The Next-Gen: Good for Gamers?

•June 8, 2013 • Leave a Comment

If you follow gaming news, it’s been quite the few weeks for game consoles. Microsoft’s successor to the Xbox360, the XboxOne, has been making waves with all sorts of announcements about its new “features,” leaving many to wonder just what exactly will be the status-quo for the so-called “next-gen.” To say that Microsoft’s new console has a few restrictions would be major understatement. There are nearly too many to list, but the big ones are a severe restriction on used games (if publishers decide to allow them at all), and a required Internet check-in every 24 hours in order to play any games — even offline, single player campaigns. A decent amount of gamers and gaming sites are up in arms over these requirements, and I myself haven’t been above the occasional rant on twitter. There’s good reason for this, though – Microsoft has taken the first step in fundamentally redefining consoles and game ownership. How did we get to this point?


One word: publishers.


Obviously, Microsoft was trying to please somebody with these new restrictions or they would’ve stayed with the current system, and it should be pretty obvious we’re not talking about consumers here. Game publishers have been trying for years to discourage the sale of used games – blaming it (together with piracy) almost exclusively for their economic difficulties — never mind the fact that everyone else is living in a tough economy too. Hence, we get unpopular schemes like the Online Pass.  I won’t get into too much detail about how the publishing industry is often royally mismanaged, has unrealistic expectations, and simply doesn’t understand cost vs profit, but, suffice to say, the arguments often employed against used games don’t hold up when used with other media (like movies or books).



It’s especially odd when you consider that the Xbox One will restrict used games and require 24-hour check-ins for games, but will have absolutely no restrictions for Blu-rays or DVDs (a technology, I may point out, that is nearing its twentieth year of existence).  It’s like Microsoft is basically saying “Gamers aren’t trustworthy, we need to verify that they’re not cheating us out of money.  Movie watchers?  Yeah, they’re totally fine.  They can do what they want.”  It’s a double standard that treats gamers like second-class citizens. (Microsoft’s and Sony’s refusal to support backwards compatibility for games but support it for an aging movie format is an additional slap in the face to gamers).  Developers and publishers deserve money for their hard work, I get that, but they’re not entitled to screw consumers with policies just to make a few more dollars.


Of course, it should be noted that, while a lot of ire is rightly directed at Microsoft for its restrictions, console competitor Sony has been remarkably silent on how the PlayStation4 will deal with these same issues.  Given the huge sway that publishers have on the console market, I’m not holding my breath that Sony will suddenly go against the will of publishers and keep the current system of restrictions to a minimum.  Obviously, if Sony had no restrictions and the XboxOne had all those restrictions, there would be a huge disparity between consoles that might fracture third-party support (though it would make a remarkable control group in a grand experiment).


So, where do I stand on the issue?  If you couldn’t tell, I think it’s appalling.  These restrictions are elitist at worst and anti-consumer at best.  It’s enough to actually keep me from buying any consoles in this next generation, and I’m a die-hard console gamer.  Already, I have zero interest in an Xbox One (regardless of what exclusives get announced), and I’m bracing myself for a formal announcement from Sony on their position with regard to these restrictions.  If it came to skipping this generation, it wouldn’t be an easy decision to live by, but I believe it’s one of the few ways that publishers would actually listen.  After all, since most publishers only care about the bottom line, they’ll push the boundaries of what they can get away with until it affects their sales.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure how many other gamers would stand with me on that one.  Given how limited our options are for consuming game content — especially if you prefer consoles — many gamers simply have to make due with what publishers decide.  That’s the way it’s always been.  But maybe they’ve gone too far this time.  I don’t know, but I have seen much more anger directed at publishers over the last few weeks than I’ve seen before.


Will it stop people from buying?  Too early to tell.  E3 is this week, and Sony and Microsoft both will be attempting to make gamers forget about any misgivings they may have had towards their respective consoles.  Gamers are particularly notorious for complaining, getting caught up in the hype, and then their spending money anyway.


But this is one gamer who’s had enough, and has gone from a die-hard console enthusiast to a potential boycotter.




At least there’s always Nintendo.

 

EDIT:  Well, that was surprising.  A few hours after I made this post and despite my earlier thoughts, Sony came right out and took concrete stands against all the restrictions the XboxOne has taken — including with used games and online check-ins.  And the reaction was electrifying.  Not only has this left me quite relieved (I don’t have to boycott this generation’s consoles!), but it’s certainly made this next-gen far more fascinating.  It’s turning out to be Sony and the Developers Vs. Microsoft and the Publishers (Hence, we see publishers like EA pushing their games to the Xbox One first — perhaps this is MS’s reward for restrictions the publishers like?).  One thing’s for sure, I’ve been firmly pushed into the pro-Sony/anti-Microsoft camp now, and I don’t typically like to take sides in the console/fanboy war (though this one is for idealogical reasons).  Interesting times we live in.  I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts to come.

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Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises

•August 2, 2012 • 1 Comment


Third movies in film franchises are tricky things. With very few exceptions, they’re usually over-the-top, style-over-substance affairs that exemplify poor storytelling. With regards to “superhero” movies, the odds are even worse — just about every third superhero movie has been met with mediocre to disastrous reviews. The reasons for this are many (executive meddling, higher expectations, trying to tie off too many loose ends), but one of the biggest reasons is the crew (and especially, the director) attempting to top themselves. It’s tricky because sequels usually try to do “bigger and better,” but when you’re making a sequel to a sequel, you’ve already been there. The only option is to go even larger, but the characters are often lost in these epic notions. Of course, when you’ve already made one of the highest grossing movies of all-time (as Chris Nolan did with The Dark Knight), how do you even get bigger? Can you simultaneously raise the stakes, but keep the characters central to the story without taking too many shortcuts?


If you’re Chris Nolan, yes, you can.


The Dark Knight Rises is Chris Nolan’s sequel to The Dark Knight, itself a sequel to Batman Begins. If that sounds convoluted, it somewhat is — I wouldn’t recommend seeing Rises without seeing the first two films. Unlike some movies, which try to remain accessible to new audience members with each installment, TDKR builds on and directly references events from the preceding movies. That’s not to say you can’t go into The Dark Knight Rises with fresh eyes — just know that you will miss out on a lot of the world-building that Nolan and his team have masterfully accomplished over the years. Of course, even with the first two films out of the way, TDKR spends a lot of its first hour in exposition mode. It’s not as crazy as Nolan’s previous film, Inception, which had a lot of explaining to do, but, compared to the final two-thirds of The Dark Knight Rises, the movie spends a lot of time trying to get you up to speed.


Bruce has been in hiding for eight years and is just itching to crack some skulls.


And this is not a short movie, either. At nearly three hours in length, The Dark Knight Rises will test the limits of many people’s bladder control. It’s a bit extreme, but Nolan mostly uses his time well. In fact, despite its long length, the film almost feels like it may be a tad too short. The movie rushes forward at an unstoppable pace, throwing event after event and character upon character at you. If this movie has a flaw (and it has very few), it’s biggest one is rushing through a few plot devices and characters a little too fast. Some characters make a few decisions or discoveries that should’ve taken them longer to do so, but, given Rises‘s length, a little believability had to be thrown out the window at the expense of time. It’s not a huge sacrifice, and TDKR still very much exists in Nolan’s “real” world, but it’s worth mentioning.


Despite the headlong pace of the movie, however, The Dark Knight Rises always keeps its characters in mind. Bruce Wayne is tested even more than he was during the events of The Dark Knight, and Gotham City faces even darker times than before (despite beginning under more hopeful circumstances). A new, fascinating villain arrives on the scene in the form of Bane, a hulking, always-masked mercenary of sorts. I’ll get this out of the way real quick — No, he’s not the Joker. Heath Ledger’s take on the villain was iconic, to be sure, but Joker has always been Batman’s arch-nemesis. Nobody else would have the same kind of charisma or chemistry. That being said, Tom Hardy takes a B-list villain from the Batman comics and turns him into a terrifying force that is as ruthless as he is interesting to watch. It’s amazing to see how well Hardy can emote with simple things like inflection and body posture (which is all he has to work with, given the giant thing covering his face).


Bane is a huge presence, but he’s not the steroid-pumped Hulk from the comics. (And that’s a good thing.)


The other big addition to the cast worth mentioning is Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle (I won’t say “Catwoman,” as the name isn’t used once during the film). Not being a huge fan of the character in other forms of Batman media, I was surprised by just how enjoyable Hathaway was to watch as the thieving antiheroine. Both Nolan and Hathaway deserve credit for developing a character that simultaneously stays true to the source material, but changes enough to make her more likable (and less focused on being scantily clad). In fact, Nolan somehow pulls off telling a convincing backstory for Selina Kyle without really trying to. We get more screen time focused on Bane’s backstory, but the little bit we get of Kyle’s tells us all we need (and, I would argue, more effectively). There are plenty of other new comers to the cast in TDKR, and they all do a commendable job, but none stand out quite as much as Bane and Selina Kyle. Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon and Michael Caine as Alfred are as solid as ever, though they feel slightly underused in the first and second halves, respectively.


Great performance from Hathaway, but if the cops were really intent on catching her, I’m sure the Incredibles-style mask wouldn’t stump too many.


The final bit to analyze here is the story. The Dark Knight Rises succeeds in giving the dark, deep, and complex stories we’ve come to expect from Nolan’s Batman. Of particular note is the wide array of ups and downs TDKR has in store. The “Rises” clarifier of the title couldn’t be any less appropriate. In his final Batman film, Nolan really grapples with what makes a hero keep going — even after he’s been defeated. At the beginning of the film, Bruce Wayne is still grieving the loss of Rachel (his love interest from the first two films) and of Harvey Dent (one of his former allies in his war on crime). Eventually, the need for Batman’s return arrives, which means Bruce must overcome some personal demons. Of course, it’s never that simple, and after slowly revealing more and more of Bane’s plot, the film introduces an endgame that promises to test Wayne more than he ever has been before. This is Gotham (and subsequently, Bruce Wayne) at its genuine darkest. The Dark Knight had its moments of despair, but The Dark Knight Rises ups the ante in such a decided way, it’s obvious that this is Nolan’s final take on the Batman mythos.  It’s dark, bleak, and it really works.  The strength of the characters really comes through, and it’s fascinating seeing the lengths that some of them are willing to go.  Once Rises gets going, you can’t look away until that final scene.


Objectively, The Dark Knight Rises is easily the most “comic book-y” of all Nolan’s films. There are a few masked characters, the stakes reach a point that may or may not be possible in our “real world,” and the film has an obvious “MacGuffin.” Those who appreciated the “comic bookishness” of Batman Begins will no doubt adore what they see here, but those who only really cared for The Dark Knight‘s gritty realism may find themselves ever so slightly disappointed (To me, The Dark Knight always felt more like a crime drama than a superhero film anyway).  Still, TDKR does right by Batman — successfully adapting a large amount of Batman lore, but changing it for Nolan’s more grounded take.  In fact, Rises probably contains even more Batman-related “Easter Eggs” than both Begins and The Dark Knight.  The fans will definitely eat it up.


The Dark Knight Rises is the culmination of three of the best comic-to-movie adaptions of all time.  For that reason alone, you should see it, but simply leaving it there would be selling Rises short.  All three of Nolan’s Batman films are dark, intelligent, masterfully executed, and push the envelope of what a “superhero” movie (or even an action movie) can be.  As a standalone film, it may not be the best in the series (I still give the edge to The Dark Knight, as it shows Batman in his prime), but as the conclusion to the series, it couldn’t be much better.  The ending is especially poignant in light of all that happens across the three movies.  It’s the ending the series deserves and the one it needed — providing substantial payoff to anyone who’s stuck with it this long.  Despite some minor flaws, The Dark Knight Rises easily cements Nolan’s Batman as the best superhero trilogy ever made.


A Tale of Two Shows

•March 30, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Two posts ago, I wrote about my impressions of the TV show Alcatraz, after having seen the pilot (and second) episode.  My impression was mostly favorable, minus a few concerns that needed to be addressed.  I thought I would revisit the subject of Alcatraz, however, because, frankly, I can’t, in good conscience leave you, dear reader, with the false impression that I think it is a good show.  It really hasn’t shown itself to be one.


“Why the sudden turnaround?” you may ask.  Well, remember those concerns I listed?  As it turns out, they were more important than I thought.


Sadly, "Alcatraz" had a lot of unrealized potential.


From the very first episode, the biggest thing Alcatraz had going against it was that its characters weren’t very well-realized.  They were mostly archetypes meant to fill certain roles, but they provided little personality.  I was hopeful that the writers would address this issue over the course of the season.  After all, plenty of shows start with weak, archetypal characters who become more fleshed-out and real as the show progresses.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t really the case.  Dr. Soto remained the geeky outsider with no experience and a love of comics.  Emersen Hauser was only there to be a jerk and a roadblock (despite wanting help — I never quite figured that one out).  And Rebecca Madsen remained the no-nonsense detective who wants answers (this role was probably the least believable and most underdeveloped in the whole show).  With all of the episodes I watched (and it was only about six), character development was distinctly absent — from the present day characters, that is.


Ironically, the criminals often received more attention than the main characters.  From beginning to end, the flashback sequences were always the most interesting.  For the most part, they were well done, and I really don’t have any complaints about them.  In fact, if the whole of Alcatraz were spent in the past, it might have even been a good show.  The problem with that is, well, you really don’t want your audience rooting for the bad guys, do you?  To counter gaining too much sympathy for the villains, the writers tried to make them as inexplicably evil as possible in the present day.  It occasionally worked, but sometimes, it was laughable.  And it’s really in the present day scenarios where Alcatraz fell apart.


Dr. Soto was the best part about the present-day segments, but the writers did very little to differentiate him from Garcia's previous role, Hurley from "LOST."


See, while the flashbacks were interesting, somewhat gripping, and portrayed actual characters (gadzooks, what a concept), the present day was filled with boring, lifeless characters and plots that made Scooby-Doo look complex.  Alcatraz perhaps spent too much time in flashback mode — forcing the writers to take some ultra-quick shortcuts in finding and catching the criminals.  In my initial impressions, I had this to say about one of Alcatraz‘s more unique elements:

A nice twist on the classic “catch the badguy” scenario is the fact that the characters can’t rely on some of the standard crime-solving tools because these men are supposedly all dead (and, therefore, not in the system).

Unfortunately, the writers themselves must not have picked up on this “twist” because they, more often than not, relied on typical “Hollywood cop” means of crime solving (“Quick!  Zoom in and enhance that photo from the street camera!”).  Insane leaps of logic were sometimes taken, and, of course, the good guys were ALWAYS right when they took a risk.  Some of the methods employed in the early episodes were so unbelievable, they had me shaking my head in disgust.


Ultimately, I ended up dropping Alcatraz out of boredom.  The characters were uninteresting, the plot mediocre, and the show itself was too constrained by its own format (Six episodes in, and it was very predictable).  The show had glimmers of hope — its flashbacks were well done and the mysteries were, for their part, mostly interesting — but the changes the show needed to grow stronger simply weren’t there.


Of course, soon after dropping Alcatraz, I found a new show that seemed to be the antithesis of everything I couldn’t stand about FOX’s prison-related crime drama.  The show that I’m talking about is NBC’s Awake.


Like "Alcatraz," "Awake" deals with some minor sci-fi themes, but, unlike the former, it does so with human characters at the forefront.


Starring a distinctly American Jason Isaacs (The Patriot, Harry Potter), Awake follows Detective Michael Britten, who finds himself stuck in two realities after a car accident dramatically alters his life.  In one reality, his wife survived the accident; in the other, his son survived.  In neither reality, however, do both survive.  What follows is a gripping and heartfelt drama of a man trying to figure out how to deal with a tragedy that affects him very differently than it does those around him (since it still feels to him like his wife and son are both alive).  At the same time, Britten is tasked with solving murders in both realities — and he finds that, occasionally, the facts of both investigations cross over.  What’s more, the show occasionally drops hints that one reality (or perhaps both) may not be real.  It’s a bit of a mind-bender, but the stories are both compelling and original.  And that’s what makes it such a breath of fresh air in comparison to Alcatraz.


Alcatraz promised compelling mysteries but its cookie-cutter plot and uninteresting characters didn’t deliver anything special.  Awake has character and engaging plot in spades.  Britten himself is a complex man who wants to do what’s best for his family but still wants to remain in both realities (for obvious reasons).  We can identify with him when he struggles to relate to his wife’s pain or when he stumbles in being a single father.  And we can easily feel for Britten’s wife and son, as they deal with their own respective life changes.  As for Britten’s cases, they range from incredibly compelling to mostly interesting, but, even at their slowest, the characters hold them up.  There are touching moments, humorous moments, brain-teasing moments, and tense moments.  Most of all, Awake has heart.  The show makes you feel something for its main characters, and Jason Isaacs especially should be applauded for his work as Michael Britten.  Awake is only four episodes in, but I can already recommend it.  We’ll see if the writers can maintain this kind of momentum going forward, but so far, it’s my favorite broadcast show currently running (Aside from Fringe, of course.  As a longtime fan, I’m dedicated to it until it’s pulled from the air).

Revisiting My Expectations of Batman: Arkham City

•February 14, 2012 • Leave a Comment

About a year before the release of Batman: Arkham City, I wrote a post entitled “10 Things ‘Arkham City’ Should Do’.”  At the time, very little was known about the sequel (which was released this past October), but I already had extensive experience with the previous entry in the series (Arkham Asylum).  Not knowing what to expect, I wrote my own simple, 10-bullet point list of ideas, based off Rocksteady Studio’s work on Asylum.  Now that I’ve finally had the chance to play Arkham City, I thought it’d be fun to look back at some of my predictions and judge them based on the final product (I suppose you could also consider this a review of sorts).





1.

What I said: “Keep the boatload of subtle Batman references.”

What they did:  Arkham City was able to keep the Batman references coming in a way that Asylum could not — it actually took place in notable locales from the Dark Knight’s rich history.  Locations such as Penguin’s “Iceberg Lounge,” the “Monarch Theater” (where Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed), and the old GCPD building are not only within the confines of Arkham City, but they can be visited and explored.  There are also a fair number of subtler homages — including a wide array of smaller villains for the side missions.  True, much of the Bat trivia in the game is specifically focused around “Arkham City” this time (instead of merely providing info, as in Asylum), but there’s no denying the veritable smorgasbord of references for the keen Batman fan to pick out.

Verdict: Accurate as Deadshot.




2.

What I said: “Break the Addiction to Detective Mode.”

What they did: I liked Detective Mode in Arkham Asylum, but I felt like I had it on for the entire game.  While Rocksteady made a few subtle alterations to it (like changing the color of armed thugs to a less-harsh orange), Detective Mode remains largely unchanged in Arkham City.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Detective Mode is pretty vital for getting a Batman-like advantage over your adversaries, but, if anything, you actually have to rely on it more because of the massive environments of Arkham City.  Interestingly, there were one or two battles where thugs would wear some sort of “radar jammer,” inhibiting the use of Detective Mode.  It was a great concept, but I wished Rocksteady had actually implemented it a bit more (Challenge Maps notwithstanding).

Verdict: About as reformed as The Penguin.



3.

What I said: “Keep Combat Fluid and Simple.”

What they did: Arkham Asylum was my go-to example of the best combat system I had played in a videogame…until Arkham City.  Somehow, Rocksteady managed to take a system I thought was near-perfect and make it even better.  The gadgets are far easier to implement during a combo than they were in the first game, and despite having more moves at your disposal, you always feel in control.  The amount of moves Batman can pull off is about doubled, but after a few rounds of learning some new combinations, it begins to feel effortless.  Going into it, I was afraid that I would feel overwhelmed by a bunch of new moves added to the simple combat system, but Rocksteady absolutely nailed it with a host of improvements — all while somehow maintaining that elusive feeling of simplicity and fluidity.

Verdict:  Nailed it.  In the face.  With Batman’s fist.


The ability to counter multiple thugs at once is a huge improvement.




4.

What I said: “Get Alfred Involved.”

What they did: Oracle did a great job serving as a source of information in the first game, but I couldn’t help feeling let down by the absence of Alfred.  Imagine my delight, then, when Batman gets on his communicator and starts talking to Alfred within the first few minutes of the game.  Martin Jarvis (the actor who played Alfred in the game) isn’t the voice of Alfred from the Animated Series, but he did a pitch-perfect rendition of the character.  Snarky, deadpan, and always loyal to Bruce Wayne, Alfred was in top form in Arkham City.  True, his role was hijacked by Oracle once again about halfway through the game, but not to worry — everyone’s favorite English gentlemen still gets his say.  Near the end of the game, he even forces Batman to make a difficult decision.  It’s been stated before that Alfred is the conscience of Batman, and we actually got to see a tiny bit of that in this game.

Verdict: Classy all the way.




5.

What I said: “Get Dark.”

What they did: Despite my love of Arkham Asylum and its great story, I realized that it didn’t really test the character of Bruce Wayne himself.  Sure, it was “dark,” but I wanted to see the sequel really stretch and test Batman.  The very beginning of Arkham City seemed to promise this idea — revealing that the big villain, Dr. Hugo Strange, had figured out Batman’s true identity.  Even further, the Joker ends up setting a trap for Batman that gives a sense of urgency to most of the game.  Once these two endgames have been put in place, however, the game follows a general “good guy must beat bad guy” feeling.  Of course, it’s not necessarily straightforward or simple (and plenty of other villains will get in the way and try to mess with Batman), but Batman simply sticks to his mission.  I was pretty disappointed with the fact that the game does little with Dr. Strange’s unique knowledge (it doesn’t even seem to worry Batman too much).  Naturally, there are a few character moments sprinkled into the game (more so than the first one, in fact), but there could’ve been so many more, given some of the plot’s setup.

Verdict: As split as Two-Face’s personality.


"I have very valuable information that everyone here would love to know. I think I'll spend the whole game in my tower, contemplating it."




6.

What I said: “Make Catwoman Good… and Bad.”

What they did: Catwoman factored heavily into the early promotions for Arkham City, but I was slightly worried by this fact.  After all, when Catwoman works, she works well, but when handled poorly, she can be, well, a disaster.  One of the biggest problems writers have with Catwoman’s character is emphasizing her duality — because she’s generally in it for herself, she often works against Batman just as often as she helps him.  Unfortunately, Arkham City really muted this aspect of her character.  True, she has her own motivations (getting her loot and leaving Arkham City), but she’s pretty much seen as a “good guy” (or at least an antihero) throughout the game.  In fact, I was surprised by how little Catwoman had do with the basic plot of Arkham City as a whole, given the heavy promoting.  Her story only intersects with Batman on two occasions, and in both scenes, Batman treats her like an ally (albeit, one he’s slightly wary of).  At only one point in the game is Catwoman capable of making a decision that would harm Batman, and it’s an artificial one — decide to (passively) kill him, and the game will give you a “gotcha” moment and make you replay it in Batman’s favor.  It’s understandable — given that you, the player, control both characters and would want them both to live, but Rocksteady should’ve seen that difficulty ahead of time when they made the choice to include her as a playable character.

Verdict: The Cat got declawed.



7.

What I said: “Keep Batman a loner.”

What they did: When Rocksteady announced that they were making a sequel to Arkham Asylum, rumors of a co-op mode flew around the internet.  When Catwoman started showing up in the promotions, people got even more ideas about some kind of multiplayer in the game.  From the beginning, I was against this idea — stating that Batman works best when he works alone.  Furthermore, I didn’t want to be constantly switching between main characters — diluting the sense of isolation that was occasionally present in Asylum.  I wanted to be Batman, on his own.  Fortunately, the developers managed to get this one right.  Before the game was released, Rocksteady announced that they weren’t concerned with doing any kind of multiplayer.  What’s more, they stated that the playable Catwoman portions of the game would take up very little of the overall playtime.  When Arkham City released, these statements were found true.  Even better, when Robin showed up in a scene during the game, Batman told him off — stating that he would take this one by himself.  It was the perfect way to show the larger world that Batman is a part of, but still keep the Dark Knight very much on his own.

Verdict: Almost as if another Robin died.


Naturally, Batman can't do all his brooding without some alone time.




8.

What I said: “Remember that Bigger does not always mean Better.”

What they did: Early revelations about Arkham City hinted that Batman might drop the Metroid-esque setup of Arkham Asylum for an open-world game in the sequel.  The formula for the first game was so well executed that I was loathe to see it go for an open-world style game (especially since so many developers seem to be making them these days).  I stated that, at the very least, Arkham City should retain some of the claustrophobic environments of Asylum.  Additionally, open-world games tend to favor large, outdoor environments, and I didn’t want to see Rocksteady forget the smaller moments.  Fortunately, these fears were (for the most part) unfounded.  While Arkham City is, in fact, most definitely an open-world game, it still has a number of interior environments.  There’s not more of them than there were in Asylum, but it’s probably close to the same amount.  Additionally, City is probably one of the best open-world games that I’ve played (even though I’m not a raving fan of the genre).  Yes, the game hardly has any backtracking (unless you want to hunt for Riddler trophies) and I do miss that Metroid-like formula, but there’s no denying that Arkham City uses this new formula to its fullest potential.

Verdict: Gotham is Batman’s turf, after all.



9.

What I said: “Develop the Bosses.”

What they did: If there ‘s one area in which Arkham Asylum was sorely lacking, it was the boss fights.  Most of them were either repetitive, out-of-character, or just non-existent.  Rocksteady even acknowledged this fault during development of City, and it seems this self-awareness has paid off royally.  Gone are the dozens of Bane knockoffs.  Gone are the same four different types of thugs in every fight.  Gone are the normal Batman enemies, but with some “magic” formula to make them more of a threat.  Gone is the Titan-infused Joker!  Each boss in Arkham City is thankfully, and mercifully, unique.  You’ll never again fight and defeat one boss, only to have him return in some revamped form a little while later.  Each one requires a different strategy, and all of them make sense within the context of the Batman universe.  Best of all, the fights pull from the wide selection found in Batman’s Rogues Gallery and utilizes them all appropriately.  Now, instead of every boss being a bigger threat than the last one, we see them as they really are.  For example, Solomon Grundy is a much bigger threat to Batman than the Joker is by himself (even if Grundy comes first, chronologically).

Verdict: Batman has his hands full.




10.

What I said: “Keep some sort of Upgrade System.”

What they did: With all the justified praise heaped on Arkham Asylum for its myriad achievements, one very strong element that was often forgotten was the game’s addicting upgrade system.  In terms of execution, it was very much like an RPG — you would level up after a certain number of points (gained from winning fights or finding trophies), and you could upgrade one (and only one) gadget or move at that time.  It was simple, but it offered incentive for making each combat round count, and it gave the player a gratifying sense of control — allowing the player to upgrade the items that suited his play style.  I enjoyed it so much that I wanted Rocksteady to keep it for the sequel.  Fortunately, the developers must have felt the same way because, not only are there even more upgrades this time around, they all have a higher degree of usefulness.  Let’s be honest — not all of the upgrades in Asylum were instant successes (remote control batarang, anyone?).  Rocksteady seems to have acknowledged this, because, in Arkham City, just about every upgrade counts.  You’ll probably have a hard time deciding what to upgrade when the chance comes, but don’t worry — the game also makes it feel as if each level-up is just around the corner.  The amount of upgrades is actually somewhat astounding when you realize that Batman already starts with a lot of the gadgets he had to earn in the last game.  Rocksteady really outdid themselves by thinking of better and far more gadgets and moves than we saw previously.

Verdict: As varied and useful as Batman’s utility belt.




Well, there’s a quick summary of my expectations versus how the game actually turned out.  Not everything I called for quite made it, but, of course, it’s a developer’s prerogative to mix it up and surprise the audience.  On the whole, I was immensely pleased with Arkham City.  It’s not a perfect game, mind you.  The story was just barely on the same level as Arkham Asylum, and I had a number of issues with how it ended.  Nevertheless, in terms of gameplay, it has no equal.  The best superhero/comicbook game that I’ve ever played was even further perfected in this sequel, and Rocksteady deserves credit for that.

Impressions of “Alcatraz”

•January 19, 2012 • Leave a Comment

[Technically, this is a review for the first two episodes of Alcatraz, as they aired in tandem.]


This past Monday, FOX premiered its newest mystery-drama series Alcatraz.  Produced by J.J. Abrams, the show had a decent amount of hype going into it.  A few people called it “the next LOST” (really, what mystery drama isn’t called that nowadays?), but the show creators themselves outright dismissed this claim.  Instead, Alcatraz is more of a crime/prison drama with a few random mysteries (and one big sci-fi concept) thrown in.  The first two episodes have already aired; so, what do I think of this new series?  I’m glad you asked.



Alcatraz centers around the former prison island of the same name.  Only, in this show’s version of history, the prison shut down in 1963 for very different reasons than the ones we know.  Instead, all of the inhabitants of the island mysteriously vanished without explanation.  Fast forward to the present, and former inmates of the island are suddenly showing up — without having aged.  From there, we get your sort of basic crime drama, with a team tasked to capture these inmates before they return to their lives of crime in the present.  The team consists of Detective Rebecca Madsen (played by Sarah Jones) and Alcatraz expert Diego Soto (played by LOST‘s Jorge Garcia).  Playing the sometimes advisor, sometimes antagonist, always mysterious secret agent Emerson Hauser, Sam Neill kinda-sorta comprises the third member of the team, but he’s a little more aloof than the other two (and a bit of a loose cannon, it seems).  After two episodes, it seems the basic outline of the show is finding out about the villain of the week through flashbacks while the team attempts to track down and catch the same villain in the present.  It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but it works.  The flashbacks are, for me, the high point of both episodes, as we get to see some classic, old-school prison drama.  Personally, prison drama in a modern day setting bores me pretty quickly, but once you go back to the 60’s or earlier, it suddenly gets interesting.  Not entirely sure why — maybe it’s the uniforms.  Anyway, while the flashbacks are definitely the strongest points in the show so far, the present-day stuff is hit or miss.  If you like crime drama, it’s pretty procedural stuff.  Nothing groundbreaking here, but neither is it uninteresting.  The big things propelling the story are the mysteries (both the grand one and the smaller, “where is he?” one) and the characters.


"Sorry, buddy, this is prison in the 60's. I can screw with you as much as I want."


And that’s where I get a little iffy.

Recently, I’ve become reflexively leery towards TV shows that want to introduce mysteries that may take full seasons to solve.  It’s not because I don’t like a good mystery, mind you.  I’ll stick with such shows if they’re good.  The reason why I’m hesitant is because, ever since the success of LOST, TV creators the world over have been trying to create serialized mystery dramas — with little to no success.  The reason, I think, is because the writers spend so much time thinking of cool mysteries and very little time focusing on characters.  This naturally means that the mystery drives the show, and when that happens, your mystery better be really dang fascinating.  If it isn’t, your show will become boring and quick.  Characters are responsible for giving a show life.  Why do you think there are so many successful crime dramas out there when they all contain the same premise?  Characters.  They give it something unique.  If a show has boring or unlikable characters, it’s going to crash and burn if your plot isn’t highly entertaining.


Case in point? "FlashForward." Not a bad concept and even some talented writers, but hopelessly boring characters. It was a terrible show.


But I digress.

Alcatraz obviously has quite a few mysteries to it.  “What happened to the inmates?  Why did that first guy want that key?  What does Hauser know?  When did Hurley change his name and get two PhD’s?”  Nevertheless, the mysteries are significantly downplayed compared to other Abrams’ shows like LOST or even Fringe.  In fact, much like Fringe‘s first season, Alcatraz seems to consist more of standalone episodes than constant, what-happens-next serial drama.  The writers have purposely made the show in such a way that you can jump into any episode and easily grasp what is going on.  The big mystery of the show seems to be a catalyst for storytelling rather than the whole story itself.  Because of that, it’s obvious that some of the show’s mysteries will take a long time to answer (ie: Don’t expect any time-travelling murderers to spill the beans after three episodes).  That’s not to say the mysteries are unimportant — the characters ask too many “What is going on?!” questions for them to go completely ignored.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the mysteries become more important as time goes on — especially as we near a season finale.  Still, if you’re going into this show hoping to see a bunch of mysteries and then a slew of answers, it’s possible that you may be looking in the wrong place.  That being said, the basic premise of the show is interesting.  A nice twist on the classic “catch the badguy” scenario is the fact that the characters can’t rely on some of the standard crime-solving tools because these men are supposedly all dead (and, therefore, not in the system).  We’ll have to see how much the writers further play with that idea in the future.


"This man is bad, and that's all I'm telling you. Happy Hunting."


Finally, there are the characters of Alcatraz.  It’s only been two episodes, so they still have yet to thoroughly establish everyone, but I’m both optimistic and slightly concerned about this category.  For one, I’m optimistic because characters in Abrams’ shows tend to be pretty strong.  For what it’s worth, the actors are all well-chosen for their respective parts.  Unfortunately, the characters are mostly archetypes right now, rather than real, fleshed out personalities.  We have the goofy, not physically active geek; the serious, wants-answers detective girl; and the grumpy old man who knows more than he lets on.  Jorge Garcia provides the most comic relief for the show, but it’s hard not to think of him as Hurley the entire time he’s onscreen.  I’m hopeful that the writers will do a few things with his character to differentiate him from his previous role.  Sam Neill plays the helpful jerk perfectly; though, again, I’m hopeful that he’s not always there merely to provide the foil for Madsen’s questions.  As for Sarah Jones herself, she plays the role well, but Madsen feels too much like a copy of early Olivia Dunham from Fringe for my taste (if it turns out that she was having an affair with her now-deceased partner, I’m out).  Basically, all of the characters in Alcatraz have potential (if the writers decide to start getting a little creative), but, as they are right now, they’re not very realized.


Occasionally, I got the sense that Rebecca Madsen could be a more "fun" character, if the writers would stop trying to make her super serious all the time.


In all, Alcatraz is an entertaining show with a few problems, but a lot of potential.  The prison-flashback scenes are easily the strongest moments (aside from that one cheesy scene with the Warden practicing his shooting), and the mysteries themselves are intriguing but not so overwhelming or convoluted that you might feel lost if you miss an episode.  Indeed, the only thing that really needs work are the characters — and we’ll hopefully see that as time goes on.  For now, I’m definitely keeping an eye on the show.  If Alcatraz can do a bit more to show that it’s different, we might have another winner from J.J. Abrams.

My Top 10 Notable (or Surprising) Media Successes of 2011

•January 10, 2012 • Leave a Comment

About a week ago, I posted my Top 10 Media Disappointments of 2011.  Now, however, it’s time to look back at last year a little more positively, and give you my personal Top 10 Notable (or Surprising) Media Successes of 2011.  Note that I’m not just making a simple list of “Wins” to counter last week’s “Fails.”  These elements are all either noteworthy successes in the field of media or contain some measure of surprise.

Feel free to voice your opinion on my choices below.


Off we go!


10. Super 8

Much like last year, it was difficult to list the final success on this list.  Very few TV series impressed me this year, and even the number of groundbreaking, original movies was low. In the end, I gave the edge to J.J. Abrams’ project Super 8, not so much because it was groundbreaking or original (though it had slight elements of both), but because it was a well-done movie with a good story and great characters.  To say the marketing of Super 8 was mysterious would be an understatement.  Teasers hardly revealed anything about the movie — other than some train crash involving a monster.  What we got, however was more akin to The Goonies than a sci-fi monster movie.  Super 8 follows a group of kids in a small town attempting to film their own zombie movie for a film festival.  While filming, however, they witness a train crash in which some creature…thing… escapes.  The movie contains a variety of thriller, mystery, and action elements, as this creature heavily influences the story, but the film mostly centers on the kids and their attempt to make a movie amidst the chaos.  Super 8 is a sort of love letter to movie-making in general, but specifically regards the movies of the 80’s with much fondness.  The characters (as with most Abrams’ productions) take center stage over the special effects, as we see the kids learning to deal with one another, their parents, and, of course, some invading presence.  Nevertheless, despite being a movie with a lot of heart,    it’s still got some pretty great-looking sequences.  Combining both the old and the new, it’s a nostalgia-laden film that still manages to present its own story, and, for that, it deserves some recognition.


Naturally, it's not a true J.J. Abrams movie without a gratuitous amount of lens flares.


9. Google Plus

Now, before you jump on me and state that “no one really uses Google Plus,” hear me out on this.  At the beginning of 2011, there were really only two social networks (three, if you feel the overwhelming urge to count the somehow-still-alive-but-dying-anyway MySpace).  Google made plenty of halfhearted attempts in the social sphere in the past, but they were all either unsuccessful flings or outright disasters (Wave anyone?  How about Buzz?).  Whenever anyone else tried to make the “next Facebook,” it would usually end with a whimper.  It’s with this history in mind that Google Plus can be considered a success.  No, it hasn’t been (and won’t be) a so-called “Facebook killer,” but is that really the point of the network?  When G+ premiered, it was hugely admired by a small, but vocal minority of “techies.”  The adoption rate of the network is actually quite high, with 62 million users reported last month.  Most of all, however, the product wasn’t some rushed cash-in, like so many of Google’s other… endeavors.  Google Plus actually managed to introduce a few thoughtful and very useful features — some of which even Facebook has gone on to adopt.  True, the site doesn’t necessarily see the same kind of activity that you might on Facebook, but that all depends on your perspective (Be honest — most of the activity you see on Facebook you don’t care about anyway).  Personally, I use G+ to follow a lot of tech analysts, and they usually manage to post something interesting almost daily.  Google Plus may not be the best social network to come along, but, more than anything else, it forced the rest of the social networks to innovate through some well-executed (and much-needed) competition.


The simple logo indicates that the network isn't bloated with a plethora of unnecessary features (at least, not yet)


8. The Lytro “Light-field” Camera

This year, a startup company called Lytro unveiled a pretty fascinating piece of technology – the “Light field camera” (or, “plenoptic camera”).  Essentially, this camera captures light information in a 4D space.  In layman’s speak, this means that the camera doesn’t take a picture, per se; it captures light.  Through the distances, changes, and sources of light, the camera can work out spacial relationships between the objects you photograph.  All this works together in such a way so that you can take a picture with the camera and then adjust the focus on the picture after it’s already been taken.  That is a pretty huge achievement.  The lack of having to focus the camera means that pictures can be taken in quick succession, merely to be adjusted later.  The camera, developed by Lytro, went on sale in 2011, and the first shipment should be sometime soon this year.  Granted, this technology is so new that it has a number of shortcoming — low resolution and file limitations being the worst.  Nevertheless, with development, this technology could fundamentally alter the way we understand “point and shoot.”  I’m not even a camera person, and I kind of want one.


It's a simple and not entirely attractive device, but, given enough development, could change how we view "point and shoot."


7. The Conclusion of Harry Potter

Love it or hate it, Harry Potter is a force to be reckoned with.  This year saw the release of the eighth and final film in the series, and it is now the third-highest grossing movie of all time (and the ninth film to gross over $1 billion).  While not exactly the most original work, the Harry Potter books and movies managed to capture the imaginations of millions of people the world over, and the fact that they’ve been immensely successful is unquestionable.  Harry Potter represents storytelling in its purest form, and the books and films have managed to ignite (or reignite) a love of fantasy that had long lain dormant for many people.  What’s more, the people involved in the movies themselves spent ten years of their lives working on them.  Ten years!  For the younger actors, that’s about half their lives playing a character.  That’s dedication.  While the movies occasionally diverted from the books, they were generally pretty faithful adaptations.  The final two movies were especially close to the books (with a few, mostly minor, differences).  Last year’s final film was everything a conclusion should be — exciting, stunning, and satisfying.  Many are now wondering what WB will do without new movies in one of its most successful movie franchises ever, but, for now, the studio should feel proud of all the hard work that went into its eight very successful movie adaptions.


"It All Ends.... until the inevitable reboot."


6. Rayman Origins

What an undiscovered gem this game is!  At the start of last year, no one was sure if this game was even going to exist.  Originally planned as an episodic, downloadable title, info on the next Rayman game ceased around the start of 2011, and only a few months before release was it announced that it would, instead, be a full-fledged retail game.  Most were rather surprised by the news — having had his career essentially hijacked by the “Raving Rabbids,” many weren’t sure if we’d ever see a proper Rayman game again.  When it did come out, however, we got a fun, quirky, and absolutely gorgeous platformer.  Releasing just before Thanksgiving and during the mad rush of quality, big-budget videogame launches this year, Rayman Origins was, tragically, overlooked by the gaming world at large.  What it missed out on was something incredible.  Not only is it one of the most beautiful videogames you’ll ever see (due to its gorgeous art style), but it’s also one of the best-playing platformers of this generation.  Tough but fair, Rayman Origins doesn’t shy away from giving you a challenge — even as you laugh at some of the zany depictions onscreen.  The controls are tight and responsive, and you’ll keep wanting to play just one more level.  It came out on all three major consoles; so, if you enjoy unique, creative, and challenging old-school sidescrollers, you owe it to yourself to pick up this overlooked wonder.


Yes, this is gameplay. It all looks this good.


5. The Muppets

Let’s be honest — we haven’t seen a classic, good Muppets movie in quite awhile.  Relegated to the realm of pop culture from yesteryear, the Muppets haven’t felt particularly relevant for today’s audience.  Oh sure, adults look back on them with fondness (as do any children with a proper upbringing), but stamping “the Muppets” onto something doesn’t guarantee instant success like it once did.  Interestingly, the creators of last year’s The Muppets actually used that very topic as the subject for their movie.  In it, the Muppets are brought out of retirement by their “biggest fan” and attempt to raise $10 million in order to prevent their old studio from being destroyed.  It’s a pretty basic setup, but it allows for the characters themselves to shine, as they deal with complex issues like change, moving on, irrelevance, and, of course, belonging.  It’s a surprisingly heartfelt film, given that it stars a bunch of puppets (and a couple of real actors — but you don’t care as much about them).  Of course, it wouldn’t be a real Muppets movie without some self-referential fourth-wall breaking, and The Muppets have that in spades.  The film has plenty of serious moments, sure, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and you will often find yourself laughing at many of its quick-witted lines.  Best of all, The Muppets managed to nail the feeling of a Muppets movie — making it a welcome return-to-form for both newcomers and longtime fans alike.


"I can't remember the last time a Muppets movie was this good." "I can't remember the last time any Muppets movie was good." Doh ho ho ho ho ho ho!


4.  Game Developers

I’ve highlighted two specific games in this list, but game developers on the whole deserve to be included for all the quality work they produced last year.  Yes, the “Big Three” game companies may have let me down, but the individual studios were arguably at the top of their game.  Gamers never had it so good last year.  2011 saw an insanely high amount of quality videogames released — so much so that you would have to possess quite the time and money to fully experience them all.  To name just a few big releases from last year, we got Super Mario 3D Land, Uncharted 3, Portal 2, inFamous 2, Gears of War 3, Halo Anniversary, Resistance 3, Skryim, Battlefield 3, Batman: Arkham City, Rayman Origins, LittleBigPlanet 2, and Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.  And those are just the big budget, really well-received games!  Granted, many on this list are sequels, but so many of these sequels either tried something new, perfected what came before it, or were just so much fun that it didn’t matter.  In 2011, we also saw the indie sphere of gaming take off, as more and more original games were produced by very small groups of people.  As it gets cheaper and easier to produce games, we’ve seen some very talented artists rise up and produce their own very unique works.  I have high hopes for the indie gaming world, and 2011 definitely proved them a force to be reckoned with.  There’s no doubt that 2011, in general, left me with a large backlog of games that I plan on experiencing.


Entirely relevant, if you attempted to keep up with all of 2011's big games.


3. Twitter

Twitter has been growing in popularity for years, but the social network really came into its own in 2011.  There can be no doubt that the world receives its news differently than it did even 10 years ago, but Twitter proved to be at the forefront of news-gathering with nearly every major event this past year.  Often beating the news cameras by a solid few hours, more and more people heard of events through Twitter before “traditional media” had even begun covering it.  The big example of 2011, of course, is the death of Osama bin Laden.  Long before any official statement had been made, millions of twitter users had already spread the word.  The social network was also used to spread information during times of crisis — as we saw during the Norway massacre last year.  Twitter has been influential in the ongoing “Arab Spring,” as it is one of the social networks to have been used as a means of communication and organization.  Live-tweeting (much like blogging before it) has the ability to turn any bystander into a journalist of sorts.  There’s no doubt that news organizations now think of Twitter as a serious method of information spreading.  That’s pretty impressive for a service many thought would only be used for sharing what kind of sandwich you had for lunch.



2. Portal 2

Four years ago, Valve gave us Portal — a clever and addicting puzzle game.  The game itself was very short, but it left an impression that inspired a huge following (I challenge you to find someone who has not heard the phrase, “The cake is a lie.”).  It was challenging, witty, and highly original — even if it was more of an experiment than a full-fledged game.  Despite this, nobody was sure how exactly Valve could pull of a sequel without it feeling more like “Portal, but with more puzzle chambers.”  Part of Portal‘s beauty was its simplicity, and adding too much might strip away what made Portal so brilliant.  Well, as it turns out, those fears were completely unfounded.  When Portal 2 launched in April of last year, gamers were blown away.  The story was far more complex and involved, yes, but it was also far more engaging and hilarious.  The new gameplay mechanics were seamlessly integrated with existing mechanics from the first outing, and despite having far more substance to it, Portal 2 still retained the simplicity of its predecessor.  Everywhere you looked, the game oozed with creativity and originality — completely surpassing everyone’s expectations.  Nowhere in the game was Valve afraid to try something new, and yet, it never struggled to challenge you just enough with its mind-bending puzzles.  Despite running on an old engine, the game looked great thanks to some gorgeous art direction.  What’s more, the game boasted some of the best co-op I’ve seen in a videogame.  Ever.  Portal 2 is not only an absolute delight to play, it might just be the best videogame to come from 2011.


Part of the beauty of Portal 2 is that it made you connect with characters who weren't even technically "alive."


1. Brown v. EMA

Notable for both game developers and consumers alike, Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association was a Supreme Court case in which the Court definitively stated that videogames fall under First Amendment protection.  It was a landmark victory for the credibility and creativity of videogames.  The case found its origins in a Californian law that banned the sale of violent videogames to minors.  The law was challenged and appealed multiple times until it made its way to the Supreme Court.  In a 7-2 ruling this past June, the Supreme Court struck down the law, ruling it as unconstitutional.  Not only did they rule that it was the parent’s responsibility to determine what his or her child consumed  (the ESRB provides ratings to help with that for a reason), but the Court ruled that videogames fall under the same protections as books, plays, and movies.  Thanks to the Supreme Court, videogames are officially a protected part of free speech — capable of communicating ideas and messages.  It’s both a source of excitement and challenge for game developers.  Excitement because they can use the medium to creatively tell their stories how they want to tell it; challenging because, now that the medium is seen as a “legitimate” and protected means of communication, it is that much more their responsibility to use it wisely and effectively.


Gamers, meet your heroes.


My Top 10 Media Disappointments of 2011

•January 1, 2012 • Leave a Comment

It’s that time again!

What time?

If you answered, “Be like every website out there and make a quick list in an effort to summarize the past year,” then you are absolutely correct!  There is a precedent for this, however.  Last year, I wrote an article summarizing my personal Top 10 Media Disappointments of 2010.  About a week later, I countered that with my own Top 10 Surprising (or Notable) Media Successes of 2010.  I enjoyed that method of reminiscing last year, so I intend to do it again for this past one!  Here are my personal disappointments for 2011.  My own successes will come in a little bit.

Join me, will you?



10. Star Wars Bluray

Admittedly, this is the very bottom of the disappointments list, but it still deserves to be on here.  The way the Complete Saga was hyped before it was released, you would’ve thought that Star Wars on Bluray was the “Definitive Edition” of the series.  Instead, we merely got the “Best Looking Edition.”  Granted, the movies themselves look phenomenal, and I still recommend it to those who care about good picture quality and sound.  The extra features, however, were majorly lacking.  Because Lucasfilm decided not to include any previously-released features from the DVDs (despite the fact that they would’ve all easily fit onto a single Bluray disc), the bonus disc for the Prequels mostly consisted of lame, ten-second deleted scenes.  The deleted scenes for the Original Trilogy were admittedly awesome (as they hadn’t been seen before), but that was the high point of the whole set.  The final bonus disc was full of ridiculously old, already-aired documentaries and an unfunny “collection” of Star Wars spoofs that felt like it was put together by some middle-aged man in his free time — oh, and they were all in “standard def.”  While the movies themselves felt like Lucasfilm had put time and effort in their conversion, the extras discs felt like a hastily slapped together cash-in.  The Star Wars Bluray  isn’t exactly a bad set, but it is lackluster when you compare it to what it could’ve been.


Of all the Star Wars art I've seen over the years, the Blu-ray cover art isn't all that impressive either.


9.  This Year’s E3

The Electronics Entertainment Expo (or E3, for short) is a once-a-year event meant to showcase videogames and videogame-related hardware that is currently in development.  Taking place over the course of a week, it’s a very big deal in the gaming community.  E3 is often the place where new, triple-A games are announced and previously unseen games are finally shown to the public.  Sometimes, even new consoles are announced.  Given the kind of budget studios have for this expo, there is always a certain measure of hype surrounding E3 when it finally launches.  This year’s E3, however, was very… different.  Despite having done this for over 15 years, 2011’s E3 seemed very unsure of who its target audience was.  Instead of showcasing all the latest, greatest games to an audience of hungry gamers, most of the execs at E3 either spent their time trying to convince the audience why casual gaming is the future (something Nintendo did five years ago) or breathed hot air about why they’re the best.  Microsoft actively paraded children onstage to demonstrate the Kinect, Sony largely ignored the PS3 (despite having a strong lineup of games this year), and Nintendo spent a lot of time talking about the potential of the Wii U without actually demonstrating anything.  There were a few notable exceptions, but, for the most part, the higher-ups at E3 felt very out-of-touch with its core fanbase.  Worst of all, though, E3 2011 gave us this guy:


Meet "Mr. Caffeine," the world's most awkward show host.


8. The “Big Three” Gaming Companies

Speaking of gaming disappointments, all three of the big gaming companies deserve to be on this list for various actions throughout 2011.  By and large, 2011 was a great year for video gaming, but each of the “Big Three” let me down in some way or other this year, even if individual studios were at the top of their game.  Sony, of course, dealt with the massive hack of its PSN earlier this year.  Naturally, it wouldn’t be fair to hold Sony responsible for the criminal actions of others, but it was the way the company conducted itself after the hack took place that was both disappointing and shameful.  For one, the company flat out didn’t tell anyone about the nature of the hack until well over a week after it took place — a very dangerous amount of time when identity theft could be involved.  When Sony finally did reveal that it had been a security breach, it was very slow in revealing all the details.  It was a full month before the PSN came back online, but it took even longer for Sony to recover its image (if it even has yet).  They tried to make good after it blew over, but the whole ordeal was a PR fail of fantastic levels.

Nintendo deserves to be on the list because of its head-in-the-sand attitude.  While the 3DS had an amazing amount of potential (it made my list of surprising successes last year), it absolutely failed to deliver.  It launched at a high price point, its network wasn’t up and running yet, and there were no notable games to speak of.  And it stayed like that for months.  The 3DS is finally beginning to catch on — but that’s mostly due to a price reduction and the releasing of games people actually want to play.  Similarly, Nintendo released all of two first party games on the Wii for the entire year and somehow had the audacity to wonder why sales were down.  I’m not one of those “Nintendo abandoned the hardcore” people, but the company spent so little time paying attention to its current consoles this year that it’s no wonder the company feels a little behind.

By the same token, Microsoft did very little this year as well.  Over the past year or two, the house of XBox has been slowly losing its exclusives to multiplatform deals.  Because of that, it’s important that the company find some way to entice gamers into sticking with their console.  How did MS decide to do that this year?  By shoehorning Kinect into everything — including games that really don’t need it (Mass Effect 3, anyone?).  Aside from that, it’s been business as usual for the company — with only a very small handful of quality exclusives.  Additionally, Microsoft has spent the past few years ruling XBox Live with an iron fist — often bullying small time indie developers with restrictions and demands for large cuts of their profits (it’s no wonder many have migrated to Steam on the PC or even to PSN).  Granted, the company’s done nothing blatantly and outright stupid this year like Sony and Nintendo, but, really, the only thing keeping Microsoft up in the videogame world right now is brand loyalty.  Maybe they should ask Nintendo how well ignoring the people that made them popular works in the long run…


7.  Any tablet device that isn’t an iPad

It’s funny — the iPad is almost three years old, and yet every computer company under the sun is still unsuccessfully trying to copy it.  This year saw a huge amount of tablet contenders — so many that I won’t even bother mentioning most of them here.  The amusing part is that Apple, which is usually criticized for releasing highly expensive products, still has the cheapest tablet on the market.  For some reason, the other companies still haven’t found that magic formula to compete with the iPad.  Most of this is due to the fact that no company owns both the software and the hardware as Apple does (which makes cutting costs a lot easier).  Whether or not there even is a market for tablet devices or just the iPad is another topic for a different editorial entirely, but there’s no denying that Apple’s iPad is the only real contender in said market currently.  As an example, perhaps the craziest story about tablet devices from this year involves HP’s TouchPad.  The device was launched to mixed reviews, but some people genuinely liked the OS.  However, a mere seven weeks after launch, HP announced that they were discontinuing production of the TouchPad.  Sadly, these halfhearted attempts seem to be the norm.  It seems everyone wants the consumers the iPad has, but nobody wants to put in the time or money for it.


"Touch...Pad, you say? Yeah, that totally didn't happen. You must've imagined it."


6. Final Cut Pro X

Admittedly, this doesn’t affect media consumers, but it sure does affect media creators.  Final Cut Pro is video editing software created by Apple.  The older versions have been wonderful pieces of technology that pretty much defined the standard for nonlinear editing (the kind of editing today’s moviemakers use).  With a simply massive wealth of tools at its disposal, Final Cut Pro was king… until Apple released the “updated” Final Cut Pro X this year.  Put simply, it didn’t go over well.  The update attempted to “streamline” the editing process, but it seemed to forget the audience that primarily used the software in the first place.  Features were actually removed, the interface was dumbed-down, and, remarkably, old Final Cut projects couldn’t even transfer to the new version.  Many critics stated that Apple essentially turned Final Cut Pro into iMovie.  Indeed, this year’s update of Final Cut was not so much for professional editors as it was amateur video enthusiasts.  Apple has since attempted to correct some of these issues (like restoring support to file types that had been supported in the past), but a lot of damage has been done to the good Final Cut name.


What's that? This is the icon for "iMovie?" ....Same thing, right?


5. Terra Nova

Ah, Terra Nova.  The only thing I initially heard about the show was that it was being produced by Steven Spielberg.  Oh, and it had dinosaurs.  Dinosaurs, man!  The last time that combo came together, we got a pretty fantastic movie.  It’s with that in mind that Terra Nova is such a disappointment.  Intrigued as I initially was by the show, I never ended up watching a single episode, as review after review pegged it as a big “meh.”  Many reviewers stated that it had potential, but after one or two episodes, a number of flaws were consistently showing up.  Primarily, those flaws have been bad writing and poor characters.  I suppose that might be true, but, like I said, I never actually watched an episode.  Given how unanimous the disappointment was, I decided to forgo the heartache of watching another sci-fi trainwreck unfold.  After all, even the advertisements couldn’t make it look interesting.  And they had dinosaurs in them!  Clearly, something wasn’t handled properly.


Apparently, even having dinosaurs can't make your show interesting if you don't have likable characters.


4. Netflix

Honestly, if you didn’t think this would show up on this list, you haven’t been paying attention.  Being the company that essentially killed Blockbuster, Netflix seemingly had it made at the start of this year.  People had high opinions of the company and its services, and many were very happy with it (even if its streaming selection wasn’t always the best).  Yet, things began to take a dark turn when Netflix announced that it would be charging for its streaming and DVD rental services separately (essentially doubling its monthly bill, if you decided to stick with both).  While some customers were okay with this, a good amount of them were vocally opposed to the idea and expressed this displeasure with their wallets.  Its user base began to decline ever so slightly.  Then, things got interesting.  Really interesting.  In a move no one expected, the CEO of Netflix sent out a letter apologizing for the way he had communicated their pricing changes (but not for the changes themselves), and then proceeded to announce that Netflix wouldn’t be doing DVDs anymore, period.  Instead, a new spin-off company named Qwikster would be handling DVD rentals.  Customers were furious.  Now, not only would you still have to pay double, but you’d be paying two separate bills to two separate companies.  For many, this was a far more annoying inconvenience.  Only a few weeks later, the CEO again wrote another letter, this time canceling the poorly-named Qwikster before it had even launched.  Netflix has been making a few deals with movie studios since this whole fiasco ended in an attempt to woo back its customers, but it’s clear the company has displayed a distinct lack of direction throughout this year.  I’m actually amazed the CEO wasn’t fired, to be honest.  It’s actually a shame, really, to see such a great service stumble so badly.


"Launching Soon... and by 'soon,' we mean 'never'."


3.  Cowboys and Aliens

I’ll admit – I was a little skeptical of Cowboys and Aliens even before it was released, but the original trailer for the movie did make it look like it could be a fun film.  It had the potential to be a fun genre mashup that we hadn’t seen before — nothing overly heavy or serious, but enjoyable nonetheless.  Strong special effects were a given, and it looked like it would have a witty script (given that it came from the same director as the Iron Man movies, this wouldn’t be too surprising).  Plus, it had Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford in it.  That duo alone would make for an intriguing movie.  Nevertheless, it didn’t fare well — at all.  Reviewers trashed the movie for being shallow, unimpressive, lazy, and melodramatic.  Apparently, it wasn’t all that funny, original, or even fun.  Ultimately, the movie was forgotten soon after release, and I haven’t heard much talk of it since (For instance, did you know it was released on DVD and Bluray at the beginning of December?  I sure didn’t).  Much like Terra Nova, I didn’t end up seeing it, simply due to the sheer amount of negativity surrounding it.  The movie currently sits atop a 44% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Ouch.


An interesting idea for a genre mashup, perhaps, but "Firefly" this is not.


2.  Cars 2

We all knew this day would come eventually, but that doesn’t make it any less painful.  Pixar probably has the best success record of any studio in Hollywood these days.  Year after year, they have consistently released phenomenal movies.  They’ve all been animated, but they’ve also been just as enjoyable for adults as they have been for kids (if not more so).  Pixar’s movies are often deep, creative, emotional, and just plain fun to watch.  Some of my favorite movies (just in general) have been Pixars films.  That’s why, as a huge Pixar fan,  I found the release of Cars 2 just heartbreaking.  Now, I had a bad feeling going into the film’s release in the first place– despite being a good movie, the first Cars was still my least favorite of the Pixar films — but I hoped that Pixar would still stick with its track record of fantastic storytelling.  Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case.  Most critics disliked the film, calling it more of a kid’s movie and decidedly average — a complaint never before leveled at a Pixar movie.  Many stated that the plot lacked any heart, and the film itself wasn’t very satisfying (aside from the visual spectacle).  In fact, Cars 2 sits at an astounding 38% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (for the record, that’s worse than the chintzy Gnomeo & Juliet).  To be fair, I suspect these numbers are so low because critics naturally hold Pixar to a higher standard than your run-of-the-mill animated movie.  Nevertheless, that’s clearly not good.  Still, as one of my coworkers recently stated, “I’d rather Pixar make one kiddy movie, get a ton of merchandising from it, and then have the money to go back to making good, original films.”  At least something good can come from that.


"Please tell me that wasn't Pixar back there."


1. SOPA

The “Stop Online Piracy Act” (or SOPA, for short) has been getting a lot of press lately, and for good reason.  Strongly pushed by Hollywood and the RIAA, the bill is an attempt to control piracy on the internet.  A worthy venture, sure, but the bill goes about it in completely inane and nonsensical ways.  Essentially, SOPA would allow a third party to take down any website if they claimed it hosted infringing material.  While this used to require contacting the owner of the site (and a court order and some investigation if things could not be resolved simply), SOPA would allow any third party to do it with only a judge’s signature.  Under SOPA, websites can essentially be blocked and censored, without any need to even contact the website.  The bill is even worse when you consider the fact that its terminology is rather vague and its sentences unnecessarily harsh.  Analysts have stated that the bill could be interpreted in such ways that popular sites like YouTube could even be taken down.  Indeed, many opponents of the bill have stated that SOPA would fundamentally change the way the internet works, even break it.  It’s not hard to imagine — with strict penalties in place and the possibility of being taken offline ever present, websites would self-censor their content (known as a “chilling effect”) and impede the free flow of information.  There’s a reason why the FCC often had a hands-off approach to the internet in the past.  It’s disappointing, and even aggravating, that the media industry (and Congress with them) would go to such incredible lengths to screw over internet users, in order to make a few more dollars (dollars that, apparently, the industry is doing just fine without).  Of course, I haven’t even talked about the arrogance of the US in thinking that they can police a worldwide resource.  The bill has not yet been passed, as it was delayed through the holiday season, but the debate will continue well into the new year.  Let’s hope Congress puts something like, oh say, the First Amendment, above the profits of an already greedy industry next year.


I couldn't find an appropriate image for SOPA, so here's a stop sign.