Thursday, September 16, 2010

Now Playing: Red Dead Redemption

I get a lot of flack on Gaming Trend because I don’t bow before the alter of Rockstar. Here’s why—I believe they create great worlds that are fluid and alive, but absolutely do the bare minimum of quality assurance. I believe they know how to tell a basic story but have no talent for heightening dramatic tension. I believe they create unique characters and hire the perfect voice actors for them, but then let them ramble on long past the point of no return.

Yet their games routinely score in the mid to high 90’s or higher. I find myself baffled by the reviews because I play the same games as everyone else but clearly don’t believe that a game should automatically start at 90 just because it is an open world where you can go anywhere and do anything. I’m literally left feeling like the last sane man on the planet screaming at the birds over head because no one else will listen.

So here I am, screaming at the vastness of the Internet via my blog in a sort of narcissistic rage. So let’s get on with it,

Red Dead Redemption is an open world game set in the Wild West. Rockstar does score major points right off the bat by setting it in the early 1900s. The Model T has been invented, telegraph lines are everywhere, and civilization is encroaching on what’s left of the untamed frontier. John Marsten, a former outlaw, is forced by the U.S. government (the precursor to the FBI) to hunt down and eliminate the surviving members of his former gang. An unspoken question that hangs over everything is this: Will Marsten be allowed to roam free after all is said and done?

It’s a great setup, but one that immediately goes south. The villains are seldom seen, despite being talked about almost non-stop, and as such their threat is diminished right from the start. Even the head bad guy, Bill, barely registers when he finally shows up. The game instead keeps the focus on Marsten and his interactions with everyone across the plains. So right off the bat, the only driving force is the need for Marsten to expound at great length on virtually everything. And no, you can’t skip the conversations that happen while en route to a goal.

I’m from the school of thought of show don’t tell. Call it the film geek side of me, but that’s what happens in the best of films. They make do with a limited amount of exposition then show you the rest. The best video games deal with a limited amount of exposition then let you experience the rest. They don’t rattle on and on endlessly before giving you a short gun fight or a wagon race.

I referred on the GT forums to this game as a self-indulgent bullshit fest because that’s exactly what it is—a game so chockablock with words that you could choke Shakespeare on the script. I appreciate good writing, and there are several lines that soar, but writing that doesn’t know when to shut the hell up and get out of the way of the action is wasted effort.

Now, that being said, I genuinely like the world Rockstar created. I’m a huge fan of Westerns, and to say they nailed the exact look and feel of the Old West is doing a disservice. They managed to get the accuracy down to the dirt, the tumbleweeds, and the types of trees. Exploring this vast, untamed land is so much fun its ridiculous. You have a massive world to explore, and while there isn’t a whole lot going on out on the prairie, you can still find things to do. Collect plants, hunt down escaped bounties, and more. It’s all right at your fingertips and it is genuinely wonderful.

But then you want to move the plot forward, or encounter subplots, and another Rockstar-ism kicks in—the fact that everyone in the world around you is absolutely insane. I’ve yet to play a Rockstar game where there was a sane, or at least not deeply flawed, tertiary character whom you interact with. For example, one of the first subplots involves people going missing in the hills. When you finally track down the villain responsible, the guy turns out to be a cannibal.

Really? That’s the best you got, Rockstar? It couldn’t be a group of rogue Comanche or Confederates forcibly recruiting for Civil War 2? It has to be a damn cannibal? Or how about the guy who wants flowers for his wife? You know, the skeleton in the chair?

And so on.

You see what I mean? When you can do things all by yourself, the game is great. But the second you do a story or side mission-related adventure, the game goes to hell due to the sheer stupidity of what you’re experiencing. It’s a long game if you do absolutely everything (and as of this writing I’m at 98.5% complete and am going for the 100% completion achievement for no reason other than I made it this far so why not hit it big?) but the story isn’t worth the effort. Playing in the game world IS worth your effort though, so I found myself in a bit of a pickle.

I lambaste the game because so much is worthy of scorn, but the world itself is so brilliantly executed that there is a ton of fun to be had despite the flaws, bugs, glitches, and general nitpicks. I’m all in favor of chasing down wild animals, but do I need a cougar leaping out of nowhere to kill me? Nope. How about discovering buried treasure only to not be able to open the chest because I haven’t found the map in the previous chest leading me to the one I was standing over?

And so on.

Unless Rockstar makes another Western, I’m done with them. I swore off them with GTAIV, but then they hit me in the sweet spot with a Western. Never again. Until the next Western.

But I’m still puzzled by the accolades. Their games are worth noting in the mid to low 80s at best. I guess since I’m not a fan of KoolAid, I’ll remain in the dark.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Now Playing: From Paris With Love

There is absolutely no reason in the world why you won’t fall head over heels in love with the ludicrous nature of “From Paris With Love.” It’s loud, obnoxious, ridiculous, offensive, sexist, and it wears all that as a badge of honor. Hell, it wears all that as a bandoleer strung across the chest of a man who’ll beat you to death before grabbing a burger and fries. I laughed start to finish at what can only be described as sheer lunacy.

The film kicks off with a clerk at the U.S. embassy in Paris (Jonathan Rhys-Myers doing a genuinely horrible American accent) performing routine surveillance duties for his boss and for some unknown superior on the phone. He lives happily with his drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend in a nifty little apartment, and all is well. Yet he yearns for a more action-packed lifestyle. As though living in Paris with a brunette as hot as his girlfriend isn’t enough.

Such are the silly travails of action stars.

His world is flipped upside down when he’s called in the middle of the night and told to pick up his new partner, Charlie Waxler, at the airport. Wax, as he’s called, has been detained by customs which presents a problem for the Powers That Be. We then meet Wax, played with full-throttle gusto by John Travolta. Channeling his over-the-top terrorist from Face/Off, Travolta hurls expletives almost as fast as he shoots bad guys. But who are the villains, you ask? I honestly couldn’t tell you.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film that asks you to accept on blind faith that everyone the lead actor shoots/blows up/otherwise annihilates is a de facto enemy of the state. Initially, he’s in Paris for an acceptable reason, but that reason quickly begins to change in roughly five minute intervals. By the mid-point, I couldn’t care less what the villains did to deserve Wax’s wrath. I gave myself over to the gleeful energy of the bloodbath because of the wanton abandon. There are only two sides in “From Paris With Love,” Wax’s side and everyone else.

The film rests on the rapport between Rhys-Myers and Travolta and to their credit they both shine. Travolta has performed this role for over a decade so he’s got it down to a science. He takes crazy to a whole different level here, though, and what kept me laughing is how fast Wax adapts to every environment. I laughed the hardest at his response to the man who offers him tea, but equally funny is Rhys-Meyers spending 30 minutes holding a vase filled with cocaine. The two leads have completely unique energies as performers and they genuinely connect here.

This film also manages a neat trick though with the twist you know is coming right from the start. Every film like this has one, but the way they introduce it is a shocker. It would have been nice to have a stronger conclusion, but I’ll run with the coda the film makers gave us. It doesn’t wrap everything up in a tidy bow, but that’s sort of the point. Just kick back and hang on for a wild, hilarious, blood-soaked and highly profane ride.

“From Paris With Love” is 90 minutes of gleeful stupidity and I highly recommend it.

Pre-Pre School

A number of weeks ago, My Fair Lady and I joined a church by the house. It was less about a more convenient avenue by which to praise God™ than it was being granted access to the Mother’s Day Out program. While My Fair Lady remains at the house, she needed at least one day a week where she could get things done without having to also watch him.

Day 2 was today. Today was also the first full day which included the kids utilizing their nap mats. So how did things go?

Apparently they went great. Max was all ready to go when they left the house, complete with putting his bag on his shoulder and marching out to the car. Then he freaked out when they walked into the church, and was very upset about being left behind. Which, of course, kicked off My Fair Lady’s waterworks once she’d left the building. So she called back to find out how he was.

Three minutes later he was off and playing with the other kids, the toys, and whatever else he could find. Typical.

What cracked My Fair Lady up was when she showed up after lunch to pick him up. The way their schedule works is the morning is devoted to play time, arts, outside, etc. Then they have lunch, followed by nap time. The parents usually pick them up after the nap so the kids are raring to go. But not Max.

Oh no. Not him.

The little man was still sound asleep when My Fair Lady came a callin’. All the other kids had already been picked up or were running around in the room laughing and having a great time. But in the corner lay Max, snoring a thousand z’s. What can I say? The little man loves his sleep.

Fortunately for us, he only slept for about an hour before she had to wake him up. He came to pretty quickly, but was awake throughout the rest of the afternoon. Based on his activity for the day, I know the exact time he’s going to sleep which means we’ll have more of our night than normal. Which is both sad and awesome. It’s sad because I don’t get to spend as much time with him once I get home from work, but awesome in that I don’t have to spend as much time with him once I get home from work.

When he reads this in the future, he’s going to come slap me for saying as much. But here’s the kicker—even extremely involved dads like Yours Truly sometimes don’t want to mess with being a parent after a long day at the office. It’s great on the weekend, but towards the end of the week I just want to eat and go to sleep.

Yes, I’m getting old. I expect to shoo the other kids off my lawn any day now.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Reversal of Roles

Yes it's been forever since I blogged and believe it or not I'm actually crafting a post that explains it. But in the meantime, here's a Max story:

Max’s bedtime window is between 8 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. each night. We try to hew as closely as possible to this, with allowances for periodic deviations. One such happened the other night, but the reason for it was because Max put us to sleep in his room before going into ours and watching football.

My Fair Lady was sitting in the far corner, comfortably ensconced in Max’ beanbag chair. I sat next to the door which let Max walk up my chest and face to get to the lightswitch. We were talking back and forth while Max played between us. Then a light must have gone off in his head because he did the following:

1) Climbed up my chest/face and turned off the light.
2) Closed the door from the outside thereby leaving us on the floor in the dark.
3) Giggled as he ran off down the hall.

I opened the door and peaked my head out. When I didn’t see him, I crawled all the way out of the room. He was sitting on the bench in front of our bed watching the football game and casually swinging his feet to and fro. He spotted me, laughed out loud, hopped down, and ran at me.

He grabbed me by the throat, pushed me back into the room, and put me back up against the wall. He climbed my chest/face, turned on the light, ran over to mommy, and gave her a big kiss. Then he ran back to me, climbed my chest/face again, turned off the light, shut the door, etc. He was laughing hysterically the whole time he performed this routine.

I find it increasingly difficult to put an end to his fun. He’s almost two, and just seeing such blissful joy on his face as he plays with us is a reminder of why I got into this business to begin with. I hope he’s still a great kid when he’s a teenager and every decision we make is ipso facto repression. But the memories he’s creating for us right here right now are worth all the pain that (may) come our way. He’s a great, sweet child who genuinely enjoys just living. It’s hard to argue with that level of enthusiasm.

Oh, and he’s started reading to his bear. For the record, he has more than a few stuffed animals, but the one he’s bonded with is the oldest among the lot. It’s one from My Fair Lady’s childhood, and he never gave it much attention until recently. We always read to him before bed time, and about a week ago he sat on my lap and refused to listen to any more Dr. Seuss. I closed the book, then he pointed at the bear. I picked it up and sat it right next to him on my lap. Max nuzzled in to both of us and I started again.

We made it all the way through our nightly triple header. One little Max head and one little Bear head were intently focused on the books in question. When I put the little man down, I sat the bear in the crib next to him. I checked in on Max about an hour later and found him sound asleep on the bear’s legs.

It’s memories like these that make everything worth it.