Thursday, August 25, 2011


As summer draws to a close so does my cigar-smoking season.

This year I've indulged in my regular smokes, Partagas Almirantes, to a reasonable degree, but I also bought a handful of the same maker's new release, Partagas Black in a toro size. Almirantes are thinner than a traditional toro but just about every other cigar I smoke is a toro and I like trying new things and making comparisons by sticking to that particular size. I was, however, not impressed by the Black. Almirantes are good because, though they aren't really strong, the Cameroon wrapper and the particular choice in fillers combine to make a really fragrant cigar while it is burning. The smoke AND the smell of the heated but yet-to-be-burned wrapper both. And the flavor has a lot of nuances to my palate. They're also not too pricey so I can afford to stay stocked without breaking the bank.

The Black was just dull. A really dark maduro wrapper (hence 'black') on this stick, so I wasn't expecting it to be as fragrant while burning or as nuanced as the Almirantes... but it is just so 'meh'. I was really hoping for more *pow* to it, especially since it is advertised as a full strength... which isn't really an indicator of flavor, but given the pedigree... yeah. I have a few more to finish, and they aren't bad in any way, but color me unimpressed.

Most of my experimentation this season has been in getting selections of Rocky Patel brand cigars in small amounts. The store I buy from, Famous Smokes in Pennsylvania, has a huge range of Rocky Patel products. Many many of them are exclusive to their shop, and I sampled some from the Famous exclusives and some from the mainstream Patel products that are available everywhere.

The exclusives are not bad... and they are fairly inexpensive all told... but there are two non-exclusive, regular Patel cigars that have become firm favorites. I'm kind of shocked at the difference actually.

The Rocky Patel Edge Lite is medium-bodied with a bright Connecticut-shade style wrapper. The Patel Brothers was a full-bodied bruiser with a maduro wrapper. So one light and one dark. Different 'hefts' of smoke for different occasions. And I gotta say these two were WELL above the other Patels I smoked including a couple of different sorts of the lauded Patel Vintage. Wow. I'm going to stick with getting little 5-paks of these for now because over the coming winter it just won't be available to light them up frequently. But I better start budgeting for a box each now at around 130-150 dollars a box from Famous.

So this whole post is kind of a roundabout way of saying if you buy from Famous (or anyone else), and you've been tempted into trying Patel cigars by the various catalog and website deals frequently run on the brand, don't blow 'em off over the bargain marks. Cast your net a little further and snag some of the non-exclusives. I can at least say for me, The Edge Lite and The Patel Brothers (not the Patel Bros. Next Generation, I haven't tried that yet) were great. And most Patels aren't outrageously spendy.

The Best Of All Possible Worlds

13 Assassins (2010).

Jidaigeki (samurai film), check.
Crazy director who is no slouch at violence, check.
Cast of new and old faces in Japanese genre films, check.
Respectful remake of classic film, check.
Hits ALL marks that make samurai films compelling, particularly giri/ninjo (duty/conscience) conflicts.
Has TWENTY times the action quotient of recent samurai films like Twilight Samurai or The Hidden Blade, check.
Has flashes of director's trademark grotesquerie and weirdness, check.
Uses real martial arts training scenes and has frightening fight choreography, check.
Awesome Blu-Ray edition, check.

I'll cover this film in more detail after I've composed myself. Nonetheless if one is a fan of samurai or martial arts films in general, RUN, do not walk, to catch this movie. It has been released on home video here in The States.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Lola Runs Away With It

I don't know how I missed ever seeing Run Lola Run over the years. But I watched it recently, and I have to say it is about the best 'time travel' movie I can remember. And all on a budget that was probably shoestring even back in the day.

German-language with subtitles but don't let that put you off. There is a commentary track on the DVD from the director Tom Tywker and star Franka Potente with both speaking fluent English. A major shout-out for the soundtrack too. Mostly industrial-tinged electronica, with some vocals from the lead, Potente.

Some comparisons to video games have been made about this film, but that didn't occur to me at all while I was watching it. After the fact, I can see that point, but I enjoyed it strictly on its narrative ideas, aesthetics, and extremely kinetic cinematography. Even counting the years and all the overuse of crazy techniques in cinema, the visuals were still really cool.

This movie confirms my faith in the strength of ideas over budget. Totally compelling.

Not Without Its Faults pt 2

The other game defying my expectations was Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team. I got this for ten bucks on my Xbox 360.

Unlike the giant-budget Epic Mickey, Kill Team is one of those little downloadable titles that publishers more and more frequently release as an apetite-whetting cash grab. Part of building hype for an upcoming triple-A game. Sometimes these are little flash games on websites, sometimes they are more elaborate... like the 2D 'retro-styled' game released in conjunction with Capcom's Dark Void. Usually these little side stories aren't anything to write home about, but Kill Team is now out about a month before the much-anticipated much-hyped Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, and is definitely an exception.

It is actually REALLY good.

The upcoming Space Marine game looks to feature the player in the role of a Marine Captain. In the tabletop wargame Warhammer 40,000 Space Marine Captains are legendary hero-level characters, typically commanding good size armies, and capable of laying waste to whole squads of trooper models on their own. They get their Chapter's pick of the best custom-made armor and weapons, and are typically very old, very experienced war leaders who have seen battle on countless worlds against all manner of enemy. They're also every inch the super-sized no-nonsense shoot-first type of warriors that western sensibilites seem to require. So a Space Marine Captain makes a great player character in the third person blast and chop-fest that this new game is bound to be. One of 40K's iconic enemy races, the Orks ('futuristic' versions of fantasy orcs), appear in most of the screenshots and videos I've seen for the game. Video games based on GW franchises don't always work out so well, but Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine *looks* like it hits all the right marks.

Which leads to Kill Team. This little downloadable game starts of showing an Ork Kroozer (warship) heading into Imperial Space to attack a Forge World (industrial complex planet). Space Marine boarding craft intercept it, and your game begins. I think the game represents a different specific conflict, but is attached to the larger that also encompasses the upcoming WH40K: Space Marine.

You can choose between four 'types' of Space Marine, and the differences in them basically reflect how much balance you want between ranged and close combat. You can also choose between five different Chapter color schemes, for a bit of personalisation. Each Marine type has three different weapons available but the high power ones need to be unlocked through play. The game also provides various levels of buffs (again most have to be unlocked) and you have opportunities to swap weapons and buffs in the course of blasting through each stage. You're never stuck with an unworkable combination. The controls are simplicity itself, the game is a twin-stick shooter. Moving in one direction while firing in another is a piece of cake, and use of special abilities, running and all that are mapped in logical places. There isn't that much to keep track of anyway.

Now for 40K purists there's going to have to be a little give here. The player is expected to run and gun through the corridors and chambers of a large ship killing hundreds of Orks and Gretchin (SF goblins). None of the Marines on offer would canonically be capable of accomplishing this. In the upcoming Space Marine game it might be a bit less of a stretch considering Captains are top-level hero characters, but in Kill Team you are using (for variety's sake) squad leader and lower level heroes. It is a bit like the stretch you have to make when Guile is fighting the Hulk in Marvel vs Capcom games. For the sake of even having a playble game, some bending of canon is required. So if a 40K goober can just have an open mind and set aside the limitations imposed on these Marines by the tabletop game, they'd find most of the rest of the game is a really neat little exploration of the 40K universe.

I read a review (after I'd played it) that said Kill Team's environments were drab and same-y. Well, there are only five levels and they will take the player about forty minutes each the first time through. And all the levels take place on a big Ork spaceship. So a certain amount of consistency could be expected. The devs structured this, actually working to NOT break canon in a sense, similar to the tabletop system's penchant for campaigns, scenarios strung along in narrative form to reach an ultimate goal. Most typically official individual scenarios do NOT range all over the galaxy and pit an army against a variety of enemie armies. 40K game narratives don't have an everything-but-the-kitchen sink approach, though in their own home games players frequently battle with little regard to a functioning narrative. So I found focusing on just the Orks and THEIR environment to be a good idea. Especially considering the short length of the game and the focused nature of the narrative.

As a long-time 40K fan, I found the portrayal of the cluttered, ramshackle Ork ship to be really cool. It had lots of great details, like every time there was an explosion big enough to rock the ship, all kinds of carp lying around would slide across the floor-- the Orks don't tie anything down! There are great vats of radioactive material just open to the air with no safety railings, and catwalks made up of metal planks barely riveted together. And everything is lit with harsh white lights or hellish red and green glows. The game totally nails the anarchic and heedless nature of Orks and their technology. It's a miracle they could build anything space-worthy. For a little variety's sake there is one level in the game where the Orks have sealed off the ship because of yet another alien presence that they haven't quite been able to eradicate. This was a good bit of fun, with a few visual cues here and there (heavy use of maroon and purple) to indicate the 'changed' nature of the region. The player must make their way through this area, of course, and battles a totally different, well-known 40K force, before confronting the Ork Warboss in the finale.

The in-game player and enemy models are also worth mentioning. I read somewhere that these were basically the assets from the Dawn of War strategy game series, but jazzed up with a few extra details. I haven't played Dawn of War (aversion to PC games, aversion to strategy games!) but the characters and enemies are all perfect for this type of game. The game is played in an on-high isometric view, very much like you were looking down on a tabletop wargame. You get a pretty wide field that you can see to allow time to see what's coming at you-- though the game has a lot of ambushing going on-- and to give room for many enemy to be on screen at once. Consequently, the actual size of the models for most of the game is quite small-- again, like a tabletop view, but every now and then the camera zooms down in for a slo-mo enemy death scene and then the level of detail in the scenery and characters becomes apparent. It isn't Halo Reach levels of sophistication, but there's a lot more texture and bling than was really necessary for such a cheapie twin-stick arcade game. Interestingly, with all the details the dudes in this game all look like well-painted 28mm figures, with the figure proportions and chunky details... as opposed to the upcoming Space Marine game's properly proportioned realistically rendered game characters.

There might be a lot of video gamers who will look at this game and think it is some kind of science-fiction ripoff of stuff from World of Warcraft, but GW's designs, both fantasy and futuristic, were full-fledged and established well before even the first early generations of Warcraft came along.

This game doesn't really do anything new, mechanics-wise. If you can play Robotron 2084, Expendable, Loaded, or Geometry Wars you're good to go. It just has everything tuned really well. It makes it seem ludicrous that no one has applied the twin-stick formula to 40K before. The graphics, the sound, the voice over (sounding rather like Patrick Stewart or Sean Connery at times), it is all just badass.

And the game is just as fun, if not moreso, in two-player couch-cooperative. The powerups, and their judicious use is pretty critical to getting through the game and Kill Team lets both players share the advantages of a powerup that either grabs as long as they stay in proximity to each other. Players can then stack the powerups in a way you can't do in single-player. Player one can grab the power field creating a dome around the Marines impervious to enemy fire. Player two can then grab triple fire, granting awesome sprays of bullets. So for as long as these pickups last, both players are protected, both players have spread guns. It really encourages the players to strategise together and not just be every-man-for-himself and dick the other guy by grabbing the good shit. Since my kid is a 40K fan, this game is tailor-made for he and I to just pick up and play. And it was actually fun trying to find all the hidden medals and acquire all the weapons and buffs. The usual confusion ensuing from two players wreaking havoc is a major part of the fun because with all the cooperative aspects, including reviving a downed partner, it almost never causes a game over. I never found the camera a problem either, and in fact its dynamic tracking actually added a lot to the game.

I've also read some complaints about game length, but to me it was perfect. I'm so damned tired of games that require such a huge commitment in time and effort... even fun games can bog down. This game is only four hours for one play through, as I've already said. But it was really fun on repeat plays and it rewards the primary player with unlocks, achievements, etc even when played co-op. So I've put much more than four hours into it, and none of it has felt like a chore or grinding.

Other writers seem to largely agree with everything I'm posting here. Even non-40K fans give the game a lot of props. BUT. I have to go along with the one huge glaring fault:

NO online co-op. Let me repeat that. A pick-up-and-play game with an expansive user-friendly field of view and multiple aspects to encourage teaming up, but has NO WAY for you to play co-op other than with a friend in the same room. Local two-player ONLY. Wow.

Now for me this isn't really a problem. I have a fanatical kid gamer and 40K goob right in my own home, and I'm not that big for online play anyway. This does, however, seem like an absolutely massive oversight. I can only think the money ran out. Since the game is so well-done in just about every other way, maybe the room wasn't in the budget to implement this. I don't know what all it takes to enable smooth netcode but looking at this game it isn't much of a resource hog. I can't believe it would require anything like a Halo or Street Fighter game to banish lag and get really efficient bandwidth usage out of it. It has a mostly fixed view, tiny characters, and minimal, straightforward controls (son not a lot of inputs to have to read).

Anyway. Huge oversight, yes. But for me personally, this is the best cheap game I've bought all year, and one of the better games overall regardless of price. I don't feel too keen to diss Mickey, and I'll admit to 40K frothing probably enhancing my enjoyment of Kill Team... but I'm probably not going back to the Disney game. I will, however, spend a lot more time in the Ork Kroozer icing greenskins.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Not Without Its Faults pt 1

I’ve ploughed through two more games recently, seeing through to completion both Disney’s Epic Mickey for the Wii, and Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team for the Xbox 360. Each of these games presents a case study in defied expectations.

Epic Mickey is a big budget, high-profile release from Warren Spector’s Junction Point Studios with some collaboration from Disney animation and Pixar Studios. The idea originally was to reboot interest in Mickey Mouse as a character, trying to shed some of his goody-goody image and go back to his roots where he tended to have more curiosity and mischief in his makeup. Mickey’s bad judgement in Fantasia might seem out of place to modern folks used to his squeaky clean image as Disney’s figurehead, but a look at his cartoon shorts from early in his career shows a much more troublesome mouse.

At any rate, all this high-concept thinking, pushed around with high-power talent and technical ability should’ve resulted in a game for the ages. That’s what the hype machine was saying prior to the game’s release (of course) and nostalgic as I was to see THAT old Mickey (not to mention some of the other characters being touted) I bought into it. Once reviews got actual hands-on time, they were less than fulsome in their praise. But I thought they were just strung out on dope, not really ‘getting’ how the awesome concept should override petty concerns like the odd bad camera angle or repetitious quest. My kids saw the ads and really wanted to play a game that plopped happy lil’ Mickey Mouse into such a Tim Burton-looking game world. So even if the game turned out to be not-so-good to me, they’d probably love it (not being so picky). I was so confident they’d love it, I bought the guide at the same time. I’d insist they NOT use the guide for their initial play-through if possible, but have it around to manage the huge collect-a-thon that I knew the game was going to be after they’d beaten it. And the book is pretty nice, a decent collectable in itself.

Well, I was right about the kids. They do love it. My son is on his second playthrough. My daughter hasn’t finished it, but only because she’s been really distracted by DDR. She just broke her dance pad (wore it out actually), so now she has no excuse. But who gives a crap what they think? They’re just dumb kids. This blog is what I think.

Epic Mickey is pretty damn good looking. The visuals are amongst the best I’ve seen on the Wii. Maybe not quite Muramasa great, but pretty far up there. Being a third-person 3D platformer, the graphics are all polygonal but they have a very moody hand-painted style. And the soundtrack is terrific. Composer Jim Dooley did a great job of coming up with original tunes and riffs on well-known songs (like It’s A Small World and the Pirates of the Carribean leit-motif) and imbuing them all with a Danny Elfman tinkle-tinkle creepiness. If you’ve seen any Tim Burton film that Danny has scored you know the kind of music I’m talking about. The game is not as dark and edgy as the ads made it sound, mostly because the game is almost non-violent (little in the way of real threats for most of the game takes a lot of edge off), BUT the aesthetic aspects and parts of the narrative (lost and forgotten cartoon characters) do imbue a lot of atmosphere and melancholy into the game.

It also does make Mickey an adventuresome hero once again. Plumbing the archives for the old Mickey and bringing along Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and plenty of other little-remembered characters was a great idea. Mickey has to own up to his mischief and deal with its serious consequences. You do this by performing tasks (a lot) and defeating minions and bosses (not so much) in order to undo YOUR original catastrophic mishap.

The controls worked fine for me. I’ve never really understood flat out hostility or antipathy for the wiimote controls. For older games come down the Virtual Console pipe I’ll use a joystick or the classic controller. But for modern Wii-designed games I never seem to have a problem using the waggle stick. For running, sneaking, jumping, and pointing at the screen to stream paint or thinner, the standard controls were fine.

But even with all this, it turns out much of the critical sniping is spot-on with my own opinion. The camera IS pretty effin' bad. I read a lot of 'kills you during critical jumps' complaints, but actually since you can have go pretty slowly and carefully you almost always have time to swing the camera around with the d-pad. If anything, actual onscreen visibility was more of a problem when making harrowing jumps. The game is dark, so the questions of whether you need to jump or where you could safely land seemed to crop up periodically. My problem with the camera was during combat. It tries to keep the same perspective as it does during most of the exploration time, but this is not the best choice in a fight in this particular game, especially where multiple enemies are involved. Honestly, the camera chooses not to be helpful even in battles with a single large beastie. I spent more effort trying to run and keep the camera facing the foe, than I did dodging or shooting paint. The battles aren't actually all that hard, but making the view work for you is an additional challenge that just did NOT need to be there. If I'd had a say in this particular aspect of the game, it'd have been to probably zoom out and up to give a higher, more encompassing isometric view, sort of like Powerstone 2. You'd sacrifice some detail during battles, but you'd know where everyone was at all times, and not have to fuck with camera facing. Again, this is a fault that is manageable, but because you're under duress in the battles, managing the camera while trying to dodge and shoot will seem a lot like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time while driving a car in traffic.

Even THAT is actually not the games biggest fault though. Some reviewers refer to 'tedious fetch-quests'. And boy are they right. That's all this game really is. I bitched about the fights up above, but they only constitute a fraction... a frustrating fraction... of the overall game time. Everyone in the game has some goshdamn thing or other that they need you to do. And you will back track over and over again, to make things happen for the NPCs. And many of the deeds have multiple layers. So you might have to ferry ingredients back and forth between two locations more than once, or have the same mission repeat but with a bit more challenge. You learn several of the levels and their connecting 2D stages far more than you'll want to. You'll be able to navigate 'em with a blindfold on. Bafflingly (and also frustrating) there are a number of levels you CANNOT get back to. So if you fuck up a quest, you're done. I don't have a problem with that, but trying not to use the guide, I didn't know if I exited certain levels I'd never be able to get back... because many levels you can. Ugh. Points I guess for so much non-violent challenge. But it's a challenge just staying awake or maintaining interest in monotonous tasks, finding another flower or rounding up more annoying Bunny Children.

What really gets me about the fetch-quests though, is not the number of them, the repitition or the happy banality. Its the 'guide-itis'. This is where a game contains a puzzle that cannot be solved with normal logic or without a working knowledge of what the games' designers expected from you strategy-wise.

Spoiler alert: Here's an example. At one point the game wants you to find 'power boxes' scattered around a level. These are more or less analagous to the electric meter that every home (in the USA at least) has located on the outside of it. The game shows you one on the outside of a house-- blue with a voltage symbol on it. Then it says 'find three more'. So naturally I go looking all over the other houses. On the back of the buildings, like the one shown. But when that fails to turn up anything, I figure it's a game so they might be stuck on roofs or cornices or something. So I get on top of buildings and look. This turns up an additional one. I cannot find the final two anywhere. After way too much time spent looking, I crack open the guide.

One is located behind in an alcove INSIDE A WALL. The other is in a pit UNDER SOMEONE'S LAWN. What the fuck? Yeah, I could've found them... IF I'D SPRAYED THE ENTIRE LEVEL WITH THINNER... to uncover these hidden spaces. Another time I got stuck, and the answer this time was a hard-to-see route that again, YOU SPRAY WITH THINNER TO UNCOVER. After those two times, I never had another problem finding shit, because the answer is SPRAY EVERYTHING WITH THINNER. There are no hints from the NPCs, no 'fault' in the walls or ground like almost every other video game has in similar circumstances to keep you from hitting every possible spot on a stage. Nope. You pretty much have to thin ever goshdamn spot that looks like it can be thinned. And not only was this tedious, but it was antithetical to how I was trying to play the game. I was kind of playing like Mickey was unhappy that he caused the 'thinner disaster' that started the bad stuff, and created the villain. So I tried to be as positive and lean toward the constructive 'paint' end of things. Covering a whole level in thinner was just NOT what I wanted Mickey to do, purely from a character standpoint, let alone it's just dumb and arbitrary. End spoilers.

So I went to the guide twice to help me get on with the game. I'm not proud about it, but I maintain that I just couldn't get my head around what the game was after from me, the player. AFTER that, no difficulties. I didn't even try to do every quest that came my way. About 60% of the way through the game, the endless whining needs of the game world just stopped mattering. Some of the quests even 'improve' the ending cutscene, but I just didn't have the stamina.

The cutscenes were good, though I'll agree with the majority of critics that not having them fully voiced was odd. As much of a budget as this game obviously had, you'd think having Mickey and company talk would've been a no-brainer... at least during the cutscenes if not during all the in-game conversations. But no, it's all exclamatory oohs and ahs and the occasional grunt of effort. That's it.

Whatever the faults, the game's final act was pretty cool and I'm glad I stuck it out. That game becomes much more what I was hoping the whole game would be like actually. More focused on play skill with some timing on the jumps and peril from enemies while you are trying to perform other tasks. There's a fake-out with the final boss that works better than most final boss fake-outs.

I have NO desire to run through this game again and find more shit. I did do that for Brutal Legend and a few other games, but this game just emphasizes the wrong things for me. It certainly isn't the lack of violence or relative lack of difficulty. Not all games need to be as bloody as Mortal Kombat or as challenging as Ketsui. At first I welcomed the change of pace afforded by Epic Mickey. But it got old pretty quickly. It is hard for me even to say this game is great for little kids and their patience for fetch quests because the game is so damn long, and it does have that camera. My own kids like it, but they are nearly in middle school. I think younger gamers would get totally bogged down on the first run-through.

Unless they have the guide. But you didn't hear that from me.