Monday, 29 April 2013

Film Review: Iron Man 3

Directed by Shane Black, running time 130 minutes.

The Avengers may have raised the bar for expectations of the entire super hero adaptation crowd, where such films can be loud and bombastic yet also have likable well-rounded characters even if they are dressed for Halloween and battling space whales. The first Iron Man set this stage and the second, despite an apparent lasting lack of enthusiasm, was personally at least, serviceable fun. It may be easy to follow Iron Man 2, but the Avengers may be tricky.

The now ever reliable Robert Downey Jr. returns as Tony Stark, still probably the best cast of the entire Marvel lineup so far. Following the events of the Avengers, Stark is going through a series of anxiety attacks, and let’s be honest, following a potential suicide mission of hurling a live nuke in a wormhole at an intergalactic armada may not be the trick to taking of the edge. Pushed to an emotional brink, he calls out international terrorist archetype, the oddly named non-Chinese ‘The Mandarin” played by Ben Kingsley with obvious explosive results. All the while, a shifty Aldrich Killian played by Guy Pearce is peddling strange regenerative experiments under shrouded connections.

Even with explosive results, the third installment is predominantly a character piece in bed with a fast paced crime thriller. Rather than the “how Tony Stark got his grove back” motif of Iron Man 2, here Stark is attempting to rebuild himself as a new man. From the beginning we see that he is struggling to settle down legitimately with Pepper Potts played by Gwyneth Paltrow, constantly working to avoid admitting he has a problem. Seeing Downey Jr.’s titular character in a withdrawn, even vulnerable state is an interesting shift in the dynamic of the character. However there are the stretches of egotistical snarkiness that we seem to be drawn towards, so while on paper it may read as unfunny brooding, the character is still the all the same, just that the circumstances have changed also now requiring a change of heart and Robert Downey Jr. is giving it his all.

There seems to be a current trend where super heroes are not allowed to appear as such for most of the film, with the Dark Knight Rises and Amazing Spider-Man probably having a collective half hour each of costumed antics. Iron Man 3 does gravitate towards this portrayal, even beating him down to the point of being thrown back to a position reminiscent of the first half of the earliest Iron Man, after all it’s about the man, not the suit. Although rather than have entire acts absent of “super-fun-time”, Stark ends up jumping in an out of suits at a swift pace, backed up by antagonist minions in constant hot pursuit (that will become a bad pun after seeing this film) making up most of the action. The action itself outside of the obligatory impossible stunts climax is for the most part weaved into the narrative, rather than contrived director “oh no, we need some action here” moments that plague most films with any hint of fast pace. The final act itself is also fine but given the emphasis on characters so far, the showdown set piece is not the highlight you came to see and take away by the end.

Don Cheadle returns, now as the now rebranded “Iron Patriot” but has a noticeably lower key role, being less of a starring supporting role of the second and more of casual support, at least until the finale. Despite Ben Kingsley appearing in every trailer with menacing monologue and doing an overall fine job, given that Guy Pierce is set up from the get go as a shady corporate suit, if you’ve seen the last two Iron Man films with their “business conspiracy” plots than it wouldn’t be a spoiler to say that he has a major antagonistic role to play. In fact I will go as far as to say most of the plot can be figured out before the revelations… again, most however. Without giving away any major developments, there is a twist of a certain kind two-thirds the way into the film. While it does work in terms of the script, it’s initially tonally jarring and I would be lying if I said it didn’t bother me at first. However by the time the credits rolled it wasn’t a lasting issue and the film had gone ahead with payoff. Although there is one quick action Guy Pierce does for a couple of seconds that is incredibly cartoonish even for the standards of a franchise with Viking Gods and green monster men. You’ll know it when you see it.

Director Shane Black has clearly held is own in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, without the plot of The Avengers hanging over the story. The third installment is very much its own feature, with the occasional line acknowledging the wider playing field and as a result the film is much stronger for it. However that didn’t stop my inner nerd asking where S.H.I.E.L.D. is in all of this mess, although the average bystander and small character roles asking about the aliens is a nice subtle touch. You would if you knew there were aliens, right?

Also, yes, there is a post credit sequence.

Iron Man 3 has continued to prove the popularity of the character and Disney/Marvel’s cinematic conquest, being a more than worthy follow up. In all honestly though, at time of writing I’m not sure if Iron Man 3 matches up with the first or not. I would have to revisit both again soon but even asking the question is a good enough indicator that third time is still a charm.

Also starring Rebecca Hall, John Favreau and Paul Bettany.


Sunday, 28 April 2013

Game Review: Injustice: Gods Among Us

Before I start, a “little” context:

It would be fair to say that I have a particular inclination towards the fighting game genre. The idea of a cast of martial arts masters to outright cartoonish misfits going toe to toe, often for some of the most contrived reasons in any story telling medium, has a certain appeal I admit to enjoying for entire run of my gaming run (IE nearly all my life)… and now for the contradictory statement. I have never been the best at them either, at least against enough uman opponents.   However in another twist of logic, my enjoyment of the genre is also why I can’t throw a Hadoken to save my life… bar.

Variety is the spice of life, you can’t just limit yourself to a game where grandmasters fight for the title when you can also play one where demon ninjas slice up cyborgs or a Chinese girl tags in panda bears. Yet with it, one can never take the time to perfect the art of stringing combos and a well-timed blocks and counters of any one game and be a real competitor. I won’t shell out a brick of notes for an arcade stick and I more than likely won’t survive the first few rounds of a tournament, but what I can do is get to grips and learn beyond the basics. To tell when a fighting game has more than flash in its mechanics...

…and with that: Batman!

Well, actually it’s the DC Universe when it comes to Injustice: Gods Among Us but if you’re just the casual observer to the comic giant, it’s all about Batman for you. Injustice is developed by NetherRealm Studios, the most recent brand for the veteran developers of the Mortal Kombat series. While having struck oil with their most recent entry to the series, rather than follow the obvious path and simply churn out a samey sequel, NeatherRealm actually created something of a spiritual successor… with Batman!

Injustice features a current cast of 24 super heroes and villains from across the DC Comics (multi?)universe to “throw down” and the choices are defiantly unique. Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman may be the obvious choices yet other characters who, let’s be honest are outside of the public spot light make appearances; like Ares, Killer Frost and Black Adam. Other choices are recognisable to those without the archive comic knowledge but have been given fresh spins, namely Aquaman who despite all the Super Friends and Family Guy jokes at his expense is one the most “badass” characters in the roster.

But why are the defenders of justice Green Lantern and the Flash destroying downtown Metropolis just take out eachother? The plot is simple yet told well enough, concerning an alternate reality where a traumatised Superman establishes a new world order, causing heroes and villains to switch sides on the fly. While is sounds simple (and it is), the extra layer of cross-mortality punch-ups occur when the prime, sane and good natured Superman universe crosses over with the other. Again, trust me it is simple.

This is because the story is presented in the same straight forward manner of the previous Mortal Kombat, where players switch between characters and fights as the plot unfolds like a film/series with in-game cut-scenes, where the gameplay begins just as conflict starts, a format more fighting games should adopt, even if the occasional mini-game thrown on the side doesn’t quite gell with the rest of the presentation and gameplay. Overall, I’d say it acts as something of a lavish 4 to 5 hour tutorial for new players.

It isn’t a particularly riveting tale or on par in terms of development with notable examples of its source material. Because of the constraints a fighting game immediately places, there are some very contrived events and character motivations at times to start conflict. A casual conversation turns to blood shed due to spontaneous suspicions while a hero who was punched into outer space has no hard feelings moments later. Then of course one begs the question how Harley Quinn can survive a brawl with Doomsday, a reason quickly mentioned then brushed off that is actually more dumb than “HEY! MAGIC!” Yet I would be lying if I said I didn’t appreciate any reason to play as the Joker on the level of Bane.

Still, overall the script is inoffensive with great voice talent, including those pulled from the classic DC animated series (Kevin Conroy Batman baby!), with dialogue that does a good job at outlining the DC universe without getting bogged down in exposition. Plus there are some unique character portrayals such as a hero turns by villains like Deathstroke and Lex Luthor (in a nifty robot suit to boot). Despite issues, it is still an improvement on the majority of its genre.

Other modes include a traditional arcade ladder of battles with a chosen character towards a showdown with an evil Superman, but also a list of variations such as sped up time or slowly draining life bars that add some variety to a fairly typical format. A side mode called S.T.A.R. Labs provides 240 challenges that covers the entire roster. However despite the scale appearing as a potential abundance of playable content, the challenges themselves are mere distractions disguised as optional “stories”, if by story you mean brief text without context or audio. Some are useful in that they can further teach the player mechanics and character move sets, others are simple mini-games that may be mildly fun the first or second time only, while others are just frustrating and out of place in a fighting game. Along with the functional obligatory multiplayer options, all game modes keep a record of your play time, with certain conditions granting experience points towards levelling up your player profile. While holding no real merit beyond a false sense of “showiness”, each level allows unlockables ranging from new somewhat, near costumes to concept art, the usual pointless affair.

But what of the gameplay itself? Also like the story mode, if you played the 2011 Mortal Kombat, there is also a sense of familiarity. I’m not saying you’ll witness a scene where Catwoman decapitates Green Arrow, far from it, but the mechanics and control are strikingly similar. Jumps, upper cuts and projectiles are fielded with the same timing and strategy, while certain attacks like Batman’s grapple cable to a degree call back to Scorpion’s classic “GET OVER HERE” move. That isn’t to say this is an issue however. Firstly, Mortal Kombat’s fighting engine is solid and secondly Injustice does have a few features to call its own. For one, characters vary in how they play depending on size and fighting style with some having quick strikes, jumps or projectiles while others are slow and brutish but powerful. Characters also all have a special ability mapped to the same button input but is unique to each one, from shields to powerups.

Another feature that is very unique to Injustice is the interactive environments. While you can transition to other levels during a single fight like some other fighting games, Injustice utilizes an interactive background. Despite the game playing on a two dimensional plain, players can reach into the near background and use them in battle. These interactions work functionally well the different character styles, for example in one level a larger fighter can throw a motorcycle while a smaller fighter will leap on and drive it into their opponent. The extra layer of interactivity combined with the noticeable character differences provides an interesting and fresh approaches to the fighting gameplay, knowing how to tackle different sized opponents or when to use the environment to your advantage. Having been developed with gameplay, instead of simply tacked on, these features of not intrusive or hard to understand. However if you desire straight fighting, these interactive elements can be optionally disabled.

While this is all happening, players will progressively fill a meter separate from their life bar that can be utilized in ways such as enhancing the damage of their regular moves or countering others. It can also be “wagered” to regain health, however this mini-game system is actually intrusive without any strategy that game seems to pretend is has. Even if the resulting clash that ensues is delightfully flashy with great character lines, it doesn’t quite gell with the system. But really, you’re only going to use your meter for one thing: super moves!

With a full meter and well timed usage, players can pull off devastating cinematic style combo attacks that defy the laws of practicality and plausibility. I’m talking Superman launching opponents into space and back, the Flash charging up a punch by running around the planet and Doomsday pummelling others right through the Earth’s core. Even the more grounded characters can to enjoy the spectacle with Deathspoke’s unusual large arsenal of firepower and the over the top brutality combo of Solomon Grundy. Sadly there are few tame stinkers, namely Harley Quinn and Wonder Woman’s when compared to others. Another issue is these animations are the same each time, which may prove tedious if you end up witnessing them on a regular basis. In my humble opinion however, they did not grate on me and are in fact on the highlights of the entire game, with Lex catching and throwing an orbital satellite laser blast being a personal favourite.

…and Aquaman? Like a boss!

Injustice: Gods Among Us is a uniquely strange fighting game. On one hand it is reminiscent of Mortal Kombat at times, while on the other it utilizes some features currently unheard of in the genre, all the while showcasing iconic DC characters. Bizarre though as it may be at times, combing simple controls with solid gameplay together with the elaborate presentation, NeatherRealm have developed an entertaining original IP within a genre dominated by long standing franchises.

While it could be tempting for the studio to develop another Mortal Kombat or Injustice, it would be interesting to see where they can take the framework next…

…just don’t make another Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Long time, no writing

It has been more than a year since I've done any proper writing despite not only having seen plenty of films but also having more to say about them. The last year has been a jumble of tasks, jobs, traveling and other random events.

However things have settled for now and now it's time to jump back in... even if there isn't anyone to read it, it's what I want to do.