Thoughts On… Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (The Movie)

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So before I start, you should know I really like Edgar Wright, video games, Scott Pilgrim and video games. This means I am effectively the target audience for this film and so I’m destined to like this film even if it was only slightly good. And it is good. Oh so good.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is a new film from Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) and based on a 6 issue set of comics by Bryan O’Malley. It follows the eponymous Scott Pilgrim, a twenty something slacker living in Toronto. One night while dreaming he sees Ramona Flowers, Amazon.CA delivery girl, and decides that this is the girl for him. However in order to date her, he must fight her 7 evil exes. The comics span are a really good read (translated: go buy them) with a great plot. Unfortunately, the film has taken one or two liberties with this story (partly due to the fact the final part wasn’t released during filming) which is slightly annoying especially as some of the cool scenes from the comics aren’t included. However these changes do help to make the film flow much much better even if it throws all down time out the window as it careens towards its epic finale.

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It is also pretty funny. Part of this is the referential humour with defeated enemies turning to coins but more comes from just how terrible Scott is. His constant evasion of having to do difficult things is hilarious at some point, perhaps the best being his response to an old girlfriend turning up at his door unexpectedly. There are some other great lines (“You punched me in the boob”) of which only a few actually turned up in the trailer, always the sign of a good movie.

Scott Pilgrim has style coming out of the kazoo. From the graphic effects linked to many of the sounds to blacking out of certain characters dirty swearing mouth, it is obvious that the after effects guy had a a pretty big job finishing this film off. It also works perfectly (good job after effect guys!) and makes it look just like the comic in motion. Part of this look comes from the editing – snappy shots make parts of it feel like the panels of a graphic novel while it also has many shots that mirror the books themselves almost exactly, often with a split screen effect. But layered over the top of many of the scenes are the links to various games. At the start of most of the fights, “VS” signs pop up with Scott and the bad guy facing off as if this was Street Fighter. There are other references, such as Scott’s “Pee bar” or the ever present enemies exploding into a shower of coins as if this was a beat-em-up (you mean like the game?). One particular reference I liked was the fact that Scott spends most of the first half wearing a Plumtree shirt, as a song by the band inspired the main characters name. There are quite a few of these little references scattered throughout that will pull out a laugh when you notice them.

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Part of this lrvrl style is also visible in the music. The various bands are all pretty good and the tunes are pretty catchy. By far the best is Scott’s Sex Bob-Omb, with its tunes being composed by Beck. I’m not normally a fan, but I picked up the soundtrack and love it. There is also a collection of other songs used but Brie Larson’s cover of Metric’s Black Sheep is an amazing and also the best in the film but unfortunately not on the soundtrack. There is also a pretty good use of the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb”.

I’m also surprised by the cast. I’m not much of a Michael Cera fan, but as Scott Pilgrim he is perfect –  a whiny git who is a little bit of a dick. Ramona is also a rather good match, being both distant from Scott yet also very protective, and is played by a rather attractive and talented Mary Elizabeth Winstead . The other members of Sex Bob-Omb are a great laugh, especially Kim Pine whose actress plays the role spot on, with just about the correct level of contempt for Scott’s character. However, the stars of the show have to be the main bad guy Gideon (played by a Jason Schwartzman who is the ideal slimy record producer) and Scott’s roommate (as played by Kieran Culkin). Both seemed to have had a lot of fun making this film. In fact there isn’t a single person I thought didn’t look like they were having a whale of a time. Look out for a pretty good cameo about half way through the film.

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You can gauge a film from the response of the audience and the crowd at the showing I saw loved every minute. Rather than sitting in silence, they laughed at most of the jokes and cheered at some of the references, such as the various game sound effects. Even my Dad, who has never read the comics or really watched the other Edgar Wright films, loved it.

As other reviewers have said, Scott Pilgrim is the best video game movie ever, despite not actually being based on one. And even if you don’t like games that much (and can keep up with the break neck pace), you will probably still enjoy just the crazy special effects and the great story. I’m going to pick this up on DVD/Blu-Ray day of release.

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If you’re wanting some more Scott Pilgrim, than there is the game currently out on PSN and XBLA. I’ll be reviewing it for TIMJ some point soon.

Thoughts On… Assassin’s Creed

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Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft
Year of Release: 2007, 2008
Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360

You know a games going to be good when it puts a warning label before the main menu when its booted up. Assassin’s Creed has a nice disclaimer mentioning the game is made by a multicultural team of different faiths. Translated it says “We can be as racist or stereotypical as we want because we are only insulting ourselves, so suck it.”

Assassin’s Creed premise is pretty crazy. The story is all about a bartender called Desmond in the future who may or may not be an Assassin and has also been kidnapped. But at the same time its all about his ancestor Altair, an assassin in the times of the Third Crusade who goes round stabbing anyone who he is told to by his Assassin master like every GTA protagonist ever. This mismash is explained away by a machine called the Animus allows someone to experience their ancestors memories due to storing them in the DNA. As the story progresses, you see both Desmond starting to find a way to escape due to his assassin powers and Altair regain his rank that he lost by being stupid in the opening cutscene. This translates to an “abilitease” at the start with you being able to cut through guys like paper, while later missions will reward you with new equipment and abilities. Its a nice idea that I think work pretty well

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However you don’t play Assassin’s Creed for its story. You play instead for its great free running. Assassin’s Creed has the best acrobatics system I have ever seen in any game ever. Instead of having to hammer the jump button like a caffeine addict, you instead hold down a button to switch to high profile (aka acrobatic) mode. This then tells the game to automatically jump, roll, dive or swing depending on the obstacle. Although it seems lazy, it makes many of the chases both look good and play well which prevents some of the anger usually associated with jumping around. As you might guess from the title, the main crux of the game is focused around the assassinations. However before you can waltz in and the stab the guy, you must first gather your intel. This is done by doing tasks for brother Assassins such as assassinating troublesome guards or running obstacle courses, pick pocketing your target’s associates and eavesdropping on conversations to gleam details. You don’t actually need all of them, but additional ones present various advantages. It’s a nice idea, but when its the same task for every kill  it gets a bit repetitive. The PC version does include a few extra missions above the original console version but they are basically more of the same.

That said though the actual killings and the fights that often follow are great fun. Planning it out from a vantage point, you wait for the perfect moment, jump onto the target, sit through a short essay on morals from the target as he bleeds out before running off chased by a butt load of templars. The combat isn’t the most elegant of control schemes and seems to rely mainly on guesswork and black  magic (or careful timing) to use the counter attacks that are the foundation of all the combat. You do have three different weapons to use (throwing knives, dagger and sword) which all have their own special animations. The dagger is probably the coolest looking due mainly to a move when you stab a guy in the foot before bring it up to stab in the face. All the combat looks great and really fluid making it a joy to watch. However it does become slightly annoying when you realise the best way to win is simply block and perform counter moves rather than going on the offensive

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Its obvious that Ubisoft has put a lot of work into the game engine behind AC. The game looks beautiful and allows some spectacular views over the three cities when you climb up the various steeples and spires. Each of the three major cities have their own feel to them. For example, the recently conquered Acre has just been besieged and so is dark and ash covered, with an effect reminding me of the film Kingdom of Heaven. These effects and visuals give it a blockbuster style effect, which carries over into the audio. I don’t know what it exactly is, but the game sounds exceptionally good. I’m not a fan of the voice cast and their performances but the incidental sound effects really make the world. However, it doesn’t feel like the living worlds of other games.

However, there are some problems. As said before it is very repetitive in almost every aspect. Its also very punishing if you don’t use all the tools available to you and simply blunder into fights. Even worse is the state the PC version was released in. It requires an insanely powerful PC to look its best and is also picky about the hardware it is running on. The list of programs or configurations it has issues with is really, really long. Another flaw is the fact its an obvious console port. The number of clicks and loading screens required to get out of the game, a normally fairly trivial task, is so many that the makers actually recommend using Alt-F4 to exit the game. As well as this there are other signs of consoleification, such as the game only displaying in 16:9 leaving most gamers with letterboxing, somewhat ruining the cinematic effect.

All these faults aside, Assassin’s Creed is a game everyone should play, either on console or PC. It has so many smart ideas, and shows them in such a stylish presentation that it is enjoyable, though it does become repetitive after a while. Most of these flaws were luckily fixed in the sequel.

Thoughts On… Alien Swarm

(This review was originally posted on This Is My Joystick hence the different formatting style)

You know what’s a good film? Aliens. This 1986 sci-fi classic from James Cameron is still a major influence on both games and cinema and while also providing a huge number of quotable lines that come in handy when playing Valve’s newest co-op shooter, Alien Swarm. Based off the same tech as Left 4 Dead and Half Life 2, is this game a worthy successor to the other high quality games in Valve’s collection or is it “Game Over Man”?

“We’re in the Pipe, five by five”
For those who don’t know, Alien Swarm was originally an Unreal Tournament 2004 mod from a team calling themselves Black Cat Games. It was an isometric third person shooter which took your team of four marines of varying classes into an alien infested outpost and requiring you to fight your way through. It is a classic and much beloved by the PC gaming community, with many people still busting it out at LAN parties when gamers feel the need to shout and scream when an idiot gets hold of a flamethrower and runs around burning his team members. As Valve is known to do, they swooped in and bought the award winning team before putting them to work on the Left 4 Dead games where their knowledge of how to make massed hordes of enemies scary was put to good use. It also seems that they were working on an updated version of the Alien Swarm game ready to be released.

The plot line takes a lot of inspiration from Aliens with your four man team being deployed onto the world of Jacob’s Rest to find out why the local outpost has suddenly lost contact with the outside world. Luckily you all seem to know what you’re getting into and so you land with a load of weapons and ready for a bug hunt. As the campaign progresses from the outside of the facility to the centre via the residential areas and a nuclear reactor, you eventually realise you are going to have to nuke the site but, unfortunately for you, not from orbit.

“They’re coming outta the walls. They’re coming outta the goddamn walls”
Alien Swarm keeps the play style of its predecessor as an isometric shooter; I would call it dual sticks apart from the fact it entirely mouse and keyboard driven. Before each mission you choose two main weapons and an offhand item to take with you as you go crush some bugs. The weapons are all the usual staples such as assault rifles, auto-guns that lock onto enemies and of course the flamethrower (which gives you the opportunity to go and play Aliens) but there are also weapons like the Telsa gun or the chainsaw which are a blast to use. The main slots are also home to the sentry guns which can be dropped and picked up again as well as providing some serious backup in a fight. The offhand is for slightly more unusual gear such as welders, for blocking doorways, armour upgrades and rocket boots. Your choices play a huge part in selecting your role for the mission as well as your character class. There are eight different characters divided into four different classes with each having exclusive equipment and bonus to certain play styles. Medics heal, Special Weapon guys get the big automatic guns and Officers grant certain buffs to the rest of the team. However, the most vital member of the team in many missions is the Technician. This class hacks doors and other terminals which is the primary way for the team to precede forward. However, they can also force the game to restart missions if they get munched up before they unlock the vital doors.

Your marines - The aliens do like canned food
Your marines - The aliens do like canned food

In mission, the game plays very well. Aliens of different types will swarm upon the squad as they move through the abandoned base and you have to shoot back. However, you can’t simply open up and fire away without care (Remember, Short Controlled Bursts). The game has quite punishing friendly fire and many a player has cursed the day his team mate was born after a misplaced grenade or shotgun blast has ripped him to pieces mid-skirmish. However, the damage the weapons inflict on your teammates also rips the bugs apart and you certainly need to rip them apart as fast as possible. The Swarm is primarily fast moving close combat aliens (luckily without the acid blood) but there are also ranged aliens, explosive aliens and bigger, heavily armoured brutes that require you to pin and flank them in order to hit the vulnerable rear. The variation is enough to keep things interesting but in a game featuring massed swarms the variety can often be troubling when the screen fills with bad guys. Most deadly of these though are the parasites which are the team’s version of the headcrabs or facehuggers. If they latch onto a marine you don’t have much time before the infection takes control and they explode, releasing more parasites to come and munch the rest of the squad up. The only way to fix it is to a medic fast. This mechanism is great fun especially when it becomes too late and you have to get the flamer on him. The game has also been inspired by Left 4 Dead with its several finale events at the end of each level. One of the best has to be the cargo elevator which you have to defend as it goes down into the rest of the facility as literally hundreds of gribblies come crawling up the shaft towards you. There are also others such as one where you have to stay in the light as you move along which help to change up the action.

“What Is That Thing? It looks disgusting!”
The Source Engine is six years old by now and although it is slightly creaky round the edges, the newest version now looks rather nice. This is in part due to the addition of some newer features that will be introduced in Portal 2, which, to go all technical, includes depth of field, dynamic lighting and a third person camera. Basically, this means the game focuses you to your character while making the dark seem extra dark with the flares, explosions and gouts of flame throwing shadows of chittering creatures onto the walls like in every other horror film. Unfortunately, straight after release there are a few graphical bugs. There are no real gameplay issues with them but they can look pretty bad especially when it makes the Tesla bolts disappear and the background goes orange. The trooper models are a little utilitarian but they are easily recognisable which class is which from a single glance. The Swarm on the other hand look as revolting as they should. One of the worst is the Boomer, a walking sack which swells up and explodes explosive goo balls if a player gets too close. It just looks horrible especially with the body parts it leaves lying behind.

Nom, Nom, Nom
Nom, Nom, Nom

“What the hell are we supposed to use man? Harsh language?”
Unfortunately, the sound is one area where the game’s mod origins come to light. All the sounds are passable but the voice over for all the characters is rather annoying. They are all badly accented stereotypical voices (French guy, German guy etc) and luckily the game plays them quietly as it’s drowned out by the automatic fire. One exception to the VO is your Lieutenant on the ship, who sound just like the weary commanding officer you would expect from these things, and is a great addition. Gunfire and equipment is also just passable but it does suit the guns. Many of the sounds are also recycled from other Source engine games which can be rather strange. The aliens themselves sound alright but unfortunately this isn’t that good when one of the main ways of scouting head is to listen. Especially when one of them sounds like the dying giraffe from the South Park movie. The sounds do the job but it doesn’t quite have the Valve polish.

“Anything Else Sarge?”
A point I have to make about the game is that it is a co-op experience and the kind that only really flourishes when played with four people. It is a deeply tactical game and I recommend you play with a group of people on microphones to make communication a bit easier. However, it is playable in a single player mode along with limited AI control and marine switching but it also cuts out a lot of its parts such as the steam achievements and progression. These two things are the real points that will keep you playing. Many of the better weapons (including the infamous flamethrower) and gear are unlocked as play and level up. XP is gained through the stats at the end of missions based on objective casualties and such like as well the achievements. These are all great with a mix of the easy ones such as wielding doors shut or killing off a certain number of bugs with a certain gun all the way up to  speed running through the game. Additionally for all the PC Team Fortress 2 fans out there, there is one achievement which also unlocks a hat for TF2 which is pretty good, especially as it jiggles around when you run. I love the fact Valve are more than happy to have other games add stuff into their online behemoth.

Burn Baby Burn!
Burn Baby Burn!

“Hey Valve, have you ever been mistaken for a bad guy?”
Overall, all the little things from the game help to create a great little cooperative experience that perfectly captures the feel of Aliens, but the game also makes it really tense as you inch down darkened corridors with your motion tracker beeping away. Alien Swarm would be a pretty good game if sold by Valve. The fact it is given away to every Steam user makes it an unmissable PC release almost guaranteed to give you several hours of great fun. Get your friends, jump in the game and get killing some bugs. Why? Because I love the Corps! Buy… Download it now!