Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Movie Review: The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey

Is it a good idea to take The Hobbit, a relatively simple story for children contained in a single, not especially thick book, and then to spin it into three epic, connecting movies? The answer from an economic perspective is, of course, “yes”. After all, the three movies will form a prequel to the hugely successful Lord of the Rings trilogy. It means three tickets sold per viewer by the end of it all, instead of two. (To just make one (1) movie out of one (1) book would be madness. And more importantly, bad for business.) That’s not to say I believe returning director Peter Jackson had dollar signs for eyes when he decided to make it a trilogy again, just that he was over-indulged by a movie studio with less than artistic motives.

The Lord of the Rings was basically about a hobbit bringing a ring to a volcano to save the world. The Hobbit is about a related hobbit originally finding that ring and helping some dwarves reclaim their homeland by taking on a dragon. The Hobbit (or there and back again) was written by Tolkien as a children’s story, though he was consciously laying the foundation for something more, while The Lord of the Rings was a full-fledged attempt to create a new mythology for England, and was aimed primarily at adults. (To Tolkien’s horror, it ended up having the most impact on hippies and stoners at the time of publication.) Not surprisingly, considering the source, there is a different, more playful tone to Peter Jackson’s newest outing into Middle-Earth. While there was already some silliness to the first trilogy, here it is more prominent and it doesn’t quite track with other scenes that are deadly sincere. There is a delicate balance when getting people on board for a story about goblins, elves, trolls and the like. You want them to take it seriously, but most people will need an occasional wink to acknowledge that you are asking them to take a large leap of faith. This time around, there are a few too many ‘yeah, right’ moments in the recipe, that we’re expected to take at face-value.

Not helping matters is that real danger seems to be lacking. The group of heroes at the center of the story go from one deadly situation to the next and emerge pretty much unscathed. Tension starts to drain away with each unlikely victory. Gandalf makes things worse, and you understand why Tolkien sidelined him for large parts of The Lord of the Rings. While I love Ian McKellen for both his acting and his work as a gay rights activist, his wizard character serves as a Deus Ex Machina too often. He is powerful, though his powers are ill-defined, and he can always save the day in a seemingly hopeless situation. (Though, oddly, not before it has actually started to seem hopeless.) Despite feeling too ‘safe’, the movie is not really for kids, as there is a fair amount of graphic violence.

A lot of extra content has been added to the original tale and back-story has been added, delving into Tolkien’s mythology. This doesn’t disguise the fact that the main narrative is being stretched to near the breaking point. Lots of exciting things happen to the heroes, but large chunks of the movie could have been removed without impacting the rest of the story. One thing happens after the other, and it doesn’t feel like all of it is intricately connected. Admittedly, spending time in this beautiful-looking realm again is fun regardless, as is meeting up with characters from the original trilogy. All the actors are game, joyously throwing themselves into their roles, and Martin Freeman is perfect as Bilbo. But forward momentum is missing, and though the end goal is noble, the stakes are not on par with those from the previous trilogy. The element of surprise is gone and it all feels very familiar. There are only so many sweeping shots of people in fantasy-gear trekking across imposing landscapes that one has patience for.

By the end of this first chapter, the heroes’ journey is far from over. (Even though they seem to have an opportunity to reach their destination quickly, which is oddly ignored.) There will no doubt be many more roadblocks on their path, but it’s going to be a long slog. For them and the viewers.

Technical note: This movie made history by being shot at double the usual frame-rate. This was supposed to render a sharper image, without motion blur, but ended up taking away movie magic. It allegedly makes the film look like a documentary and makes special effects, costumes and make-up look unconvincing. I chose to see the film at the regular frame-rate, in 3D. The 3D is fine but doesn’t add a lot to the experience. Ps: I am going to bitch-slap the next person with perfect vision who whines about having to wear 3D-glasses for a couple of hours. Cry unto me a river.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Game Review: Dishonored

Dishonored is a rare thing: a successful, big league game that is not a sequel. That’s not to say that the game is entirely original, as it remixes a lot of familiar elements. When it comes to gameplay, imagine a more stylized, steampunk version of Deus Ex: Human Revolution with gloomy flavoring reminiscent of Bioshock (though it actually looks more like the upcoming Bioshock Infinite).

You play the apparently mute bodyguard-turned-assassin Corvo Attano. After a trip abroad, you return to the city of Dunwall. This is a seaside place that is preoccupied with whaling, as whale oil is a very important energy source. (And a rather explosive one, as you will discover.) The city is having a hard time, slowly getting overrun by rats that are spreading a deadly plague. You arrive just in time to get framed for the murder of the Empress you were supposed to protect. Her young daughter is kidnapped by conspirators who want to take control of Dunwall and it is your mission to rescue the heiress to the throne and either restore order or simply avenge.

Your situation seems hopeless at first, but thankfully, there is a shadowy guy from another realm at hand, to creepily watch your progress and gift you awesome powers as a reward for collecting ‘runes’. The most important of these is ‘Blink’ which allows you to zip from one place to another (within a certain range) instantaneously and invisibly. Others allow you to slow or stop time, see enemies and other things of import through walls (‘Dark Vision’), blow enemies away with a gust of wind or to turn them to dust. Dishonored tells its tale as a succession of missions you are sent on. Each gives you a target and drops you in a couple of connected areas, which contain a smattering of guards to avoid/incapacitate and resources to find.

So what approach will you choose? You can seek revenge by going on a murderous rampage or take out your opponents by non-lethal means or slip through the entire game as a shadow, undetected. The more people you kill, the more the plague spreads, presumably because of all the dead bodies. It makes the amount of guards you encounter increase as well, and it ups your ‘chaos’ rating. Awkwardly, a happy ending can only be achieved by mostly reining in your killer instincts, maintaining a low chaos rating. It’s odd that the creators are encouraging the stealthy, less bloodthirsty way of playing the game, despite the fact that this gives you less possibilities to get creative. Dishonored hands you a lot of fun, deadly toys and then chides you for using them.

The non-violent approach does make more sense for the story, admittedly, as you are most often fighting guards who are not evil so much as misinformed or innocent (albeit aggressive) victims of the plague. And, from what I’ve heard, the game doesn’t fault you for assassinating your main target for each mission. (Even though there is always a non-violent way to get rid of them as well.) But the story could have been tweaked to have a few levels where you would fight some kind of steampunk robots, for instance, enabling you to cut loose without getting punished for it. Discouraging the more creative way of play, seems like a sneaky way of making you spend more time on the game, making you have to play it twice to experience all it has to offer. This is made less enticing, however, by the fact that you will also have to hunt down all the collectibles again to unlock the same powers you acquired in your previous game. Probably the best way to go about it – if you have the time and patience – would be to replay each mission twice right after each other. Once the violent way and once the stealthy way, choosing to activate the appropriate powers for each approach. It doesn’t really benefit the pacing of the story though, and requires managing of game-saves.

The guards you encounter as an interesting bunch. For one thing, they seem to share a hive mind. Guards at different parts of the city can be overheard uttering the same weirdly specific phrases, like “Think you will get your own squad after what happened last night?” It’s hard to miss the recurring chatter, so it’s unlikely this slipped by unnoticed during the game’s production. Were they hoping for free publicity? A meme along the lines of Skyrim’s “I used to be an adventurer like you, but then I got an arrow in the knee”? Having a voice actor record a larger amount of more generic lines, would seem like an easy and not all that expensive fix.

The guards also suffer from terrible memory, poor peripheral vision and an overall lack of curiosity. If they spot you clearly, but you manage to slip away quickly, they tend to just stand in place for a moment until their suspicion dissipates, rather than go investigate. Anything that happens outside of their official cone of vision (which is visualized in your Dark Vision mode) doesn’t register, even if a door swings open right next to them. Previously closed doors that are suddenly open also go unnoticed by guards doing their rounds, as does the disappearance of colleagues. And the simple act of crouching makes you significantly less visible and audible, even in places where this doesn’t make much sense. I get that these and some other abstractions are necessary to make the stealth approach less frustrating, but it does make the guards look amusingly incompetent. Despite the various behavioral oddities you come across, taking out the opposition or slipping by unnoticed is addictive and fun.

Dunwall is an interesting place to roam and the look of it and its inhabitants is distinct and memorable. The story that drives the game is pretty straightforward and it ends with a whimper rather than a bang, especially if you manage to keep your ‘chaos’ rating low. Nevertheless, the resolution is fitting and satisfying, and it seems like there are a lot of interesting places to go with this game world, in the almost inevitable event of a sequel. I’d be very happy to see one, maybe in a different city from the same world and featuring more options for non-lethal playthroughs or no penalty for being lethal. Some sites have called it their ‘Game of The Year’ for 2012 and while I wouldn’t quite go that far, it is a very satisfying way to blow through some free time.