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LONG BLOG

Red-emption: Red Steel 2 review + Kick-Ass film review

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REVIEW #3

Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Barely Playable; 0: Non-Functional.

RED STEEL 2
Developers: Ubisoft
Publishers: Ubisoft
Console: Wii
Players: One

The two Red Steel games share more than might initially be apparent. While aesthetic similarities are limited to a few cute nods (they share a grasshopper chirrup on their Game Channel screens) and the gun/sword combination gameplay, both were tasked with being a proof-of-concept to gamers for the Wii. Red Steel was tasked with proving that the Wii's motion controls could enhance a traditional gaming experience, at which it failed spectacularly in its buggy, unfinished release form, turning anticipation into anger and tainting Nintendo's console in the eyes of previous generation gamers for years to come. Three and a half years later, Nintendo are relying on Red Steel 2 to prove that the Wii Motion Plus is the device to resolve all the control inaccuracies that the console has been accused of suffering since launch.

The key difference is that unlike its predecessor, Red Steel 2 succeeds spectacularly. Playing the game feels like everything you might have dreamt of in 2006: visceral, versatile, effortlessly responsive and groundbreaking in its execution. Almost the entire game is based around the singular concept of seamless switches between gun and swordplay, giving the game a sense of focus and clarity that was so lacking in the confused original title. Like Mario's jump or Sonic's speed, the sword and gun combination is easy to understand and pick up and play, yet wide open to allowing the player a huge freedom of expression once their skills improve over time. It is addictive as any classic arcade game, with a difficulty curve that is forgiving enough to alleviate frustration yet imbued with a genuine sense of achievement and progress as you are gradually given increasingly taxing enemy types and combinations. In the style of old-school brawlers, as much focus is put on tactical analysis of each fight and determining the most effective order in which to conquer a number of enemies, as on the delivery of your skillset.

If guns initially seem underpowered, it becomes clear that their purpose is not so much to finish enemies off as to provide openings to unleash your more powerful sword attacks. Each of the four available weapons serves a subtly different function: the pistol is an all-purpose device that will get see more work outside combat than in it, with its plentiful ammo making it a quick alternative to slashing scenery to scavenge for money. The shotgun can knock armoured enemies back for an opportunity to unleash more powerful sword strikes, the machinegun effective at taking down large numbers of weaker enemies who can be dangerous distractions from bigger foes, while the Sidewinder rifle is more powerful than the pistol and receives a final upgrade that even the game seems unable to hide its geek-thusiasm for (“How awesome is that?”). Once you have made decent strides into the game's ten hour length (twelve if you explore, six-to-eight if you rush), the upgrading system allows you the option for more specialisation between enhancing your sword or your weapons, but the best players will balance the benefits of both.



The cash it takes to perform those upgrades is found literally everywhere, with very few objects in the game's environments not capable of being smashed by gun or sword in search for a few dollars more. While performing these scavenger hunts is a good way to accumulate some cash early on, costs rise quickly and you'll find it increasingly difficult to fund those damage upgrades you've been saving for. Once again, focus returns to the combat and its intricately implemented combo system. Each move yields a certain small amount of cash for being performed, but chaining moves together multiplies that amount several times over. Remembering which stance a particular move leaves an enemy in becomes vital, as using the right finisher can give up huge cash bonuses. It's a system which encourages experimentation and risk-taking, as suddenly simply gunning down weaker enemies becomes a choice between having an easier fight or emerging a scarred but very rich swordsman by the end.

In addition to perfecting the promises of a truly expressive sword-and-gun combat system, Red Steel 2 is wise enough to poach the original game's most innovative features whose impact was lost in the furore thrown up at the its failings. Just as its predecessor at one point gave players a choice in the order they wanted to play missions, Red Steel 2 features open environments and a number of side missions that can be completed at your leisure. While the game is mostly linear, it gives you enough scope for exploration that you don't feel you're being ferried from one checkpoint to the next without the time to appreciate the game's gorgeous environments, which marry western and eastern iconographies with style and elegance. Far from weakening the impact of combat, the lack of gore suits the game's sand-and-cherry-blossom mythos very well. It's also worth mentioning that the music complements this trick wonderfully, melding Morricone-inspired whistles and rattles with Asian strings and war drums to often beautiful and thrilling effect. The game's signature five-beat guitar riff makes a gleefully satisfying finishing line to each fight, reinforcing the sense of Toshiro Mifune/Clint Eastwood bad-assery that comes from coolly taking out a large number of foes.

The most notable contrast between this game and its predecessor is that while Red Steel's success were drowned by its failures, Red Steel 2's failures are quickly forgotten in the thrill of battle. While the combat system feels like a genuine step-up beyond what videogame experiences have been able to offer until this point, the game's focus on perfecting that one mechanic leaves the rest of the game trailing in its wake. The structure (fight-learn a move-fight-defeat boss-move on) is rigidly conventional and the training sessions that come with every new technique feel laboured and frustrating interruptions between fights. It's also impossible to ignore that the game doesn't bother to explore the possibilities of the sword and gun being used not just for fighting, but environmental interaction as well: while certain crates require one or the other to open, you don't get to use your sword as anything other than a weapon, apart from two instances of slicing through ropes. Even worse is that your character often finds such innovative uses for his sword, but only during cut-scenes. Similarly, the destructible environments don't serve any purpose other than delivering cash: while it adheres to designer Jason VandenBerghe's excellent design mantra that 'hitting things is fun', it's a shame that the flair for destructive spectacle that was one of the highlights of Red Steel's gunfights is foregone here bar the occasional generic explosive barrel. The story and characters are similarly underdeveloped and reduced to a number of talky-head scenes that can be easily skipped, although you might not want to miss some of mentor Jian's hilariously overwrought line deliveries. The game also doesn't so much end as just stop, while the lack of a New Game Plus option, to play through the adventure again and finish all your upgrades or collect missed badges and tokens, is a grievous oversight. The absence of multiplayer is also a shame, mainly because the game is so easily accessible to non-gamers and gamers alike that it feels like a huge opportunity missed.

Both Red Steel games will be remembered as defining moments in the Wii's history. The mistakes of the first accidentally served as warning and guide that forced developers to focus on how to deliver a truly effective first-person experience on the console (would The Conduit have put so much effort into perfecting its controls had Red Steel been even slightly better received?) and from its ashes grew a control system that arguably rivals the keyboard-and-mouse combo that has traditionally held vigil at the top of the FPS ladder. Red Steel 2 on the other hand is quite the opposite: an experience that single-handedly proves motion-controls' worth as the standard bearer for the future of gaming, whose immense credits are as exciting in showing what the medium can already do as its flaws show how much room there is still is to grow.

8

PREVIOUS REVIEWS

Heavy Rain/Silent Hill: Shattered Memories

Oboro Muramasa

___________________________________________


NON-GAMING REVIEW #2

Film Review Scale - 5/5: Masterpiece; 4/5: Very Good; 3/5: Decent; 2/5: Weak; 1/5: Awful; 0/5: Uwe Boll



KICK-ASS
Dir: Matthew Vaughan
Stars: Aaron Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Mark Strong, Christopher Mintz-Plasse

My relationship with comic-book film adaptations is divided at best. As a long-time film geek but never a particularly ravenous graphic novel reader, many of these adaptations seem more concerned with pandering to fans than to delivering a well-honed cinematic experience. It's the same problem as when a film is translated into a videogame: the two media are, whether the marketing men like it or not, fundamentally different in terms of what makes them tick, what works and what doesn't as well as what you can get away with in one but not the other. Because comics develop their stories and continuities over a large number of single issues, when these stories are translated to film I usually find them rushed and unfocused, hitting a number of dramatic cues more to tick off a checklist of stuff that needs to be moved over from the comic rather than out of a desire to genuinely explore any raised ideas. You can also get away with being significantly more melodramatic in comics than you can in film, down to the obvious differences in relationship between an audience and an actor, and a reader and an illustrated character. It always baffles me why writers don't come up with new stories for comic-book characters' on-screen appearances, thus giving fans the opportunity to fall in love all over again with a beloved icon in a new form rather than just fret over every minor change to an established long-standing storyline.

While Kick-Ass is more than adequate as an entertaining Saturday night action movie, it always feels several steps away from achieving its full potential due to many of those same issues. There are several things I like about it a great deal and first amongst them is the character of Hit Girl. Chloe Grace Moretz gives a star-making packed with rambunctious charisma, whose performance recognises how ridiculously over-the-top the character is and plays it to the hilt without delving into wink-wink parody. When one of protagonist Dave Lizewski's friends vows to save himself for her after watching an internet broadcast of her taking out a warehouse full of thugs, it's a worry to think that similar sentiments will no doubt be felt by countless acne-addled pervs across the globe (how long until the first countdown website opens?)



As the force of nature at the heart of all the film's best scenes and action, Hit-Girl's presence understandably overshadows many of the other characters, despite several of them being perfectly accomplished in their own right. Hit-Girl's on-screen Big Daddy is closest to matching her for entertainment value, giving Nicolas Cage a perfect stage for his love of off-kilter performances, his stunted delivery here somewhat reminiscent of Adam West, albeit with a second screw loose. He and Moretz have great chemistry together and bring to life the heightened dialogue that might have felt embarrassing and smug coming from less aware performers. Christoper Mintz-Plasse is less showy but equally effective and brave in taking on a role that in many respects is the film's most despicable. Moving convincingly between calculating Iago and insecure teen, it's a performance that proves his credentials for moving on from his McLovin typecast. Aaron Johnson and Mark Strong fare less well, although this is more down to their roles barely moving beyond the geek hero and mobster villain stereotype than any notable deficiencies on their part. Lyndsy Fonseca as Dave's love interest Katie does nothing but be girly and look gorgeous, which is thankfully all that the role asks of her.

The heavily contrasting nature of the characters is at the core of the film's biggest problem, which is that it seems constantly unsure of what it wants to be and what it is trying to say. Mixing the comic book world and real life isn't a bad idea for social commentary, but is done with no apparent thought process. Dave wonders why no-one has ever tried being a superhero before, yet the distinctiveness of his choice to become Kick-Ass is undermined by Hit Girl and Big Daddy being out in costume almost constantly. There does not seem to be any reason in certain characters being taken from the comic world and others portrayed more realistically: in the case of Mark Strong's Frank D'Amico, he's neither human enough to be realistic nor enough fun to be a supervillain figure. If the film's point is that only a lunatic would dress up and fight crime, I hardly think that's a particularly prominent social question worthy of any exploration. When Kick-Ass becomes a YouTube sensation, the film touches on the subculture of ephemeral internet phenomena and the online generation's lust for sensation and violence, but never goes further than acknowledging its existence. Attempts at humour, apart from one good gag with a gang of bullies challenging an un-costumed Hit Girl for her lunch money, also fall flat.

When the film sticks to what comic book movies have often done well, which is deliver spectacle, it lives up to its name: Big Daddy's attack on D'Amico's warehouse is shot in one long take and is one of the film's highlights, while Hit Girl's blend of kung-fu and gunplay are amongst the most exciting, funny and well-executed (pun intended) sequences the genre has delivered so far. Vaughan's refusal to censor the film's violence make his actions scenes more powerful and consequential than those in more cautious releases, yet doesn't overdo it in the same tacky and thoughtless manner as Zack Snyder's brainless Watchmen adaptation.

Like many movies of this type, my feeling is that Kick-Ass will find its biggest fans amongst those who share its passion for comics. Taken as a film on its own terms, it's an entertaining action picture let down by mundane comedy, an excessive reliance on an appreciation of comic book culture and the tonal and thematic identity crisis running through the story. Its only real success as a commentary on superhero movies is in being so typical of both the best and worst characteristics of the genre it seeks to satirise.

3/5

PREVIOUS NON-GAMING REVIEWS

A Curious Thing: Amy MacDonald (Music)
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About Xander Markhamone of us since 3:08 PM on 02.07.2010

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I'm a 26-year old English writer, formerly known on the CBlogs as Xandaça. I've been an avid gamer since I was a wee lad, gripping a NES controller in my hands and comprehensively failing to get past those infuriating Hammer Bros on Level 8-3 of Super Mario Bros. I've stuck with Nintendo since then (not for any animosity towards the other console makers of course - Nintendo just make games I enjoy and have grown up with), apart from a brief sojourn with a Sony PlayStation, several woeful attempts to play Half-Life 2 using a laptop touchpad and sporadically wrangling a turn on my sister's beloved Sega Saturn.

In addition to burping out the occasional novel, I'm a passionate critic, writing reviews and articles of films, book and games for my school magazine and university newspaper, for which I created and edited its film section. In addition to starting up my own blog, covering television, games and movies, I am also a writer for Destructoid's cine-geek sister Flixist. While primarily a film geek, the evolution of the games industry over the course of its short lifetime has fascinated me and provided vast quantities of content for some incendiary pieces of work - perhaps a few more might spring up on here?

My Favourite Games of All Time (because who doesn't love having a few Of All Time lists?) are GoldenEye 007 (which I still play through at least once a year to remind me of its glories), Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Gunstar Heroes, Super Mario Bros 3 (I don't know who told Shigsy Miyamoto-san that raccoons could fly, but I'll love them forever) and No More Heroes.

I hope you find great enjoyment in my many scribings, and please keep an eye out for upcoming news on my novel(s) and do pay a visit to my blog sometime. And yes, the Dtoid community's 'no copy and paste' rule will be fully respected!

Good gaming, everyone!