Sunday, February 24, 2013

Battlestar Galactica (2004)

Spoiler Alert

After years of debate, having been convinced by others that Battlestar Galactica (2004) was boring and overrated, I took a friend's recommendation to watch. I was hooked by the end of the first couple episodes on Netflix (I believe these were a mini-series), loving the space battles. In a week and a half, I finished the series in its entirety.

The desperation of the Colonial Fleet early on really drew me in to the show. Everything they did was an all-or-nothing attempt to survive that made every decision by the characters a tense debate, a struggle. Plus, there was the added paranoia brought on by the possibility that any character could be a cylon skinjob. The acting throughout the series bordered on flawless, as I began to enjoy each character more with each episode, even Dr. Gaius Baltar, who I absolutely loathed in the beginning; I was tempted on several occasions to fast forward through his prattling conversations with Number 6 yet was afraid to miss pertinent information.

The politics, specifically the military politics and relationships aboard Galactica, was my favorite aspect of Battlestar Galactica. I was enthralled by the return of the Pegasus and the power struggle between the crews. Humanity was on the verge of extinction, yet they were still unwilling to cooperate with their own race, nearly instigating a civil war.

While I sensed and fretted over the growing religious theme, I managed to ignore it, brush it off as secondary. It was easy to do when Baltar and Number 6 were the only characters debating the existence of God, and the other characters were consumed with the war, fighting for power, dealing with their own demons from alcoholism to debauchery to self-doubt. In the first two seasons, identity was the central theme, begging the questions: what makes us human, what makes us unique, what makes us worthy of life? These questions were expanded upon by the cylons that not only looked human, had emotions and motivations like us, but also had countless copies of themselves with distinct personalities; these cylon models had identical faces yet were unique from their counterparts because of their actions, their past, their love.

I was intrigued by the events on New Caprica, when I had convinced myself I had figured out the direction of the show. Suddenly, there was a jump in time as the fleet resettled, knew peace. Then the cylons evolved, returned, and thought they could garner trust through force. If I didn't already think Colonel Saul Tigh was my favorite character, he definitely was after the resistance. His lines were priceless; his actions were ruthless and just the thing one would expect from a tortured freedom fighter with nothing left to lose.

Season 3 had a theme of penance and redemption. The characters were forced to reconcile differences and the harsh, often extreme, choices they made in New Caprica, yet, by season's end, I was annoyed the writers hadn't revealed any new cylons. I was taken back by their choices for three of the Final Five; majority of the characters that hated and killed cylons the most turned out to be them, and they happened to also be majority of the characters, outside of Admiral Adama, that were my favorites. While I hated this decision at the moment of its reveal, I came to understand it when the characters grappled with the idea as well.

By the fourth season, the course of the show transitioned from a tale about survival and identity to a creation story. Baltar developed into a prophet, a borderline Christ figure, and Starbuck, after dying in heartbreaking fashion, had returned from the dead to guide the fleet. The journey to Earth steered toward a spiritual awakening rather than a need to relocate, and the repeated warning, "All of this has happened before and will happen again," when they landed on a nuked Earth, discovering mass graves full of cylons, took on new meaning.

By far, the strongest episodes in season 4 contained the mutiny of Lt. Felix Gaeta, whose character flipped with the loss of his leg (I believe the leg symbolized his humanity or at least his morals). Friends became foes, and cylons earned their place within the fleet while Galactica became a battleground.

With escalating frequency throughout the show, however, there were uses of divine intervention, and by the finale, that was how the entirety of the series came to a close. Baltar and Number 6 had talked in great detail throughout the series about a higher power, and it turned out they were right. While I'm not against such a theme it appeared to "solve" too many problems in the finale.

How does the Colonial Fleet survive and find a new home? God. How does Baltar and Number 6 reconcile their actions that led to atrocities? Angels and faith in God. How does Kara Thrace lead her people to a new Earth? A musical message from God. What was Kara Thrace when reincarnated? We don't know, but God played a part. Personally, my theory is Starbuck 2.0 was an angel and the pianist was God a.k.a. a higher power and her father.

I can live with all of these explanations, as I did with the ending to Lost, but what really irked me during the finale was the sheer stupidity in the actions of the Colonial Fleet and cylons alike. After four seasons of characters, "rolling a hard six," making risky yet brilliant choices, and finding common ground with their enemies, they just set their ships to autopilot and pointed them at the sun. There was a mutiny because the crew of Galactica didn't want to coexist with cylons, yet I'm expected to believe these same people would give up all of their futuristic comforts and settle on a planet with cylons because Lee Adama says so?

I won't even get into the logic, or lack therof, behind Lee and Starbuck, the fleet's best pilots, being in the ground force instead of flying against a cylon colony, Starbuck being more of a savior than a, "Harbinger of Death," or Admiral Adama abandoning his son forever to mourn the death of the president, his love, on a hilltop...

While the fleet splits up and heads to different corners of the planet to mate with and teach the natives, I suppose, they let the Centurions fly off on a base ship. First of all, the mutineers allow this? Second, the characters even question as I did: what's to stop the Centurions from returning to wipe them all out? Just faith? Even Cavil was terrified of them without inhibitor chips. I want to believe this was done for the sole purpose of leaving room for a follow-up series and not sloppy writing.

And how does Hera, the human-cylon hybrid, play into any of this? Why was she so important? We're left to presume her remains were dug up as the missing link, yet I have to believe the people on Earth wouldn't be able to biologically differentiate between human and cylon, if the Colonials couldn't, especially since the people on Earth have no idea of the existence of cylons. If the Colonials and cylons truly wanted to break the cycle, wouldn't they have left some sort of record of past wars, their history, and what brought them to Earth, instead of leaving future generations blind and prone to repeating the same mistakes? How are a pile of bones going to help anyone? Who did she mate with to pass on her genes, if the survivors were scattered over the entire planet and her family appeared to be living in isolation? With the two angels walking through the crowd of our modern society, I guess it's another plot device we, as viewers, are meant to accept on faith.

Despite my criticisms over the finale, the final season, the good in Battlestar Galactica (2004) far outweighs the bad. The first two seasons contain introspective themes, stellar characters, and amazing battles; the episodes are loaded with amazing science fiction. Even the weaker third and fourth seasons have moments that shine--I really can't say enough about the Gaeta mutiny, as it was one of my favorite storylines. Overall, the show is worth watching, and I feel any fan of science fiction will find it enjoyable...if they can get beyond the religious theme. The complexity of the characters is worth noting, and that in itself tells me Battlestar Galactica (2004) was not overrated and deserving of its accolades.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Banshee Review

When I first started watching the pilot episode of Cinemax's Banshee, I didn't make it through to the end because I was distracted. I had all but given up, having not really given the show a chance, and two weeks later, I found myself unable to sleep and turned on the third episode just to see if I was missing out on anything. I was.

If you don't want a spoiler, don't play the video below. It is a fight scene from episode three, "Meet the New Boss," that had me on the edge of my seat. Without a doubt, it is one of the best fight scenes I have ever seen on TV, and I have been addicted to Banshee ever since. The next day I went back and started the season over from the beginning.

 
 
Lucas Hood (Anthony Starr) is a master thief that has recently been released from prison after fifteen years. He tracks down his ex-lover, Carrie, an ex-thief hiding from a mob boss, and assumes the false identity of the local sheriff with the help of a cross-dressing hacker named Job. If I had to compare Banshee to anything, I would call it a mix of Justified, Oz, and Sopranos. It's gritty and violent, taking a look at the dark side of humanity.
 
No one would ever want to live in Banshee. There are no heroes; most of the characters exist in a state of gray. A lot of them are downright despicable, yet even the Amish mob boss, Kai Proctor, is capable of an act of kindness and concerns himself with the protection of his people, though it's often street justice. Hood is no different, struggling to reconcile his time in the pen and the life he wanted to have when he got out, what he lost while behind bars. Donning his badge, he tends to take on the role of sheriff more each episode, yet he is not the man he used to be, and his torment shows.
 
While Banshee has a bit of realism in terms of characters, setting, and themes, it must also be given leeway in order to enjoy. A major draw for me is the outlandish attitude of the show, where it doesn't really take itself too seriously and allows room for a character to become unhinged. There are no pretenses that Banshee is anything more than fiction, bordering on a comic book filled with anti-heroes. As a lover of both comic books and anti-heroes, it's perfect for me, and I'm hooked.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

My Top 10 Comic Book Movies

Similar to my other lists, I decided to list franchises instead of individual movies, and my choices are based solely on my opinion. Because some picks have already been used in other lists, like Conan the Barbarian, I have elected not to repeat and left them off.

10. 30 Days of Night - Based on a three-issue series by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith, the vampires in this film are how they're supposed to be: vile, cruel, and bloodthirsty, not to mention smarter than their prey. I would go as far as to say this is the best vampire movie to date, starting with the premise: vampires land in northern Alaska to feed at their leisure, because the sun won't rise for a month. What really drew me into this movie was Ben Foster as a dog-killing stranger, prepping the town for destruction in a nice build-up. As soon as he delivered the lines, "Check on Gus. Board the windows. Try to hide. They're coming," I was glued to my seat.

9. Hellboy - Ron Perlman. I don't know if I really have to say more than that, as he never disappoints in any of his roles. These films have a nice blend of make-up, puppetry, and CGI that Guillermo del Torro would later incorporate into Pan's Labryinth, which won him Oscars. There's an element of high fantasy in Hellboy, something that is unique to the franchise, and in part, seeing a big, red superhero fills me with hope that one day the rarer, offbeat heroes like The Maxx or Pitt could reach the big screen--it might just depend on the success of Guardians of the Galaxy. If people line up for a movie involving Rocket Raccoon they might be open to the more exotic and weird.

8. Sin City - Set in Basin City, this black and white noir is nothing short of a comic book classic. There's nothing else I can really compare it too, bringing Frank Miller's work to life in astounding ways. Sometimes, just sometimes, the dialogue is delivered a bit hokey, but there are so many memorable lines, great performances and unique imagery that the awkward moments can be shrugged off. Mickey Rourke as Marv is outstanding, steals the entire movie. Now and again, I'll watch just his story and shut off the movie. Then I remember Clive Owen as Dwight saying, "I'm Shellie's new boyfriend, and I'm out of my mind," and I finish it later.

7. Unbreakable - While not based off a comic book I have included this M. Night Shyamalan film because it is centered around a superhero and encompasses all the major themes of a comic book, specifically the symbiotic relationship between good and evil. I don't believe Unbreakable was a blockbuster or even that loved by a great many people, but I found its realism and rich characters, along with the framing and colors (blue and purple), entertaining and something I've watched over and over. Samuel L. Jackson, portraying Mr. Glass, is one of the most complex characters I have ever seen in this genre.

6. Blade - Despite how much I dislike the third installment, this was a successful franchise before comic book movies were hip and popular; I saw the original in the theater on my eighteenth birthday, and the rest of the night my friends and I repeated, "There's always some motherfucker trying to iceskate uphill," yet Guillermo del Torro really did wonders with the sequel. The back and forth between Wesley Snipes (Blade) and Ron Perlman (Reinhardt) was fantastic, as two enemies worked together to bring down a common threat--I think the dynamic between heroes and villains was better here than X-Men 2.

5. Spider-Man - When Sam Raimi put a song and dance number into the third Spider-Man I thought the franchise was doomed, but Amazing saved it, even if half of New York City knows Peter Parker's identity and they made him more of a skater than a nerdy photographer. I don't recall Parker having the agility or balance to skateboard prior to being bitten in the comics...If not for those setbacks, as well as the butchery of Venom (Don't you think Thomas Haden Church's Sandman was a compelling villain and enough to carry the entire film?), I would have put this franchise higher; the first two installments paved the way for Marvel Comics on the big screen.

4. Iron Man - At this point, I can't imagine anyone else but Robert Downey Jr. playing Tony Stark, and I have as much fun watching him out of his suit as I do when he's flying around blowing things up as Iron Man. While I liked the original slightly more than the sequel, I could watch either movie at any given time and not be bored, and I'm not even a fan of Iron Man when it comes to the comics or video games. My only complaint, which the third installment might resolve, is that the action sequences are too short, and the stories tend to be thin; Downey carries the films on his shoulders--without him, the franchise would have failed.

3. V for Vendetta - Adapted from Alan Moore and David Lloyd's tale set in a dystopian future, where the United Kingdom is run by a dictator, Hugo Weaving's voice captivated me with every line; more than Lord of the Rings or The Matrix, this was the role where I became a fan of his work. The action, story, themes, and acting were all top-notch, very stylized, and I often wonder why a lot of my friends either have never seen this movie or didn't like it...some being Moore purists that didn't agree with the changes to theme. For me, it was reminiscent of 1984, a society where individuality has been suppressed and the people docile, a theme I've always been drawn to.

2. Batman - In 1997, when Joel Schumacher decided to put nipples on the batsuit, turned Bane and Mr. Freeze into morons, and shot chase scenes down building-tall, nude statues, I finally learned what bad movies were. Luckily, I still had Burton's films to watch; I never suspected anyone would outdo Jack Nicholson's Joker, but I was proven wrong. Nolan's Batman trilogy is at a level every comic book movie should aspire to, from theme to action to story. I had always hoped to see a proper Mr. Freeze (Patrick Stewart...cough), yet I understand Nolan didn't want to spend the rest of his life making Batman films. If not for Schumacher's debacles, Batman would be my number one. They're out there, nonetheless, a blemish on the franchise. Even strong whiskey and classic lines like, "Where does he get those wonderful toys?" can't make me forget them.

1. Avengers - As mentioned in my review of Avengers I have never had more fun viewing a movie in my entire life. Joss Whedon's dialogue, coupled with Downey Jr. as Tony Stark and Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner, were beyond anything I had hoped for. The action was stellar, the CGI beautiful, and the Hulk delivered memorable one-liners. While the plot wasn't a brain-buster I was too entertained to care, and I felt including classic attacks (Iron Man bouncing his photon beam off Captain America's shield) straight from the source material put this movie on the level with Nolan's Batman for different reasons. The added bonus was the set-up of Thanos, my favorite villain, for a future installment and probably a film that will be the closest we'll ever come to Infinity Gauntlet.

Honorable Mentions
 
Captain America, Thor, Superman, Watchmen, The Crow, 300, X-Men, Incredible Hulk, Wolverine, A History of Violence, Hellboy, Heavy Metal, Howard the Duck, Dredd, Men in Black, Weird Science, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (original)


Please, feel free to agree, disagree, or suggest a movie I might have overlooked.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Walking Dead Returns (Spoiler Alert)

After months of waiting, The Walking Dead finally returned last night. It opened where the season left off, Daryl and Merle Dixon pitted against one another in a fight to the death. However the writers tried to convince us one of the brothers would die I think we all knew, on some level, they wouldn't; Daryl is a fan favorite, and Merle is an antagonist we love to hate. They both bring interesting dynamics to the group. Though I would be shocked if Merle survives beyond this year's finale, we'll be seeing them again as soon as next week in a splintered tale much like Michonne and Andrea's at the beginning of the season.

Last night's episode did have me scratching my head. Why in the world is Andrea still in Woodbury? Aside from the fact she has the worst taste in men I've ever seen in a female character, she has no fear of the Governor, a man that kept the heads of walkers in fish tanks, his undead daughter locked in a closet, confessed to numerous lies and betrayals, including the capture of Glenn and Maggie, tried to kill both Michonne and Daryl, and shot a man in cold blood without a word. Are the people of Woodbury, whom she barely knows, more important than her friends?

After the events at Woodbury, where the prison group killed seven people and inadvertently created an entrance for walkers, Rick and company are in dire need of new blood. As Beth said, "We're weak without Daryl," and there's no doubt in my mind the Governor plans to seek revenge. Somehow, Michonne needs to be accepted into the fold, Daryl and possibly Merle need to return, and the group introduced in the mid-season finale, need to prove themselves. Perhaps retaliation from Woodbury is in order, giving Tyreese the opportunity to save a main character from certain death?

I read earlier this week that Tyreese is a character from the comic book, so I am hopeful Rick didn't scare him and his wife, Sascha, away permanently. Smart and adept at killing zombies, Tyreese reminds me of the old Rick, the calm, morally-driven Rick willing to take charge yet maintain the civility he had before the outbreak. When his group suggests killing Carl and Carol, he said, "That's not what we do." In prior seasons, Rick made similar arguments to Shane, and I can envision a storyline where Tyreese being at the prison reminds Rick of the humanity he has lost, helping him cope with tragedy while they become close friends and share leadership--it's obvious Rick can't lead on his own.

At this stage of the show, he trusts no one. Despite the number of his group dwindling and a serious enemy nearby, Rick has dealt with too much betrayal to accept new members. Last night, it seemed he was about to come around and listen to Herschel's advice; then a hallucination of Lori appeared and he snapped. In the mid-season finale, we also saw Rick cost the life of the inmate Oscar, because he saw Shane walking toward him with a shotgun rather than a random grunt from Woodbury. While I find Rick's shattered sanity interesting I'm dubious the other members of the group do not see or understand what's happening, especially Herschel, who is somewhat of a doctor. Did no one in the room notice Rick yelling at the balcony, back turned to the newcomers? I fear the writers are digging themselves a hole that might go too deep to claw out of. If Rick has post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), at least one character needs to address it and soon. I don't like this version of Rick; he's weak in mind and body, tyrannical, and vulnerable. There are parallels to be drawn between the Governor and he, yet I suspect Rick will recover while the Governor becomes extreme.

The pace slowed last night, and I understand it was necessary, the characters recouping. I expect the show will ramp up again in coming weeks, gaining speed for the finale. I also expect Michonne, Daryl, and Tyreese's group to be present in the prison (most of them) for that battle. How the writers get their characters there is anyone's guess, especially when they have no fear of slaying fan favorites (R.I.P. T-Dog) or straying from the source material, and that's what makes this show tense yet fun week after week.


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Writer's Block

In 2012, I had the worst writer's block in my entire life; I went almost six months without writing a complete sentence of fiction. My interest in creative writing was at an all-time low, failing to conjure ideas. In that time, I didn't edit my novel or short stories, I didn't send out manuscripts or queries, and I didn't scribble anything in my notebooks. The only thing I was capable of doing was blogging, and as anyone might notice, majority of the entries when I started this endeavor were art, not writing.

Yesterday, I went over to my drawing table to create a map and discovered a sketchbook covered in dust. I realized how severe my writer's block had been when I opened to the last page I had written on and found, "Fuck you," in bold letters, dated, and accompanied by a sad face giving me the finger. I laughed.

I remembered a few of the things I tried to do to stop the block, all of which failed. After reading online that exercise helped, I quit smoking, bought an exercise bike, and started running. I carried a pen and notebook for when inspiration struck--neither has been used. I made random lists (notably, two of those lists became drafts for my top 10 movie posts). I got hammered on weekends off beer and whiskey and shots of Fireball, for I found in college that I could sometimes use the depression of a hangover for motivation. Now and again, I pulled a random book off my shelf and typed out the first chapter, trying to trick my brain into production, trying to experience the flow of creativity by living vicariously through another author's words.

Where the writer's block came from, as I've never experienced it at that magnitude, I don't know. I've read it can manifest through fear, anxiety, life changes, doubt, even success. All I know is as suddenly as it appeared, it went away. One morning, I woke up, brewed coffee, sat at my computer, and started typing. I didn't shell out a manuscript or write anything profound. I didn't write anything prolific either, but I wrote two pages, which turned into ten pages, which, in the course of two months, turned into four chapters and a short story. None of those pages came easy. Those two pages that got me rolling took about eight hours. Those chapters took weeks, and when I was confident enough to write the short story, I belted it out in a day.

I actually believe this little blog of mine was a huge help. Week after week, I forced myself to post whatever was on my mind. Regardless of how I felt about the quality of those posts, they were evidence I could still write, and I found myself looking at literature, television shows, movies, and art in a critical light, then applying what I learned to my own writing, even if that application was in my mind and not on my computer screen. Other aids were rereading Stephen King's On Writing and Strunk and White's Elements of Style. Reading was a benefit; my block shattered soon after I dove into the books I received for Christmas.

Slowly, I regained the drive I had before the writer's block, and I started clocking in as soon as I woke in the morning, getting back on schedule. I don't know if any of the methods I used would assist anyone else in overcoming their block, yet I hope they do. Getting a family member or friend's take on it, though I didn't do so myself and hid my struggle until this post, might help too. I'm just glad my brain is working for me again, because its strike was torturous.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Supernatural Adds to the Mystery

I have seen every single episode of the WB's Supernatural, and out of nowhere, the show has added really nice twists, a few of the best twists since the appearance of Castiel.

Last week, Sam and Dean's grandfather jumped through time to escape a Knight of Hell named Abbadon, one of the first fallen angels, and the writers introduced an extinct (presumably) faction of hunters called Men of Letters. From what I've gathered, this group was an organized, steroid version of Bobby/Garth. They were in charge of the information on supernatural beings, found cases, and delegated hunters to specific tasks; they even had the aid of alchemists. We also learned Sam and Dean, as well as their father, were supposed to have become Men of Letters. How long such a tradition dates back we're left to guess, yet their grandfather implied several times it was a family legacy from well before his own time.

One thing I tried to figure out is how Abbadon, encased in concrete and chopped to pieces, ended the Men of Letters from the future. Was a room full of old men and two initiates really the entirety of their group? How can that be when an episode later we see yet another hideout? These questions lead me to believe Abbadon is either going to get free or she had help, which means she is going to get free. The Winchesters didn't and couldn't kill her, and as we've seen before, anything that doesn't outright die returns.

Expanding upon the Men of Letters lore, this week's episode, "Everybody Hates Hitler," brought Sam and Dean to an abandoned headquarters complete with an extensive library, showers, and a scimitar. Not only did I enjoy Sam's return to nerdy researcher, I liked the idea of him in the role of Man of Letters as much as Dean did; Sam was always more brains than brawn in the beginning of the show and stepped away from that role when he started juicing on demon blood.

The golem, its master, Aaron, and the Thule Society (based loosely on a real group) were nice touches. I had always wondered if Nazis would ever appear on the show, because of their portrayal in Hollywood and theories tying them to the occult. As proven in Indiana Jones and Hellboy, they make for amazing, easy-to-hate villains too. I hope to see all these new characters and sects in future episodes of Supernatural, and I suspect, since Aaron and his golem lived and the Thule Society threatened to return, they will be back--will they be the focus of an entire season along with Abbadon?

At the end of this week's episode, three major questions remained: what's going to happen with the key, where is Castiel, and what's happening with Benny? There are mysteries galore this season. While I don't particularly like the storyline involving demonic and angelic tablets and I feel Crowley has overstayed his time on the show (I loved his character a lot more when he was playing both sides) I'm dying to know why angels are manipulating Castiel. I'd also like to know what tier these angels are; they appear to have more power than archangels, but I didn't think that was possible. Then there's the whole business with the key, and the Men of Letters' bunker doesn't appear to be the place where they were supposed to throw it in and close the door...seeing as they're hanging out there.

Lastly, and anyone watching the show knows it's coming eventually, when will God make His appearance? For seasons, angels and demons and everything in between have debated God's existence: is He still alive, did He get sick of it all and abandon the world, is He captive or engaged in something bigger elsewhere, or is He watching and having a laugh? With the return of the prophets and the torture of Metatron, which ended up tapping into his angelic programming, the plans and whereabouts of God are a constant mystery.

Are the writers saving it for the last reveal, the end of the show? Whenever that end may come, I'd like to believe it's not anytime soon. This has been the strongest season in a quite a while, and I had worried Supernatural had jumped the shark with the Leviathans. I was wrong.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Path of Exile: Open Beta Review

As soon as I finished a playthrough of Torchlight 2 (TL2), I went over to the Path of Exile (PoE) site to check on its progress, finding closed beta had moved to open and they would no longer be doing character wipes. I couldn't resist downloading the game; being free, there was no reason not to, and I'm glad I did.

First of all, the passive talent system is PoE's greatest aspect. It's modeled after the sphere grid in Final Fantasy X, except a lot larger, and it doesn't include new spells or abilities. Sporting over 1300 passives and, eventually, a little over 100 points, the builds can be totally unique. In Final Fantasy, a player ended up filling every slot; in PoE, a player will end with roughly a twelfth of it empty. For my witch, I went with fire and minion boosts, but I've heard other players in chat talk about their builds. Some people are using wands and defensive abilities, others went with lightning or frost. Every time I level, I find myself plotting a course through the elaborate tree; I've recently realized I need to start taking resist and energy shield abilities, or I'll splatter the moment my minions die.

The talent system is just a part of what makes each character unique. There is also a gem system, each having spells on them, and support gems that alter those spells. It's similar to another Final Fantasy game, the materia system used in the seventh installment, where equipping a gem not only allows a player to use that spell, but the spell/ability levels up with usage. Right now, because I went the path of a Fire/Necro witch, I'm using gems with fire spells, rapid mana regeneration (Clarity is a must for casters), and minion health/damage boosts.

Combat is smooth and what one would expect from an ARPG: small action bar, a couple spells hotkeyed to mouse, and movement with the mouse. On my witch, I surround myself with zombies and a spectre, lay down some fire traps, then spam an area of effect (AOE) that does an outstanding job clearing rooms...so long as I'm not swarmed by mobs. And there are a lot of mobs. I've stepped on platforms and watched twenty to thirty spiders swarm from an abyss and surround me. Very rarely, even on boss fights, does a player go toe to toe with just one of anything.

I am enjoying the music and graphics. Unlike TL2 and Diablo 3 (D3), PoE went with a sense of realism from character design to the maps. Make no mistake, this is a game for adults. There's lots of blood, bones flying off skeletons, and genitalia. No joke, there are nude mobs with all their parts exposed.

Being online, a beta, and going through the server stress test with high traffic, I've experienced some disconnects, minor lag, but it's nothing close to what I experienced at the launch of D3, and when the servers have gone down, they have not gone down for long. I haven't grouped with anyone, as I don't see the point; when loot drops, it's a free-for-all. I don't want to experience the competition and lose a needed drop because I'm too slow to click my mouse.

As it is, gear is hard to come by (get ready to grind), and my witch hasn't found an upgrade in over ten levels. A running joke in chat are templars without pants. There is no auction house (I'm fine with that), and the currency is a barter system, rather than gold. It's a system I have never encountered before and took some getting used to. Basically, players get most of what they need from trading with other players. The free-to-play model is genuine, the store composed of vanity purchases such as pets and glowing weapons, nothing that is going boost a character's damage or defense. Things bought are purely aesthetic, not pay-to-win. After getting angry over Star Wars: The Old Republic's restrictive free-to-play model, I went into the game expecting to be nickle and dimed around every corner--it was refreshing to be wrong.

If I have one complaint, albeit not a gamebreaker, it's the waypoint system. Finding a waypoint can get annoying. There are some areas that delve more than five levels with no hint at what level the waypoint is on, and if no one in chat responds to an inquiry or can't remember, I am forced to clear every level until the waypoint is found. The reason this happens is because upon death a player is teleported back to town, and the kicker is after 8-15 minutes, areas reset. Since players can manually reset an area, I wish they would give us the option in the User Interface (UI) to either lengthen that time or turn off the automatic reset. More than once, I have done a trek of shame back to where I died through several areas, died again, and trekked back. In fact, I just logged off for a break, after dying on Act 2's boss and realizing it'd take me an hour or more to get back to where I was, having gone four levels deep after the waypoint. Getting so far meant everything from the waypoint to the boss would be reset by the time I reached each level, and, in essence, I would have to redo the entire dungeon--the maps are random and not small.

Anything can change in PoE from now till the official release. I know for certain there's another Act on the way and there are hotfixes several days a week, meaning PoE is going to continue to grow, improve, and iron out bugs via feedback. For Grinding Gear Games' first title, it's not only promising, it's a lot of fun.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Duncan Jones and Warcraft

This week it was announced Duncan Jones, English director of Source Code and Moon, would helm the Warcraft movie slated for release in 2015. Everything I have read confirms a live action adaptation, which means it will probably use CGI for the magic, scenery, and action sequences but rely on the actors to drive the film...and the story.

So far, Blizzard has kept the screenplay for Warcraft a secret. There are rumors the tale will unfold somewhere after Warcraft III yet before World of Warcraft, which means Arthas will already be the Lich King and not a hero we watch transform into a villain, assuming he's even mentioned or added at all. Unless shown in flashbacks, if included, we can expect Sylvanas to be Forsaken, Illidan to be trapped in Outland, and Deathwing to be imprisoned. At Blizzcon, if I remember correctly, Chris Metzen told fans the movie would be told from the Alliance's perspective and follow new characters, so I don't know to what extent major characters from lore will play. I'd like to believe the first movie will start with the basics, a tale of Orcs vs. Humans and grow from there.

While I'm hoping for the best, because the Warcraft franchise is near and dear to me and has been a part of my life to some extent since I was in middle school, I remain skeptical. It's nothing against Jones, as I have yet to see Moon--I'm not going to base my opinion of him on Source Code, which I didn't care for but others, including critics, seem to enjoy. What worries me most, more than a wild card director, is fear of the continuing trend of video games adapted into movies being horrible--fantasy and video game movies have a bad record at the box office, and Warcraft will be both.

What gives me hope is Jones seems to be well aware of this trend. Here are two quotes from Jones (2010 and 2011) a forum poster over at the World of Warcraft site dug up:

“I’m hugely jealous of Sam Raimi. I really believe World of Warcraft could be the launch of computer games as good films. And from the little I’ve read of interviews with him the way he’s approaching it makes so much sense. It’s what I was talking about - it’s not worrying about how the game plays, it’s about creating the world of the game and investing the audience in that world.”

"I absolutely think a great video game film can and will be made. The inspiration for a good movie can be just about anything. Take The Social Network for instance; Facebook is hardly an obvious choice for movie material. Really it’s just about finding the key element of drama, an interesting setting, a fascinating character that can lead to an engaging story, and games have a plethora of these. As always, though, it’s all about the script. I think one of the common mistakes that is made in trying to turn video games into movies is to believe that all is required is to tell the story of the game in a linear format. That's not going to do it. You need to isolate and use only those elements that actually work. Only those elements that are original and have dramatic potential... It can be done, and I think there are many games that have great source material, but really it’s going to take a combination of great writer, inspired director, and a franchise owner who is willing to let go enough to allow what needs to be done, to be done."

As I did with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings  and Joss Whedon's Avengers, I'll remain nervous and skeptical up until I start seeing stills and trailers and behind-the-scenes footage that put my mind at ease, because I'd rather keep my expectations moderate rather than buy into the hype as I did with Prometheus and walk out of the theater disappointed. In 2015, I'd like nothing more than to have all my doubts be proven unfounded.