewok celebration - both of which are completely different from the original). But at the same time, as a fan of filmmaking in general, reading up on the original versions of the films and how innovative and imaginative they were at the time in terms of special effects; it greatly disturbs me that the originals aren't being preserved and saved for future generations - even if only for future generations of filmmakers.

This image explains it better than I ever could. It's far more interesting to watch the original movies in awe of what Lucas and Industrial Light and Magic were able to create with actual miniature models, make-up designs, camera trickery and the general principle of 'smoke and mirrors' rather than the idea that they just created everything on a computer. Ideas and imagination went into the creation of those special effects, rather than boring old zeroes and ones.

On the subject of that image, its creator was probably referencing the prequels as much as the 'redone' versions of the original trilogy. On the subject of the prequels, all I have to say is that they were what they were: out-of-touch and silly, focused more on selling action figures to younger fans than telling a compelling story. I have no real issue with the excessive CGI in those films, because it doubtless made more sense at that time to make the movies that way, rather than create elaborate soundstages and models. I generally just enjoy the prequels for what they are - inferior but fun additions to the story. Plus, George Lucas and wrote each and every one of them so he has much more right to change things around than before.

It's still annoying that the original version of The Phantom Menace won't be around for future generations, but at the same time, the changes aren't as drastic as in the other films, some of them are even welcome (Jar Jar has a newer, less annoying voice and Yoda's ridiculous model has been replaced with a CGI one) and it's also a pretty awful film so really, who cares?

Ultimately, it's just really sad and unfortunate that Lucas seems to be so ashamed of what were some of the most important fantasy adventure movies ever made. Warts n' all, the original ORIGINAL versions of Star Wars are fascinating pieces of pop art that really draw you into the zeitgeist, as well as transporting you into an alternate universe. With the newer, excessively changed versions of the films, they just become more and more like one of those drawings you started drawing as a kid, only to go back and rub it all out again and again trying to make it even better, only to end up with a mess of scribbles and worn-out paper.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Dark Knight Lives: A Review of Batman LIVE

It's only a couple of hours since I left the 02 Stadium where 'Batman LIVE' was showing its penultimate performance. And boy, was it something.

It doesn't take a genius to guess that DC Comics probably came up with the show in response to the troubled Marvel broadway show 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark'. But while that trippy, artsy, excessively expensive mess has done nothing but polarise fans of both comics and theater alike, 'Batman LIVE' is a sensibly well-rounded, fun-for-the-whole-family affair that will certainly please lifelong die-hards (like myself) and a brand new generation of young fans (of which the 02 stadium was teeming).

The plot is essentially a broader, more epic version of Dick Grayson's origin as Robin, with Batman's own history briefly explored as well. In the course of the 120-minute (ish) runtime, we see almost every notable Bat-villain brought to life wonderfully, including the Penguin, Catwoman (who looked as though she'd walked off the pages of Darwyn Cooke's 'Selina's Big Score'), Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, Two-Face, the Riddler and of course the Joker himself. Impressively, there were times when practically all of the villains were onstage at once, with dozens of henchmen surrounding them.

The primary strength of the show was the high production values. The set ingeniously incorporated a massive screen for comic book backdrops, while the actual stage would change to suit the scene. The highlight of the whole show was the Batcave itself, which was absolutely breath-taking. Other notable 'locations' included the Iceberg Lounge and Haley's Circus.

The general tone of the show is geared towards a fairly all-ages audience and while it's no 'Disney on Ice', it's certainly not as dark or sinister as the Burton or Nolan Batman movies. The acting is fairly exaggerated and sometimes a little bit corny. In saying that though, I was surprised by how earnest and straight-faced it was. There was no breaking the fourth wall or winking at the audience. Even the characterisation of Batman was fairly spot-on as he was a serious no-nonsense character for most of the show and on the few occasions where he did crack jokes, they were genuinely cool and appropriate to the atmosphere. Being that it is an all-ages deal though, do expect a few moments that border on cringe, though, particularly involving the "Gosh n' Golly!" version of Dick Grayson they chose to use. The actor was good, though as were most of the actors. Batman himself was quite good, but predictably, the villains were the standout performers. The aforementioned Catwoman was pretty much perfect in every way, to the point where I wonder if Anne Hathawaye will do as good a job in The Dark Knight Rises (Spoiler Warning: She probably won't). The guy who played the Penguin was basically doing an impression of Burgess Meredith, but admittedly he was really good and his makeup was particularly impressive. The Riddler was only given a short amount of stage time, but in that short time he was pretty much everything Edward Nygma needs to be (and once again, he looked the part). The Joker had the most stage-time and the guy playing him was pretty much awesome, even if he did look weirdly like a bizarre hybrid of John Lithgow and Jay Leno. His voice was sort of a deep, raspy, demonic version of Mark Hamill's, with similar mannerisms to the famous animated series version. He occasionally dropped in a few of Heath Ledger's iconic tics as well. Of the villains, the only one who was done in a really dumb and disappointing way was Two-Face who did not have the benefit of a decent design, nor the assistance of a memorable acting performance. Other characters included Alfred (who was great) and Jim Gordon (who was not).Of all the actors on stage though, I really have to give top marks to the guy who played the Joker, who really just gave it socks.

The show wasn't perfect and it must be said that the first half, before the intermission, was quite slow to start. Batman didn't even show up for about twenty minutes in (although it was awesome when he did). Another weakness the show had was that the actors were so completely protected by safety harnesses and wires that when the extremely talented trapeze artists and acrobats were sailing across the very top of the stage - part of the intensity was lost because you knew that they would be completely fine if anything went wrong.

On the topic of the wire-work, at times the show occasionally really failed in that regard in terms of placing the audience in another world, rather than forcing them to use their imagination to piece together what's going on. One scene in particular, in the aforementioned first half; saw Catwoman and Batman battling against one another atop the skyscrapers of Gotham. Their fight sees them plummeting from multiple buildings - translated into the actors onstage being hauled around in a set pattern, while the screen-backdrop shows the buildings swooping by. It was an interesting idea, but the execution just didn't really allow for it to be anything other than confusing and fake-looking.

Some other reviewers have pointed out that the fights were a bit disappointing. I'd say that perhaps 30% of the fight scenes weren't really up to much, but the rest really were. Oddly enough, the Dick Grayson fight scenes were the strongest, perhaps because they had such a David-v-Goliath feel to them, as well as the fact that the actor playing Grayson was such a talented stage combatist. The best fight scenes saw multiple fights going onstage at once, just like in the old 60s TV show.

In conclusion, I'd have to say that I enjoyed Batman LIVE immensely. I went into it knowing that it wasn't going to be an extremely dark version of Batman and that I should enjoy it for what it was. That was a wise choice, although I was surprised by the level of writing and acting seen throughout the show and the story certainly took some surprisingly dark routes at times. The real value for money came in the extraordinary production values, the amazing sets and costumes, seeing a brand new Batmobile onstage and just the general awesomeness of seeing Batman kicking ass in real life. Really, I can't express how much Batman fans should just leave their snobbery at the door and just go along to this enormously fun, lovingly created experience. It's a version of Batman I won't soon forget.