Top 10 DVD Sleeper Flicks for 2014

With each passing year, the film industry continues to evolve with the digital age, resulting in a loss of middle ground when it comes to movie releases.  Many of the classics on Back Lot’s shelves boasted modest to middling budgets at the time of release, only to achieve their iconic status the hard way: through word of mouth and buzz that continued to build long after their initial run.  Films used to arrive in theatres with very little advance advertising.  Indeed, most of the kids in my neighborhood went to Alien in 1979 simply because of a 30 second teaser ad and rumors that you get to see a creature explode out of a guy’s stomach.  Now, even watching trailers seems like a landmine, with most of them offering what amounts to a Coles’ Notes version of the film, complete with major plot points.

It’s disheartening to see how few films get studio backing if they’re not already based on an existing franchise.  Look at any list of the top grossing films of the year, and you’ll see mostly, if not all, remakes, sequels, prequels, book adaptations, and comic/videogame adaptations.  And while they aren’t all bad movies, I find myself missing the films that were low-tech projects which succeeded because of strong writing and acting, or even an innovative hook.

I’m selecting 10 films from *2014 that I felt succeeded because they were were built on the basic components of a good film, and had great stories to tell.  They aren’t particularly flashy, but they made me care about the people on screen, which is really all I want.  In no particular order, these are my sleeper picks for the year.  Some get panned by critics, yet are loved by viewers, and vice versa.  You may not like all of them, but I believe you’ll find at least a couple of gems here that you may recommend to friends.

*These films are not selected based on their theatrical release date, but on the time frame in which we offered them new in our store.

MV5BMjA1Nzk0OTM2OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjU2NjEwMDE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_  If you have to pigeonhole a movie like Her, it would likely go into the Sci-Fi category.  In many ways, the film is a throwback to old Sci-Fi movies which represented more of a catch-all of society’s “big ideas”.  It begins with a premise, that of a man developing a relationship with and falling in love with a female A.I. (artificial intelligence), and explores some questions about the nature of love and human relationships.  In much the same way Lars and The Real Girl did a few years ago, Her’s writers ask some tough questions about society and the way we connect in the digital age.  Viewers may find themselves looking in the mirror, and not liking the face that stares back at them.  The best works of art always look for ways to explore the human experience and to give it form and substance.  Films as good as Her find unique ways to dissect the most universal themes in a way that makes them relevant in the context of our own trends and cultural norms.  It may end up being one of the defining films of this decade.

Pride  Pride is based on the true story of a group of members from London’s gay and lesbian community who chose to throw their support behind a Welsh mining town during the 1984 British mineworkers strike.  It’s a film that explores an obscure bit of modern history, with themes of tolerance that still cause a ripple today, thirty years later. The premise is one that, not treated properly, had the potential to turn into a parade of cringe-inducing jokes about effeminate men mixing it up with burly miners.  Pride avoids these cliches mostly by creating characters that audiences can relate to; people who have their own strengths and weaknesses rather than just acting like cardboard cutouts.  At times I couldn’t help feeling the content was sugar coated a bit too much, but for the most part I found the film to be a convincing glimpse into the potential human beings have to lay down their prejudices when facing a common source of oppression. Featuring excellent performances by Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton, Pride is a near perfect mix of comedy and drama that is sure to win over a lot of fans who may not have even heard of the movie.  If you watch it on DVD, be sure to take in the special feature documentary on the actual people involved.  It’s a great supplement to the film.

Still Mine  Still Mine is a Canadian film that will appeal to just about anyone who has ever had to endure Kafkaesque levels of absurdity when it comes to government bureaucracy.  Based on the true story of Craig Morrison, an elderly carpenter from St. Martin’s, New Brunswick, whose wife Irene is suffering from the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease.  The couple live in the same run-down house they’ve spent most of their lives in, and Morrison decides he is finally going to fulfill one final wish for his ailing wife: to build her a dream home overlooking the water.  When he attempts to do this without jumping through all the legal hoops set down by the government, regarding permits and licences, he wages an escalating war with low level civil servants.  At this point you may be yawning just from the premise of the film, assuming it’s has all the entertainment value of an old CBC “Hinterland” video.  You’d be wrong. James Cromwell, playing Craig Morrison, elevates the film with his portrayal of a man nearing the end of his life, haunted by regrets and wrong turns.  His struggle to bring one last bit of joy to the woman he loves, as she fades away in front of him, is heartbreaking.  Canadians should be proud that, in a year when the most talked about movies are mostly theatrical theme park rides, our country put out one of the most moving character driven films in years.

Book Thief  Despite my opening rant against movies based on existing properties, I’m including The Book Thief, based on the novel by Markus Zusak, in my list anyway due mainly to the strength of the film.  It is the story of a childless German couple who shelter a young Jewish girl in the early days of the Second World War.  As audiences show increasing preference for escapism, movies like this often get ignored, which is a shame.  The Holocaust was one of the most shameful periods in human history, and these stories need to be revisited regularly in films and books.  There were mixed reactions to the film after it made some major structural departures from the book, which used the personified figure of Death as narrator.  The film downplays Death as a central figure in the story mostly to accommodate differences in the two mediums.  Fans were highly critical of this creative decision, when viewed as an isolated work, it is a powerful story. The performances of Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as Hans and Rosa Huberman are the driving force behind the movie, one representing the moral center and the other a kind of shifting moral compass.  Watson’s character, in particular, makes one of the most complex transformations in recent memory, and I believe she should have received an Oscar nomination for the role.  Even though it can be a heartbreaking film, it’s one I think everyone should watch.

Words and Pictures  Words & Pictures was a movie that sat on my shelves for quite some time before I had an opportunity to take it in, after a customer told me I should watch it, saying they were sure it would be one of my picks.  They were correct.  In the film, Clive Owen plays an alcoholic English teacher at a prep school, and is struggling with the regrets of being a once promising writer who is drifting into obsolescence.  Juliette Binoche plays a former world-reknowned artist who has taken a job teaching art at the same school after her career is sidetracked by rheumatoid arthritis.  These two characters dislike one another instantly, and what begins as a friendly debate over which is a more important form of human expression, literature or art (words or pictures), escalates to a kind of war between students of both disciplines.  As the two character face both their demons and limitations, their disengaged students finally have a reason to search for meaning in what they are being taught, and transform the two main characters in ways they never expected.  Teachers and ex-teachers, especially, will find this to be a moving film.

100 Foot Journey  Lasse Halstrom’s latest film, The Hundred-Foot Journey, plays out almost like a fable based on the clash of cultures.  When a fire destroys their business in India, the Kadam family moves to mainland Europe, where an act of fate (failing brakes) lands them in a small French village.  In an attempt to put down roots, the family opens their own restaurant across the road from another run by Madame Mallory, played by Helen Mirren.  This is a film that quietly explores the nature of prejudice, and the ways in which it can be driven by feelings of competition.  It also tells a nice little love story involving Kadam’s eldest son, Hassan, and one of the employees of Madame Mallory.  In some ways, it is an odd spin on the themes of Romeo and Juliet, but without all the, y’know, suicide.  Although it can be a bit saccharine due to some Bollywood influence, the film is a nice bit of escapist comedy/drama for when you’re in the mood to just kick back with something not too challenging.  It’s the kind of movie that will also have special appeal to foodies, who will revel in all the scenes involving exotic cooking.

Railway Man  Colin Firth plays Eric Lomax, an aging veteran of the Second World War who was a British army engineer in Hong Kong when it fell to the Japanese.  Now haunted by memories of his treatment while in captivity, Lomax finds himself with an opportunity to face one of the men who tortured him and his fellow soldiers.  But what begins as a seemingly routine “revenge” movie abruptly veers in a different direction, posing subtle questions about the personal cost of clinging to hatred.  Firth, who is more well known for his roles in comedy films, delivers an incredible performance as Lomax.  The best war films always seem to rise above the chaos of grand events, letting audiences see the human side of conflict, especially from the point of view of both sides.  War is never is simple as good vs evil, and this film reminds audiences that the best parts of humanity sometimes emerge during the most unlikely circumstances.  For fans of history and war films, this is one not to be missed.

Million Dollar Arm  Against my better judgement, I’m including a Disney film on my list.  This one caught me by surprise, and if not for the fact that I’m a sucker for underdog sports movies, I doubt I would have given it a second glance.  I also like Jon Hamm as an actor, and wondered what he might bring to a movie like this.  Turns out, he was an example of near perfect casting.  Letting Disney handle a story that requires racial sensitivity and an awareness of cultures outside of American borders seems like a bad idea on paper, but the studio suits must have let this film get made without interference. Million Dollar Arm is based on the true story of Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, two “nobodies” from India who are recruited as part of a publicity stunt in 2008 to find major league baseball players using a reality show format.  In the hands of lesser writers and directors, this could have been an embarrassing parade of jokes at the expense of another culture.  But I was amazed at the level of maturity this story took on, paying both respect and, at times, reverence, to the way of life both of these young men came from.  Disney won’t let their films get too edgy, so some elements of the story feel a bit too sugary in order to make it family friendly, but the creative crew was not afraid to inject some biting criticism of western values.

Begin Again  Although Begin Again comes off a bit rough around the edges, it’s a great little character-driven movie that will appeal to anyone who believes there hasn’t been a good music album made in the last two decades.  Mark Ruffalo is well cast as a burned out record producer who is deeply embittered over the transformation of modern music into a commodity, then discovers an unpolished songwriter in Keira Knightly.  Her performance is a bit more uneven, especially during the musical performances, but she fares well enough to keep the flick on track.  One of the film’s strengths is the way it avoids cliches that were just screaming to be exploited.  Even the ending resolves itself in ways that were unexpected.  This a nice little sleeper for music fans.

Labor Day  Labor Day is a story about a depressed single mother (Kate Winslet) living with her son Henry on an isolated country farmstead who unwittingly ends up being held captive by an escaped convict played by Josh Brolin.  In the days and weeks that follow, the two strangers begin to feel a strong attraction to each other.  Although it was based on a novel, usually a sign of strong source material, I had my doubts that they could make what amounts to a Stockholm Syndrome plot work.  But the two actors surprised me with believable performances, creating on-screen tension and passion.  And while the story premise is one that has some mileage on it, I thought that it was kept fresh enough to deserve a look.  Labor Day was the last movie to make my cut this year, and may not be as strong as some of the other picks, but I do feel it’s a decent film.

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Closed For Canada Day

Please note, we will be closed all day (July 1st) for the holiday.

We will re-open on July 2 at 1:00 pm.

Have a great holiday!

Tips For Surviving “The Last of Us” Multiplayer

last of us coverOn the surface, Naughty Dog’s fantastic new game “The Last of Us” has a simple form of multiplayer.  Either a survivor mode that is team elimination with no respawns, or a 4 vs 4 team deathmatch, with the first team to get 20 kills being the winner.  The execution of the multiplayer is much more nuanced, however.  Teams generally must employ a bit of cooperative play to succeed, and it doesn’t take long to figure out that the best groups run in a pack.  The reason for this is, players use a number of support skills, such as healing, craft sharing, and spotting, in order to put wins together.  I’m suggesting 10 tips in no particular order, for anyone wanted to navigate the mayhem.

1.  Be sure to spend the “parts” you collect on upgrades.  The parts are essentially XP.  As you earn them by pretty much doing anything in-game, they accumulate in the same way money did in the Shadowrun game.  You can use them to upgrade your guns and ammo, your armor, or on purchasable special weapons such as a shotgun or scoped magnum-style pistol.  The beauty of this game is that nobody gets exclusive access to uber-weapons.  Everyone can purchase them, if that’s how you choose to roll.  The catch:  it costs valuable “load out” points if you want to even have the option to purchase a powerful weapon.  Right now I can spend 10 load out points setting myself up (same way Black Ops II does this).  If I want to have the option to purchase a hand cannon, I have to use three of those points, leaving me only 7 for other things.  And those uber weapons come with limited shells that don’t replenish, but can be found as drops.

last of us execution2.  Stay crouched.  If you run and gun in this game, you may as well wear a neon sign that says SHOOT ME HERE.  You’ll be a huge red blip on the map.  Running is fine if you need to get to a downed mate, or catch up with your group, but as a rule stay crouched.  It’s a third person perspective, so you can swivel the camera to look for enemies.  If they don’t see you, then you may be able to stalk them and go for a silent shiv kill

3.  Experiment with different perk load-outs.  As I mentioned above, the system is a lot like the one in Black Ops.  The more you unlock, the more customization you can have to your setup.  If you’re more about supporting teammates, opt out of the weapon upgrades and just use a pistol.  Or, you can spend two points to have a burst-style assault rifle (which starts with only 7 shells).  Then again, you can also take the silenced AR at a steep cost of 4 points, if you are big on stealth.  If you spend the points on weaponry, make sure you can be the person who uses them to make a difference.  Otherwise, the points are better spent on things like crafting, reviving, healing, or spotting.

4.  Crafting can be a huge difference maker.  When the game starts, your minimap (which has basic direction only – no path markers) is lit with 5 supply caches.  There is 1 at each spawn and 3 more that are in the middle, on contested ground.  Smart teams will work their way to these as a group.  As you level up, you can take high level load-out perks in crafting that allow you to craft quickly, but even better, at the highest level, give you a “gift” item for every 2 you make for yourself.  You can’t use the bonus item yourself; it has to be given to a teammate.  A good crafter can keep a team well stocked in health packs, molotovs, and bombs.  Much like in the SP campaign, resources are scarce in the MP, so you’ll find no grenade spamming.  People work for their weapons.

last of us listen mode5.  Use the “listen” mode to check corners.  It has a cooldown, and limited range, but more people need to check this when they are making their way through buildings.  It will tell you, most importantly, how many people are clustered in a group.  If you’re traveling with just one teammate, the last thing you want to do is try to take on four enemies.  Using the listen mode can help you coordinate with your other teammates to set up a two pronged attack.

6.  Invest in Reviving perks.  Taking high level perks in the revive skill can be extremely beneficial, especially when combined with armor.  If you make the armor upgrade early in the round, you become a bullet sponge.  High level reviving can be done in about 1/3 of the time of regular revivals, which means you can get people up fast.  The natural companion to this perk is healing, which allows you to crouch and heal someone while they’re still firing back at enemies.  When you get downed, crawl behind cover.  If you don’t, someone will get a long range execution shot.  Besides, revivals are easier when you aren’t getting shot at.

7.  Set traps.  If you’re the type of player who scrounges for all the stuff in supply caches, you’ll have plenty of materials to build bombs.  These can be either thrown like grenades, or set on the ground as mine-style traps.  Placed in brush, or just inside doors like claymores, bombs can take out stragglers who have nobody to revive them.  My personal favorite is building a bomb and setting it inside the supply cache.  Careful observers can spot them, but lots of people are in a rush and don’t look.

last of us gameplay 18.  Be the guy (or girl) who gets the first shot. If you start taking damage, and turn to square off with your enemy, you’re probably already toast.  If you are near cover, or a door, duck out of the line of fire rather than trying to trade bullets.  If you’re carrying a molotov, I’d get it out and at the ready.  If you can arc-toss it at the shooter, the AOE will roast him.

9.  Learn to love melee.  Crafters will quickly learn that one of the most powerful weapons in the game is an upgraded melee weapon.  Essentially, you take a stick of lumber that is a random drop on supply caches, and attach a blade to it.  Normally this lumber gives you 4 hits, then it breaks.  The crafted upgrade gives you a one-shot kill for your first hit, then 4 regular hits.  Better yet, if you carry the Brawler perk, an upgraded melee weapon gives you two insta-kill hits, and the regular 4.  It’s a great perk.  I have one build where I have Brawler and Crafter, but Brawler also goes well with the Reviver perk, since you can sometimes save a teammate by caving in the skull of the guy about to execute him, then go for the quick revive.

10.  Stay with your team.  Unless you’re going for a build that uses a lot of sneaking, spotting, and bomb setting, you’re better off with your team.  Four in a group eliminates the chances of getting caught in an outnumbered ambush.  Even if one guy is sporting an uber weapon, and you’re playing more of a support role, it doesn’t hurt to fire off pot shots with a pistol.  The damage is all cumulative.

So there you have it.  Survival in ten easy steps.  Actually, it’s not that simple.  The game has a bit of a learning curve to it, and the first few rounds can be frustrating.  But stick with it, and play with people who understand the team concepts, and this can be some of the more rewarding MP you’ll find right now.  The modes are limited, but Naughty Dog is supposed to be offering some more MP content for fans.  I’m not sure I enjoy ANY multiplayer to invest money in more of it, but this comes close.

Donald Ritchie dies at the age of 88

Although he wasn’t a recognizable face in Hollywood, fans of Japanese cinema knew his writing well.  Often credited with introducing generations of fans to Japanese films they might not otherwise have seen, Ritchie’s death will come as big news to cinephiles.  He was 88.

In this photo, Ritchie is on the left, with Akira Kurosawa (middle) and Toshiro Mifune (right).

kurosawa_richieExcerpt taken from his NYT obituary:

Mr. Richie wrote prolifically, not just on film and culture in Japan but also on his own travels and experiences there. He won recognition for his soul-baring descriptions of a Westerner’s life in an impenetrable but permissive society that held him politely at arm’s length while allowing him to explore it nonetheless, from its classical arts to its seedy demimonde.

Openly bisexual, Mr. Richie also wrote frankly about his lovers, both male and female, saying Japan’s greater tolerance of homosexuality in the 1940s, relative to that in the United States, was one reason he returned to the country after graduating from Columbia University in 1953. Mr. Richie first saw Tokyo as a bombed-out ruin, arriving in 1947 as a 22-year-old typist with the Allied Occupation forces after serving on transport ships during the war. He spent most of the next 66 years in Tokyo, gaining a following among Western readers for textured descriptions of Japan and its people that transcended Western stereotypes.

Dragon’s Dogma is a fresh spin on RPG genre

ImageSome of my Dark Souls acquaintances recommended Dragon’s Dogma to me (and it takes a lot for them to remove Dark Souls from the tray).  I decided to drop $30 and give it a shot.  While it’s not on par with Dark Souls, there’s a lot of cool concepts in the game.  I’ve only just started getting into the main quest, but here are the highlights:

The Pawn system.  Easily, the most unique element of the game.  At the start of the the game, you create your main Pawn in the same way you create your own character (even choosing the face, hairstyle, etc).  You also give your pawn a class.  It’s best to create a pawn that occupies a class you think you’re least likely to use.  If you normally like to beat the snot out of enemies with a two-handed sword, then create a Mage or a Strider (ranger), and if you normally like being a squishy mage, then create a Warrior to be your tank.  This pawn remains with you for the entire game (you even name it), and cannot die permanently.  You set your Pawn tendencies to dictate how you want it to behave in battle.  These are more like general inclinations, rather than in-depth battle tactics like the ones found in Dragon Age: Origins.

What makes the pawn system even more unique is that your created pawn is registered online through a place called the Rift.  The rift is a kind of ethereal-looking place you enter through riftstones, and browse the pawns other people have created in their games.  All their skills, stats and gear accompanies them.  You can hire up to two more of these pawns to accompany you.  If they are your level, they are free.  If they are higher level than you, it costs money to hire them (the exception to this is, if a higher level pawn belongs to someone on your FL, it costs nothing – many people who play this game put other people on their FL just for this reason).  When you dismiss the pawn later, you must give it a gift in the form of weapons, rings, or other gear.  This gift remains with the pawn the next time its owner goes online.  So if you keep a pawn stocked with good gear, and upgrade it with awesome skills, it will get hired more.

It’s a little strange when you go into places where Pawns gather, since walking up and talking to them sort of feels like you’re in a 70’s swingers party.  They kind of greet you with this sultry “hello” and then wait to see if you’re interested.  Pawns can be found in places outside the Rift, like in cities or encampments.  My only beef with the Pawns is that they never shut up.  Their purpose, in addition to giving support in battle, is to suggest tactics and comment on options.  Three of them all nattering away gets a little annoying at times, but its a minor thing.

Aside from the pawn system, the game plays like a lot of other RPG’s.  The combat tends to be faster than Skyrim, but much more polished.  You are able to lock-on to targets when fighting, and can grapple things as well.  I had one of my biggest LOL moments, one that actually brought me to tears, when I accidentally grabbed a boar, then hit a button to “throw” it.  One of my pawns caught it, and tossed it to another pawn, who did the same.  This went on for a few tosses, and looked like a game of hot-potato fused with a rugby match.  If you ever try the game, I recommend boar-tossing.

Boss fights also take a unique approach.   If you play as anything melee based, your strategy in boss fights actually incorporates a bit of platforming as you grapple the boss and begin climbing it’s body, looking for weak spots.  This can burn stamina.  I have to admit, although I was a bit dubious of this at first, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as making your way to the top of a Cyclops and plunging a sword into its head.

For anyone who likes Crafting systems, DD is a dream come true.  This useable material scattered around the environment is endless, and you can collect all of it.  Everything from plants to kindling for arrows, to shrouds taken from slaughtered zombies.  Each town has an inn where you can store items you don’t need at the moment (everything has weight).  I’ve only done a bit of crafting, but I’ve seen the list of items you can create on the wiki, and it’s huge.

There are nine different classes called “vocations”.  You start by choosing one of three basic ones (fighter, mage, strider).  As the game progresses, you get the ability to switch vocations for a cost.  You can either pick a deeper variation of the basic (Fighter becomes Warrior, Mage becomes Sorcerer, and Strider becomes Ranger), or you can create a hybrid (Assassin, Magick Archer, Mystic Knight).  If you want to spend the coin, you can unlock all nine and switch back and forth between them to take advantage of strengths.  Although, you only level up each one as long as you are playing it, so in general, some will always be stronger than others.

Leveling up gives you Discipline Points (basically, skill points).  You don’t level individual skills like strength, dexterity, magic, etc.  Instead, these points can be spent on unlocking special attacks and skills for each vocation.  Example, I spent 200 points on my Strider early on and unlocked a Three Arrow Volley, which maps to my controller buttons.  You can also change vocations, and you’ll still have access to your points that were acquired with your first vocation, if you want to unlock some skills for a different class (but those points will be used up if you switch back to your original vocation).  It’s simply a central pool of XP and you can use them on whichever class you want.

No game is perfect, and Dragon’s Dogma has a few flaws.  The graphics seem a bit sub-par, in my opinion, and the voice acting can be a bit stilted at times.  Everyone talks in what seems like Olde English a lot of the time, and this definitely creates a bit of cheese factor.  And although I haven’t run into this yet, I’ve heard other people say that the lack of any real fast travel system makes moving from place to place seem like a chore.

But other than that, the game has been a refreshing spin on the genre.  Combat is a lot of fun, and opportunities to obsess over loot stats abound.  The pawn system and the boss fights alone should be enough to hook most people who liked either Dragon Age, Dark Souls, or the Elder Scrolls series.

Far Cry 3 – First Impressions

farcry3First off, in the interest of full disclosure, I’d like to state that this is not a full review of the new Far Cry 3 game.  It’s based on playing through the tutorial and the missions from the first two map areas I opened.  I’m also not going to waste time rehashing the premise of the story, which you can find anywhere online.

I was a huge fan of the original Far Cry game on PC (not console).  In my mind, it still stands as a benchmark game with graphics and lighting that still measure up to current console games.  When it was ported, the results were mediocre at best.  The follow up game, which made some decent improvements, was a navigational mess that I gave up on without finishing it.

The new Far Cry game shocked me when reviews started to pour in that seemed to put it on par with Skyrim (a game it was compared to on certain levels).  I dove in with high hopes.

After 10 hours or so, I would absolutely agree that this is the best version of the game to be released since that fantastic PC original.  An excellent fast travel system has made it much easier to get around.  The controls are tight, and a day-night system creates a nice atmosphere.  Graphics are good, but not mind-blowing.  The developers have obviously paid attention to successful elements of other great games in the last few years, incorporating many of those mechanics into Far Cry 3.  And that’s exactly what derails it in the end.

Huge, sprawling, beautiful world like the one in Skyrim: check.  Hunting and crafting system from Fallout Vegas and Red Dead Redemption: check.  Enemy-tagging from Splinter Cell Conviction (and, coincidentally, many other Ubisoft titles): check.  Jungle atmosphere of Crysis: check (but in fairness, Crysis was build on the template of the original Far Cry).  The list actually goes on.  The game is a virtual hodge-podge of these elements, and they all work fairly well.

Yet I found myself, after 4 or 5 hours in, starting to get the “mehs”.  The lack of anything truly original in this game, despite the solid framework, will get under the skin of most seasoned gamers before long.  If you’ve never played any of the games I mentioned above, then Far Cry 3 will feel like a masterpiece.  And hey, if some as-yet-unseen, cutting edge new gaming element is revealed later in the game, I’ll take all this back.  But I have no reason to think this will be anything more than a series of cookie-cutting quests that give the game more meat to surround a core story (which seems pretty good so far).

Average scores on metacritic were rolling in around the mid-90’s.  I’d be more inclined to give it something between the 75 and 80 range.

Sniper Elite 2 – A Great Game Hindered by Clunky Save System

Imagine yourself playing a WWII sniper, dug in, laying prone on a blasted out half-floor of a fourth story building.  You’ve just lined up a Nazi soldier a little over 150 meters away.  You hold your breath and go into “focus time” mode, slowing the world around you to a crawl.  Moments later, you pull the trigger.  The shot rings out.  But you miss the mark.  You hadn’t correctly compensated for bullet drop and the slight easterly wind.  You wing the target, who begins to run, hunched forward at a 90 degree angle.  Quickly, you raise your Springfield again, but in your haste your scope wavers.  Your shot hits the target square in the rectum, then rips through his body and destroys his heart.  All of this is shown in slow motion, X-ray view.  Despite the sloppy shot, a smile comes to your face.

The detail with which this game treats a well-placed (or even poorly-placed) shot is incredible.  If played on the hardest difficulty, EVERYTHING effects your shot.  Target movement, your heart rate, wind, and bullet drop.  The preparation that goes into taking a shot is meticulous. And the reward for a well executed shot is the brief cut scene in X-ray mode that illustrates in gory detail the sort of damage you just did to another human being’s body.  In one particular shot, I hit a soldier in the testicles.  Seeing his man-beans explode in slo-mo almost made me feel sick, but in a giddy sort of way.

As far as simulated sniper games go, Sniper Elite sets the bar.  You crawl prone through rubble and shadows, looking for a perfect vantage point, setting trip mines and land mines in case things go south and you have to defend your position.  You look for lone targets you can isolate and execute covertly, using mortar blasts or loudspeaker announcements to mask your shot, all in the hopes that when the enemies rush you, there aren’t too many to snipe all at once.  It emphasises that each encounter of each mission is a tactical puzzle to be solved.

Too bad this brilliantly designed game gets derailed by one of the worst checkpoint systems I’ve ever experienced.  While the game encourages slow, deliberately paced progress, much of your success can be undone by a single enemy that gets overlooked, or the fact that you had to travel across a well-lit area with no way of shooting out lights with your silenced pistol.  Now, purists might argue that this sort of punishing mechanic adds to the sim elements.  Whether you buy this or not depends on your level of patience.  I don’t mind trial and error gameplay, but in a game like this, spending 15 minutes quietly taking out a compound full of enemies with masked shots and stealth kills, only to have to do the EXACT same thing again due to a cheap death becomes tedious.

I’m of the opinion that checkpoint save systems in games need to be retired permanently.  Many games now play out with deep stories, and making progress should be like reading a book.  Have to stop playing right now?  No problem.  Save and exit.  Sniper Elite’s checkpoint system detracts from what is otherwise a fantastic game.  A player with extraordinary patience may be willing to overlook this, but an average player will simply quit playing after too many of these moments where a lot of progress gets undone.

One thing I will say to qualify this is that the checkpoint system flaws are mostly noticeable on the hardest setting, since getting discovered isn’t as much of an issue when you have pinpoint accuracy and can absorb more damage from the less aggressive AI.  But personally, I want to play it on the hard setting, since the sniping is more realistic.

Even with the savepoint flaws, there’s a great scoring system and some fantastic achievements for getting long distance shots.  Each kill you get has the stats tracked, and assigns score points.  You get massive scores for long shots, but next to nothing for simply kills with a Thompson or MP40.  It should also be noted, you get a very limited amount of ammo for your machine guns, so don’t expect to just run and gun through any part of this game.  You basically have enough ammo to deal with a few stray enemies.

Is the game worth playing?  Absolutely.  Try it on the hardest and see how it tests your patience level.  If it’s too frustrating, drop it down a notch and just have fun sniping Nazis with Call of Duty accuracy, not worrying about the sim factors.

The new, true cost of videogames

Game publishers often like to point out the fact that the price on their games hasn’t gone up in years.  And while this is technically true, the actual price most of us pay for complete games is going up all the time through DLC sales.  Publishers argue that they suffer immense financial losses due to both game trading, and to a lesser extent, game rentals.  Many ideas have been kicked around in hopes of addressing this situation.  I’ve heard everything from using codes in new games to unlock full content to making games available for download only.

While the industry fails to make up its mind on a definitive solution, one new trend seems to be gaining traction:  The Season Pass.  A number of high-profile games releasing this fall have announced DLC (downloadable content) on day one, coinciding with a season pass that gives gamers a 25% discount if they invest in the entire set of content.  What was most shocking this year, however, is the price of the passes.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and Forza Horizon both offered up passes for 4000 microsoft points, which can seem like an abstract amount until you convert it to the actual cost of around $57.00 (which can be less, provided you find a deal on MS points someplace).  The retail game costs you $59.99 on average, and then if you wish to have all the content that was held back from the retail game, the price nearly doubles.  In both cases, most of the content is geared toward multiplayer fans.  Black Ops 2 mostly includes MP maps and co-op Zombie mode content.  Forza’s content includes car packs and new race modes/areas.  In fact, if you don’t buy the DLC pass, there is a noticeably small number of cars compared to previous games.  Enough so, that I didn’t bother buying the new Forza game for the first time ever.

Borderlands 2 also offered a season pass for less money.  The cost was 2400 points, or around $40.00.  This cost covered 4 sets of story content, each offering around 10 to 15 hours of gameplay.  Shockingly, the Borderlands pass didn’t even include the Mechromancer class, which was available to anyone who preordered from selected retailers.  If you wanted that content, it would cost you another $10.00.

In each of these cases, the retail version of the game included enough content to make them worth the purchase, in my opinion.  I certainly don’t begrudge the publishers an opportunity to extend the life of their game through a trickle of DLC in the months following release.  However, it should be pointed out that this new trend effectively squashes the claims of publishers that game prices have stayed the same.

If you’re just a casual fan of shooters or racing games, would you have picked up either Forza Horizon or Black Ops 2 on day one if the price tag had said $120.00?  Chances are, no.  I read all about the Zombie content in Black Ops 2 prior to release, but when I got a chance to try the game first-hand, it seemed like there was a lot less than I’d been expecting.  So where was it?  In the upcoming DLC, of course.  For an additional $57.00.  Did I feel like I’d been duped?  A bit, yeah.

Maybe this is simply the new reality of gaming.  Publishers will look to fans who are willing to invest more deeply in the game.  Some PC titles do this.  The new Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic online game charges people $15 a month just to play (after buying the retail version).  Fans drop the coin without blinking.  One of the repercussions of this, however, will be a narrowing of the selection of games.  If people are investing $120 in a game, they’re going to give it more of their time.  This means that fewer and fewer new IP’s will see the light of day, and inevitably, a reduction in the amount of innovation we see within the industry.  And that’s not good for any game fan.

October 23rd New Releases

 Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is inspired by the same trend that gave rise to books like Pride & Prejudice with Zombies.  Purists will no doubt look upon projects like this with scorn, but hey, let’s be honest…if you even took the time to watch this, you probably knew what you were getting into, and probably liked it a little bit.  I thought it was a good romp, a sort of Underworld vibe woven into a very graphic novel design.  Nothing that would really compel me to have a second viewing, but it works for what it is.

Magic Mike was a surprisingly good flick.  As soon as I noticed Steven Soderbergh’s name in the Director credits, I knew where all the hate came from.  People probably bought tickets to this thinking it was going to be a spirited, sexytime, banana-hammock-fest, but it was actually a pretty gritty story about the darker side of living life where all you do is drink, party, pop pills and take your clothes off for women.  If I could compare it to anything, it would be Anderson’s “Boogie Nights”, with less gratuitous nudity.  Basically, if you think you’d hate this movie, you should probably rent it.  If you think you’ll love it, then stay away.  Marketing guys have duped everyone on this flick.

Seeking A Friend… was also pretty decent.  It’s an offbeat Dramedy that is a kind of road movie.  Despite the comic stylings the cover seems to convey, it’s actually a bit sad.  The comic bits are for relief (you really have to see Rob Cordry getting a six year old to drink a martini, while yelling at her “fight through the burn”!), but the main story is more concerned with people dealing with their regrets just as life is about to end.  Personally, I liked it, but everyone’s experience with this one will be different, depending on their expectations.

October 16th New Releases