Monthly Archives: November 2015

Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire

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“Don’t mind the lighting; decent photo editing programs haven’t been invented yet.”

Those of you who read this blog may be left to conclude that I’m one of those people who are bored by the idea of reading more than a Twitter session. After all, I’ve been blogging for almost four years and reviewed movies, video games, shows, but no books. Actually, I’ve read plenty. I’m not the kind to read twenty 300-pagers a year or anything, but I’ve read my fair share. I’ve been meaning to start reviewing them for years but never gotten around to it. Since I’ve been reviewing Star Wars stuff in preparation for the sequel series that is about the begin, and since there are quite a few books about Star Wars out there, now’s not a bad point to begin.

Yes, the Star Wars franchise has provided a lot of supplementary material. Novels, comics, TV shows, and video games (probably the only franchise that canonizes even a few of its games) have all added their own tales that fit neatly into the story. I guess that’s why the next movie is set so far ahead of the originals; so as not to invalidate this stuff. But is this stuff good? Some of it, such as Shadows of the Empire, are. Other books are not so great. Tales of Jabba’s Palace is a bunch of character studies of Jabba’s goons who got as little as a few seconds on camera and couldn’t have given a moment’s thought to George Lucas.

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Who wouldn’t be intrigued by the life story of the goon who can’t even talk?

Gotta start with the actual review of Shadows of the Empire at some point, right? Set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, this particular novel has Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia Organa, Lando Calrissian, Chewie, C-3PO, and R2-D2 seeking to catch bounty hunter Boba Fett before he can deliver a carbon-frozen Han Solo to Jabba the Hutt. But this attempt is sidetracked when Luke is repeatedly attacked by bounty hunters. The attacks are arranged by Prince Xizor, a space age mob boss allied with the Empire. Why the attacks? Xizor is making it look like Darth Vader is behind them so it will look like the Dark Lord of the Sith has gone back on his word to convert Luke to the Dark Side out of fear and is trying to have the jedi in training killed out of cowardice. This will get Vader executed for cowardice, leaving Xizor to take his place as the #2 man in the galaxy.

This is a very effective plot due to the cleverness of Xizor’s plan. Like Grand Admiral Thrawn in the book trilogy by Timothy Zahn, Xizor demonstrates how through intelligence, even a villain who cannot use The Force can be a threat to jedi.

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Fortunately, other sources give me a better portrait of Xizor to show you.

Character development is also rock-solid. We switch between the perspectives of Luke, Leia, Xizor and Vader. Luke is trying to finish the parts of his training that didn’t go well in Empire Strikes Back (hence, why he requires no more training in the conclusion of the trilogy). Leia is focused on rescuing Han and accepts that she truly does love the former criminal. Xizor shows us a heartless, arrogant creature, particularly where women are concerned. Basically, Xizor’s a love-’em-and-leave-’em-for-dead type. Again, he’s a very effective villain. In addition to converting his son, Vader hates Xizor and the fact that the Emperor deems it necessary to make use of a mob boss. Vader also reveals his imperfect loyalty to the reader, particularly where we discover that he can’t allow himself to feel joy because that is the territory of the Light Side.

One major flaw is that there are certain things that have to happen. Virtually all readers knew, for examples, that the Millennium Falcon would not catch Fett and Han and that Vader would win his power struggle with Xizor, because Han’s still a prisoner and Vader’s still around but not Xizor in Return of the Jedi. Also,  Dash Rendar, a mercenary hired by Lando, is basically Han with an even bigger ego. Not all that good a character in my opinion.

Dash never mentions the time Han sued him for plagiarizing the Millennium Falcon Falcon.

Dash never mentions the time Han sued him for plagiarizing the Millennium Falcon.

Regardless, if you’d like to get into the expanded universe, Shadows of the Empire is not a bad place to start. It’s the rare one of these stories that is on almost totally traditional ground, whereas most either take place in a pre-Empire, post-Empire, or soon-to-be-post-Empire galaxy. And besides, it’s a pretty good stand-alone novel in general.

Overall: 8 out of 10

The Empire Strikes Back

EmpireStrikeTitleMark Hamill as Luke Skywalker
Harrison Ford as Han Solo
Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia Organa
Frank Oz as Yoda
Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian
James Earl Jones and David Prowse as Darth Vader
Anthony Daniels as C-3PO
Kenny Baker as R2-D2
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca
Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan/Ben Kenobi
Kenneth Colley as Captain/Admiral Piett

The Empire Strikes Back isn’t just the best Star Wars movie. It is a candidate for best sci-fi movie ever! It takes things in a direction you really wouldn’t have expected from the original: darkness. Famously, it’s in this movie that they finally give Darth Vader his iconic song. But the real reason this movie is so dark is that, where the first was about the good guys triumphing against all odds, this one puts them in a state of near hopelessness.

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I first watched these movies as a teenager but I’ve heard of child viewers who were afraid of Vader and/or the stormtroopers. I sure wouldn’t doubt it.

It’s been three years since the original. Although they destroyed the Death Star and seem to have inspired more people to join them than there were before, the Rebel Alliance has been pursued relentlessly* to a frozen wasteland of a planet known as Hoth. Although that doesn’t last long either. As Han, Leia, Chewie, and C-3PO evade a fleet commanded by Darth Vader, Luke discovers the jedi master Yoda and trains under him with mixed success.

The performances are solid, but one notable performance is Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. He was a little weaker than the other actors in the original Star Wars but here, he seems to have taken the necessary acting lessons. Most would be shocked to learn about some of the voices he did in cartoons (typecasting’s a bitch) later in his career, but assuming he kept up this rate of improvement, I can totally see it.

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Even the famous “nooooooo!!!” line comes out right.

Speaking of improvements, if the dogfights in the original were almost revolutionary, those in Empire take the “almost” out. While George Lucas’ crew once had difficulty showing ships fly any way but straight, we can see some real maneuvering here. Definitely an improvement over the you-hit-me-I-hit-you kind of ship battles in the first several Star Trek movies.

A great touch is the philosophical twist added when it comes to the jedi and sith. In the original, we were told that Vader was a jedi who turned evil. Here we discover that it was hatred that corrupted him. You see, the Dark Side of The Force thrives on hate and tries to use it to dominate you. Although this is obviously fantasy, it does serve as an effective analogy to the destructiveness of hatred.

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Intimidating machine that the Empire will never use in combat again.

A shocking ending leads us to a more positive sequel that wraps this trilogy up. But that’s another review. For now, I will simply say that it is extremely powerful.

The Empire Strikes Back isn’t quite perfect, but it is a definite improvement over the original and definitely one of my favorite films.

Overall: 9 out of 10

Star Wars

StarWarsNewHopeMark Hamill as Luke Skywalker
Harrison Ford as Han Solo
Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia Organa
Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan/Ben Kenobi
James Earl Jones and David Prowse as Darth Vader
Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin
Anthony Daniels as C-3PO
Kenny Baker as R2-D2
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca
Phil Brown as Owen Lars
Shelagh Fraser as Beru Lars

(I didn’t expect to show half as large a cast up there. One of these things that you go in expecting it to be short but when you sit down and work, you realize that there’s a lot more than you realized).

What can I say about Star Wars that hasn’t been said already? Arguably the most popular and indisputably the most mainstream of all the sci-fi brands, Death Stars, hyperspace, and jedi are also winners with fantasy fans. And the first true sequel (unless you count the books) since 1983 is about to come out. So I take you back to where it all began.

OK, continuity-wise, this isn’t where it all began. But for almost all fans over the age of sixteen, this is the beginning. And although the number of those who started with the earliest point in the story is increasing, there’s a certain credibility associated with the original. Just like the original Star Trek.

Jumping past the speed of light is lot less convenient when you have to put on seat belts.

Jumping past the speed of light is lot less convenient when you have to put on seat belts.

Another notable thing about this movie is that it’s the only movie in the entire series that more or less works as a standalone movie. You don’t have to have watched any of the others to be comfortable with this one. It has a heroic Rebel Alliance, after years of being no threat to the Galactic Empire, the Rebels have stolen the plans for the Death Star, a space station designed to able to destroy an entire planet. The Empire does capture the ship whose crew is attempting to get the plans to Rebel headquarters, but C-3PO and R2-D2, the droids (robots) carrying the plans take an escape pod to the planet Tatooine and meet up with humans who join the struggle against the Empire.

While the dialogue isn’t the best in the world, the acting is reasonably solid and helps redeem those lines. This is especially true of Alec Guinness, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford (the only one in a major role to not be hopelessly typecast after this), and of course, James Earl Jones. In particular, Ford’s performance as Han Solo has always been a fan favorite because this character is an antisocial criminal who nonetheless does the right thing in the end. In the decades that have followed, he has been often imitated, rarely duplicated.

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Ships shaped like bow ties. How the Hell was that seen as cool?

And then, of course, there are the special effects. While primitive by today’s standards (the lauded lightsaber duels seem particularly slow-paced), they were nothing less than revolutionary for the time. I remember Leonard Maltin interviewing director George Lucas and asking, “How do you find the kind of people (who could) invent things which is what they had to do?” And it’s true. The laser gunfights and especially the space battles were brand new things.

If for some mystifying reason you have never seen the first Star Wars ever to be made, now’s the time, before the next one comes out. Just one thing, though. If you buy this movie, be mindful of the version. This series likes to try to trick you into buying multiple versions like few others.

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Proving once again that the ultimate “force” is greed.

Overall: 9 out of 10

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

AmazingSpidey2TitleOriginally, the game reviews on this blog were retro-only. That changed when I got the equipment to snap pics on modern systems. And the PS4’s built-in ability to take pictures doesn’t hurt. I have since reviewed many current generation games. There is still one void to fill, though: I have yet to review a bad next gen game. I assumed the first would be Duck Dynasty once I’d worked up the courage to play it (yes, a Duck Dynasty game actually exists). But on a trip to Gamestop, one of the games I bought was The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Although my take on the movie it is based on is mixed, I have been a fan of Spider-Man games since Spider-Man in 2000. The first two games based on Sam Raimi’s movies were also pretty good, as was Ultimate Spider-ManSpider-Man 3 wasn’t good, but Web of Shadows was a definite step back in the right direction.

So I was pretty sure I’d have a good time with this one, I picked it up. How wrong I was.

Plot: 9 out of 10

We’re getting the good out of the way early, folks. Like Activision’s past Spider-Man games based on the movies, there are quests in which you face villains who aren’t likely to appear in the films before you face the bad guy of the movie. But in this case, they are more than just filler. Dialogue between characters is actually quite powerful. In particular, Spidey’s wisecracks are well-written (“I was actually scared… that someone would see me fighting you losers”).

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Oh, and Stan Lee managed to find his way into this game.

Additionally, there’s a nice touch in the form of your Heroic/Menace Rating. As Spider-Man is constantly being slandered by the Daily Bugle, you have to solve everyday crimes or rescue people from burning buildings in between missions to keep your keep your Rating in the Heroic zone. Otherwise, the cops start looking for you. This is a pretty good part of the game, especially for a superhero title.

In fact, I’d say that this game’s plot is probably better than that of the movie.

Graphics: 3 out of 10

Everything looks flat and uninspired. There are even occasions where outlines become visible. Doubt that’s the only graphical glitch. Still, most of the time, the bad graphics are limited to a weak presentation.

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I had no idea Spidey could go intangible.

Sound: 4 out of 10

This category brings us to an edition of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The Good: Activision was too cheap to get Andrew Garfield and Jamie Foxx to voice their characters, but Sam Riegel does a great job as Spider-Man. I’d recommend him if the rumors of the film series getting rebooted again are true, but he’ll be at least forty by then. Too old for a character who’s twenty-six at most.

The Bad: But almost everybody does a bad job at voicing their characters. In particular, Michael A. Shepperd is way over the top as Electro. Music’s not so good either.

The Ugly: And with only one good voice actor, even if Riegel does play the main character, we’re in negative territory on balance.

But with how often Spidey shows off that ass, he's always in negative

But with how often Spidey shows off that ass, he’s always in negative territory on narcissism.

Gameplay: 2 out of 10

There is a lot of borrowing from the recent Batman games, especially in the combat system. This really makes no sense because those games use a system designed for long fights with street punks because Batman is a non-powered hero. Spidey? He can easily lift cars up and moves about a hundred miles an hour. Why can’t he quickly dispatch these guys? The system  should be about fighting supervillains and dodging bullets.

But it’s not how unoriginal or ill-fitting the gameplay is. No, it’s the controls. They’re extremely loose. Even swinging through the city outside takes a little effort because it’s difficult to do a totally straight swing. Precise movements in the levels is very hard. A wild camera doesn’t help matters one bit.

The level design and side quests are acceptable, but what does it matter when the controls are practically broken?

Challenge: 3 out of 10

And unfortunately, there are a number of stealth missions. Y’know, stealth missions in which if enemies become too aware of you, you automatically lose. You know how I said that the controls and camera made precise movement difficult? Well, that costs you in these missions. So plan to repeat these missions a lot as you are screwed over by the controls again and again.

I'm sure there's no risk in hanging the costumes in the closet.

I’m sure there’s no risk in hanging the costumes in the closet.

Difficulty is average or below average for the most part. But the way you get f*cked by the controls in stealth levels really stands out.

Overall: 3 out of 10

Other than the plot, almost nothing in this game is good. Everything else seems to have been rushed. Was Activision wise to half-ass this game to meet a deadline and keep the budget down? VGChartz.com indicates otherwise. Its sales figures show The Amazing Spider-Man 2 having a major sales drop compared to The Amazing Spider-Man. Lesson and frankly moral of the story: Don’t assume that we’ll pay $60 for hog slop just because a big license is attached.