Archive | June 2013

‘Man of Steel’: Good For Seizures, Not Much Else

Let me break down my major issues for everyone who’s interested.

Man of Steel did not suffer from the things that usually make me froth at the mouth. The women weren’t at all hypersexualized (and while it didn’t pass The Bechdel Test, this is a story about Clark Kent/Kal-El, so I didn’t for a second expect that it would); there wasn’t evidence of glaring racism (in fact, two positions of power in the human brigade are occupied by men of color, so that was actually a step in the right direction); and at its inception (DUNNNNNNNNNN) was actually a story that I found myself intrigued by.

My interest, of course, waned after the first forty-five minutes. Roughly. I wasn’t running a stopwatch in the theater.

I was invested in the story of Krypton. It was a good story, an interesting one, complete with the bleak dystopia-esque view of a future beyond our solar system that I’m sure we’re slowly staggering toward ourselves. (That feeling is further validated by the knowledge that 50 Shades of Grey has been given a release date next fall. For the love of all things unholy—) The crumbling society has its inherent issues of corruption and has, in fact, brought its destruction upon itself, which makes this culture of super-human beings more interesting than they would be otherwise. They clearly have a very serious failing: despite an evolutionary advantage, they’re moronic enough to mine for energy in their planet’s core, thereby killing their own world. I think that’s the definition of irony, folks.

Jor-El still has some redeeming character traits, though, and even General Zod is a top lad in his own way. They’re both just trying to save their people. It’s been decided (probably long ago) by the writers that Jor-El’s plan to launch his infant son into space with the genetic code for their entire civilization and then die an honorable death by stabbing is better than General Zod’s plan, though, which makes the latter the villain of the piece. Jor-El has all those bolstering character traits of honor and loyalty and self-sacrifice which, of course, lets him off the hook for his teensy treasonous act of stealing the Codex. Zod is not so lucky, because apparently deposing your corrupt idiotic leaders by killing them is frowned upon by Kryptonians. It’s the clink for you, sir.

This whole story is told with enough bright flashes of light and screeching sounds of battle to set off even the most epileptic-prone. The wide-scale destruction of Krypton, though, is at least sort of pushed into the background, and the more personal elements are up front: the birth of Jor-El’s son, the insurrection started by Zod, Lara’s grief over saying goodbye to her son so soon. It’s not exactly a good story, but it’s mediocre. This alien populace is relatable to us because of their inherent failings, which are all up in your face at the beginning. Again, not good. Not subtle. But mediocre bordering entertaining, sure. I was entertained.

Seriously, a still doesn’t even capture it appropriately. It’s like having fireworks go off in your face repeatedly for forty minutes with little respite.

The problem begins when you realize that this was all set-up to set-up. After all, we haven’t even gotten to the meat and potatoes of Man of Steel yet. That was just the salad, and I haven’t quite moved on from the blue cheese dressing yet, thanks—but now you’re telling me that they’re all dead, and I have to get re-attached to the actual protagonist of this movie? That turnip-headed little twerp last seen crying his way into outer space? I don’t care about him. You spent the time and energy getting me to be invested in Jor-El, Lara, and Zod—and planting a hell of a Chekov’s Gun (“You believe your son is safe? I will find him!”)—and now you want me to patiently twiddle my thumbs through your exposition on Clark Kent’s evolving character?

That exposition, by the way, was inherently faulty. We’re focused not on Clark’s or Kal-El’s or whatever the fuck you want to call him’s personality, but on his genetic superiority. The story of his childhood is told through the freakshow that is an alien among us—through incidents that have garnered the attention of his town. The rescue of the bus; the freakout in grade school; the refusal to fight bullies; and the perpetual whining through it all—Clark Kent does not get a personality. He gets the evolutionary advantage. If he was among Kryptonians, this wouldn’t be quite so dull; they would have been able to leave out all the stuff about how he’s stronger and faster and etcetera, etcetera, and focused on the stuff that makes him a little more human (and thus, a little more relatable to us): the ways that he fails.

Instead, he spends a load of time being set up as a social outcast, and that appears to be the bulk of his personality. Let me tell you, kids, if I’d been told before watching this that Clark Kent would choose to save humanity approximately an hour and fifteen minutes into this film, I would not have believed you. If I was him, I would’ve let y’all die. Humans have been nothing but inhospitable to him, with the notable exception of his adopted parents and dog. I completely understand why he spends all his adult years chasing down the answer to his heritage, because no one on Earth wanted him around. He’s just freak to them.

After the incident with an old spaceship belonging to his near-extinct people, figuring out all the deets on where he hails from with help from the technological ghost of his father, and meeting Lois Lane, there’s this whole piece where Lois goes through enormous effort to track him down again. His childhood story is capped in the graveyard where his father is buried, where he tells Lois how the old man died.

Let me interject with an important meteorlogical note: I lived in Wisconsin for nine years. I have seen a tornado up-close and personal. And the scene where Clark’s father dies—you know, the one with the tornado—is about the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen. That is not how tornadoes work. I get that they were going for—no, I’m not actually sure what they were going for, but what I got out of it was a death scene that had me nearly in giggles, because of the following:

  1. The instant Clark and his father were shown arguing in the car, it was very obvious that one, if not both, of his parents were about to die. My money was on his father, of course, since he bore the brunt of the argument. It’s a really obvious, overused trope: the ungrateful child starts a fight with their wise elder, a fight which is interrupted by a fatal case of death, and the child is then left to grieve and fester in their guilt. Yawn.
  2. The instant the tornado came down, I knew we were going to have problems. Yes, you can run from a tornado. Depending on which way the thing’s traveling, you might even manage to get out of its way. Running for the overpass is a good idea, too. If you’re out in the open on a freeway, the ditches to the side and the overpasses are the best chance you’ve got. Once it’s that close to you, though? You aren’t capable of running anymore. From a mile down the highway I saw a tornado pick up and throw an eighteen-wheeler like a football, and the two were not even in physical contact. The winds that form a tornado are compact, but only in comparison to, say, a hurricane. Within a certain proximity, you’re going to get tossed around a bit.
  3. There was no logical reason why Jonathan Kent should have been the one to go back and free their dog. Clark is younger, stronger, and faster, even without being an alien, and odds are even if something went wrong, he’d survive. Yes, Jonathan is trying to protect his son’s secret—but this was an incredibly contrived way to show that.
  4. There was no logical reason why Clark shouldn’t have run back for his father when it was clear that he was going to die otherwise. Yes, this is the man who has asked Clark again and again to keep the silence, but it was obvious—even though the storytelling was shitty—that Clark loved his dad. (For this, I draw on Supernatural as a prime example: despite being drilled repeatedly, his entire life, to kill Azazel on sight at any chance he got, Dean could not pull the trigger when John was being possessed by the demon. I think something similar applies here.)
  5. When a tornado is bearing down on you, you don’t get the chance to smile enigmatically and wave for your son to stay put. You also aren’t given the ability to continue standing on your own two feet while it swirls menacingly only two feet away. The wind clouds do not swallow you dramatically, they pick you up in a torrent of rage and fury and swirl you around like so many socks in a dryer. Maybe you come down with a hard knock to the head and a new chance at life, or maybe your heart fails you in a moment of absolute terror. But one thing is for sure: you don’t get to fade back into a swirling vortex with a calm look on your face. That is bullshit.

Not much exposition later, we come to the climax of the piece, which lasts an uncomfortable amount of time. Like, really uncomfortable. Dark Knight Rises was long. It was especially long because I saw the 3:45AM showing after one hour of sleep and the kind of caffeine high that makes your eyes go crossed. But the finale of Man of Steel felt even long than that, a kind of special hell for act threes that started when Lois and Clark get turfed off Zod’s spacecraft and doesn’t end for—I don’t know the exact minute count, because again, not running a stopwatch, but it was excruciating.

There is something inherently alienating about this kind of massive CG destruction. Character foundation for this story was already shaky to start with, but it all gets thrown out the window when the screen is dominated by Metropolis getting blown up in minute stages. The process could last for hours, and—

No, sorry, I’ve got to diverge on the point of Metropolis, which I realize is a problem not just with Man of Steel but with the DC/Superman universe in a broader and older sense. Metropolis was actually one of the earliest science-fiction films, a German thing in the 1920s, about a city of the same name that was built on the foundation of oppressed workers (sound familiar?) and gave riches, wealth, and quality of life to the limited few (*cough*). Metropolis is a big fuckin’ deal for sci-fi; it’s the R.U.R. of film (Rossum’s Universal Robots, by the way, was a very short Czech play which coined the word “robot”, and everyone should read it because it’s very important, etcetera). Allusions like this one can lend incredible legitimacy to contemporary work. Dollhouse did it with R.U.R., slipping in the name “Rossum” with an effortlessness that made me squeal in delight, but “Metropolis” doesn’t do it for me. It screams comic-book gimick, loud and clear, especially when paired with town names like “Smallville.” It feels like lazy writing. Unimaginative, dull writing.

Back to the mass destruction: it’s pretty. It’s big. The CG is good. It’s not the visual I have a problem with. It’s the absence of all the people.

Maybe if this was a city I knew and recognized, but, no–even then, the mass destruction wouldn’t do much for me in the pathos department.

Sure, they’re screaming and running. The staff of the Daily Planet is heroically standing their ground and then hurriedly evacuating. But aside from them—and they’re really side characters, people we’ve had bare glimpses of and only scant lines of dialog—we’ve got nobody on the ground to identify with. I have never felt so disconnected from this kind of carnage on screen. There was nothing to tie me to the terror that I should have felt, by proxy, at the annihilation of not just the city, but the impending doom of Earth. They went too big, and they lost the personal element along the way—the human element. That’s the only thing that ties us to fiction, folks. You lose that, you lose everything.

There were humans involved in this big, exhausting showdown, of course. Most of them, though, were only there to run or be frightened or die. (“A good death is its own reward,” some military leader who didn’t have enough exposition for me to remember his identity tells the female Kryptonian who kicks a lot of ass but who suffers from the same exposition problem as the military leader.) They were also there to only finish the job when Superman passed on the go-ahead, which means that the head military POC is ultimately taking orders from a white dude with blue eyes again, and his hands are kind of tied because Kal-El is actually genetically superior to him. I take it back—there is actually something inherently racist about this story. I just couldn’t put my finger on it earlier.

I thought it was at least over, though, when Superman again saves Lois Lane from certain death and the big curtains-closing kiss happens, but no; Zod is still alive, and the way they deal with him is to continue pulverizing the jagged remains of Metropolis by repeatedly sprinting/flying at one another. Also, monologing and capes. The first served to make the villain, who already seems absolutely over-the-top due to his thirsty quest for revenge, seem even more ridiculous, and the second makes our evolutionary hero look like an idiot. (The Incredibles was right—capes are a disaster waiting to happen.)

Not to mention that Superman cries over the death of four solitary people when Zod laser-eyes them, but apparently the inevitable thousands who died in the siege of Metropolis were moot because he didn’t stare into their faces personally. Our champion, ladies and gentlemen, is unfortunately inconsistent.

A few other points that didn’t fit coherently in the above:

  1. I can’t take anyone—baddie or otherwise—who moves like Albert Wesker seriously. Go ahead, play Resident Evil 5 and then rewatch Man of Steel. You’ll laugh your ass off every time a Kryptonian does their funny run-dodge thing.
  2. Come to think of it, there is something inherently sexist about Man of Steel, too. Lois Lane is a smart, savvy individual who figures out Superman’s origin with good old-fashioned journalism, but he inevitably has to save her from certain death three times during the course of the movie. Once, maybe, I could have handled. But three.
  3. We got no exposition at all on how the gravity-stomping world-builder was affecting the people in Asia, despite the fact that that bohemouth of a machine landed right in the South Indian ocean. We got a lot of Americans running and screaming, but no other cultures get to run away from the violence. Representation. We have a serious problem with representation. All we saw in that hemisphere was Superman beating the shit out of a machine, and sometimes the machine beating the shit out of him.

The scenery will stun you, but at some point, Amalur runs out of steam.

“Gorgeous” does not even describe it.

That point was at about forty hours into my second play-through. My obsession with side quests abruptly died, and my attempt to return to the main story left me confused and disinterested. Where was I going, again? Look, there’s an interesting cave. Oh, I’ve already gone there. I haven’t even reached that one port city yet?

First time through, I relished in the freedom Amalur presented me with. I could run around harvesting regents for hours on end if I wanted. No one was going to force me to participate in the main quest beyond a few lines of dialog if I accidentally brushed proximity with them. I could gleefully hunt down every exclamation mark on the map and demand a job from involved parties–again, for hours on end, if I wanted. (And sometimes, I did. It wouldn’t be an RPG without some high-quality, time-wasting grinding.) There was nothing about the main story or the faction quests that particularly pinged my radar, but they were fun enough to participate in, so I went along with it. Winning titles at the end of long, gruelling side campaigns gave me a brief glow of accomplishment.

I was ready to do it all over again, too. Maybe I’d make different allegiances this time. Guilt complex notwithstanding, I could decide to betray all of those peripheral factions and the good-ish people who helped me along the way and become some kind of megalomaniac.

Ultimately, though, the choices were definitely not numerous. Megalomaniac or saint: there was no in-between. And, in the end, what you do in your spare time (inviting the Niskaru Big Bad for tea and slaying all Warsworn, for example) doesn’t at all impact your main quest; you’re still going to save the world, no matter what. Seems a bit contradictory, considering that the game constantly throws in your face your status as the Fateless One. I felt far from fateless; I was continually dragged toward a predetermined endpoint. Apparently you’re also excused from facing the consequences of your actions; minor aspects of the game aside, your choice does not affect your ultimate showdown with Gadflow and Tirnoch.

The other major problem is what could also be considered the game’s most interesting aspect; your character is tabula rasa, the perfect blank slate, a reincarnation of some poor shmuck who was tied to destiny and thus died chained to his grisly demise. You, on the other hand, are displaced from the weave of fate all around you–and, unfortunately for everyone else, you’re also capable of screwing up all their fates, too. Your mere existence is a disturbance in the natural order. Times are a-changin’, my friend, and it’s all your fault.

Too bad you have no idea who you used to be, or maybe you’d be able to form some kind of connection with your character, who is really just a silent hunk of fate-destroying disruption. This wouldn’t be such a problem if it didn’t change how you related to other characters, too, but oh, goodness gracious, it does. There are a lot of people in this world who sort of know you or even deeply know you, but lacking the knowledge of the history between you–since they’re certainly not telling–means that you constantly feel adrift in the world of Amalur, one step behind the grand schemings of a world mad on self-destruction. Everyone else is a dozen or a hundred steps ahead of you, and you’re lollygagging behind, trying to contribute to the war effort without really knowing why the war’s on in the first place. I expected to be distracted by side quests, but I didn’t expect to dread returning to the main story when I’d depleted a region of all its exclamation points, and that is exactly what happened.

Amalur also manages to somehow incorporate all of the obvious character stereotypes: your sort-of adviser is an old white man with a beard and wisdom to offer, whenever he pries himself away from his alcoholism; the villain of the piece is creepily voiced with glowing red eyes, so you’d be unlikely to miss that he’s EVIL, capitalized, after your first encounter with him; and, of course, your female sort-of romantic interest is mysterious, scantily clad, and has no more backstory than a thumbtack. Despite the fact that Alyn Shir kicks serious ass, she somehow isn’t aware that armor would be a fashionable (and, more importantly, logical) addition to her wardrobe.

Evil? I would have never guessed. You look downright cheerful.

I get the sensation from Amalur that so much effort was used up streamlining the gameplay and erecting massively impressive scenic views that there wasn’t any time left to also devise a revolutionary plot with compelling characters. Let it be said that the gameplay is indeed extraordinary; it’s a seamless fix for turn- or time-based attack systems, which feel bulky and unwieldy in comparison to Reckoning’s invigorating battles. Similarly, this is obviously a game too pretty not to stare at. The graphics are nothing short of incredible.

That being said: Video games are notorious for uncomplicated characters and stories, but uncomplicated does not have to mean boring. It also does not have to mean repetitive. This is a fantasy story that’s been told time and time before–with elves and dwarves and mischievous gods, oh my–and the only differentiating element is your character, who is fateless and anonymous. Since this actually causes more of a disconnect from the world of Reckoning than it helps connect you to the storyline, I wouldn’t count that as an aspect worth introducing.

I was visually stunned, but all other brain regions were dark. I sank dozens upon dozens of hours into Reckoning, but what I got out of it was, at best, a very fuzzy memory of the story I was being told, or the characters that were supposed to intrigue me. Maybe the point of an RPG isn’t to wax poetic, but I still prefer a gameplay experience that leaves me with more than a fly-catching “huh” after I’ve saved the world. What was I saving it from again?

8/10

Resident Evil 6: A Precarious Balance Between Action and Survival Horror

My history with the Resident Evil franchise is powerfully sentimental, since Resident Evil 4 was the title that introduced me to video games in the first place. Sure, the plot left something to be desired, and the limitations of the GameCube made certain bosses a total frustration to conquer, but despite its unimaginative title, Resident Evil 4 was incredibly innovative. The traditional zombie story was revamped with new mutations, there was lava in a castle, and my personal favorite: mouth-breathing Regenerators, which gave a younger me the kind of nightmares that wake you up convinced you’re about to be chewed to death. I didn’t get that kind of terror out of Resident Evil 5, so I was beside myself when advertising for Resident Evil 6 clearly heralded a return to the zombies of old–on a much, much grander scale.

Previous Resident Evil stories have featured isolated incidents, but Resident Evil 6 turns that defining feature inside out. The whole world is going to hell in a handbasket, so this incident–or incidents, really–is unlikely to get buried in classified reports. Yet another virus has been created and dispersed in a few locations around the world, and each one of the three main campaigns–following old heroes Leon Kennedy and Chris Redfield, and introducing Jake Muller–disperse to handle the threat in their unique way. Leon, as usual, is outgunned and outnumbered, which makes his campaign by far the most terrifying; Chris lucks out with B.S.A.A. backup, and thus leads a crusade through China that’s more Gears of War than survival horror; and Jake, the conflicted wayward son of Albert Wesker, Resident Evil’s most persistent baddie, spends his short campaign running for his life.

It’s unfortunately obvious in this installment that Capcom is backtracking: trying to preserve the new fans that hopped on with action-packed Resident Evil 5 while also trying to placate old diehards who complained about the forgotten survival horror aspect. For the latter, Leon’s campaign does not disappoint. It’s not likely that you’ll be scrounging for bullets, but all the same, if you adjust the brightness of your television as suggested–and play in a dark room–there’s a nerve-fraying bit in the subway tunnels of Tall Oaks that will keep you on edge. For the former, Chris is your guy: his enemies are less zombie-like, featuring instead the anatomical mutations popularized by his last campaign in Resident Evil 5.

Watch out for the dark corners and heavy breathing.

The multiple, intersecting campaigns are a fresh addition to a fairly stagnant franchise. Resident Evil has a history of leaving you alone and vulnerable in overwhelming situations, but in Resident Evil 6, you always have your partner, and at various points, you interact with the other pairs from other campaigns, too. I am not particularly fond of co-op, but while the A.I. is somewhat improved over Resident Evil 5–when Sheva was likely to waste herbs at the slightest provocation–this game is still better played with a human partner, in whatever capacity you can have them.

These campaigns, though, feel unbalanced. The sheer scope of locales is certainly admirable, but while Leon and Chris get a lot of fleshing-out and solid plot-driven action, Jake’s campaign is brief and scattered, with an air of disorganization. This is due largely in part to the elongated timeline: while both Leon and Chris have campaigns that only span a few days, plus a flashback chapter for Chris, Jake’s campaign stretches over half a year. His story drags in comparison to the hyperactive events of Tall Oaks and Lanshiang.

The gameplay mechanics are polished and sometimes even inventive. Technically, running and gunning is now an option, but it won’t get you very far very fast; survival depends heavily on accuracy, something you really don’t get unless you’re aiming while walking or standing totally still. It’s a good fix for Resident Evil 5, when stopping to shoot was still forced, even though the platform was capable of more versatility.

Capcom has also solved the inventory problem of Resident Evil 5; each player has their own inventory, and if you’re playing with an A.I., you’re not responsible for managing their herb and ammo collection. The inventory still hangs over ongoing action, though, so any respite you might have gained in accessing your stuff is lost in the mad shuffle to get in and out of the screen before something gnaws your leg off. Herb ingestion is also easier in tablet form, and it’s possible to organize your stash in a way that gets you healthy without having to mix in the middle of a fight for your life. Herbs as health have never seemed particularly logical, but better to have any kind of health system at all than to give all characters special self-regenerative powers.

The addition of a melee system is also a huge plus; kicking and punching enemies will drain your stamina, and you’ll know when you run out by the depletion of the bar in your status box, as well as your suddenly sluggish movements on screen. You won’t be able to run very well, either, until your character has sufficiently recovered from the onslaught–potentially leaving you stranded in the middle of the hoard you were attempting to escape from.

Rather than the shop system of old, Resident Evil 6 introduces a new mechanic for upgrading not only weapons, but abilities: skill sets. The skill points you pick up while fighting for your life can be traded for increased damage, higher magnification, and how your A.I. partner behaves. While interesting in principle, the limit on how many skills one can have equipped at once is frustrating to someone who occasionally enjoys being overleveled. On the other hand, this is a useful in-game restraint to that kind of behavior, and certainly a unique expansion from the shop system, which made it possible to go into a final boss battle with everything you needed to make that fight extraordinarily easy.

The gameplay is solid, the score is invigorating, the mood teeters just enough into survival horror to be satisfying, but there’s still a resounding meh in the latest addition to the franchise. Ultimately, Resident Evil 6 is trying too hard to be too many different things–a survival horror game, an action game, and a simple puzzle game, all packed with enough content to have the length of an unambitious RPG. With its attention splintered across genres, it leaves irritating potholes behind to trip up on.

The thing that I found most redemptive above Resident Evil 6 was the story–a sentence I never expected to write about this franchise. These tales were poorly paced, but the characters of the Resident Evil franchise have never been particularly compelling before this installment. Helena’s backstory, coupled with the attack on Tall Oaks and the murder of Leon’s beloved President, is actually moving; Chris’s battle with post-traumatic stress disorder in the face of prolonged exposure to combat is viciously real; Jake’s reluctant effort to help save the world after his spotted history as a mercenary is sympathetic and redeeming.

The villains are as forgettable as ever, except for their truly cringe-worthy monologues. On the whole, the dialog is regrettable, though the voice acting is improved. There are few new and exciting aspects to the gameplay, and while a balance is struck between “action” and “survival horror,” it’s a precarious one. The stories of the protagonists, though, are compelling. That is what will ultimately keep me replaying this installment, though maxing out all my skills is a close second incentive.

Image

The villains all look the same, too. The slicked-back hair, the weird fashion choices…

7.5/10