Folklore: Early Impressions

I’ve owned Folklore for a while, waiting for the right time to start it. Today, Kathy and I finally set aside some time to blitz through a couple chapters.

The game takes place in two locations: Doolin, a town on the west coast of Ireland, and the Netherworld, a land occupied by faeries, monsters, and the spirits of the dead. As the game begins, two people arrive in Doolin on the same day. Ellen, a 22-year-old woman, recently received a letter from her long-dead mother, instructing her to visit the village. Keats, a 27-year-old publisher of occult magazines, came at the request of a mysterious phone caller.

Going through the game, you’re given the option to play as either Ellen or Keats. After completing a chapter, you can either continue to the next chapter with the same character, or you can switch characters and see the events of the current chapter from another point of view. We’ve been switching from character to character, hoping to get the whole story in one playthrough.

When not fighting, the storyline and presentation are similar to an RPG or point-and-click adventure. You walk around town (or the civilized areas of the Netherworld) and talk to everyone you can, hoping to piece together the story and find out about your next task.

There’s very little voice acting in the game. Most of the cutscene interactions occur in subtly animated comic book style panels, complete with dialogue balloons. It kind of makes me feel like I’m playing an old PSX game, like Vagrant Story, which is fine with me. It also means more time for the game’s excellent music.

So far, I’m intrigued by the main story, though the lead characters haven’t really done much to win me over, yet. When Ellen meets a talking scarecrow, learns that she’ll be travelling to the land of the dead, and dons a cloak that instantly transforms her from Hollywood Ugly (dowdy clothes and a ponytail) into Videogame Hot (no ponytail and plenty of midriff), she acts like it’s exactly what she was expecting to happen in Doolin.

Keats, at least, rants a bit about how unlikely it is that the Netherworld and its Faeries exist. The only problem with his skepticism: he tells all this to an invisible fucking man. Seriously.

So far, battles only occur in the Netherworld. Your character collects the Id (i.e., soul) of each type of creature — called folk — you’ve defeated. You then summon these folk to attack your next batch of enemies. It’s a pretty cool concept.

I’ve heard Folklore called an RPG. It’s not. While there is some resource management, it doesn’t amount to much more than deciding which folk to bring into a particular battle. And the combat is definitely not turn-based. It’s straight action. The system is much more similar to Okami or Kingdom Hearts than to Final Fantasy. We haven’t played nearly enough to have learned all the ins and outs of combat strategy, so it could be a while before I’ve really made up my mind about it.

The game does have some Sixaxis stupidity. Several months into my PS3 ownership, I still hate everything Sixaxis. In order to grab the folks’ Ids, you have to move the controller around a bit. Happily, it’s been pretty easy so far (as opposed to the pain in the ass of tossing grenades in Uncharted), but I just hate how Sixaxis usage been tacked on to just about every PS3 game, for no good reason.

So far, I’m enjoying Folklore. The presentation is great, the story’s interesting, and the battle system suits the game. When we finish it, I’ll let you know if it fulfilled its promise.

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You Bought That Game, But You Don’t Own It

Back in 2006, I posted some long comments at Deus Ex Machinatio, an excellent blog that focuses on the development of Alternate Reality Games. Though my posts are a couple of years old, I thought it might still be worth adapting one or two of them here for Elf Needs Food…

When it comes to satisfying both casual and hardcore gamers, team sports games get it right. And they’ve gotten it right since the glory days of the Sega Genesis. With most sports titles, you can flip on the game and choose to start up a quick match from the main menu. The only additional setup necessary is picking the teams — where you can make the matchup as fair or lopsided as you like. For someone like me, who only plays such games occasionally, this all is perfect game design. From startup to completion, I can enjoy a satisfying experience in a matter of minutes.

Serious players, on the other hand, can spend real-time weeks or months simulating entire seasons, micromanaging almost every aspect of gameplay. They can switch team members, alter coaching strategies, design plays, create players, and change game options between (or even during) games. In each season, the individual games are like episodes, which eventually lead up to the big finale, the championship.

Because experiences may vary greatly from player-to-player, team-to-team, game-to-game, and season-to-season, sports games can have storylines as complex and open-ended as any other genre. Or they can just provide a simple diversion for a few minutes in the middle of a busy day. It just depends how you prefer to use them. Designers for other game genres should look to sports games to see what can be applied across the spectrum.

This brings me to the biggest issue I have with the current state of videogame development: ownership. Game companies need to start letting customers own the games they buy.

By this, I mean players should not only have the right to play a game “correctly.” They should be allowed to do just about whatever they want within the context of the game world.

If they want to be invincible, have super speed, or even fight the final boss right away, why shouldn’t they be allowed to do so? Players who enjoy only the battle system in an RPG are often allowed to skip the cutscenes, so why aren’t the players who care only about the story allowed to skip the battles?

For a real world case, I submit The Warriors, the game based on the 1979 movie.

I wanted to play the game to experience the events in the movie. Problem is, that section is at the end of the game. I can enjoy the Rockstar GTA-type of game in small doses, but I rarely feel like playing them enough to make it all the way through. However, I would still have felt that I’d gotten my money’s worth even if I could just play the sequences pulled from the movie.

I couldn’t.

The opportunity to play the movie is the main sales hook of The Warriors. Yet, despite being willing to pay $50 for the game, I wasn’t allowed to skip to that section. Without a cheat device or someone else’s PS2 save card, I’ll probably never see it. I’ve found I don’t care much about the storyline that Rockstar wrote to lead up to the movie’s events, so I haven’t advanced very far.

When creating a series of games based on another movie franchise, The Lord of the Rings, Electronic Arts fell into the same trap as Rockstar. A good chunk of LotR completists — including non-gamers — were interested in EA’s games for the movie interviews and other video features added onto the game discs. But access to the full collection of these videos was restricted to that minority of players who were good enough and dedicated enough to complete the games.

As a result, many fans of the movies paid money for something that is, in large part, worthless to them. Other fans avoided buying the games altogether, knowing they had neither the time nor the skills to see the content they really wanted. By making the special features accessible to all purchasers, EA could have expanded their audience for the game.

EA, Rockstar, and other companies often offer their most valuable content to reward good gameplay, when they should consider using this content to reward the customer’s decision to spend money on their game. For most serious players, winning the game is the best reward for good gameplay. It can be good to offer these dedicated players some other rewards, too. But don’t hide some of your best selling points and most entertaining gameplay options from a huge contingent of your potential audience — the ones who will likely never play every aspect of your game through to completion.

The current design practice of withholding ownership is illogical from a customer’s standpoint, but the industry has yet to figure that out. Their take is this: if you want to see the cool shit, you have to earn that right.

I already earned it. I paid for the game.

The industry’s practices may have made sense 20 years ago, during the arcade game’s heyday, when companies wanted players to keep pumping coins into machines to continue their progress. But when the company’s already got my money, there’s no excuse not to give me full control over the experience.

Imposing restrictions on the customer would be unacceptable in tabletop gaming, traditional media, or software design. If I start a game of Monopoly and want to begin with my piece on Boardwalk, it’s possible. Anytime I want, I can break open the Trivial Pursuit box and read the cards. When I buy a DVD, I’m not forced to watch the movie before I can check out the special features. If I want to try making tables in Microsoft Word before even learning how to change font sizes, nobody will stop me. Most of the time, I’ll use these things in the standard way. But if I don’t want to, I have that option.

Look, I’ll always play most of the games I buy as they were designed to be played. But if I don’t want to obey the rules of the occasional game — so long as it’s single-player and offline — I’ll be the only one who stands to gain or lose anything from cheating.

If developers start to offer more game ownership to us customers, I promise I won’t run to the GameFAQs forums and lie about winning games in record time. The hardcore gamers can still feel superior for having beaten the game properly. Others will just be glad they got to do and see what they wanted. And the game companies will have increased their chances of selling future games to both of types of players.

I hope the first development team to successfully execute this new pattern in a major title makes a killing. And I hope that success helps establish a new trend in game design.

Demo Memo: Condemned 2: Bloodshot

I downloaded and played the free Demo for Condemned 2: Bloodshot from the PS3 store.

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While the atmosphere is certainly one of the creepiest I’ve encountered, and I always like a bloody mess (I played it alone in my basement during the day, but would not want to do so alone at night), the graphics and gameplay are reminiscent of first person combat games of a few generations ago (hand to hand, the predominant format, is clunky). Visually, it does not come close to what the PS3 is capable of [for that, see Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (a great, fun game) or Assassin’s Creed (which failed not b/c of its graphics, but due to storyline flaws and repetitive gameplay)].

If you know me, you know I love sandbox games. But oddly, Condemned 2, which apparently prides itself on this concept, only gets it part right. While you can use almost anything as a weapon (lead pipes, crutches, prosthetic arms, circuit-breaker pipes), I am not kidding when I say you cannot hop over a 3 foot chain link fence or even a 1 foot high air conditioning vent. In fact, you cannot jump at all. That is just fucking ridiculous.

I am always on the lookout to get my creep on (Rez Evil, Silent Hill, Clock Tower), but Condemned 2 didn’t do nearly enough to convince me to purchase the full game. If anyone wants to send me a free copy though, I’d be happy to play it and, more than likely, trash it some more.

Of course all this means that the the Industry-friendly folks (whores) over at Gamespot gave it an 8.5 out of 10. By refusing to be critical of developers, sites like Gamespot do gamers a great disservice. First, they encourage regular folks like us to go buy these mediocre games, which flushes Big Gaming companies with cash and rewards less-than-stellar production. This in turn encourages Big Gaming companies to remain uncritical of their final products and release these mediocre games. It’s a shitty, vicious cycle, to which we at ENF refuse to contribute.

If a game sucks the big one, we’ll let you know (see review, Assassin’s Creed). And if it’s actually fun to play, we’ll let you know that too (see review, Ratchet and Clank Future).

I’m sure I’ll play the full game someday, when the price is reduced, but based on the Demo, this game gets a 3 (mostly for creep and blood) out of 10.

PS3 developers are being lazy. They either put out a game that belongs on the PS2, like Condemned 2 does, or they put out a beautiful failure, like Assassin’s Creed. Take the time to get it right.

Playing It So You Don’t Have To: Assassin’s Creed

a/k/a Slacker Ass Compliant Retardo Bartender Hostage Game

4 out of 10

(Note—this review contains numerous spoilers, including end-of-game spoilers. Believe me, I am doing you a favor. Play this game only if you have 30-40 hours to kill and love stupid characters; gaping plot holes and bizarre character motivations; and repetitive missions/combat that involve the same buttons and gameplay devices over and over and over. As always, my reviews target discerning thirtysomething gamers with limited gaming time on their hands due to a career, a life, a family, or any combination of the above.)

My brother is lucky that his wife is a gamer. That meant he (they) got a PS3 long before I could justify one to my wife. When visiting over Thanksgiving, he’d recently purchased Assassin’s Creed. When we loaded it, the graphics amazed me; it was the first time I’d seen a PS3 game in person, and I was not disappointed. My first impression of the gameplay interested me enough to think the plot would delve deep and the action would get more rewarding.

All this led me to start saving some bucks, and, when Blu-Ray rendered HD-DVD dead, I had two reasons to buy the PS3. Luckily, I only played AC for 45 minutes during that Thanksgiving visit, or I may never have purchased a PS3.

Assassin’s Creed sucks you in with promises of an epic storyline spanning centuries (stitched together via a DNA-reading ancestral memory device) and lavish, stunning graphics. But the gameplay gets stale fast, and the storyline and character motivations arc quickly from promising to boring and nonsensical. Put simply, you’re soon left with a beautiful game that sucks.

You begin the game in a state-of-the-art laboratory in the modern era. You are not a scientist. You are Desmond Miles, a captive of the (you will soon find out) evil Abstergo Corporation. You have been kidnapped against your will and are under the care of two scientists: a stuffy older man and a hot chick (obligatory!) dressed up like the educators in Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” video.

It is explained to you that Abstergo is seeking to access your “ancestral memories” with its newest creation, the previously mentioned DNA-memory-accessing device called the Animus. The Animus is the very, very expensive-looking glass hybrid of a Posturepedic bed and a dentist’s chair. When lying on it, the machine enables you to relive your ancestor’s lives. Why is Abstergo interested in you? Well, apparently one of your ancestors played a crucial role in the Crusades at the time of King Richard the Lionheart, and they need access to your memories to get answers about something or other.

This is a compelling premise, and I suspended my disbelief for hours of gameplay. Unfortunately, you quickly learn things about your modern-day self that you might not like to know. For instance, though you’re descended from the world’s elite assassins, you have spurned that intriguing heritage to forge your own path as a….bartender?

Really? I’m a bartender? Ok, that will be a minor hiccup, I think. I will not lie down and take this captivity meekly! These scientists have in no way restrained me, so I will turn the tables, trash their lab and hold them hostage! Yes, that fire extinguisher on the wall! I will grab it and, with assassin’s blood flowing through my veins, knock out both my captors and then use it to destroy the Animus! Sure, there are cameras, and security will get here soon, but not until I indefinitely suspend this experiment with some good old mayhem! I will not go gently into that good night!

Or not.

It turns out you can’t manipulate anything in the large lab in which you have the full run. You can rarely even manipulate something as elementary as a computer screen (hey, it might have access to The Internets, and you could email out a cry for rescue!), much less knock your captors out with a couple of well-timed blows.

And even though you know it won’t work, you will try to manipulate absolutely everything again, the next time you’re in between missions — just in case. I admit it, I was a fool and wasted a lot of time doing this. There is only one time that you can interact with anything; oddly, you can steal a pen at one point. Whoopdee do! (If you don’t grab it, you can’t access one minor side plot at the end of the game.)

While many designers have taken to mixing the gaming world up by introducing flawed antiheroes such as Kratos (God of War) and Dante (Devil May Cry), the team at Assassin’s Creed took an different tack. They decided the world of protagonists had gone long enough without a non-threatening, compliant, slacker-retardo bartender whose only objection to being kidnapped is a mild case of the shoulder shrugs and a “Well, what can you do?” attitude. You have clearly been kidnapped against your will and yet, oddly, you do not seem to give a shit.

While your present-day self leaves much to be desired, your ancestral assassin alter ego is all kinds of badass. Or is he? The initial Crusade-era gameplay introduces you to Altair, an oxymoronic reckless master assassin who — by way of introduction — murders an old man, blows his own cover, gets one of his partners murdered and another’s arm cut off, and, worst of all, gets his super-assassin-ass kicked by a French guy.

I was ready to be hanged or drawn and quartered for this catastrophic disaster. But no, your gross ineptitude leads to the grave consequence of your rank being stripped by the Guild’s master. On the plus side, it turns out your rank meant next to nothing anyhow, since everyone in your organization hates you (clearly with good cause).

Your further punishment for your transgressions: you must assassinate some very high profile targets. That’s a punishment? Sounds more like what you are supposed to be doing for a living.

Ok, let’s go with that, though. En route to your many (9 or something) assassinations, you will notice the game has serious repetitiveness issues. In short, your first mission is the same as your last mission. You get directions from the master. You run down a hill from the Assassin’s stronghold. You kill a few guards and civilians along the way for fun. You leave the town and ride a horse along a winding trail for some time. You visit the Guild Office in that town and have pointless conversations with the bureau chief. You have to climb very tall towers in the town to get your bearings and unlock missions (the views are pretty, but by the time you’ve climbed your 87th tower, believe me, you will be pissed).

It’s almost as if the developers are punishing you: if they had to spend that much goddamn time programming this place, they sure as hell are going to make you wander around the same areas time and again to “enjoy” their handiwork. Here’s what I view them thinking, “See that mountain? I sure programmed a pretty fucking mountain. Nice tree too. Fucking beautiful. No really, look at it for the 97th time, and ride the horse down that same path for the 25th time, and enjoy it some more, why don’t you. Oh, and don’t forget to climb that tower, again!”

After visiting the bureau chief (By the way, bureau chiefs are all assholes too, just like you are. The guy who got his arm cut off and his brother killed because you were an asshole is a bureau chief, too. But I think he has a lifetime pass to be a prick to you), you pickpocket someone for information, or beat up an evil sympathizer for information, or talk to an informant, or sometimes all three.

Allegedly, this process will give you valuable information to help you eliminate your target, with tips like these (and I am not making this up): “Approach scholars to blend in,” (something you learned to do in the first training mission); “Robert’s men are well-armed,” and “The only thing more dangerous than a drunken sailor is one who is angry.” (Huh? But what about an angry, drunken sailor? Touche, Assassin’s Creed designers!) Thanks for the intel, dickwads. I would never have been able to commit my public, daytime, bloodbath massacre assassinations without it!

Early in the game, you get in trouble from your master for asking questions. You are an assassin, he says. You eliminate targets; it is not in your job description to question. That sounds fair enough to me, and if I ran a guild that directive would appear near the top of the policy guidelines.

Yet, as the game progresses, you start asking more and more questions. The kind of questions that clearly helped get you demoted in the beginning of the game. The kind of questions that should get you thrown out and/or killed, especially considering your tenuous position within the guild.

Yet, the questions you ask, and the answers you discover, turn out to be pretty irrelevant. For instance, in one mission, the leader of a city is burning books. Your leader makes this clear, as do the townspeople, as does your bureau chief. And, as if that is not enough, there are piles of books burning in the street, just to drive home the point. Could anything be less necessary to an assassin’s mission? Does it matter if the target is burning books, growing flowers, or painting rainbows? No. you should just be focused on the assassination. Agent 47 would never ask these kinds of questions.

As the game unfolds, you will find it centers on the assassinations of Templar leaders who have banded together to establish a new rule in the Middle East by defeating both Christians (King Richard) and Muslims (Saladin). It is the Templar leaders whom you are eradicating.

Each time you kill one, you interrogate him for information on their deathbed. Each time they give you some lame-ass line about how you are going to fail, they are not evil, only seeking true justice, blah blah blah blah blah. When you kill the final Templar target, he confesses to you that there are in fact 10 Templar leaders, and that you have only killed nine! The final Templar leader is…the head of the Assassin’s Guild, your boss, Al Mualim!

Ok, time out here for some serious WTF action. You have been systematically wiping out the Templar leadership at the behest of Al Mualaim. Fine. But the other Templar leaders must know that Al Mualaim is sending you for them from the beginning of the game. And yet, not one of these targets has the sense to tell you, even on his deathbed, that Al Mualim was a despotic Templar bent on furthering his own power and you were simply his tool? Not fine.

It makes no sense whatsoever. By the third or fourth assassination, these guys would have been singing like canaries, telling you your master is a power-mad Templar and you should be targeting him, not them. You’ve got to be kidding me.

Other things you would not (and should not) like about this game:

  • In the game’s opening movie, you have a crossbow. In the actual game, you do not. Long range targeting would have made this game much better.
  • The fighting engine is extremely repetitive. Every single fight will involve square, square, square, R1. Square, square, square, R1. Run away to gain health. Repeat ad nauseum.
  • You sleep several nights in the lab during the gameplay. You do not change clothes or shower. Slob.
  • There is no such thing as a stealth assassination of a main target in this game (unlike the Hitman series, which made it a staple) and it is always daytime. Instead, each assassination will be a big, bloody mess. Deduction for lacking subtlety.
  • Eagle Vision. By pressing triangle you can access this “skill,” which outlines friendly characters in green and enemies in red. It is so lame, the first time I used it was also my last. If you can’t tell who is an enemy (anyone with a sword) and who is not (everyone else), you have had a lobotomy. Oh, and apparently Eagle Vision also gives you the ability to see useless scribbles on a wall that no one else can (see complaint below).
  • Every single time you save a citizen from guards in this game, you have to listen to them thank you for 15 seconds while the game stalls. You save a lot of people, so this gets old very fast. The same goes for your informants. Sometimes they send you on timed missions (which suck too, by the way) and if you fail, the mission resets. When it resets, you have to listen to these dipshits babble the same 20 to 40 seconds, no matter what. You cannot cut them off and proceed with the game or mission. Wake up, developers. Did you even test this?
  • While in the lab at the end of the game, your assassin brethren are trying to free you (you can hear gunfire outside the lab). When the gunfire stops, the scientist guy tells you that the assassins’ rescue failed. I thought, at this point, the game would redeem itself, and that you would reveal to the scientist that, in fact, they had not. As you slowly drew the cord from the hooded sweatshirt you were wearing, you would walk behind him (he never seemed to care where you were), lower the cord over his neck and end his life, saying, “No, they didn’t fail. They had an inside man all along.” You would then smash the Animus with the fire extinguisher, grab the hard drive from the scientist’s desk, take the girl scientist hostage and escape. But no, you just go back into your bedroom and notice some dumb scribbling on the wall, using your newly acquired Eagle Vision (see complaint above) that is supposed to get us excited for the obvious sequel. Oh, and by the way, your assassin brethren must suck, they couldn’t even get in this stupid lab, which has huge windows overlooking the city. It can’t be that hard to infiltrate.

    By the end of the game, the Scientist has made it clear Abstergo is going to kill you, once they have the memories they want. You’d think this would be a good time to take him hostage and roll the dice on getting out. But no, you just go sit on your bed.
  • You cannot swim. You can survive 60 foot falls from rooftops, but you will die in 3 feet of water.
  • The lab. Again, you cannot interact in the lab, or the bedroom/bathroom attached to it. Unfortunately, you will spend a lot of time finding this out. Why do they give you this sandbox area only to make it off limits to interaction? If I want to smash a desktop computer, I should be able to smash it, dammit.
  • The Female Scientist. Near the end of the game, she starts telling you all kinds of secrets about your memories. Never mind there are 10 cameras recording her as she’s telling me this top secret information. By this point, Abstergo has made it clear they are willing to kill people over this information, so why not her? Not even Veronica Mars’ voice could get me to like her. Apparently when you get your Eagle Vision at the end of the game, she appears as an ally. I didn’t care enough to check this out, by that point. I guess that will be neat in the sequel.
  • Flags! There are hundreds of pennant-like flags that you can capture throughout the game world. There are Jerusalem flags, Damascus flags, Templar flags, King Richard Flags and many more! Why would you try to gather all one hundred King Richard flags or the hundreds of others? I have absolutely no idea. You really have no life if you waste your time doing this. The flags are worthless and unnecessary. You get othing for them. It’s a further sign that the designers of this game hate you just as much as they must hate themselves for taking the time to program the flags in. If you are dead set on avoiding any semblance of a social life and spending so much time on the PS3 that you could theoretically find all this game’s hundreds of worthless flags, might I suggest you download and play Pixeljunk Monsters from the PS3 store and waste your miserable life that way, instead? I did.

Gamespot gave this game a 9.0, a score to which it should not come close. Gee, I wonder if they’re in the pockets of the gaming companies? I understand most games on PS3 are still unfortunately lackluster, but you can’t let the AC designers off, just because they managed to create a beautiful-looking game. It’s almost worse, because they aspired to greatness and fell so short. At least PS3 Conan sucked and knew it sucked.

Non-Interactive Cutscenes: Doomsday

If post-apocalyptic movies have taught me anything — and they have — it’s that there are two creatures that will survive any nuclear holocaust or deadly pandemic. Roaches, of course. And guys with mohawks. Actually, I’m not sure about the former, but Doomsday is crawling with the latter.

Kathy’s brother, Dan, was in town this weekend, and there was no way the three of us could miss the opening weekend of this gem. Though Doomsday has nothing to do with any videogames, it sure feels like the spiritual successor to Uwe Boll’s Bloodrayne.

Doomsday has got it all: busty blondes who bathe with shotguns at their side, vehicles that explode the minute they go off-road, Deep Space Nine‘s Dr. Bashir, a cute bunny that gets machine-gunned into bloody shreds of meat for no real reason, and (as critic Josh Larsen pointed out) an army of militant punk rockers whose bloodlust is somehow inspired by Fine Young Cannibals. Well, I guess it makes as much sense as the cast of Lost Boys getting all psyched by the greased-up “I Still Believe!” sax player guy.

There’s a plot in Doomsday, of sorts. Scotland is walled off from the rest of the world, because of a fatal virus that rages across the country. A few decades later, the virus hits London. So, the British government sends the requisite hot, scowling special ops chick, Sinclair (played by Rhona Cheaper Than Beckinsale Mitra), and a handpicked squad of expendable dumbshits across the wall to see if any Scottish survivors possess the cure.

Once in Scotland, the crew discovers that Glasgow has become ground zero for tryouts for a Broadway remake of The Warriors. Meanwhile, outside the city, Malcolm MacDowell has taken over a castle and turned the countryside into a medieval kingdom, because why the hell not?

My favorite moment of the movie takes place about halfway through, when Sinclair, a few surviving squadmates, and some Scottish locals are walking through a forest. A deep, pulsating rumble grows louder and louder and LOUDER, shaking theater seats (think the T-Rex scene in Jurassic Park). One of the locals screams to her companions, “Run! It’s the Executioner!” The bass thump continues to amplify, until something finally breaks through the foliage, and…it’s just a guy in chainmail on a goddamn horse.

Doomsday is stupid. But that’s no reason to avoid it. I had a great time. But if you plan to go, see it with some friends. It’s made to be laughed at and enjoyed for what it is: a fast-paced action movie with incomprehensible fight scenes and a barely-existent script.

The movie pays tribute to a bunch of ’70s and ’80s movies (e.g., Escape From New York, Mad Max, and The Warriors), while being much, much crappier than any of them. That’s kind of what I expected from Doomsday, so I wasn’t disappointed.

Quick Debriefing: Portal

It’s safe to say that Portal is the first game whose ending credits prompted me to play it. I first saw the YouTube video of “Still Alive” back in November, and I’ve had the song stuck in my head ever since — even though, for most of the time, I’ve had no idea who Aperture Science and Black Mesa are. (Note: You may not want to watch the video if you haven’t played Portal and don’t want to be spoiled. Seeing it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the game, however.)

The minute, the very second, that The Orange Box was released for the PS3, I immediately waited a few months until someone I knew had finished it and could lend me a copy. (Thanks, Tom!)

After weeks of reading about it in reviews and on forums, the consensus seemed to be that Portal is fantastic for a short, throw-in of a game. Turns out, Portal is fantastic, period. I’d argue that it’s worth a full 60 bucks on its own, and now I feel a little guilty for not buying it.

Though I’d spoiled the ending for myself, and I’d skimmed posts about Portal on the web, I’d managed to avoid much specific information about the game, itself. In case you’re late to the party, like I was, I won’t spoil any serious plot or gameplay details here.

I’ll just say that it’s a primarily a puzzle game, using first person shooter mechanics. There are some action sequences, in which your timing and aim will need to be pretty precise, but even a slug like me was able to accomplish everything. The script is hilarious. And the in-game music, though sparse, does a great job of adding to the atmosphere.

The game excels at teaching you how to play it as you go through its 19 tests. Because it’s challenging, but never feels frustrating or impossible, you feel smarter as you figure out the keys to solving each successive level.

The lying sack of crap reviewers at IGN bragged that they finished the game in about 90 minutes their first time through. What insecure assholes. I’d guess it takes most players — at least ones who come in knowing very little about the game and who like to explore and experiment a little — somewhere between three and six hours.

However long it takes you, the game is short. And that’s fine with me. I’ll take five hours of unforgettable near-perfection over 20 to 40 hours of merely good-to-great gameplay, every time. Plus, it helps clear out my to-play queue a little more quickly. That’s handy, especially when I’ve got about a half-dozen games in the hopper. Which is always.

Concert Recap: Distant Worlds — Music From Final Fantasy

Saturday night, Kathy and I attended the Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy concert in Chicago. A couple years back, we had nosebleed seats to the Dear Friends tour, and we loved it. This time, Kathy went online the minute seats went on sale, and she got a pair of choice seats as a birthday present for me.

Rosemont Theater

Before the show, we walked around, checking out the crowd. It was pretty much what you’d expect from a concert celebrating Japanese RPG music: lots of guys, many with some combination of ponytails, bad facial hair, and/or trenchcoats; white guys with Asian girlfriends; white girls with chopsticks in their hair; and tons of attendees wearing glasses (including Kathy and me). There were plenty of cute, young couples dressed up for date night, making it a kind of homecoming for nerds. All in all, my kind of people.

And of course, there was cosplay. One girl in particular did a spectacular job emulating FFVIII’s Sorceress Edea, and it seemed people were taking pictures of her from the minute she arrived until the show started.

Hot Edea

I was in the aisle seat of our section’s front row. Just before the show began, a door opened to our right, and in walked Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu, wearing a drapey black outfit and some flip-flop sandals (with socks). He had a couple toadies with him, each wearing a dark, fitted suit. Kathy figured they were probably dressed up as Turks.

Turks 182

The show itself was a blast. Starting things off with FFVII’s “Opening — Bombing Mission,” tour conductor Arnie Roth guided the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra through songs from each of the Final Fantasy games Uematsu has scored. Roth, a confessed fan of the series and its music, has been arranging and conducting Final Fantasy concerts for several years now, and he’s got the process down to a science. The performances were spot-on, and the pacing was perfect.

Overhead, three video screens displayed scenes from the various games. In one sequence, a battle scenario from FFVIII aired, as the orchestra played “Don’t Be Afraid,” the battle theme from that game. Another video featured a montage of chocobo footage, set to a swing version of the chocobo theme.

One of the best parts of these Final Fantasy concerts is the audience’s reaction. The shows are unlike any other symphony orchestra I’ve seen, in that the audience claps, cheers, and laughs at the beginning and end of every song–sometimes even during, when appropriate. This all cracks up members of the orchestra, who often turn to each other and laugh when the response is especially raucous.

The only time I was a little disappointed in the crowd was just prior to the performance of FFXI’s “Memoro de la Stono — Distant Worlds.” Before the song began, an attractive young soprano, who was set to solo, stepped to the front of the stage. Of course, some asshole had to wolf-whistle, and some other assholes had to laugh. Not a lot of people joined in, but it was enough to make things uncomfortable for a moment there. I apologize, Miss Soprano, on behalf of all of us.

For the most part, the setlist was an easy-to-predict greatest hits compilation, comprising classics that have been recorded and played live plenty of times before, like “Theme of Love” (IV), “Dear Friends” (V) “Aerith’s Theme” (VII), “Liberi Fatali” (VIII), “Vamo’ Alla Flamenco” (IX), “To Zanarkand” (X), a medley of songs from the first three games, and “Main Theme from Final Fantasy.” The first encore was “Terra’s Theme,” from FFVI. And there was no way the audience would have allowed the orchestra to get away without playing the closing number, FFVII’s “One-Winged Angel.”

The setlist also contained a couple of surprises, both pleasant ones.

Though “Fisherman’s Horizon” is one of my favorite songs from FFVIII, I never would have predicted it to make the cut for this tour. It’s not an essential theme for one of the series’ major characters or events. It’s just the background music for one of the towns you visit, midway through the game. That said, it’s damn good background music. The arrangement was a little bit different from the version on the Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinisec CD, but it sounded great.

The second surprise of the evening was the last song before the encore: FFVI’s “Opera — Maria and Draco.” Three vocalists sang (and acted out) their parts with hilariously exaggerated earnestness, as Super Nintendo graphics from the original scene played overhead. It was the first time I’d ever heard the piece sung by actual humans. Previously, I’d only experienced the in-game version:

For me, the night’s highlight was “Love Grows,” the instrumental version of FFVIII’s popular vocal theme, “Eyes On Me.” In contrast with “Fisherman’s Horizon,” this arrangement was pretty much identical to the Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec version.

In many ways, Final Fantasy VIII is the worst of the post-Nintendo FF titles. Its gameplay is a pain, the plot twist is idiotic, and the main character is a bit of a douche throughout the first half. And yet, I adore the game. I’m a sucker for the love story, and the opening and closing movies still give me chills.

The live performance of “Love Grows” was excellent, particularly the piano roll, which conductor Roth described as “difficult, like playing Liszt.” Combined with the video–which featured footage from the game’s ending and other key moments–the performance really got to me. Afterward, I punched the guy sitting behind me, just to feel like a man, again. It felt good.