Monthly Archives: September 2011
Directed by Kenneth Branagh, well known for directing Shakespearean-style films, takes the helm for one of the summer’s big blockbuster super hero flicks, “Thor”. Not since Indie auteur Ang Lee took a failed stab at The Incredible Hulk has there been such a mis-match on paper.
The results of this marriage of oddfellows can be described as both interesting and refreshing. Sure, stuff blows up, and the dialogue ventures into fromage country from time to time. But Branagh knows his tropes, and he manages to inject the film with a sense of weight, steeped in Norse myth. The sub-plot involving Thor’s fall from grace and rift with his father, Odin (played by Anthony Hopkins), plays like Greek-tragedy-light at times, but the actors manage to elevate it to something greater than the sum of its parts. In comparison to some of the fluff we see in Marvel adaptations, this was heavy stuff.
I thought Australian actor Chris Hemsworth made a great Thor, and brings both a sense of comedic levity and unbridled intensity to the role. Natalie Portman, however, seemed penned in by a poorly written role as Jane Foster. Portman has played some challenging and deep characters before, but she seems more like window-dressing here. Same for Rene Russo, who plays Thor’s mother. With barely a handful of lines, she does reinforce the fact that Thor, and the myths on which it is based, are both very male-centric.
Although touted as another popcorn action flick, Thor is actually a hybrid of genre film and art-house sensibility. I’m not sure if it will find a home with either demographic. Action fans may get impatient with brooding ruminations on father-son relationships, and the art-house crowd will probably avoid it simply because the cover has a guy wearing a cape. Personally, I enjoyed the movie quite a bit. I love a good action flick as much as anyone, but I can’t abide by those actiony super hero flicks that are all style and no substance. Thor has both, but I suspect only film fans with varied and open-minded tastes will be willing to see all it has to offer.
DVD and Blu Ray Release Date: September 13th, 2011
Dead Island is a new zombie themed RPG that begins at a tropical island resort where you are one of 4 survivors who is also immune to whatever causes people to turn into shufflers. It can be played in single player, or with up to 3 other people in a drop in/drop out coop system. Friends can join you anytime, and in fact some parts of the game are nearly impossible alone. Labelled “high level threat” areas, you are given fair warning that exploring them alone will be hazardous to your health.
Like Borderlands, the game asks you to select one of 4 playable characters. Although you can use any weapon you find, each character has a skill tree which lends itself to bonuses for certain types of weapons: Sharp (bladed), Blunt, Firearms, and Throwing. Each character also has a unique back story, and must play the prologue alone (rather than in coop). Blunt and bladed weapons are the most plentiful in the early game, and in fact very few guns appear until Act 2. Throwing weapons is an interesting approach, as the weapons do heavy damage, but then you have to remember to go pick them up. Also, if you throw all your weapons, you’ll have to re-equip some from the inventory list.
As you progress, earning XP for kills and quests, you will be given points which can be spent on 1 of 3 skill trees. The first tree is for the character’s “special” ability called Fury. I was playing as the character whose weapon of choice is blunt, and he has a “rage” ability that lets him beat the snot out of everything in sight with brass knuckles for a short time. The second tree is for bonuses to your weapon specialty (in my case it might be that blunt weapons do more damage or deteriorate more slowly). The third tree is for “survival” (things like bonuses to healing, health regeneration, or lockpicking).
The RPG elements adds more depth to the game, something that Left 4 Dead didn’t really have in this regard. The number of skills in the three trees would be comparable to games like Borderlands or Too Human. The deeper you go into a skill tree the more powerful the unlocks become. It’s a good idea to read through everything in the various trees and make some sort of plan as far as how you want to build your character. Although by level 50 you’ll have most of the skills unlocked, it’s still a good idea to map out how you want to play during the early or mid-game sections.
There is also an economy system, for all you corner creepers. That’s right, the open world is full of trunks and suitcases containing money, weapons, and upgrade items. The upgrades work like this: you can increase the strength and durability of any weapon for money. The catch is, it also costs more to repair upgraded weapons. So for one on one battles with garden variety zombies, you’re better off swapping your upgraded stuff for anything you find laying around. Vendors in the game world will allow you to sell junk and buy useful items in the same way as games like Fallout.
Then there are the mods. You find schematics all over the island for modifying weapons into combo items. Anyone who has played Dead Rising 2 will understand how this works. The weapons aren’t quite as comical, but they are effective. One of the first mods you find is one allowing you to put nails into a blunt weapon, creating a kind of mace. Others examples are, adding shock to a machete, making bombs out of deodorant, or basic molotov cocktails. In addition to the schematics, you also need to find the unique items needed to create the special weapon. This makes searching and exploring a ton of fun, since you’re looking for everything you can find. One piece of advice – don’t sell anything that isn’t a weapon. You’ll need all kinds of these odd objects to create some unique weapons. And while it might be tempting to sell a bar of deodorant for a few bucks, consider that the same vendor might charge you $200 for it when you need one to make a Deo-bomb!
The entire game is filled with collectible items like recordings or news clippings that fill in the back story of what is happening. There are also various colored skulls that can be found by dedicated explorers, and will unlock “legendary” mods. And exploring the island is a blast, as it’s open world, and the graphics are absolutely fantastic. There are also some driveable vehicles, and while the controls aren’t exactly going to rival Forza, they’re functional enough to get you around. Loot also tends to respawn when you return to areas, so it never hurts to look in places you’ve already been, especially if you need supplies for mod weapons. Like Borderlands, loot and quest rewards are random, so each person in your party may get a variation of the same weapon, some better, some worse.
Combat is a lot more strategic than many zombie games tend to be, mostly because of the deep repair and upgrade system. Every time you strike a zombie, you do damage to your weapon. A meter on your hud shows you what is left. As it gets worse, it becomes less effective, and shows signs of wear. Luckily, there is a “kick” button (left shoulder) that allows you to knock a shuffler down and give you more time to wind up for a head shot (huge damage), or to buy you time if there’s more than one. Once kicked and knocked over, a zombie is slow to get up, giving you time to pick your targets. Each weapon has a number of stats, including damage, force, durability and handling. Small, bladed weapons have the best handling, whereas large blunt weapons can be a bit unwieldy. Of course, blunt weapons also send zombies reeling, often falling down, which helps with crowd control.
Dismembering zombies is also important, as some of them wield weapons. This can be highly entertaining. The game has zombies with layered textures, so parts of them can come away from the body, exposing ribs, or leaving them with broken arms that dangle helplessly. I’ve seen some coming at me with cleavers or planks, so it’s sometimes best to hack that arm off. You can also attack the legs of zombies, forcing them to crawl toward you. Most of the environment can be interacted with, and if you knock a zombie over in a pool, it will drown after a short time (not sure what the undead logic is there, but whatever).
You also have a stamina bar, which you have to monitor. Button mashing will get you nowhere, so you have to take time to line up your shots. Personally, I love this combat system. It feels pretty realistic and forces you to think rather than just wade in and start hammering on zombies without a plan. You can still do this if you wish, but you’ll want to have lots of weapons in your inventory. Make sure to always do repairs when you find a workbench. Last thing you want is to get caught in a mob without some serious hardware.
Most of the early quests are garden variety, helping people get someplace, fetching supplies for others, or making sure an area is safe. In some cases, you need to do certain side quests in order to fulfill a main quest. Voice acting is generally pretty good, and many of the actors sound like they are from Australia or New Zealand, with a few that sound like they’re from New Jersey thrown into the mix.
My biggest beef with the game is that it’s a checkpoint system rather than a save as you go. I’m not a big fan of those systems, since you feel like you have to keep going to get a checkpoint before you can quit out. I find these really out of place in open world games, but it’s a minor complaint considering that the overall game seems like a real gem. For the most part, any time you do anything as far as progress on a quest, you seem to get a checkpoint save. The other way of ensuring that you save progress is to simply go to a vendor or an upgrade bench, since changing your inventory also creates a save.
Honestly, I think it’s fair to say that Dead Island game seems to have stolen the best parts of four different games, and mashed them up to create something pretty unique, resulting in something that’s greater than the sum of its parts:
1. Fallout: the open world, looting, RPG, and crafting system, and setting it in a world devastated by a cataclysm
2. L4D: Four unique, playable characters who are surviving in a zombie apocalypse
3. Dead Rising: The melee centric combat and variety of weapons (and zombies of course)
4. Borderlands: Money and XP sharing in drop-in coop that encourages people play the entire game at the same pace
I find that it improves on the L4D formula by using the RPG elements to allow players to create characters that work well together. I played coop with a friend who played as Sam, and is building him like a tank (adding perks that make him draw more enemy aggro, for instance), and I played with Xian, the girl who uses sharp weapons like an assassin. With him drawing all the aggro, I took perks that deflected aggro and added bonuses to backstab. This allowed the two to work well together. The upside is that people can plan a playthrough in such a way that everyone builds the character to work as a cohesive unit. I thought this was really innovative for a group RPG.
My only criticism with the coop is the same one I’ve always had with Borderlands – people have to pretty much play the game together at the same pace, or somebody will find themselves either getting pummeled, or being too overpowered and getting no XP. In some cases, this is compounded by a message you get saying that quest progress won’t be written to your profile, because you and the host are at different parts of the main story progress. When you join someone’s game, the menu will suggest which character it recommends you choose, that is closest to the host’s level progress. But still, it does make it tricky.
The connectivity was rock-solid in our coop game. We only hit one small bug, when one of my friend’s quests seem to hang and he was unable to complete the end sequence for that quest. I had to quit out and let him refresh his checkpoint, and it worked the second time. I guess if you put this many quests into a coop game, there’s bound to be the odd screw up. But aside from that, no online problems.
All in all, I found that the game was a lot more fun with coop partners, and naturally goes faster. It’s probably a good idea to have multiple characters on the go at all different levels if you plan to play with other people, because of restrictions on joining similar game progress. I don’t see this a problem, because like Borderlands, playing multiple times is a must, especially if you want some of the cheevos.
Although you’re bound to die sometimes, the game has a nice respawn system. It’s similar to Borderlands, where you die and have to pay a portion of money to respawn, based on either your level, or how much money you have. The nice thing is, like Bioshock with the vita-chambers, you spawn very close to where you died. If you’re even moderately careful, you shouldn’t die much in the early game anyway. You can also take perks which reduce the amount you pay when you die.
The bottom line here is, if you love zombie games and RPG’s this game should be a slam-dunk for you. Aside from the save system, there wasn’t much that I disliked about the game. It has a huge, open world and a fast travel system that unlocks as you discover areas. There is huge replay value, with four different distinct player classes, and the world itself is a treasure trove of goodies. And any game like this that includes coop gets a huge plus. I’m predicting that Dead Island will be this year’s biggest sleeper hit, and will unseat some pretty established games in the arguments over which title was GOTY.