Words really cannot do justice to this game; it must be seen to be understood. Its trailer captures and relates the spirit of the game:
It is the future! The year is 2007. The apocalypse has had an apocalypse. Remember those old trashy action movies that used to come on after dark on cable, that you taped and watched endlessly as a kid? This game is one of those movies. As the designers call it, Blood Dragon is an ’80s VHS vision of the future, a flashback to what action movies in the Reagan years depicted the future—err, our recent past. It’s overwrought, overflowing with ultraviolence, spewing forth one-liners and bad puns in every direction.
I think I’m in love.
Instead of loading screens, there are “tracking” screens; the draw-distance doesn’t have obscuring haze or fog, it has VHS scan lines. The in-game movies are straight out of the 16-bit console era. Protagonist Rex Powercolt (a gravelly voiced Michael Biehn) is influenced by Universal Soldier, with more than a little G.I. Joe thrown in; his nemesis Colonel Sloan wears the same kind of chainmail vest as the bad guy in Commando. The weapons are homages to such classics as Terminator 2 (shotgun), Predator (minigun), and Robocop (pistol, sniper rifle). The jeeps are straight out of every bad action movie ever, right down to their horrible off-road handling. And let’s not forget the eponymous blood dragons, giant neon lizards that shoot freakin’ laser beams from their eyes.
Actually, just about everything here is doused in neon—the bow glows blue neon, the hordes of cyber-goons glow red neon, the scenery is a sugar rush of colors. Compared to most shooters, which are drenched in a range of bland from “earth-tones” to “shit-covered,” Blood Dragon is almost seizure-inducing. It’s also got an impressive retro soundtrack from Australian music duo Power Glove that’s been on heavy rotation on my iPod since it released.
The gameplay is radically different from the other Far Crys; for the first time, I felt like a true badass in a video game. You can run faster than those crappy jeeps, you have stealthy takedowns for enemies, and while your level-up path is linear, you get plenty of excellent upgrades. The blend of action and stealth is excellent, and it’s equally possible to run in guns blazing, or sneak around killing enemies with your bow and stealth takedowns. Though, the game takes a perverse pleasure in having those stealth scenarios go awry, and there’s a chaotic exuberance to fucking up at being stealthy and getting into a prolonged firefight where reinforcements (and blood dragons) are called in.
At first, I thought of another major franchise combining comedy and violence, the Saints Row series. The two are very different flavors. Saints Row has increasingly been approaching comedy like a baseball-bat-sized floppy purple dildo to the face—an over-the-top assault of crazy. Blood Dragon is much more tongue in cheek, only where the tongue is protruding through the gaping hole in said cheek, and more than occasionally turns into a leering grimace. Some of its lines are drop-dead hilarious; others, like Rex arguing with his internal A.I. over tutorials, and some of the oft-recycled one-liners when he kills a cyber-goon, can come off as grimly glib, even forced. After all, this is the game where you rip out the enemy’s glowing blue cyber-hearts and use them to lure neon dinosaurs around the map.
About halfway through the game I realized that, underneath its candy-colored shell and assortment of ’80s references, this is still a Far Cry game, and living in a post-Far Cry 2 world means a lot of cycling enemy patrols, assaulting cookie-cutter bases, doing three types of similar side-quest to unlock upgrades, and finding hidden “secrets” scattered across the map. I’m not a huge fan of repetitive grind, especially when it feels like filler to pad a short single-player campaign; thankfully Blood Dragon ended up being about the right length. If you only completed the story missions, you could probably complete it in 5-6 hours. Giving in to my OCD-ness and completing all the content, along with a bit of wandering around for shits and giggles, took me a grand total of 11 hours.
About the only thing I can complain about—besides my dislike for the series’ devolution into repetitive gameplay—is that it requires Uplay, Ubisoft’s new proprietary game hub. (“But everyone else was doing it!”) While it’s no Steam, and it’s frustrating to boot into yet another platform from Steam, at least Uplay is leaps and bounds ahead of Origin. It doesn’t transfer achievements (which is why Steam doesn’t have any), but it does have an interesting system where getting achievements and accomplishments gives you Uplay points, to unlock content like wallpapers and music files. (Yippie.)
What really impresses me is that someone at Ubi came up with a risky idea, and then management let them run with it—using one of their cornerstone triple-A brands, to boot. I applaud them for taking the risks; some of the game elements feel like baby steps, like the devs could have expanded on an idea or pushed a boundary, but for the price I got more than I expected. (MSRP is $15, I picked it up during the Steam summer sale for $8.99. You can get the digital soundtrack for $7.99 at Amazon.) Also, it’s worth pointing out that the game is a standalone DLC title and doesn’t require Far Cry 3, despite its branding.
Commentators have wondered if the same nostalgic magic will work for other Ubisoft properties; “Watch Dogs: Pound Puppies edition” was one suggestion thrown out there. But I don’t think it’s the flashback of ’80s nostalgia that made Blood Dragon work. I think it was stepping outside the box, taking risks, and coming up with something radically different from anything else out there that made such a splash. When you compare the lineup of first-person shooters coming out in recent years, you have a few outliers (Bioshock for example), but most fall into the modern military “bro shooter” category. In that sea of games with coffee-stained graphics, whose gameplay elements tend to revolve around linear corridors and cover-based-shooting, the neon-infused homage/loving satire of ’80s action movie stands out like a sore thumb. Or a glorious beacon of hope, who knows.
There’s a reason I’m so hard on games like Metro: 2033, Far Cry 2, and even Bioshock 2: it’s because of games like Bioshock: Infinite. Games that are not only a step above the herd, but games that raise the bar of excellence and become milestones in their genre.
That’s not to say that Bioshock: Infinite is perfect. It leans on the short side—even mining it to glean every secret I could, I barely topped 14 hours, and most players I know beat it in 10-12. Why do you acquire superhuman powers (vigors) from vending machines? Because Bioshock had plasmids, and System Shock had psionics before it; there’s no story reason for them this time, though, so they feel tacked-on to keep the game mechanics symmetrical to its predecessors. The ending of the game is a cerebral mindfuck, which is good, but it’s on rails, which will bother some players, and is… well, for the sake of spoilers, let’s say not the most upbeat of circumstances. (Though it’s generating plenty of discussion, which I’m sure was the devs’ intent.) And this is a game whose story excels to the point where the combat mechanics look underwhelming in comparison, where each new combat situation is shorter than the last due to my upgraded abilities and weapons, simply filling time before I’m off to roam the next impressive environment to find more clues about the story and setting.
The sad part about those environments is that, in our age of Elder Scrolls and Grand Theft Autos, we expect—want—demand a game to give us open sandbox freedom to explore every square inch. We can explore all we want here in the flying city of Columbia, but its’ narrow alleys and locked storefronts offer limited potential. What we do see is a gold mine of creativity, beautifully rendered in stunning graphics. We have stunning vistas of city blocks rising and falling, the hectic chaos of riding on a metal skyhook on rails during some of the more impressive combat set-pieces, and one of the few new worlds of gaming that’s shockingly original. But I can’t help but wish that a company like BethSoft would come up with a new, original idea half this creative for their next FPSRPG sandbox epic; this world has plenty of depth, but I want to get lost in it and can’t.
By which I mean, Borderlands 2 has fun environments to explore, but c’mon: it’s all rocks and rusting debris and one glittering robot metropolis and you can’t beat a flying fucking city, you just can’t. Meanwhile, Bioshock: Infinite is an illusory sandbox whose freedoms don’t live up to the expectations its trailers set. It creates those restraints to hone in and focus on its narrative, its story.
The story is what carries the game with the critics, earning its nods and speculation as Game of the Year. It’s immersive, a pressing mystery you and your character have to solve with clues and foreshadowing scattered throughout Columbia’s environs. It’s a highly cinematic game, meaning it’s a tad linear (hence the lack of free-roaming environments) and sticks you in a certain character and set-piece situations. It’s also the best in that field since Half-Life 2. Unlike Half-Life, the protagonist has dialogue, and it’s more than the set-pieces which are scripted; there’s a lack of choice there, but more feel of character and story. Really, it’s trying to re-shape the “game” element into something we’re more used to experiencing as “movies” or “books,” and bind that narrative into the game medium using twitch shooting. Bioshock: Infinite is either representative of the future’s more interactive narratives (“played any good books/films lately”), or it was constructed using the wrong medium.
The reason Bioshock Infinite is a milesone is because it challenges some stereotypical assumption we have about games, re-defining ideas. That shooters can have a better story than combat. That escort missions don’t have to be a chore, and that secondary ride-along characters can be deep and interesting, helpful gameplay-wise, even highly likeable—after this, I foresee secondary/support characters being approached from new directions. And that asking deep questions—about concepts as deep and heady as philosophy, choice, freedom, predestination and fatalism, fate and free will—nothing that dense had really been tried before, so no one knew if it was something gamers will embrace or than shy away from. Instead, they took to the forums and Youtube and created a massive free-flowing dialogue of its elements, looking closely to point out intricate details such as the Lutece connections and the various hidden sounds in the game.
I realize I’m saying a lot about the game without really saying anything about the game; it released months ago, so unless you’ve been hiding under a rock I’m going to assume you’ve already played it, or have read/watched a review—there are many others more qualified than I to review it. For the most part, the game is a bestseller with high critical praise, but there are several key complaints about trying to write a linear narrative in game form, even some downright hostile criticism. I agree with some of their elements, but am willing to look past them for two reasons. First, the game itself is an addicting experience, sheer brilliance tarnished by a few critical flaws; it grabs you with its immersion and doesn’t let go until the ending. Second, looking past it is looking ahead at how its styles and techniques could impact the gaming medium. Bioshock: Infinite could be a one-off that makes some waves but shows that a more linear/cinematic story-driven game an evolutionary dead end, or it could be a half-formed stepping-stone which foreshadows a paradigm shift in how game developers integrate narrative into gameplay.
Most of all, I’m curious where its DLC will take the game, given that the ending had both a sense of finality along with its open-to-interpretation uncertainty, a lack of clarity that helped opened the pandora’s box of discussion.
Back in the February, 1952 issue of Galaxy, Robert Heinlein set down some predictions for the ensuing 48 years. He revisited them in a 1966 collection, but died before he could see them come true. (Or, fail, in some cases.) Now, sixty years after he wrote them… let’s see how accurate they are. At predicting the world of 2012, much less the world of 2000.
Long-ass post going over list of 19 predictions after the bump.
In the wake of Ridley Scott’s new film, Prometheus, science-fiction fans have been quick to point out the many, varied ways in which science is butchered for the sake of plot stupidity. As in, ignoring not just Einstein but Newtonian physics, idiotic scientists, B-movie style mindless alien monsters, and one of those laughable scenes where something big and inanimate (a spaceship) chases a character (Charlize Theron) who runs along its path instead of going sideways. After it drops straight out of the sky, instead of, y’know, falling in an arc, like Newton’s laws of inertia proscribe. (Also in last link, the CEO going on away missions was an implausibility Star Trek got rid of in its second series.)
Needless to say, the criticism has been bagging on the movie’s scientific inaccuracy. And more often than not, someone will point out that the film is science fiction, emphasizing the FICTION part. Well… yes and no.
Science fiction has always had an elitist edge about it, holding the genre and its components to the highest standard. (Sad truth, it can be really blatant elitism with some authors/historians, though for most it’s more about adhering to science fact.) I’d say that that rigorous elitism, that staying true to science, is what makes science fiction. It’s why people derisively referred to film, TV, and other visual media as “Sci-Fi” instead of science fiction—because of its lower scientific rigor, considering it more low-brow entertainment, and later, because the media referred to it as Sci-Fi.
The genre’s founder, Hugo Gernsback, was an enthusiastic immigrant engineer; in his Amazing Stories magazine, he promoted didactic “scientifiction” designed to educate as well as entertain, full of technocrats emerging from their ivory-tower meritocracy to dispense scientific wisdom and technological inventions to the masses… while fighting off bug-eye-monsters and protecting nearby comely young ladies.
The man who formed science fiction as we know it today was John W. Campbell; his idea for SF was to write what popular fiction of the 2500s would be like; he revolutionized the genre, moving it away from Westerns with their horses traded in for spaceships and sixguns replaced by blasters, and away from the didacticism of Gernsback. He was also something of an egotistical blowhard. Read any of his introductions to Analog short-story collections and you’ll see him arguing that SF is the hardest genre to write in because it has to adhere to science as we know it, yet say something meaningful about the human condition. You’ll hear him say that Science Fiction is the greatest genre, because it is every genre, or hear the glories of prophetic science fiction—the fans of one of Campbell’s best-remembered authors, Robert Heinlein, are quick to point out Heinlein’s successive “prophecies” compared to his contemporaries.
Heck, the entire genre from the mid-40s to the early ’60s was heavy into the benefits of science—glorious new devices, utopian futures, with brilliant super-scientists leading us ever onward.
True, the ’60s and ’70s saw SF turning away from Campbell’s mold—the rise of Soft Science Fiction, focusing on the soft science: anthropological science fiction, social science fiction. Authors like Delany and Zelazny and Le Guin and Philip K. Dick asked deep, biting questions about the human condition, something that Campbell’s authors often gave only a second glance to. But even in the Soft SF revolution, science as we know it—often the soft sciences, but the “hard” physics and engineering sciences as well—are adhered to. While its protagonists are often no longer scientists, they’re still pretty smart and capable. Yet it was Campbell’s ideals SF returned to: social science fiction merged into the tech-savvy, fight-the-power anarchy of cyberpunk, whose technological focus helped bring about a return to the hard sciences.
(Consider science fiction’s reflection of its eras, progressing views of science pushing back the boundaries of the unknown and impossible. In Gernsback’s lifetime, humanity had introduced cars, airplanes, radio, and dozens of other brilliant technologies which fascinated him; he introduced science fiction in his Modern Electronics magazine, as something for fellow engineer-futurists, who became some of its earliest authors. Campbell’s boom years were after the War, when millions of Americans took advantage of the G.I. Bill to get a college degree, and when scientists praised future glories of the recently split atom. Hence, scientific optimism and super-educated scientists. Soft SF arose during an era of change: the Civil Rights and Women’s Lib movements, anti-conformity and fighting the establishment, hippies, free love, recreational narcotics. What does Prometheus say about the 2010s?)
The point being? Rigorous adherence to known science has always been a cornerstone of the genre; it’s an expectation of many of its adherents, hence why fans hold science fiction films to higher expectations. Get rid of the science, and you can still have science fiction. Thanks to subgenres like “space opera” and “science fantasy,” essentially dumping ground terminology for science-lite science-fiction, fans can still enjoy John Carter and Star Wars by holding them to a less rigorous set of expectations. But without the “science,” you don’t have science fiction: you have fiction. Which is something I don’t think Hollywood has realized, in its bad writing and misguided marketing.
And, more to the point: by promoting shitty writing, dull plotting, impossible science, and idiotic characters, is Prometheus promoting anything beneficial for either science, science fiction, or even film? No. It’s promoting lackluster, bad, and stupid filmmaking under the veneer of pretty visuals and hoping the viewers don’t notice, building high expectations which are rudely squashed. I’m ashamed that it has a 74% on Rotten Tomatoes and didn’t get a fraction of the scathing other, better SF films often get. Not every science fiction film can be Blade Runner or Moon or Inception, but it’d be nice if they tried.
Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s something built into my jaded generation, but I end up assuming everything will be a steaming plate of shit and chips unless it first provides certification of its not-shit nature. In triplicate. Such was my assumption about The Hunger Games; when I first heard about it, my reaction was Didn’t I already read/watch this when it was called Battle Royale? An attempt to reformat the Japanese original’s totalitarian state and teenage gladiatorial death arena for the palate of Western audiences, namely the post-Potter Twilight generation?
Yeah. I should stop assuming things.
The setup is pretty straightforward. Generations after a failed uprising/civil war, the post-apocalyptic remains of North America have restitched themselves under the control of the victorious state of Panem. As punishment for their attempted rebellion, the outlying areas have been divvied up into districts, operating as combination collective farms and industrial plants and kept in a state of suppressed poverty. Once per year, two teenagers—a boy and a girl—are chosen from each district to compete in the Hunger Games: a futuristic deathmatch where these Tributes fight to the death, with the Panem and District citizens watching the ordeal in a rapt fervor. Twenty-four teenagers enter, one teenager leaves.
Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12; when her younger sister is chosen, she volunteers in her stead. A talented archer, she manages to overcome the prejudices weighted against her district through unconventional tactics. See, well-to-do viewers may sponsor the participants with air-dropped gifts, such as medicine or food, and the Games are equal part survival course, combat mission, and showboating for fans. District 12′s other Tribute, a strapping young lad named Peeta, manages to showboat a little too far when he reveals he has a secret crush on Katniss—snap! I wonder what her boyfriend back home thinks about this?
Their drunken advisor—Woody Harrelson, since Woody Harrelson is in freaking everything—urges them to play up this star-crossed lovers angle. Even as they get into the meat of the film—the third act is the Games themselves, after some long and bloated setup—their relationship develops onward, despite the foregone outcome that one of the two will die. The hope is that Katniss will get more sponsors this way… because they’re all guessing Katniss is the only one with a chance, and needs all the help she can get. Their strained relationship ebbs and flows during the game, but by the end, it becomes both the foundation and moving force of the film.
On the one hand, this is a grim futuristic dystopia with a Young Adult love-story that can appeal equally to girls and boys. On a deeper level, this film a scathing satire of our glorious technological future. Contrast the pastoral, 1950s-drab outlying Districts with the glitz and glamor of the Capital City, an amalgam of the stereotypical worst excesses of D.C. insiders and the Hollywood elite, the One Percent turned to eleven—it’s a modern-day Metropolis gone Lord of the Flies.
And note the connection between the Hunger Games and modern society, with their sponsors and mass-media appeal, the vicarious viewers whose emotions are played by this reality TV show gone Thunderdome. It’s in the same vein as Battle Royale, yes, but also treks back through the history of the totalitarian dystopia through Logan’s Run (check out those jumpsuits!), Orwell, and Huxley; it emerged with many similarities, but still has something new and interesting to say.
As the first installment of a trilogy, it has that problem where unique and interesting concepts are introduced but left undeveloped. For example, the Games take place in an artificial, controlled environment, and Gamesmasters are shown to have the ability to drop in new threats to herd, or weed out, the participants… something that’s used about twice. I’ll bet that comes back in the sequels, since it’s a concept that shouldn’t be so woefully underused. There are a number of blatantly obvious questions, many about the setting, that are never answered, and any social criticism is left in the allegorical stage, buried under the surface-level narrative.
An actual film complaint—pretty much my only one—is that is uses the bane of today’s moviegoer… the shaky-cam. Imagine dropping a half-dozen teenagers, a camcorder set to record at full zoom, and some pit bulls into a cement mixer, and you have The Hunger Games‘ fight sequences. The first time it’s used, it can follow its purpose: that would be the initial slaughter when the Tributes are released into the Games, the scrimmage over the supplies left before them. Reflecting the stress and chaos of the moment, with distanced sounds and nervous breathing, it works, without obscuring the action too greatly. And the scenes in the Games have these hand-held, documentary look, which could reflect Katniss’ unsteady nerves or whatever, so there’s already some unsteady-cam action going on.
After that, it does pretty much what shaky-cam cinematography always does: acts as a crutch for inept/lazy directors and/or actors, obscuring the lack of choreography. “You actors, just sprawl around on the ground slapping each other while Bob films from inside a tumble dryer; don’t worry, we’ll fix it in post.” The fight sequences are a muddled mess of close-ups and jerky handheld cameras and bad lighting; as either consolation or an addendum, they’re also way damn short.
The teenage actors all did admirable performances. Josh Hutcherson stumbles occasionally as Peeta, but he gives an all-around solid performance that I can’t complain about. Supporting cast such as Lenny Cravitz, Woody Harrelson and Donald Sutherland are excellent, and Stanley Tucci hams things up as the Games’ newscaster/reporter. But it’s Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss who steals the show; her ability to emote is sublime, which is in high demand in The Hunger Games, with some emotionally powerful scenes. She also manages to pull off a strong, independent Tomboy who’s still sexy—and since the traditional genre stereotypes are thrown on their heads, with Katniss caretaking an injured Peeta, we have yet another solid female rolemodel from a science-fiction-tinged action movie.
Within The Hunger Games we have an entertaining action film, a Young Adult love story, a dystopia, a cunning social satire, a modern parable for the 99% generation, and probably two or three other things I left out. It’s one of those few films that appeals to teens and adults without compromising—the thematic allegories are vague, not dense or bludgeoning; the action is frenetic, but not the focus; the love story is engaging, not sappy. The effects are slick, and the film’s vision is sweeping and uncompromising, if under-detailed. Its pre-Game half grew long, and the shaky-cam sequences are shit, flaws marring an otherwise solid movie.
I don’t think it’ll go down in history as a landmark film—save for making bank at the box-office—and it might not be the one 2012 movie you remember ten years from now. But The Hunger Games is certainly worth watching.
Okay, I’ve been pretty skeptical about this one, dating back to when I first heard they were remaking it. I mean, the Schwarzenegger one wasn’t brilliant, but it managed to keep Philip K. Dick’s paranoia and questioning of reality intact inside an entertaining ’80s trashy action movie. Probably one of the top three PKD book-to-movie adaptations… behind Blade Runner, of course, and I’m growing to like Spielberg’s Minority Report more than the original story.
And Hollywood has a tendency to make… well, really shitty “sci-fi” movies out of hot-shit science fiction properties (anyone else remember Surrogates? Cowboys and Aliens? Predators? Green Lantern? Need I go on?). For every District 9 or Inception, we get a good number of science fiction films that are forgettable, or best left forgotten. Just look at all the failed attempts to turn Dick’s novels into films—don’t get me started on Paycheck or Next. (I’ve realized that the irony of The Adjustment Bureau is that they didn’t develop the concepts far enough; probably why Rango, which went far enough and then some, beat it down at the box office.)
So, yeah, after seeing the trailer, I’ll eat some crow and say the new Total Recall looks pretty damn good. As in, see it opening day damn good. The visuals are astounding, for one, and the plot seems as Dickian as Dick’s original story. Also, the cast is pretty stellar. Colin Farrell stars, with support from Jessica Biel and Bryan Freaking Cranston as antagonists, and Ethan Hawk, Bill Nighy, and Kate Beckinsale in support.
The whole Mars subplot has been dropped, but honestly, what made the story interesting was Dick’s surrealist paranoid mindfuckery. The Mars angle was great flavor, but the meat of the story wasn’t the Martian rebellion, it was Dick’s eternal attempts to define reality and humanity, the sense that you never knew what was the true world and which was the implant. Something the poster hypes up:
Well, you know how to market a Philip K. Dick-based film and stay true to Philip K. Dick’s overarching vision; you have my interest.
So, here’s hoping that screenwriters and directors have figured out the proper way to adapt PKD to film, rather than skimming the surface-value concepts into another formulaic, chase-scene-rific shitty action film. (I really hated Paycheck and Next, okay?)
If you haven’t guessed from a few nerdy, deep-cut hints, this is Ridley Scott’s return to SF, a film long rumored to be a loosely-connected prequel of sorts set in the same universe as Alien. That may or may not include xenomorphs. But does involve a ship similar to the one found at the beginning of the first film; you know, the one with the alien eggs and the space jockey, which is one of the hints keen-eyed viewers might have spotted in the video above.
I’m interested to see how it pans out, because a return to the world of Alien—and a dark, mysterious, high-quality return like Prometheus seems to be—would be hella. We don’t see enough good SF/horror hybrid films. Scratch that, we don’t see that many good SF films in general.
Though if it is a prequel, it suffers from the same prequel problem that made the Star Wars prequels such a terrible idea. (No, not wooden acting, or bad ’90s green-screen effects.) The technology and spaceship look loving amazing, but it’s way more advanced than anything in the Alien universe so far. Hell, the ship’s actually got sub-orbital flight capabilities; all the other Alien films involved people using shuttles or dropships to get down. How could it be a prequel to the first film, when the Colonial Marines sixty-plus years after the first film didn’t have tech half this advanced?
This also depends on it being a prequel, which Scott has been tight-lipped about, so maybe he’s just using similar aesthetics to fuck with us. Or maybe it’s actually a loosely-connected sequel (gasp). And I’d buy the excuse that the Nostromo was an old-school industrial-grade klunker, and not a high-tech scientific research vessel. But still, between our advancements in (and expectations for) day-to-day technology and the high quality of movie SFX today, prequels for ’70s SF movies will never look like prequels.
Regardless, it looks awesome; whatever its connection (or lack thereof) to Alien, it looks to be a tense thriller in its own right. Since it opens in June, I’ll have something to watch once Avengers is through.