compare/contrast: Tintin vs. Uncharted 3

Last week marked the DVD and On-Demand release of a whole bunch of films that the wife and I wanted to see in theaters but missed, including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (which was pretty good), David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (which was OK), and The Adventures of Tintin.

I have no connection with the Tintin source material.  I recognized the cartoon character’s visage but never read the books, and my only interest in the film was that it looked amazing, and that it had a bunch of voice actors that I liked (Simon Pegg, Nick Frost) and that Edgar Wright had a hand in the script.  And, of course, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson considered this a passion project of sorts, and who am I to argue if two titans of film want to collaborate on something near and dear to their hearts?

The movie itself?  Kinda dumb, actually.  I mean, it looked incredible – it’s probably the best looking CGI film I’ve ever seen – but we had a lot of problems with it right off the bat.  Tintin looks like a teenager, but he lives alone and carries a loaded gun, even though he’s just a newspaper reporter.  (Indiana Jones never carried a gun!)  Tintin befriends a sea captain locked away in his cabin – this captain turns out to be, among other things, a serious alcoholic, and this is ostensibly played for laughs even though the depths of his cravings become somewhat ludicrous.  It’s also got the worst score that John Williams has ever written – I mean, it’s bad, to the point where it was literally distracting from the scenes it was meant to accompany.  (His scores have always been emotionally manipulative, but that’s usually the point.)  And the film doesn’t really end so much as kinda peter out, like a slowly deflating balloon.

It kinda felt like we were watching a videogame, to be honest.  And the more I picked up on that feeling, the more I realized just how similar Tintin was to Uncharted 3.

from inappropriatelyadorable.tumblr.com

(Amazing Nathan Drake pic via inappropriatelyadorable.tumblr.com.)

Consider:

  • Tintin has incredible visuals and features highly realistic motion capture animation; Uncharted 3 is one of the best looking games ever made and features highly realistic motion capture animation.
  • Tintin stars Andy Serkis, a ubiquitous presence in motion capture performances; Uncharted 3 stars Nolan North, who is arguably even more ubiquitous in video games than Andy Serkis is in CGI films.
  • Tintin is followed by his trusty sidekick, Snowy; Nathan Drake is followed by his trusty sidekick, Sully.
  • Tintin is a nice enough kid, but isn’t afraid to fire a gun; Nathan Drake killed over 700 bad guys in my U3 playthrough.
  • Tintin, in his search for a lost artifact, finds his way to an old chateau; Nathan Drake, in his search for a lost artifact, finds his way to an old chateau (although Drake’s chateau also has millions of spiders and is consumed by fire.)
  • Tintin then finds his way onto a gigantic ship, although I forget exactly why; Nathan Drake also finds his way onto a gigantic ship, and I also forgot why.  There are even parallel shots in both the movie and the game with the main character running along the ship’s sides.  (I’d find youtube video here, but I’m lazy.)
  • Tintin is involved in a plane crash in the middle of the desert; Nathan Drake is involved in a plane crash in the middle of the desert.  Mirages galore.
  • Tintin is involved in a chase scene in a Middle Eastern market; Nathan Drake is involved in  several chase scenes in Middle Eastern markets, although Drake is also pretty heavily drugged.

I could go on, but you get the idea.  I’m not suggesting that there was plagiarism at work; both the game and the movie were in development for years, and aside from Nathan Drake’s obvious inspirational debt to Indiana Jones, the two intellectual properties couldn’t be more different.  But the similarities were striking – not to mention the fact that despite the enormous technological prowess that went into making these two entertainments, they were both, ultimately, disappointing.

weekend ramblin’

Ever since I finished Mass Effect 3 last week, I’ve been in somewhat of a holding pattern as far as writing goes. Hell, I guess that extends to playing, too – I honestly haven’t been playing very much, aside from half a dozen apps on my “the new” iPad.

I suppose I should talk about the iPad, right? It’s my first venture into the iPad universe – when they announced the first one, I didn’t understand why it needed to exist, and when they announced the second one, I found it a bit more intriguing but felt I could wait until they hooked it up with a retina display. Which is what I’ve got, now. There’s no question that it’s a stunning bit of tech – say what you will about the sexiness of the Vita’s display, but when I first laid eyes on the iPad screen I was like Alex in “Clockwork Orange”:

Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now.

Frankly, the display is so amazing that it kinda renders my iPhone obsolete, as far as game-playing is concerned. It’s so goddamned tiny in comparison!

The problem with the iPad, then, isn’t the device itself – it’s that there aren’t a hell of a lot of apps that really push the hardware. Sure, stuff like Infinity Blade 2 and Angry Birds Space HD look amazing, but Infinity Blade 2 looked great on my iPhone 4, too, 6 months ago (or whenever it came out). Honestly, the iPad game that’s taken up most of my time since I bought it is Draw Something, which – while fun and entertaining and frequently hilarious, especially given that each person’s drawings appear in real time, so you (the guesser) can watch the artist try to figure out how to draw their subject – is not exactly taxing the hardware. I think it’ll be at least 6 months before we start getting some serious business on the new iPad, and I’d imagine that a lot of iOS developers would be concerned about pushing the hardware too much and therefore alienating the owners of older hardware.

I don’t regret the purchase, though, by any means. There’s plenty to do on it as it is – my compulsive/impulsive nature means that I already had, like 100 apps for it when I first plugged it in – and there’s lots of cool music-making apps on it, too, which is partly why I was able to justify the purchase in the first place. It’s a gorgeous device and it’s everything I’d hoped it would be. If I’m disappointed, it’s that I was hoping it would somehow exceed my expectations and do some truly next-level shit right out of the gate – and I’m fully prepare to concede that I’m being a little bit unfair in that regard.

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What else, what else… I had a weird dream the other day where I was either playing or actually in the motorcycle gang in GTA4’s “The Lost and the Damned,” which was strange, since I never got particularly far in that particular bit of DLC. In any event, it caused me to pull GTA4 out yesterday afternoon and I jumped back into what appears to be the last few missions of “The Ballad of Gay Tony”. Time has not been kind to GTA4, which is a painful thing to admit. It’s just that, for me, Red Dead Redemption is a superior game in pretty much every way that matters – combat is far more approachable in RDR, for one thing, and the penalty for mission failure is a lot less devastating, which makes the overall experience a lot less frustrating. There’s no doubt that Liberty City is an absolute marvel of game design – I still love driving around and seeing what there is to see, and I especially love that the developers really understood New York City and its feel. Even if GTA4’s gameplay is antiquated at this point, it’s still got the finest open-world city ever designed. The city makes sense. It has personality. Every block is different – there aren’t any cookie-cutter building designs. You might get lost at first, but it wouldn’t be because everything looks the same. I fully concede that my status as a life-long New Yorker might bias me in this regard, but I must also acknowledge that it’s the only videogame that ever got New York City right.

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According to my to-do list, the next must-play GOTY contender is Max Payne 3, which doesn’t come out until mid-May. Yikes. Tiger Woods 13 comes out this coming Tuesday, and I will play it because that’s what I do, but I’m no longer as enamored of that franchise as I used to be. Ever since the current generation of consoles came along, that series has lost its way – the games on the original Xbox were insanely addictive and goofy and fun as hell, even if they weren’t truly groundbreaking on the graphics side. As the series has embraced realism, though, it’s lost a lot of what made it truly engaging on a primal level. So let’s just say I’m keeping my expectations suitably lowered for this year’s edition.

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I went back to KoA:Reckoning yesterday, just to see if some time apart from it would make a difference. (I hadn’t played it since before Mass Effect 3 came out.) It’s still pretty mindless; I don’t know that I’m ever going to finish it, beyond just pecking away at it during slow periods in the release calendar.

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Hopefully there’ll be a new Couchcast this week, schedules permitting.

Mass Effect 3: the ending, and what comes next

[I’m doing my damnedest to keep MASS EFFECT 3 SPOILERS to a minimum, but you know how these things go.]

I finished Mass Effect 3 very late last night.  It wasn’t my intention, necessarily, but I’d finished every other side quest I could find and there wasn’t an easy place to stop.

I’d been trying to live in a spoiler-free world regarding the game for the last 6 months or so, but I also spend a lot of time on the internet, and so it was impossible to ignore the controversy brewing about the game’s endings.  I didn’t know why they were upset, or how many of them were out there, or if it was even something to take all that seriously, being that there’s a riot goin’ on over the internet at pretty much any given time.

And anyway, I wanted to see the ending for myself.  (My “galactic readiness” was somewhere in the low-to-mid 60%, but my strength was in the mid 4000s, high enough to get the best endings.)

As it happens, I saw my chosen ending at around 2:00 in the morning, after a 6 hour marathon, and as such I’m probably not in the best shape to discuss why it’s a terrible ending or why Bioware needs to change it.  I’m not entirely sure they do need to change it, anyway.  I made my choice after what felt like 30 minutes of hemming and hawing, and when I finish this post I’m probably going to head back to my apartment and fire up my last save just to see the option I almost picked instead.

It was a tough choice, there’s no doubt about it.  It was absolutely the toughest choice I’d made in the entire series, especially since none of the three options were terribly appealing, and also since I was exhausted and forgot what the choices actually were for a little bit there.  But it would’ve been silly to hope for a “happy” ending – in a series where millions and millions of people/creatures died over the course of a years-long galactic war, having an Ewok dance party would’ve been stupid.

In any event, it wasn’t a cop-out, which (to me) is what’s most impressive.  Even in spite of the fact that it’s a literal deus ex machina.  I did what I did and the war ended, and it hurt a little bit, as it should’ve.

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I’ve read in a few places that even though the trilogy is over, Bioware isn’t done with the Mass Effect franchise, which is good.  I don’t want to leave this world they’ve created.  They’ve created one of the most compelling sci-fi universes in any medium, and there’s a lot more to be seen and done.  But there are some game things that need to be addressed.

For one thing, is there any game franchise that would benefit more from L.A. Noire‘s amazing facial tech than Mass Effect?  As it stands right now, all of the otherwise excellent dialogue sequences are hampered by robotic facial expressions and the occasional strange, unconnected wandering around by a speaking character.  (This happens a lot in The Old Republic, come to think of it.  In fact, some of the wandering-around animations might be identical.)  Better facial tech would go a long way towards making these characters feel even more real than the script allows them to be.

I might also add that a lot of the optional crew conversations in ME3 – the ones where you finish your mission and then wander around the Normandy – were almost exclusively of the pep-talk variety.  Everybody’s feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders, sure, but I felt like I was having the same conversation with 12 different people.

The quest system was more than a little messed up – at least as far as the optional side stuff went.  For one thing, picking up side missions by overhearing conversations in the Citadel just felt lazy.  Secondly, the quest system never updated itself, so it was hard to know what you’d actually found and what was ready to turn in.  At one point, I’d kept a notebook on my coffee table so that I could keep track of what I was doing.  This seems insane, given that the game has a built-in quest log already.

One of the things I liked in ME2 was that not every side mission involved combat – sometimes it was just exploring an environment.  As far as I could tell, there was only one (1) mission like that in ME3, and it was a neat change of pace (even if it felt like a puzzle idea that only got half-baked), and I wished there was more.

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My big dream for the next console generation is for a mega-hybrid RPG combining the sci-fi world and strong character development of Mass Effect, the wide-open expanse and the sense of discovery of Skyrim, and the true open-world freedom of GTA.  You put that together with a truly kick-ass graphics engine (idTech5? UnrealEngine 4?) and maybe a multiplayer component worth a damn and  you’ve got yourself a monumental work of art.  Make it so.

decisions, decisions

I’ve been wanting to talk about Mass Effect 3 all week.  I’ve had 1000 different things to say, at varying times, covering wide swaths of opinion and analysis and bitching and fanboy swooning.  I’ve also had a hellaciously busy schedule, and what free time I’ve had has been spent playing instead of blogging, hence the recent radio silence.  Apologies, etc.

ME3 is a hard game to talk about without spoiling; certainly my podcast co-host gets almost violent if I even hint at a spoiler without inserting proper precautions, so just know that there may be spoilers to come.  In fact, I suppose I might as well just tell you where I am, so that (a) you can judge for yourself if I’m ahead of you or not, and (b) you can see why I’m treading water a little bit.

I think I’ve been playing for around 16-18 hours, but from the little I’ve heard about the game’s structure, I’m probably only at the end of what would be considered Act 1.  (I’d also say that a good 5-7 hours of my playtime has been me just wandering around the Normandy, which is as close to a virtual “home” as there’s ever been in a videogame.)

(MILD SPOILERS AHEAD)  My current mission, the one I’ve been trying to avoid confronting, involves me going to the Krogan homeworld to wipe out the genophage once and for all.  I’ve been dawdling because the mission involves me making perhaps the most difficult choice I’ve had to make in the entire franchise.  If you’ve gotten to this point, you’ll know what I’m talking about; if you haven’t, well, it’s a doozy.  All the different races hate each other (and with good reason), and in the midst of my trying to form a very fragile alliance/treaty, I’ve basically been asked to perform the ultimate backstab, a backstab that I could conceivably get away with without it getting back to me.  My reward is the enduring friendship and scientific/military support of this particular race (and, obviously, the loss of the race I’d be backstabbing); and vice versa.  Being that the ultimate enemy here is the Reapers, I feel obligated to set myself in the best possible position to take them on, and so this opportunity to get the Salarians on my side feels rather crucial, even though it goes against my deepest beliefs as an ethical, rational human being.  I have to believe that the game is set up so that you can “win” regardless of which option you choose, but FUCK.   (END SPOILERS)

The game’s got problems, too.  I don’t want to parrot this week’s Giant Bombcast too much, but they bring up a number of valid points:  a lot of the side mission stuff is poorly conceived (i.e.,  picking up missions simply by overhearing conversations), and poorly executed (the mission log does a terrible job of letting you know if you’ve picked up a missing item, or who you need to give it to, so you often spend a lot of time just wandering around the Citadel hoping that some idle NPC will have an action reticle on them), and the planet scanning stuff (always a problematic feature in this franchise) is now so stripped down that it seems unnecessary, basically.  (Bioware’s strengths have never been with the side stuff, and TOR is no exception, either, but ME3’s side stuff is particularly weak.)   I’ve also run into a number of weird bugs, sometimes where my AI companions refuse to move, and other times where enemy turrets become impossible to destroy – I’ve had to restart a few missions more than once, which is frustrating.

I haven’t touched the multiplayer.  I want to, both because it sounds kinda interesting and because I’m wanting to increase my Galactic Readiness Rating at all costs (including playing the iOS Datapad thing, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the crafting stuff in Old Republic, actually).  But my focus is primarily on the single player – as I imagine it would be with most hard-core ME players, who’ve been in it for the long haul.

Despite its problems, I love this world.  I love the fiction.  I love the characters.  I love my Shepard, and I love that it’s been my Shepard for the last 5 years.   I’m glad to be playing it; but I wouldn’t have minded if they gave it a little more time to cook.  There are elements of this game that feel rushed (as noted above); there’s also certainly the obvious mass marketing ploy to get this game into the hands of new players, which I understand from a business perspective but which still stings a bit, as a hardcore player who’s been here since the beginning.

More on this to come, as well as a bunch of words and thoughts about Journey, which really does deserve its own post.  The short version – it’s amazing.

the first few hours: SSX

When I was a teenager, I became somewhat obsessed with the Elektra record label.   At some point, I guess I’d noticed that a lot of my favorite bands were on Elektra, and then I noticed that a bunch of albums that I’d been listening to had consecutive catalog numbers, which (I presume) meant that they all came out one right after the other.  Which was kind of cool, in a nerdy sort of way.  In my dreams of future rock stardom, I wanted to sign with them – they obviously signed the bands that I liked, and I wanted them to like me.

(The music industry being what it is, I must admit that I was surprised that there was still an official Elektra website to link to when I typed the previous paragraph. )

In my 20s, my allegiance to Elektra switched, rather dramatically, to Thrill Jockey.  Two of my favorite bands (The Sea and Cake, Tortoise) were TJ mainstays, and my hero, John McEntire, seemingly had his hands on almost the entirety of their catalog.   TJ was the epitome of cool, and I must admit that there was a time when I thought about moving to Chicago just to be near it.

Now that I’m in my mid-30s, I could care less about record labels.  I’m not in a band anymore, and the little music that I’ve managed to make these days has been made with the intention of eventual sale.  I don’t need a label to get my music heard; I can stick it on the internet and be done with it.

This would be a good time as any to talk about Double Fine’s outrageously successful Kickstarter campaign, but that isn’t where I was going with this.  Frankly, this whole music label prelude has nothing to do with anything, other than that by this point next week, I will be fully involved with 3 EA-published games – KoA: Reckoning, SSX, and Mass Effect 3.  I can’t really remember the last time something like that happened, and especially with EA, a company that I’d taken great pains to actively loathe for a long, long time.  But here we are, and I suspect I’m not the only one in this position, either.

Sooooo, anyway, yes.  SSX.  My first must-play title of 2012.  I was madly in love with both Tricky and SSX3 on the original Xbox, and the wait for a good sequel has been interminable.  Indeed, the wait for a good snowboarding game in general has been interminable – I don’t think I’ve played one since Amped 3, and that game was more memorable for its cutscenes than its actual gameplay…

I’m torn, is the thing.  On the one hand, it’s really nice to have SSX back in my life.  The game looks and sounds great, and it’s got a number of awesome features – the online functionality is super-slick (as is the entire EA Autolog initiative), and there’s tons to do, and it’s fun as hell.

On the other hand, I suck at it.  I don’t remember being this bad at previous SSX games.  I am constantly fucking up, left and right, restarting runs over and over and over again, to the point where frustration leads to resignation and logging off.  I’m progressing through the career mode slowly but surely, but I feel like it’s because the game is overly generous in its post-race awards.  And I’m not really sure what it is I’m doing wrong, except that I haven’t unlocked the good equipment yet, or something.  I am consistently 2nd or lower in races, and in trick events, there are times when I’ll look up to see my AI opponents with 1,000,000 point leads before I’ve even started my first jump.

So it’s a little frustrating, especially since I really really want to love it to pieces, being that I dearly love the franchise and I really want to enjoy the tons of content on the disc.  Practice makes perfect, I suppose, but maybe I’m just too old.