Monthly Archives: January 2015

Madden NFL 15

Madden NFL 15_20150125181443Full disclosure: I am a new sports fan. It’s only since last autumn that I started watching. Also, I have only played one or two Madden games prior to Madden NFL 15. So please bear in mind that this review is from the perspective of a newcomer to the series and football itself.

ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL?! Well, maybe not football exactly, but a game about football. Sports really don’t fit video games as poorly as many would assume. Aren’t both gamers and sports fans often competitive but bad-tempered? Well, sports games like this enable a compounding of these characteristics. But just how well does Madden NFL 15 capture the spirit of football?

Plot: N/A

Graphics: 7 out of 10

To be perfectly honest, I don’t think these graphics are quite next generation. They’re a fair amount better than what I would have expected from a PS3, but the PS4 is certainly capable of better. I have read that the XOne version has better graphics, expecially in the lighting. I recently saw an online comparison, and it’s convincing. So a point or two higher for that version here?

But it’s not as though the graphics are bad. Character Models have very few flaws and the field looks like the real thing would in CGI. It’s just not all that impressive.

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Yeah, this carrying model could definitely use some work.

Sound: 9 out of 10

The theme song of this game is really good. I often find myself humming along with it when it plays. Commentary From actual announcers Phil Simms, Jim Nantz, and whoever is the Halftime analyzer is great as well. Their voices are strong, their timing just right. The only problem is that the voice actors explaining things in the training drills seem kind of bored.

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A simulation of a real game with the EA logo? EA doesn’t ask questions, it just promotes itself!

Gameplay: 9 out of 10

There are training drills for newcomers like myself. They take some time to go through, but they do a good job of teaching you the fundamentals of Madden.

In the actual games they stay true to the NFL. Almost everything hapens as it would in the real thing. There are plays, defensive and offensive formations, tackles, evasions, runs, passes, field goals, you name it. You can even turn injuries on if you want. One liberty taken is that when the defense does an interception or retrieves a fumbled ball, the game is frozen as the camera turns around so both players will know immediately what’s happened. This is because it might be difficult to adjust to an instantly turning camera.

The controls are spot-on. I never really encountered any issues during the season I played in Connected Franchise. A nice bonus is the ability to go over certain plays after a game with Blu-Ray Style forward, back, and pause features. Also, you can adjust the camera angles.

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As Phil points out, coaches don’t care whether you can catch or not — catch the ball anyway! This receiver gets that.

Some RPG elements are in the game. The coach and players (the real guys because this game is sanctioned by the NFL) gain experience points to be spent on upgrades to their attributes. This adds some more strategy as you have to decide which beef-ups to give to which players and whether to do it now or wait a few games for the really good stuff. You are also allowed to choose a player, coach, or team owner to customize, but the choices are quite limited, especially when compared to the NBA 2K series.

One thing to note is that you can skip games in the season if you’re playing against the computer, but I wouldn’t recommend it. This will likely cause your win/loss record to suffer and if injuries are on, the chances of them happening goes through the roof! But it’s fitting since this is basically outright cheating.

Challenge: 8 out of 10

Are you going through a messy divorce or just badly losing the game?

Are you going through a messy divorce or just badly losing the game?

Playing offline, the computer ranges from easy to hard, depending on what you set the difficulty to. Thankfully, it’s not particularly cheap, although it does seem to improve after your first or second touchdown in a game so as to add suspense. One oddity is the margin for error. Most games force you to win every game. This one actually lets you lose a few games and still make it to the Super Bowl, as it’s got to in order to be true to real life.

Overall: 9 out of 10

I’d say that this game passes the test with flying colors. As football game, it captures the experience to a “T.” As a generic game, it’s almost everything you could ask for.

Only in my game could the Falcons win like this.

Only in my game could the Falcons win like this.

Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness

UltimaITitleHard to believe that this is only the second PC game that I’ve reviewed. It’s probably because I’ve always been more of a console gamer. But as far as RPGs go, before Final FantasyDragon Quest, Dragon Age, or any MMO, there was Ultima. So without any of these templates, how did Ultima I fare? Let’s see…

Plot: -2 out of 10

This game is designed around quite possibly the worst plot I have seen in any medium. It’s about you trying to stop the evil wizard Mondain from taking over the world of Sosaria. At first glance, that’s all there is to it. In the Atari era when games couldn’t handle cutscenes, that was all you could expect. The problem is all the futuristic shit you get along the way. You can buy a Raft or Frigate to travel by sea to other continents. Sounds reasonable, right? Well, there’s a better vehicle: an Aircar with its built-in cannon. Yes, in a Dark Ages world you can buy flying cars. Also, there are some areas where searching will boost your stats (except for the one that upgrades your weapon) gradually. The best available is a Blaster. Yes, you can use a laser gun in this game.

The cherry on the sundae is when you buy a Space Shuttle and learn to fly it. You use the laser turret to destroy Tie Fighters from Star Wars and become a Space Ace. Now, why become a Space Ace? Because you can’t get a princess to help you find a Time Machine (which doesn’t seem to exist before you’re told where it is) until you’ve mastered space. And you need the Time Machine because Mondain’s got the Gem of Immortality. Therefore, you’ve got to go back in time to before he got it and became invincible.

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This is what I’m talking about. You have a shuttle with lasers. Why not just blast any threats to Sosaria from orbit?

Unfortunately, all the princesses are in the dungeons of their fathers. Either the kings are mad tyrants no better than Mondain or the princesses are spoiled, crackhead brats who are being disciplined for their irresponsible behavior. The jester’s got the key to the dungeon, so you kill him for it, free the Princess, and fight your way out. By the way, if you come back, the Princess is re-kidnapped and nobody thinks anything of your kidnapping and mass murder.

After you activate the Time Machine with the items collected in dungeons, you go back in time to kill Mondain. Personally, with the insanity of the Dark Space Ages and “rescuing” princesses from their own kingdoms, I had forgotten about this guy.

Graphics: 7 out of 10

I should note that the version I played was the more advanced version released six years later. The graphics are pretty bland yet a sight above Atari. At least you can pretty much tell what everything looks, whereas the Atari was famous for making you use your imagination.

That's a Thief? I would have gussed a coat that's been hung up.

That’s a Thief? I would have guessed a coat that’s been hung up.

Sound: 8 out of 10

Unlike a lot of retro gamers on the ‘net, I have never owned an Atari, nor was I around for the first era of PC gaming. Other than Ms. Pac-Man in arcades, I started with the NES. As a result I always have to get used to playing a game without any music. Having said that, the sound effects are pretty good. You can believe that the sound that was just made was what it represented. Just do yourself a favor and have a song on your phone ready before you start playing this.

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May I recommend The Jetsons theme song when you get an Aircar?

Gameplay: 6 out of 10

More towns and castles than I expected, and a bigger world in general. You have only one character. After naming him/her, distributing points to physical and mental attributes, and picking his/her race and class, you fight monsters to build up gold. You can use this gold to buy Hits, Food (see Challenge for more on this), and eventually buy vehicles and better equipment. There is no level system. Instead, you can do quests given to you by the kings to raise your stats. You’ll have a very high upper limit to your Hits, Ultima I’s weird name for hit points. I’d say this works out fine. It’s not hard or inconvenient to find your way around like many other old RPG, and the quests mean that you’ll always have something to do, even as you try to figure out your next objective.

The one big problem: the controls of the space portion are absolutely terrible. I strained to get the Shuttle to go where I wanted in the navigational portion and the targeting cursor in the shooting portion is sluggish and can’t even move diagonally.

Challenge: 5 out of 10

The difficulty seems really high at first. The reason is that the Ultima series is one of the few to ever use a Food system. You lose a point of Food for every second or third step you take, and a step after you run out kills you! As a result, if enemies take too long to show up, you’ll actually take a loss because you have to keep buying Food. I found myself resetting repeatedly for this reason. And in classic fantasy fashion, the possibility of hunting to get free food is not even considered.

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The perpetrator’s explanation that his acts of kidnapping and murder were committed to save Sosaria were found unacceptable and he was sentenced to death.

Fortunately, this doesn’t last long. Once you get a good enough weapon and suit of armor, you can fight in dungeons for a good while. How is this better? Because you don’t lose food anywhere but the outside world, not even in dungeons. That makes no sense, but it’s a little late to start now.

Once you start successfully finding everything to complete the game can be challenging, but replay value is nil. You get Hits and Gold very quickly and Mondain ends up dying fairly easily if you’re at full strength, so without the mystery, you can beat the game in a few hours of play.

Overall: 5 out of 10

It’s not good, but not bad either. RPGs had to start somewhere, and this series would get better with time. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to skip to Part III, when the series starts to finally resemble contemporary RPGs.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five armies

HobbitArmiesPosterMartin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins
Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Gray
Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield
Manu Bennett as Azog the Defiler
Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug and Sauron The Necromancer
Ken Stott as Balin
Aiden Turner as Kili
Dean O’Gorman as Fili
James Nesbit as Bofur
Graham McTavish as Dwalin
Jed Brophy as Nori
Adam Brown as Ori
John Callen as Gloin
Stephen Hunter as Bombur
Peter Hambleton as Gloin
Mark Hadlow as Dori
William Kircher as Bifur
Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel
Orlando Bloom as Legolas
Lee Pace as Thranduil
Luke Evans as Bard
John Bell as Bain
Stephen Fry as The Master of Lake-Town
Ryan Gage as Alfrid
Cate Blanchett as Galadriel
Hugo Weaving as Elrond
Christopher Lee as Saruman the White
Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown
Mikael Persbrandt as Beorn

This is my first time reviewing a movie at a time when it is still in theaters. Since I’m blogging a Lord of the Rings marathon in honor of the Hobbit trilogy coming to a close, I figured I might as well.

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You know, if they’d known the truth about the Ring then…

My take on Desolation of Smaug was decidedly negative. So naturally, I was worried about how the final chapter would turn out. While I am a little disappointed, it is enjoyable. It’s a masterpiece of melee combat with some drama thrown in. But it really can’t be considered great like the first four movies in this franchise. Good but not great.

We begin with Smaug terrorizing Lake-Town and Gandalf being held prisoner by The Necromancer, who turns out be Sauron, trying his hand at emerging without the One Ring. As Bard catches a glimpse of Smaug’s one vulnerable spot and sends an arrow into it, Gandalf is rescued by Galadrial, Saruman, and Elrond. Sauron and the nazgul are banished, and Saruman assures everybody that this is the last we’ve seen of them. Is this Peter Jackson hinting about Saruman’s betrayal that we know is coming?

Meanwhile, the men of Lake-Town want a share of Smaug’s Uncle Scrooge-like hoard in return for helping the dwarves get there home back. The elves of Mirkwood want a gem necklace that historically belongs to them. But Thorin doesn’t want to give a copper up. He’s drunk with power and greed and is seeking the Arkenstone, a mystical gem that is implied to be part of the cause of Thorin’s turn for the worse. Bilbo, meanwhile has been hoarding it out of fear that if Thorin gets it, he will become completely evil.

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Et tu, Thorin?

However, the real meat of the film occurs after the elven, man, dwarven, and finally, orcish armies arrive. I’ve pretty much explained why the elves and men come, but it turns out that Thorin sent an envoy to dwarves from somewhere else to help. But then Azog the Defiler and his army of orcs, who have, of course, been pursuing Bilbo and the dwarves all this time, attack. A truce between the men, elves, and dwarves is formed so they can unite against their true enemies. Well, Thorin’s dwarves except the stars of the show. Thorin orders his company to tend to the defense of what is their home again while their kin fight and die for them.

Give credit where credit is due to Peter Jackson. He can do drama. The corruption of Thorin is made for extremely effective cinema. As part of a prequel to the movies whose central theme is the corruption of power, this is quite worthy.

But we don’t spend much time on this. No, the main focus is the big battle. It’s done extremely well, not that anyone who’s seen the battles in The Two Towers and Return of the King would be surprised. But this in of itself doesn’t make for good cinema.

Part of this is by design. The Battle of the Five Armies was almost where we left off. So there wasn’t too much room for drama. But the fact that some problems were inevitable doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

So this movie caps off an overrated trilogy in a fitting way. It’s not excellent. It’s not even great. But I would consider it to be good. And the action is nothing less than awesome.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

Plus, we were all waiting for this SOB to go down.

Don’t watch The Battle of the Five Armies expecting an epic curtain call. Watch it expecting popcorn fun. Sorry if that is disappointing to some.

A major improvement over Desolation of Smaug at any rate.

Overall: 7 out of 10

The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth

BattleMiddleEarthTitlePeter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies are remembered best by many people for their medieval battles between armies. Hell, the last Hobbit focused particularly on that. Here we have a PC game based on these movies that focuses on those battles by utilizing the real-time strategy genre. And it does a good job of it, too. It’s a fun war game that remains true to the spirit of the story, and adds a nice choice you may have not been expecting.

Plot: 7 out of 10

That choice is between two different main games: the Good Campaign and Evil Campaign. The Good Campaign is what you’d expect: an adaptation of the movies. we go from the mines of Moria to the final battle in which the armies of Gondor and Rohan battle the forces of the dark lord Sauron until the Ring is destroyed, as per the movie. Mostly it stays true to the source material, the admittedly big exceptions being defending Galadriel’s country from an attack early on and the fact that you have a chance to save Boromir from being killed in Amon Hen and keep him around for the rest of the game.

Mount Doom’s closer to the entrance of Mordor than I ever pictured.

The Evil Campaign focuses on the uruk-hai (and warg-riders) of Isengard and orcs (plus trolls and evil men) of Mordor. Similar to the Good Campaign, save that the bad guys win. You defeat main characters numerous times but they always seem to survive and escape to fight again. Not really hard to believe, seeing as how real battles in war have far more survivors than most would assume. The missions are mostly the as in the Good Campaign. One notable break from this is that because the heroes are defeated in Amon Hen and thus can’t break Saruman’s control of Theoden, a mission has you storming the Rohan capital.

Lest anyone think Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are forgotten, each campaign has a post-breaking of the Fellowship mission involving them. One is Sam saving Frodo when he is captured by orcs, the other is the devious Gollum killing Frodo and Sam and getting the Ring.

Graphics: 9 out of 10

For their size (it’s hard to richly detail models as small as figurines), the characters are very well-done. The landscape is nothing less than excellent, and the accurate facsimiles of what we saw in the movies bring it all together.

Notice the actual movie image of Saruman in the lower left.

Sound: 8 out of 10

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) are narrators for their respective Campaigns. McKellen is in full-on “do I really gotta voice a video game” mode, but Lee is as great as ever. This makes the Evil Campaign probably a little better. Thankfully most of the voice cast is more akin to Lee than McKellen, at least, as far as this game goes.

As for music, the soundtrack is great! Some songs are recycled from the movies, but there are some unique songs that hold their own. The Good songs have a happy and positive feel. The Evil songs are gruesome.

Gameplay: 8 out of 10

The Battle for Middle-Earth centers around you building up the army of your country and sending it into action. Of course, they don’t work for free, so you have to create Farms, Slaughterhouses, and/or Lumber Mills to make money.

There are four countries you can choose: Gondor, Rohan, Isengard, and Mordor. They have different attributes. The two good countries are centered around healing and main characters who are built like tanks, while the evil countries are built around wiping out the opposition with superior numbers (just like the movies).

Why your mother taught you to look both ways before crossing the street.

Why your mother taught you to look both ways before crossing the street.

Each opposing unit you kill counts towards what are known as Powers. Powers give you an edge when activated, then becoming nonfunctional for a while. Gondor and Rohan have mostly healing and unit summoning Powers. Isengard and Mordor favor Powers that make them easy money, strengthen units, and reveal unexplored areas of the map.

The countries are fairly well-balanced and fun to play as. The economy-building and unit generation also work out well. These qualities make for a solid strategy game.

Challenge: 8 out of 10

A modestly challenging and fun game improved by the amount of playtime that two Campaigns provide. The missions that represent the huge battles are significantly tougher than the others, but for pivotal moments, that’s to be expected.

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Leave it to a video game to be more violent than its cinematic counterpart.

Overall: 8 out of 10

Truth be known, even this may be a little harsh because of the simple fact that The Battle of Middle-Earth 2 is a great improvement. Sadly, these games sell for generally outrageous prices on Amazon and Ebay. I don’t know why. Is it because of the surprising direction they take LOTR? If you can get a decent deal, go for it!

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

HobbitSmaugPosterMartin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins
Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Gray
Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield
Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug
Ken Stott as Balin
Aiden Turner as Kili
Dean O’Gorman as Fili
James Nesbit as Bofur
Graham McTavish as Dwalin
Jed Brophy as Nori
Adam Brown as Ori
John Callen as Gloin
Stephen Hunter as Bombur
Peter Hambleton as Gloin
Mark Hadlow as Dori
William Kircher as Bifur
Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel
Orlando Bloom as Legolas
Lee Pace as Thranduil
Luke Evans as Bard
Stephen Fry as The Master of Lake-Town
Ryan Gage as Alfrid
John Bell as Bain
Manu Bennett as Azog the Defiler
Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown
Mikael Persbrandt as Beorn

In a word, ugh! That’s how I felt leaving the midnight showing of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in 2013, and that’s still how I feel today. In fact, I went to the midnight showing of the first two Hobbit movies, but I didn’t feel like going that far for the third, and the subject of this review is the reason.

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Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for let’s face it: they’re batshit crazy!

Why don’t I like this movie? Well, we’ll start with the plot. After the eagles save the adventurers in Unexpected Journey, They are hiding away from the orcs who are hunting them. Their travels eventually lead them to enter a large forest. Gandalf has to leave at this point. The new threat that was referenced in Unexpected Journey requires his attention so the others must make do without him. The dwarves are captured by the elves of Mirkwood but Bilbo, using the magic ring (which, yes, is the One Ring, even though no one knows it yet), manages to free them. Thorin secures passage through Lake-Town in return for promises that play an important part in the last movie and then comes the hardest part: slaying a dragon.

That actually sounds cool, but let me explain. Desolation of Smaug proves to be the most unfaithful movie in this series because of all the new stuff Peter Jackson decided to add. I can see some arguing that I liked Unexpected Journey, which made some additions itself, but they really didn’t get any worse than Radagast the Brown making an appearance and the discussion on the new enemy with cameos (the latter of which made a lot of sense to include). They weren’t too bad. This movie? A new member of the main cast appears in Tauriel, a female elven soldier who falls hard for Kili. When Bilbo and the dwarves escape, Tauriel follows to help. Saying that this relationship advances too fast, in light of racial enmity between elves and dwarves, would be like saying that walking along the Great Wall of China would take time. It’s just not believable.

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And just why is Legolas a major character in these movies? Anyone?

Another serious problem with this movie is that the Mirkwood and Lake-Town portions drag on way too long. These are very simple portions of the movie that still have to take up a lot of time. I know people who found this movie to be boring and can I see why! This is why all the extra stuff is there. Even with it, Desolation of Smaug still stalls and stalls. Blame the suits who wanted us to buy our tickets three times.

Watching the meeting and battle with Smaug, I didn’t think this movie could let me down any more, and surprisingly enough, it didn’t. In fact, it rather redeemed itself here. Smaug is an extremely well-done monster. Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, he emerges as the clever but terrifying beast I’d always envisioned. The battle in which clever traps are used that actually enable our heroes to hold their own, as much as it deviates from the book, added a lot of suspense.

That is until the movie ended with Smaug about to attack Lake-Town. I remember an “Aw!” washing over the theater. It’s really a sad thing, given how popular these movies are, that the filmmakers still felt a need to include a cliffhanger this shameless.

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Don’t worry. His hair will be fixed by the next shot.

But despite everything I’ve mentioned, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is sitting pretty on an IMDB rating of 8.0. Very impressive seeing that The Godfather is at 9.2. I suspect that most of those people are probably those who never read the book but did see Desolation of Smaug because of commercials in crime dramas or sports games. I’m not judging. This movie should work as well as simply a film as it does as an adaptation of the book. In fact, I can’t judge because I reviewed The Hunger Games without first reading its book.

But from where I’m sitting, this isn’t a good movie. It’s not horrible, but from what I’ve come to expect from this series, I’m quite disappointed.

Overall: 4 out of 10