‘The Last of Us’ Diary: Part IV — High Tension

May 15, 2015 in Game Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Joel takes on a Bloater

Joel takes on a Bloater

Note: This is the fourth part of a multi-part series detailing my experiences, observations and thoughts on The Last of Us on PS3. Part 1 can be found here, Part 2 can be found here, and Part 3 here.

Days 5 & 6 (May 9 & 10, 2015)

So now Joel and Tess have picked up Ellie and intend to take her to rendezvous with the Fireflies. Naturally, this requires sneaking out of the Boston quarantine zone and venturing through lots of dangerous shit with soldiers and zombies.

The Last of Us starts to pick up from here. Tess and Ellie are both NPCs (a new term I learned which means non-playable characters; I thought it meant National People’s Congress), but only Tess really helps out by attacking enemies.

Speaking of which, I love the variety of enemies in this game and how it mixes the humans with the zombies to provide different strategic experiences. With the humans, you have to sneak up on them and strangle or stick a shiv into them from behind so they don’t make too much noise. If they discover you, you’re screwed, and you’ll have to end up taking them all out the old-fashioned way like Emilio Estevez in Young Guns. With limited ammo and supplies, that’s not often a good idea, and you’ll have to make the most of the terrain and your ability to run to take them out one by one.

Going out in a blaze of glory!

Going out in a blaze of glory!

It’s really nerve-racking taking on humans because some of them have either guns or melee weapons. Using your special listening ability to see where they are hiding is often crucial, and having the patience to take your time is key. Like Eminem, my palms were sweaty.

One of my favourite tactics is to throw a bottle or brick at a human enemy to stun them, then race up to grab them and do my thing. I’ve also learned that sometimes you just have to run and forget about fighting them. It’s not like that in every game.

A military pamphlet you get in the game explaining the different stages of infection

A military pamphlet you get in the game explaining the different stages of infection

The zombies — known as “the infected” — provide a different experience. There are at least four types, as far as I know, depending on their stage of infection. The Runners are basically like humans, except they can’t use weapons so they are easier to kill. However, they also travel in packs, and Joel can’t fight like a character from Dynasty Warriors so the best option is usually to run away and hide.

The Stalkers are the next level up and they are pretty ferocious. They’re aggressive and can jump out of nowhere, plus they also travel in groups. Not a good idea to engage these guys head on. Then there’s the Clickers, or as I like to call them, the Motherclickers. These bad boys freak me out with the clicking noise they keep making. They’re blind, but they have super hearing, so you must try and sneak past them if you can, or distract them by throwing something in the opposite direction. The worst part is that you can’t kill them by punching them, meaning you must have a melee weapon or gun equipped. In the panic of battle, my number one option usually ends up being run!

Clickers

Hiding from a Stalker, a very ugly one

Whether it’s fighting humans or zombies, The Last of Us is probably the tensest, most atmospheric game I’ve ever played. I was on the edge of my seat, sometimes literally, and I even had to turn up the air conditioning because it was making me sweat. The last game I played with great atmosphere was Heavy Rain, but that was more like a “choose your own adventure” extended cut scene as opposed to a real game.

heavy rain

A scene from Heavy Rain

The most action-packed game I’ve played recently is Resident Evil 6, which had plenty more zombies but was extremely poor in generating any real suspense. It was over-the-top and arcade-like, and the zombies were more like pinatas for you to destroy rather than real dangers.

ResidentEvil6

A scene from Resident Evil 6

Games I’ve played that have been both engrossing and atmospheric, with just the right amount of action, including Resident Evil 1 and 4, and Silent Hill, though those games aren’t on the same level as The Last of Us in all categories. There’s nothing quite like sneaking up on a dude, strangling him, then being jumped by a Stalker, then running to hide from a Clicker, before smashing in the head of a Runner.

Zombies

Joel crushes the head of a zombie against the wall

The Last of Us is not relentless action by any means, but it’s precisely because of that the game is able to build up so much suspense. Rather than boring, the silence comes across as eerie and unsettling. You just never know what’s going to break that silence.

Anyway, by the end of day 6 of playing, Joel and Tess finally managed to take Ellie to the place where they’re supposed to meet up with the Fireflies. But of course, they go in to find all of them dead. To make matters worse, Tess has bad news. She’s been infected! No!!!

Tess Bitten

Could you show me a little more?

Naturally, I was devastated. I had been hoping that Joel would be able to keep her around like what Michonne did with her zombies in The Walking Dead, but alas, Tess preferred to sacrifice herself instead to allow Joel and Ellie to escape from the soldiers. As Jack Bauer said when Renee Walker died, “Dammit!”

Conan

My reaction to Tess’s death

Movie Review: Jupiter Ascending (2015)

May 14, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

jupiter_ascending_movie_poster_2

I wanted to be the guy to tell everyone that Jupiter Ascending is actually pretty good and completely unworthy of the 25% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Unfortunately, I can’t be that guy. While typically ambitious and visually eye-popping, the whole thing was just too bonkers and incoherent to be appreciated, especially as a once-off viewing experience. I could like it more if I watched it again, but it’s just not good enough to warrant another go.

I don’t even know where to start with the plot synopsis. Mila Kunis plays a domestic cleaner by the name of Jupiter, and it turns out she’s really important to a bunch of powerful aliens in space. Some want to kill her, some want to save her. Falling in the latter category is Channing Tatum and his blonde eyebrows. Tatum is a human spliced with wolf DNA and he has super anti-gravity rocket boots and a projected force-field shield. They fight off aliens and fly to distant galaxies and blow lots of shit up while flying through the air.

That’s an ultra simplistic description of the premise of Jupiter Ascending. In reality there is a plethora of discoveries and plot twists that I couldn’t really keep track of and gave up trying after a while. To be honest I may not have been paying my fullest attention to the conversations.

The problem with the film is that it’s just completely all over the place. The first few minutes or so, which detail Jupiter’s birth and her grown-up life, were quite interesting. But once the first alien appears on screen, all hell breaks loose. People just start bouncing off the walls, shooting blasters, smashing through buildings, falling out of the sky, kicking each other in the face, going invisible — you name it, they did it.

To make matters worse, they also tried to fit in all this convoluted exposition in between, so you’d end up going from crazy action one minute to boring explanations the next. With so many characters to keep track of — there’s a trio of alien “royalty” played by Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth and Tuppence Middleton, as well as a bunch of bounty hunters, Sean Bean, his daughter, and many other aliens and Jupiter’s extended family members — I was constantly lost trying to keep track of who’s who, which side they’re on and what motivations they have. It didn’t help that some characters were duplicitous, telling lies one second and the truth another, and people were being duped by secret schemes and nasty plans and so forth.

I also had trouble understanding what some of them were saying, including these crazy winged kimodo dragon-type aliens and Eddie Redmayne, who delivers a so-bad-he’s-good pussy villain with a permanently husky whisper. It’s hard to fathom that this is the same guy who just won an Oscar for portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.

I’ve been a fan of the Wachowskis when they were still the Wachowski Brothers (before Larry became Lana), even though their directorial efforts have arguably been sliding in the wrong direction since The Matrix. I like that they push the boundaries and challenge themselves with home-run projects– as evidenced by the polarising Cloud Atlas in 2012 — but this time I believe they bit off far more than they can chew.

There’s simply too much stuff to swallow in Jupiter Rising. The characters, their complex relationships, the unnecessarily convoluted plot, the twists, the gadgets, the weapons, the technology, and all the different alien races. Remember, much of this is sci-fi world building, so audiences have to take some time to accept and digest it. When it comes so fast and furious you’re just left wondering WTF is going on. In the end, the only thing I cared about was whether Sean Bean’s character was going to die. It’s like squeezing four Game of Thrones seasons worth of characters, backstory and world-building stuff into just a little over two hours. It’s too much. That’s why I think Jupiter Rising would have worked better as a TV series, where the concepts and characters could be introduced at a slower pace.

Mila Kunis is as good as Jupiter, though despite the praises of feminists her character is only marginally better than your typical damsel in distress in love with the hunky Channing Tatum. Speaking of which, Tatum’s physical performance is decent, but his acting is still not the greatest. He’s not the best actor in the world, and acting primarily against a green screen doesn’t help his wooden expressions. As for Eddie Redmayne, I don’t think it’s a horrible performance. It’s just that you can’t take his character seriously because of the voice and the eyeliner.

In fact, it’s impossible to take the entire film seriously. If you can forget about everything wrong with the movie, ignore the incoherent script and the WTF moments, and just go along for the insane, CGI-fuelled, action-packed ride, Jupiter Ascending could possibly pass as an entertaining experience. The bigger the screen, the higher the odds.

2.25 stars out of 5

‘The Last of Us’ Diary: Part III — Casting the Movie

May 12, 2015 in Game Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

scenery

Note: This is the third part of a multi-part series detailing my experiences, observations and thoughts on The Last of Us on PS3. Part 1 can be found here and Part 2 can be found here.

Day 4 (May 8, 2015)

I’m really starting to get immersed in the game now and can’t wait to play it every night.

After meeting the wounded leader of the Fireflies, Marlene, we are introduced to the female lead of the game, Ellie, a young girl who is seemingly very important for some strange reason. As it turns out, Marlene wants Joel and Tess to help the Fireflies smuggle Ellie out, and if they do so, they’ll get their guns back “and then some.”

Introducing Ellie

You get a good sense of Ellie’s spunk and feistiness from the first time she appears on screen

It’s pretty obvious that Ellie is supposed to be some kind of substitute for Joel’s dead daughter, and their relationship will form the crux of the game’s emotional core. It’s a good dynamic. Joel’s disillusioned, hardened and wary from years of doing nasty things to survive, and the last thing he wants to be reminded of is the one thing (or person, rather) that will remind him of his former humanity. Ellie, on the other hand, is also hardened by the environment she has had to grow up in but seems to be looking for a parent figure, making the two of them a perfect match.

The first time I saw Ellie’s face — I think it was in a poster or trailer — I immediately thought of Ellen Page. It’s an uncanny similarity many gamers have noticed.

Ellie vs Ellen

Ellen Page vs Ellie

This caused a bit of a furore when the game came out, because Page did not lend her likeness to the game or perform any motion capture. What caused more confusion was the fact that Page was actually starring in another video game, Beyond: Two Souls, Quantic Dream’s follow-up to Heavy Rain. Here’s what Page looked like in that game.

beyond two souls

Ellen Page’s likeness in Beyond: Two Souls

Page was apparently not happy about it, and Naughty Dog actually did some editing before the game was released to make Ellie look more like the actress who did the voice and motion capture, Ashley Johnson.

Ashley-Johnson

Ashley Johnson

It’s not a big deal that she looks very little like Ellie, since the actor who played Joel, Troy Baker, looks nothing like his character either.

Joel

Troy Baker doing motion capture for The Last of Us

Whatever.

What I find interesting though is that a lot of people are calling for Ellen Page to play Ellie in the movie version of The Last of Us. While Page does look young for her age (28), getting her to play a 14-year-old is a bit of a stretch. The actress who has been tentatively attached to the movie project is actually Maisie Williams, whom most of you will know as Arya Stark from Game of Thrones.

Maisie-Williams-The-Last-of-Us

Maisie Williams as Ellie?

I like this idea a lot. Williams is 18 but seems much younger on Thrones, and she’s only 155cm tall, which would allow her to easily pass as a 14 year old when paired with a taller actor. Besides, I think it’s stupid to cast actors for a movie adaptation of a video game based on their physical resemblance to the characters.

Other names fans have brought up include Dakota Fanning (too old, unless they up Ellie’s age in the movie), Elle Fanning (she’s 17 but too tall at 5’8″, plus her acting in Maleficent was…), Ariel Winter from Modern Family (she’s 17 but probably could do it), and Chloe Grace Moretz (she’s 18 but can look young, so maybe). I don’t think any of them are as suitable as Williams at this stage.

As for Joel, there are currently no actors attached to the project, but that has not stopped fans from speculating who should get the job. Top names being thrown around at the moment include Hugh Jackman, Josh Brolin, Dylan McDermott, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Gerard Butler, Russel Crowe, Bradley Cooper, and Viggo Mortensen.  I’d actually prefer someone less famous, but out of that bunch, my money’s on Hugh Jackman. He has the stature and built, the physicality to take on zombies bare-fisted and the vulnerability — as demonstrated by his performance in Prisoners — to make a convincing Joel. Josh Brolin would be my second choice and McDermott by third, but none of the others feel like good fits.

Jack Human

Jack Human as Joel?

As for Tess? Lena Heady from Thrones would be excellent because we know she’s got the balls to pull it off. Of course, the actress who did the voice and motion capture, Annie Wersching, would be a good choice too.

Cersei Lannister as Tess?

Cersei Lannister as Tess?

Anyway, back to the game itself. As expected, it does not take long for Ellie to reveal her secret. I had suspected that she’s important because of some link to a cure for the virus, and as it turned out, I was right. Joel, Tess and Ellie are accosted by a bunch of soldiers, who use this special gadget to test whether they are infected or not.

Ellie Infected

I knew it!

After taking down the soldiers, they discover that the machine returned a positive reading for Ellie. She was bitten a few weeks back and hasn’t turned, an anomaly considering everyone is supposed to turn within two days of infection. So that’s why they need to get Ellie to some scientists so they can figure out why, and perhaps develop some kind of cure or vaccine for the masses.

From here, Joel and Tess will have to babysit Ellie until they meet up with the Fireflies, but I’m certain something else will happen so that the plot will require Joel to travel with Ellie all the way across the country. That’s just the way these stories work, but rather than complain about its predictability I’m going to praise The Last of Us for the way it has handled the drama thus far. In any case, the game looks like it’s going to be a lot more action packed from this point forward.

Stay tuned for more!

‘The Last of Us’ Dairy: Part II — Hello Tess!

May 11, 2015 in Game Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Skyline1

The first shot of the Boston skyline in The Last of Us

Note: This is the second part of a multi-part series detailing my experiences, observations and thoughts on The Last of Us on PS3. Part 1 can be found here.

Days 2 & 3 (May 6 & 7, 2015)

So now it’s 20 years into the future and Joel still looks pretty good for a guy barely scraping by in a post-apocalyptic zombie universe. He’s woken up by knocking at the door and goes to open it.

And hello! Say good day to Tess, who just strides in like she owns the place.

Tess1

Tess says hello

Let’s face it: Tess is hot. Not hot in the supermodel, unattainable way, but in the “will we see something between her and Joel in this game?!” way. Spoiler alert: sadly, no.

Tess is a member of Joel’s gang, and they seem to be pretty close. It’s not clear how close they are, but in a world where there aren’t many people around, and those still walking are zombies or look like zombies, I think it’s safe to say there are benefits in that relationship.

So apparently some dude called Robert has stolen some guns from the gang, and Tess and Joel have been tasked with tracking him down. This offers an opportunity for us to use Joel to wander through the Boston quarantine zone and outside of it.

Walking Dead Comp

Unfortunately, Joel has no time for hoops

The outdoor scenery in this game is magnificent as you can see from the scene above. There’s growth all over the buildings, which look worn down, dirty and dilapidated, and yet there are signs of former civilization everywhere. You know what this reminds me of? The Walking Dead (TV). It’s the first thing that came to mind when I walked out of the quarantine zone.

walking-dead-WEB

A scene from AMC’s The Walking Dead

The game has other similarities to the show. Both are character driven and have a gritty, contemplative tone. It’s not super fast paced but feeds off the tense atmosphere. And the human enemies are arguably more dangerous than the undead ones. I know The Walking Dead has an official video game based on the show, but I’m assuming that like most tie-in games, it sucks, so I’d definitely recommend The Last of Us for those looking to simulate the feel of the TV show in a video game.

Anyway, Joel and Tess go on to infiltrate Robert’s hideout, introducing players to the game’s combat system. I love combat system in this game. I love the entire control system. It’s incredibly fluid, and there’s no long-winded tutorial where you have to try and memorise everything in one hit. In the Last of Us, mini-tutorials pop up when you need it, and you get a little bit of time to practice before you have to utilise the newly-learned moves in a live-fire situation.

Gameplay1

Joel learns to shoot

The controls are so fluid and appear to have evolved by combining all the best aspects of other games before it. You can crouch and stand with the press of a button, run and leap over hurdles, pick up and throw projectiles, fire shots, reload weapons and change weapons in your arsenal with ease.

Moreover, the game promotes the use of stealth to take out enemies rather than going in all guns blazing. It adds a new dimension to the game and encourages the use of smarts and strategy to get the job done. You can sneak up behind people and put them in a head lock, which then allows you to drag them around as a human shield, choke them out, or stab them with a shiv. If you make too much noise you’ll attract attention and the enemies will come all at once. The realism is impressive.

I also liked this thing called Listen Mode, which you can activate with the press of a button. It basically enhances Joel’s hearing ability so you can scope out whether there are enemies in the next room or hiding nearby.

the-last-of-us-listen-mode

The useful Listen Mode

The learning curve is relatively flat considering how much you can do. I still panic sometimes when it gets tense, but once I master the controls I’m going to be master of my domain.

Day 3 of playing ended with Joel and Tess tracking down Robert, which leads them to the leader of the rebel Fireflies, a woman named Marlene. As soon as I saw her I thought of Sasha from The Walking Dead!

Marlene

Marlene vs Sasha

Oh, and just when I thought Tess couldn’t be more awesome she goes ahead and blows Robert’s head off just because.

She’s been praised by reviewers along with Ellie (to be introduced soon) as examples of strong female characters. Rather than describing her as strong character, however, I think it’s better to say she has “personality”. She’s strong-willed and takes no BS from anyone, but she can also be ruthless when she wants to be.

Tess2

Tess!

That said, she still doesn’t look realistic. I mean, look at her body for goodness sake. I suppose Naughty Dog still has to satisfy the “30+ and still living in their mother’s basement” demographic. And it’s not just the female characters, if we want to get into it. The main male characters are always generically handsome (Joel is no exception) and either athletically built or unnaturally buffed.

But look, I’m not complaining. We’ve come a long way since the original Lara Croft Tomb Raider days.

The evolution of Lara Croft, Tomb Raider

The evolution of Lara Croft, Tomb Raider

Oh, and lastly, a bombshell. The actress who did the voice and motion capture for Tess was none other than ‎Annie Wersching, who played Renee Walker on 24! Mind blown. Maybe Tess’s body is not unrealistic after all.

Annie-Wersching-FOX-Photoshoot

Annie Wersching

PS: I’ve been told spoilers are OK since the game is two years old. So spoiler alert!

Movie Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

May 10, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Kingsman

Kingsman: The Secret Service is entirely bonkers. It’s also entirely enjoyable.

Based on the a UK comic book series created by Dave Gibbons (Watchmen) and Mike Millar (Spider-Man, Wanted, Kick-Ass), it tells the story of Eggsy Unwin (Taron Edgerton), a white trash Londoner who is recruited to a top secret spy agency headed by “Arthur” (Michael Caine) and “Galahad” (Colin Firth).

Like its source material, Kingsman channels the most famous spy who ever lived, James Bond, with loads of super cool gadgets and outrageous action sequences. It’s not quite Austin Powers — ie, it’s more tongue-in-cheek homage than parody — but it’s so deliciously over-the-top and unapologetically so that you can’y help but admire its audacity and sense of fun. The villain, for instance, is a lispy eco-terrorist played by a crooked-baseball-cap-wearing Samuel L Jackson, whose sidekick, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), is essentially “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorious with actual blades as prosthetic legs and Bruce Lee-like kung fu skills. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

What really elevates Kingsman above your typical action-comedy, however, is the direction of Matthew Vaughn, best known for Stardust, Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class. There’s a genuine energy to his approach that got my blood pumping, and he adopts a slick style that can only be described as cool. He’s a real talent who knows what works and has the skills to turn vision into reality on the big screen. One thing my wife said during the movie that stood out to me is that it doesn’t feel like a typically gloomy, drab British flick. And she’s absolutely right. In addition to the Bond films, Kingsman reminds me a little of the first Men In Black movie with the cool kid learning the ropes to be a new recruit angle, the innovative gadgets and the irreverent tone, as well as Kick-Ass for its stylistic — and shockingly graphic — violence. I’m sure there will be complaints about how violent it is,

The action is spectacular, as you would expect from the guy who delivered Kick-Ass, though here Vaughn takes it to another level with some of the best choreographed fight scenes in recent memory. One ridiculously complex set piece, forever to be known as “The Church Scene”, was a symphony of absolute mayhem executed with no rapid cuts and all swirling long takes. Epic stuff.

It doesn’t hurt that the cast is superb. Colin Firth looks and acts the part as Galahad, and the presence of Caine and one of my faves, Mark Strong, lifts the overall class of any film. Even Samuel L Jackson, who has been a “keep gettin’ ’em cheques” guys for a while now, appears to be having more fun than usual. I had never heard of Taron Edgerton before, but I’m sure I’ll be seeing a lot more of him after witnessing how he held his own against all these big stars without a hiccup. He’s equally convincing whether as a scared delinquent or a suave secret agent. Looking forward to seeing him later this alongside the likes of Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis and Christopher Eccleston in the true crime drama Legend.

It has already received fairly good reviews, though I have a feeling Kingsman will be looked upon even more favourably years from now. It’s adventurous, edgy, sharp, funny, and filled with energy and style. It’s acutely aware of the traditions of the genre, but instead of overturning them it plays along with a cheerful wink and throws in a couple of wild surprises so audiences can’t quite put their finger on what’s going to happen next. While it spirals into ridiculousness towards the end, the film’s complete lack of sense actually helps the kind of popcorn experience Vaughn is trying to achieve. When it’s all said and done, Kingsman could very well turn out be the best action-comedy of the year.

4.25 stars out of 5

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