Sunday, September 18, 2011

Favorites of a Video Game Geek #3: DEAD ISLAND

This isn't something I do every time I come across a video game that becomes a favorite. The primary reason for that is there's a lot of games I love, and if I were to list and describe why I enjoy each and every one, I'd have to call this blog something video game-centered. (Yeah, I've got a lot of favorites!) Without a doubt, those at the very top of my favorites list will be mentioned. This installment is also different because it's my review of a new game, something I haven't exactly done before, and rest assured it's the opinion of someone who played the game! Therefore, it's for those who might have an interest in the topic at hand I bring you my review of the game "Dead Island".

Question: Why do people go to a tropic resort island? Answer: To get away from it all...that is to say, to get away from all the crap and troubles of the world and escape to an oasis of beauty and simplicity. That seems to be the God-created purpose of places like the island of Banoi, a paradise island where one can escape from any and every care and immerse into tropical beauty and sun worship, a place where everything's permissible and what's forbidden is left to the individual tourist and how much money they can spend. Unfortunately, in this place meant to be paradise, a world-ending virus has taken root. Both tourists and natives of the island are falling ill...only to rise back up with killer appetites and a bloodlust to hunt for the scent of those not yet infected. Virtually overnight, Banoi is turned from Heaven to a Hell on Earth, and only a select few immune to the virus have a chance to escape. The tropical paradise of Banoi has transformed into...DEAD ISLAND!

Okay, let me get this out of the way. Many of my favorite games involve zombies, like the "Resident Evil", "Dead Rising", and "Left 4 Dead" games, among others. So I was already semi-biased to get this game, which combines the island mystery of "Lost" with the blood-spattered horror of "Dawn of the Dead". Thankfully, my personal tastes gravitated me toward a helluva has its flaws, granted, but what's great about "Dead Island" makes me forgive those flaws. Mostly!

The player can choose one of four characters immune from infection to get through the story-based missions and fetch-quests. For my part, I chose the lovely yet formidable Xian Mei (voiced by Kim Mai Guest, who also provided the voice of Mei Ling from my favorite video game ever, "Metal Gear Solid"), who worked as a resort receptionist before the dead came to town. At any time, the player can choose to fight through zombies solo or get online to play through the campaign with others as a group of four. Considering the difficulty of some enemies (more on that later), I'd advise getting online help whenever possible to ease the frustration!

"Dead Island" is played in the first-person, but unlike most games which involve shooting from that perspective, the focus is on melee combat with blunt or bladed weapons. The analog controls, thankfully, are ideal for such gameplay and respond very well. If you have trouble, just practice, practice, practice! This dynamic is blended with open world gameplay in the vein of "Grand Theft Auto"...RPG elements are involved, as well, meaning the more enemies you kill and more missions you complete, the more experience you get to rise in zombie-kicking prowess! Each character has individual talents you'd be wise to Xian Mei's case, she gets better and better with edged weapons from knives to swords. It'll take a while to get there, but slicing into enemies with a katana is both bloody and damned awesome! (Be at ease, "L4D" lovers, there's guns to be found on this island, too...but be warned at the same time that ammunition is scarce!) However, while melee weapons don't run out of ammo, they do lose durability the more the player uses them, and they'll show it visibly. Work benches can be found in different parts of the island to fix and upgrade them to slow the wear and tear on them, thankfully.

The open world dynamics are ideal complement to the graphics, which are gorgeous...the amazing look of the game's Banoi surroundings trumps even the island setting of another favorite of mine, "Far Cry Instincts". You'll have all different kinds of places to go, from the resort-dominated beaches to a ruined slum to the thick jungle interior and more. But where there's beauty, never forget, things can turn downright beastly as decaying, bloody zombies can lurk around the proverbial next corner!

One more thing about the missions in "Dead Island". You're always given the choice to take a mission or not, which is a good thing. (Although you won't get through the story and maybe off the island if you don't accept the main plot-driven missions!) You have the freedom to do what you want when you want, without can even take it at any pace you want. Be warned, though, that some missions will annoy you. They're the epitomy of fetch-quests, like when a simpering nobody wants you to go and get something they can get themselves if only they'd get the courage up to risk it. They are...well, for want of a better word, pussies. The hardier survivors should just tie them up and leave them on the beach to get piled on by zombies!

Whatever pace you wish to take through "Dead Island", though, be warned it's a long took me a while to get through it, but I'll admit I only refused a few of the non-story missions. (Of which there were many!) One thing that may make it long for you, depending on your frustration level, are some enemy undead you'll run into. Now you'll learn that there are varying levels of difficulty for the missions you'll take, from easy to very hard. The difficulty of the game between missions can shift uncomfortably, too, and usually not in the player's favor! One of the worst examples comes from one of the many types of undead you have to fight, and I don't even mean a 'sub-boss' type, like the Ram! Infecteds are the fastest and most ferocious enemy you'll run into, and at times you'll run into more than one me, you'll have to be quick to kick them away at the right moment or run for a more elevated place to get a breather unless you want something bad to happen! The game might glitch on you depending on if you die at a checkpoint during some missions, too...your next objective might not show up! It's not bad enough to restart the game, just get some literal distance from the next objective that needs to appear before going any further. That among other glitches, like the few and far-between instances of undead appearing spontaneously to attack you, the gamer needs to be enlightened of!

In spite of those faults, though, "Dead Island" is a great game, both in terms of Survival Horror and open world freedom. If you're willing to get into the dynamic that distinguishes it, melee combat, then you'll undoubtedly enjoy it. Just remember that even in the most beautiful of settings, nothing is perfect...the undead enemies will remind you of that if you don't watch out!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Where were you ten years ago?

That morning on September the Eleventh, 2001, I was on my way home from work as a security guard on the graveyard shift. (Which I disdained, and still do to this day.) I turned on the radio in my Chrysler as an afterthought about five minutes away from my destination. Up to then I liked the quiet of the drive before, outside of the occasional honk and the engine noises of fellow traffic. It was less than ten minutes before 8, Central Time.

I had the station tuned to KMOX, a St. Louis news station on the AM band. A couple of news commentators were talking, and in spite of their deliberately neutral tones, something serious had happened. All I could get inintially because I tuned in late was a building was on fire. The commentators were focused on how many people were inside the building, and the response time of fire department crews. I didn't get any sense of where it was first I thought it was something going on locally. But there was a weight to what was going on that suddenly put dread in my heart.

It felt a lot longer than five minutes before I got home, and I still didn't know where this was happening or how. At this time, home was on the second story of the same building where my parents had their bakery on the first floor. My brother worked for them (and so did I part of the time outside of my job). I went into the bakery to my family and asked where the fire was. That may sound funny, but it came out that way.

My family had heard a lot more...they had the radio in the bakery's work room tuned to KMOX too, and at the top of the hour I heard the official word. A plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. That didn't sound real to me. I've been a lifelong geek, and my first thought was that sounded like something out of a bad action movie. But when word came in soon enough over the radio that a second plane had hit the other tower, I ran upstairs to turn on the TV.

I felt numb inside at first. I still couldn't believe it was happening...the fact that two planes flew into the WTC towers and what that implied hadn't hit me yet, either. I turned on the TV and switched between CNN and Fox News as I watched the terrible sight of the twin towers burning. How this could have been still wasn't the first question on any of the talking heads' minds, it seemed. They were focused on the event itself, how many people were in the towers, what police and fire units were doing to save any innocents in trouble.

I could only sit there in front of the TV with numbness as one tower fell. Then, what felt like a lifetime later, the other collapsed. One of the correspondents, I forget who he was or if he worked for Fox or CNN, said very simply then, "There are no words." Still numb but with a growing sorrow and anger within me, I tried to find the words to tell my family what I saw. And I only began to realize that was just the beginning.

Where was I on 9-11?

I was home.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Conan, Now and Then.

I haven't seen the new "Conan the Barbarian" in theatres yet...I'll wait until it hits DVD, and then I'll just give it a rent. There are many reasons for this. First, naturally, it's another remake, in fact it's a remake of the film from 1982 I know and love too well that first put the Governator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the map. (That being said, this is NOT a blog to compare the old and new films. I might do that when or if I see the Conan of 2011.) Second, why a remake? Why not a new story that doesn't have to cover the bases of his origins? Conan's not the most complex guy in the world, he's a barbarian...he's an honorable guy, but if you piss him off, you're dead. Or he'll punch out your camel. That's as basic a characterization as can be summed up for him! Third, I'm not very impressed with Jason Momoa in the title part. He's a big guy and he looks like he can do 'barbaric' well, but he looks more like the kind of guy Conan fights! He just doesn't have that much 'oomph', you know? I'm more interested by the fact Marcus Nispel is director...he made the excellent and similarly medieval "Pathfinder", with Karl Urban and Moon Bloodgood in 2007.

This blog, then, is for the purposes of my listing what I believe are The Top Ten Best Things about the original "Conan the Barbarian"!

1) The man himself, Ah-nold. He'd done films before "Conan", of course, but never was there a role that seemed tailor-made for the man. Still getting a grip on English, the script wisely kept Schwarzenegger's dialogue spare and proved the old saying true that actions speak louder than words. In that respect, brother, his actions and his pure screen presence spoke volumes. With every slash and flex of his friggin huge muscles combined with his naturally stoic expression, one can be forgiven for thinking Arnold was brought forward a few thousand years from those less civilized times by some form of time travel! But more important than his physical prowess and that he was so damned RIGHT to play Conan, the future Governator already held that growing, indefinable charm and charisma that would make him known and loved by moviegoers across America.

2) Director and co-writer John Milius. Who else could direct a film called "Conan the Barbarian", honestly? As conservative a filmmaker as you can imagine (he'd later make "Red Dawn", which while excellent played on Cold War paranoia), it seemed destiny that he'd helm a film where men ruled with swords and any pretense of political correctness was literally nonexistent. His most recent effort was writing the video game "Homefront", which like "Red Dawn" involves a Communist country's invasion of the United States. Hey, everything old can be new again!

3) Co-writer Oliver Stone. He was still relatively new in Hollywood at the time, but he as much as Milius gave the film a gravitas it wouldn't have had with anyone else writing the screenplay. The fact Stone and Milius were political opposites (see Stone's films like his antiwar opus "Platoon" and "JFK" in the years afterward) was alone of interest...imagine being a fly on the wall seeing those two get along during a script session!

4) Basil Poledouris, music composer and conductor for "Conan". I doubt Conan would have been what it was without Basil's amazing, pulse-pounding score.

5) The production design, especially the sets. Holy shit, if you want to see a movie where you felt like you've been transported to another time, this is it! These days, if you want great looking surroundings in a movie, they either have to be found (usually in Prague, of all places!) or made by computers to be laid on a green screen behind the actors later. Back in "Conan's" day of 1982, as Jonny Lieberman of Ruthless Reviews wrote, they built sets from the ground up, and you could feel their very real presence.

6) James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom. Only two years after giving Darth Vader his immortal voice for the second time in "The Empire Strikes Back", the incomparable James Earl Jones was seen AND heard as another villain from the Dark Side! Doom is the one who fucks Conan's life up royal when he was still a kid, leading a raid and killing everyone in the future barbarian's village...his dogs rip apart Conan's dad, and he even mesmerizes and cuts off his mom's head as the kid's holding her hand! When Schwarzenegger's Conan finally confronts Jones' Doom for the first time as an adult, when the latter is taking over the world as a cult leader, the archvillain can only explain that he was in a killing and pillaging phase when he destroyed Conan's people. There was no REASON for his mass murder, he just felt like doing it! Hey, these were barbaric times, after all. Doom's also a sorcerer, which explains how he can control people to do his bidding...but he could also turn into a giant snake, and in one brutal moment kills someone close to Conan by using a bow to snake to kill them. Yes, I said a bow and snake. You have to see it to believe it!

7) Sandahl Bergman as Valeria. To be plain, she was hot as fuckin Hell. In spite of her fiercely independent nature as a professional thief, to not be chained down by anything or anyone, she can't help but devote herself to Conan and melt into his big arms. Refer again to Milius and Stone co-writing the movie to explain that.

8) Cassandra Gava as the Witch. Like Valeria, she makes guys stand at attention (you know what I mean), even when she's got clothes on! Her purpose in the plot is to point Conan in the right direction to achieve his long-yearned desire to avenge his parents. But a price has to be paid for her divinations, which means they get it on in her hut. The Witch is one sexually hungry chick, but when her nails turn to talons and she grows fangs, latching onto Conan, their romp in bed truly becomes something that has to be seen rather than described!

9) The pure, sword-swinging violence. One thing above all others has to be emphasized about "Conan". The title character is a barbarian. He's not very civilized or even polite. He may have his own moral code, but if you get on his bad side, your head will end up flying off your shoulders! And outside of Valeria, Subotai and the bitchy Wizard, he keeps running into characters who are even LESS civilized and polite! Even with that in mind, it still surprises me at times how bloody this film gets...and I mean surprising in a good way! The sword fighting is fast and has a truly distinctive style that will please most anyone into this brand of action. (I'd even say this film still measures up well to more recent films like "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "300"!) Okay, bows and arrows were used more than once, too, but they don't count!

10) What is best in life? The answer to that question, from the man himself...

"To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women!" -- Conan

Damned right! :D By the by, another 'swords and sorcery' favorite of mine is "Red Sonja" from 1985, which reunited Ah-nold and Sandahl Bergman, but not quite in the way many fans of their pairing in "Conan" expected! Model Brigitte Nielsen was chosen to play the part of Sonja, another good yet barbaric character on a quest for revenge. While it wasn't as good as "Conan", "Red Sonja" is still a guilty pleasure people need to see at least once!