Sunday, March 31, 2013

Game Review: Batman: Arkham City

The first word that comes to mind when thinking of Batman: Arkham City is ‘stuffed’, possibly even ‘overstuffed’. The second is ‘detailed’. The game crams a plethora of Batman’s foes into a part of Gotham City that has been rendered in beautiful detail. The area has been cordoned off to serve as a penitentiary, for reasons that become clear later in the game, though they don’t quite convince. Bruce Wayne (aka Batman) purposefully gets himself thrown into this dangerous place to put a stop to all sorts of nefarious shenanigans.

Arkham City is a direct sequel to Arkham Asylum, a wildly successful game from 2009. The graphics haven’t changed much, but then they were great to begin with. The game marries the grittiness of Nolan’s Batman movies with the more outrageous designs found in Tim Burton’s version. When Robin puts in an appearance, however, he seems photocopied out of Joel Schumacher’s cinematic attempts, minus nipples on the suit. Every part of the design seems to have been carefully, lovingly pondered and despite the blending of the visual style of various movie versions, it forms a cohesive whole. Think dark, dirty gothic with splashes of neon.

Of course, in terms of realism, there is plenty here that is ridiculous. Most people like Batman because he is just a guy, allegedly lacking superpowers. This makes you wonder how he can beat up hundreds of thugs and various of his most deadly enemies over the course of one night, without so much as a nap or a toilet-break. And realistically his arms should be close to falling off by the end of the game, from ziplining all over the city for hours on end. But even though Batman remains in top-condition (outside of the cut-scenes, in any case, where he looks a bit more troubled), his costume does start to show wear and tear as you go, which is a very cool, subtle touch.

The second outing in the Arkham franchise is more of a sandbox game than its predecessor. There is more space to explore in-between the missions that advance the main story and this exploration is even necessary to wrap up a couple of side-quests. Evil mastermind The Riddler has left little trophies all over the city, as he did last time in Arkham Asylum. Some are easy to access, just needing to be found, others require combined application of Batman’s gadgets to grab. Getting them unlocks challenge levels, art designs and other treats. The game is so generous with extra content, that you’re actually likely to ignore part of it. It all becomes too much of a time-sink and takes away focus and urgency from the main narrative. Without spoiling things, going by story logic, Batman shouldn’t be wasting precious time. Though the game doesn’t put a timer on you, it just feels odd for him to be hanging around on rooftops, figuring out how to get his hands on a trophy. The designers have crafted every alley with obvious care, but they seem to expect that you will spend hours of your life admiring every inch of their work. This seems a bit greedy.

If you just follow the main story, tackle a couple of the less time-intensive side-mission as they pop up (some are inaccessible later on) and collect some trophies you stumble upon while you ignore the rest, it is a jolly good game. There’s some mild detective-work, some exploring, some puzzles and a lot of non-lethal fighting. The latter is as smooth and satisfying as ever, and it doesn’t surprise that so many other recent games have copied the franchise’s approach to it. Arkham City improves upon its predecessor when it comes to the Boss fights. The previous game upped the difficulty level towards the end by throwing more and more waves of samey enemies at you until it turned into a frustrating slog. Here, there is more variety.

If you bought a non-used copy of the game, you get to play a few missions as Catwoman, which is a nice change of pace. And if you buy the Game of the Year edition, you will also get a DLC mission that takes place after the ending of the main game. It picks up on the very interesting way that things were left off, but it poses more questions than it answers and throws in one of those massive arena fights that the main game had mostly dropped. As I understand, the writer of Arkham City and its predecessor (Paul Dini) wasn’t asked back to plot the DLC and it shows. Even though writing is generally one of the weakest elements in games, the importance of an interesting story to hook you and keep you invested, should not be underestimated.

Arkham City is the continuation of a trend where I really like a game but I am done with it long before it seems to be done with me. Games these days tend to give you a percentage of completion as you go, to show you far you have advanced. I tend to be ‘done’ at slightly over 50% which generally means that you finished the main game, but didn’t bother with any multiplayer, trophies and achievements. Of course, it’s great that all that extra content is there for those who want it. But as a 35+ year old gamer, it does make me look back nostalgically at a younger age when it seems people have all the time in the world. In any case, I’m on to pastures less neon.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Movie Review: Tensión Sexual, Volumen 1: Volátil

Tensión Sexual, Volumen 1: Volátil is a collection of vignettes, mostly about bulges in underwear that travel dangerously close to someone who might be interested in the contents of said underwear. The viewer is made complicit, as the bulges often get close to the camera and linger there. There is even some full-frontal nudity on the part of some sexy Argentinian men, which doesn’t displease. There is no release to the tension, at least not on screen, as these charged, short encounters between men fizzle by design, apart from one or two pieces where a well-timed fade-out leaves you wondering.

At its best, Tensión Sexual is playful and manages to be erotic, but it does fall flat on occasion. For instance, there is a wordless story about a male nurse who replaces a sexy man’s usual nurse. The nurse proceeds to soap and shower his patient in an extended sequence that had me checking my watch. It doesn’t help that the nurse has something creepy about him, and that his sexy patient mostly looks bored. Chemistry can be hard to bring across on screen, especially if you can’t fall back on kissing and sex, because the general theme here is ‘missed opportunities’. There may be as many lingering stares here as there were in the infamous Twilight. Not surprisingly, the couple of stories that forego dialogue are the worst offenders in this respect.

The pieces I enjoyed the most were the ones that showed a sense of humor. There is the fairly unbelievable story of one supposedly straight guy teaching another supposedly straight guy how to make love to a lady, by getting near-naked and acting things out with him. And there is a story where it becomes clear that one of two muscled training buddies is sneakily seducing the other. The fun here is that it takes the audience a while to figure out that one of them is doing it, and that his friend doesn’t catch on even after we do.

You do have to be a somewhat shy and patient person to identify with most of the characters in this movie. Once or twice I rolled my eyes wondering why someone was playing coy and didn’t just make a move already. By the end of it all, despite some lulls that lead to mild boredom, Tensión Sexual mostly delivers on its title. It is extended foreplay without the release of sex. It leaves you titillated, a bit frustrated and in need of a good shag.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook is about two troubled people (one with a borderline personality, one an emotionally wobbly widow) who end up orbiting each other. Will they be able to help each other or even *gasp* fall for each other? No, seriously, take a guess.

SLP is an interesting movie. Or rather, two-thirds of an interesting movie and one-third of a generic romantic comedy. It spends a good long time building up nuanced, troubled, believable characters (even the ‘sane’ characters turn out to be a bit kooky) and then suddenly decides to chuck realism in favor of an all-out upbeat ending. It ends up as one of those movies where the camera rotates around a kissing couple to signify the passion and intensity of the kiss. It’s a shame that the first, more realistic part of the movie makes it hard to believe that all problems have been resolved, as the ending wants us to believe.

Is the movie worth seeing? Well, yes. The performances are great, especially those by the leads. Apart from being convincing as someone with borderline syndrome, Bradley Cooper is dreamy enough that I could watch him read aloud from a dictionary for two hours and still not nod off. Jennifer Lawrence seems a little young to be paired up with him, but then that’s the way Hollywood likes it. And her performance easily makes you forget about the age gap, as there is more than enough chemistry to bridge it.

Speaking of chemistry, it is a bit suspicious how drugs seem to be the silent heroes of the film, used to fabricate the happy ending. And it is odd how drinking two glasses of Wodka doesn’t impair someone’s ability to dance. Alcohol apparently disappears right out of your body when a script calls for it. But then, that’s a silly romantic comedy for you. If you can roll with the switch from fairly realistic dramady to romance-fixes-everything (as most people on the IMDB seem able to) then Silver Linings Playbook will leave you with a big smile on your face.