Tuesday, 29 April 2014

+++WE INTERRUPT THIS PROGRAM+++

Okay, obviously this isn't Shrek 2. That'll come at some point in the near future I'm sure, but right now... well, it took me some time to come to this conclusion, but I think it's time for a short hiatus from the blog. Between work, hobbies and other responsibilities lately, I'm finding it hard to make time to put out anything more than a brief blog post. So, rather than put out a half-assed Retrospective like I was planning on doing (and did, in my opinion, last week), I'm going to take a much-needed break. I've been updating this blog weekly for the past year and a half without fail, but my readership has dropped from ~300 per day to about 10% of that on a good day. As a result, I doubt anyone's going to be screaming in outrage at this announcement.

Now I want to be sure to emphasize that this is not the end of the blog - I'll be continuing the Shrek Retrospective in the next couple weeks I imagine (if only because I want to bitch about Shrek the Third). For now though, I just don't want to go in half-heartedly.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Retrospective: Shrek (2001)

Welcome back good readers as we begin a new retrospectives series! The franchise that we're going to be focusing on for the next few weeks is the Shrek series (for the record though, I'm not including the holiday specials and countless short films on the DVDs in this analysis, otherwise I'd be at this for months). The franchise has been incredibly successful, raking in over $3.5 billion in just a decade and being popular among kids and adults alike. In this entry, we're going to cover the film which started it all - 2001's Shrek.

A bit of an odd poster design, but I like it (maybe I'm just nostalgic for it though).

In 1990, William Steig published a children's book called Shrek!, about an ogre who travels away from home and finds another ogre just as ugly as he is (and falls in love with her of course). It's a gross and irreverent story, with very little in the way of plot. However, Steven Spielberg saw merit in the premise and bought the rights for the story prior to founding DreamWorks. He was initially planning to turn it into a traditionally animated film which hewed closely to the book, starring Bill Murray as Shrek and Steve Martin as Donkey. After the success of Toy Story, the film was reconstituted as a motion captured animation. However, the results were considered unsatisfactory, so it was once again restarted as a CGI animation. First time director Andrew Adamson was hired to co-direct alongside Kelly Asbury - however, Asbury dropped out after a year and story artist Vicky Jenson took over instead. Adamson actually wanted the film to appeal more to adults than the final film did, putting in more sexual jokes and Guns N' Roses music (both ideas which caused a clash with the studio executives).


Initially, Chris Farley was cast to play Shrek, and recorded most of his dialogue. However, he died in 1997 before the film was completed. As a result, Mike Myers was cast to replace him. Myers actually recorded all of his dialogue twice, replacing it all of his original lines with the iconic Scottish accent that we hear in the final film. The process cost the film an additional $4 million, but was considered such an improvement that Spielberg himself thanked Myers for the change. The character also was better understood after the change and more comedy bits were added as the creators gained a better handle on the film. Janeane Garofalo was initially cast as Princess Fiona, but was unceremoniously fired and replaced by Cameron Diaz. Eddie Murphy was cast as Donkey, who was actually modelled after a real donkey named Pericles.

...am I the only one who doesn't see the resemblance?

The plot of Shrek is quite different than the book it is based on. For one thing, in Shrek!, the ogre is so ugly that he actually smites donkey with his ugliness. In the film, Shrek is a grumpy ogre whose swamp becomes a dumping ground for fairy tale creatures by Lord Farquaad, who is trying to build the "perfect kingdom". Farquaad declares he'll give Shrek his swamp back if he rescues the perfect princess, Fiona, from her dragon guarded tower. Together Shrek and his annoying talking sidekick, Donkey, have to rescue the princess, but discover that there's more to her (and themselves) than meets the eye...

I probably don't need to tell you the plot to Shrek because let's be honest - everyone has seen it. Even the last man on earth can quote it word for word (and you were doing it too alongside him). The plot is a relatively straight-forward fairy tale/hero's journey, but the expectations are inverted and played with. Instead of the noble king vanquishing the terrifying monster to get the princess, the monster is the hero and the king is the villain. Furthermore, the princess is a monster as well. This simplistic plot makes the film appealing enough for children, but the inversions keep it fresh and interesting enough for adults as well. The inversions also help to make the film very funny. The humour in the film is a perfect mix of satire, references, gross-out humour and clever jokes, often springing from the excellent chemistry between the lead characters. There are also lots of pointless little moments in the film, such as the Robin Hood attack, which could have come across as little more than filler. However, these almost all end up being hilarious and highlights of the film (although the "muffin man" bit is the annoying exception). Some of the jokes are more adult-oriented as well, although there is plenty of content to entertain both children and adults. In general, the film is just plain funny and nearly every joke hits its mark.


As for the characters, all of them are a lot of fun. The performances are exceptional and it's difficult to imagine anyone else in the roles. Mike Myers is great as Shrek, making us genuinely care about such a grumpy individual. Donkey could easily have been annoying as shit, but Eddie Murphy does a good job of keeping him funny throughout. Cameron Diaz also adds a lot to Princess Fiona, a role which could have easily been dangerously close to the "generic damsel in distress" if the wrong actress was cast. John Lithgow's Lord Farquaad is also an interesting role - on the one hand, he's an effective villain, but on the other hand he's hilariously diminutive and unthreatening. Farquaad strikes a very delicate balance as a comedic villain, and in my opinion that balance is achieved perfectly. The minor supporting cast also add a few laughs, such as Pinocchio, the three blind mice and the Gingerbread Man.

I'm also pleased to see that the animation still holds up very well almost 13 years after the film's release. Shrek isn't quite as detailed or flashy as many of the CGI animated films which have succeeded it, but the characters' movements are still top-notch and all of the scenes are rendered very impressively. I was watching the film with a critical eye towards the animation in particular to see if I could find any problems, but I ended up being more impressed by the little details, such as bent grass, Donkey's fur, Shrek's subtle facial details, etc. Shrek could be released today and still easily achieve nearly as much acclaim as it did in 2001.


If there's a weak point in the film, I'd say that the biggest problem is probably Donkey and Dragon's relationship. It makes for some funny moments initially, but it really seems to be done for little more than plot convenience. Donkey's going to die? Make the dragon fall in love with him! Need to get to the wedding fast? Take the dragon! Lord Farquaad's about to kill Shrek and Fiona? Make the dragon eat him! Dragon just deflates some of the more interesting ways the plot could have gone for the sake of convenience, and makes for some more awkward problems later on down the line... All things said and done though, Shrek is an awesome movie. Everyone loves it, from all ages. I remember going to my friends' birthday 11th party and seeing the film with absolutely no prior knowledge of the film, and loving it. Seriously, if you haven't seen Shrek yet then you must have been living in a Fallout vault or something.

8/10

Be sure to come back soon for the second part of this retrospective series, Shrek 2!

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Quick Fix: Paintball Videos!

As I implied in last week's blog post, I definitely was quite busy so that next retrospective series is going to begin on the 22nd. However, in the meantime, you can enjoy some PRZ Fight for Asylum 3 footage and a recap!

Yes, this actually happened.

Myself and 3 other Stormrunners attended the event in Picton, Ontario. It was absolutely perfect paintballing weather - very little wind, sunny weather, not humid, not too wet and not too hot either. We played on Josh Samure's team, which featured some pretty major teams such as Citrus Connection and the Devil Dogs (humourously, the Stormrunners got a shout out as a fellow TechPB team, even though we aren't... but hey, I'm not going to complain about the complement). There were about 650 people playing which made for a very exciting event.

...although this guy was easily the coolest of them all.

My only complaint on the day was that the other team got absolutely smoked. They had a poor initial spawn point and were too disorganized at the beginning - they didn't even leave their spawn point for about a minute after the break and none of their forces were sent to their alternative spawn points (a major issue because it would have delayed our reinforcements as we mopped up their troops, allowing their forces to take up better positions). The organizers did their best to even it up a bit, including a reinsertion and a ton of "air strikes" to clear our forces out, but it was definitely a one-sided day.


On the plus side, the Stormrunners did fantastic. The Stormrunners had a confirmed 116 kills and only 17 deaths, which is just a mind-bogglingly high number. Most of those kills were between two of our members, but I myself got 12 kills and only 1 death - not too shabby if I do say so myself. Images and videos are still trickling in, so if you're interested then keep an eye on The Stormrunners' Facebook page and our Youtube playlist. If you want to play with us at some point, we are going to be attending Commando Paintball's D-Day Big Game on June 14th - if you are, leave a comment and feel free to say hi. Maybe you'll get to be in our next video!

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Quick Fix: Paintball News and Retrospectives

Hey good readers, I've got an exciting week ahead of me! On the 12th, I'm going to be kicking off the paintball season by attending PRZ's Fight for the Asylum once again. It's a world-class paintball field and I'm extremely excited to get out and capture plenty of footage of the action. I expect that by my next blog post, there will be lots of new footage of the event on my Youtube channel, so be sure to check it out by then. I've been stoked for this event for the last few weeks, upgrading and testing out my marker loadout in preparation - seriously, every time I pre-register for a paintball event, it's like a mini Christmas to me (with the carols being pump-up rock and metal).

Commando Paintball's D-Day event has also been recently announced as being on June 14th. The Stormrunners have attended D-Day since 2011, so this will make it our 4th attendance at the event. Most of the guys are still in school and so will be missing out on Fight for the Asylum, but by June 14th they should be all good to attend - D-Day tends to be one of our best events in regards to turnouts, so I'm excited to hang out with the team and kick some ass. It also tends to be my most popular event in terms of video views, with one of last year's videos just shy of 10,000 views on Youtube (and still growing). You can be sure I'll be attending D-Day this year and getting even more quality footage for everyone to enjoy.


Also, I'm considering upgrading my helmet cam from the Contour HD to a Contour+2. I've got a few reasons for this, so I just want to put them out there. First of all, my Contour HD is in rough shape - a lot of the vital bits which keep the camera's battery in the unit are broken. It's still in working order, but there's only a couple pieces actually keeping it all together, so I'm expecting this to be my last season with the camera anyway (for the record, I bought it used for a half decent price and have been very happy with the camera in all my time with it). Also, my Youtube channel is overwhelmingly paintball-related, so I think I should focus my efforts on improving that part of the channel and making it the best it can be. At present, I can only shoot in 720p (well, I technically can shoot in 1080p, but the field of view is too restricted for my liking). This was fine on my laptop, but now that I have a new computer, I can edit 1080p and 60fps footage with ease. Luckily, the Contour+2 has a much wider FOV for 1080p footage, and I think the video quality is simply better anyway, making it a very attractive option for me. The bells and whistles are also just plain cool: smart phone integration, GPS tracking, plug-in microphones, etc. Anyway, there's no way in hell I'll have one by Fight for the Asylum, but I hope to have saved up enough to make the purchase by D-Day - fingers crossed!

In other news, I'm going to start the next Retrospective series within the next couple weeks. I might be too busy this week to get it done, but if so then it will be posted by the 22nd at the latest. In trying to keep things fresh, it's a very different sort of franchise compared to all the (generally horrible) action/horror/thriller series I've covered thus far. I'm sure you'll like it (and have probably seen at least two of the films in the franchise as well)!

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Video Game Review: Metal Gear Solid V - Ground Zeroes

As you probably know if you read the blog, I'm a big Metal Gear Solid fan. Snake Eater and Guns of the Patriots are amongst my favourite games of all time, and I've played through each probably at least a half dozen times. Naturally, I bought the game almost immediately, despite some trepidations about its short length. Is it really just an over-glorified demo as some are stating, or is it a solid prologue for The Phantom Pain? Read on to find out...


First of all, I have to get this out of the way: Kiefer Sutherland is fine as Snake. Fans were talking about boycotting the game if David Hayter didn't get the role, but if you seriously skipped out on this game only because you thought only Hayter could be Snake, then you're an idiot, pure and simple. I think I would have preferred Hayter, but I was surprised to find that Sutherland brought a more serious edge to the role. Rather than Hayter's awesomely over-the-top voice, we get a more subdued performance which sounds like Snake could actually be a grizzled veteran. In any case though, Sutherland does a fine job, and is not distracting in the least.

Now for the real talking point about the game - the length. It's true, the main mission in Ground Zeroes is pretty short - probably on par with the Tanker chapter or Virtuous Mission prologues from MGS2 and 3. I spent somewhere between an hour and a half to two hours on the mission and wasn't even doing all that much exploring - mostly just trying to get from point A to point B while minimizing kills and alerts (well, until I stole a LAV anyway, at which point I couldn't help myself...). However, that said, there is a lot more freedom to approach the mission, which makes it much more replayable and can vary the playtime significantly. Like any Metal Gear game, I can see myself playing through the main campaign a few times to try out different strategies and search for secrets.


The game isn't just restricted to the main mission though either; it also ships with 5 side ops. Unlike most open world side missions, the side ops are surprisingly compelling. Kojima has clearly gone to a lot of effort to make them interesting and varied. There's one mission where you have to visually identify two targets and stealthily assassinate them both. This would be fun in itself, but as we play the mission, we're given backstory into the war crimes these targets committed. Learning about how awful the targets were makes the mission completion all the more satisfying and compelling, rather than a chore. That's only one of the side ops too, the others are equally as enjoyable, and well worth playing through. People are getting way too caught up on the short length of the main mission itself, because I imagine on a reasonable playthrough you could get another 3+ hours out of the side missions themselves, and that's not including the inevitability of replaying missions to increase your score. If you really want to squeeze every second of value out of the game, there's also a bunch of collectable cassette tapes and XOF patches to find, and some weird tiki heads you can shoot too for a reward, all of which should keep dedicated players occupied for well over 15+ hours. So really, the game certainly has plenty of content for $30, but you have to be willing to work for it. In any case, if you're a Metal Gear fan like me, you already knew you'd be willing to spend $30+ up front. At worst, wait a few months for it to drop down to about $20, or wait until the inevitable Ground Zeroes + The Phantom Pain bundle that will drop in a year or two.

Anyway, now that the big controversies are out of the way, it's time to move onto my impressions in proper. First of all, the game is very much Metal Gear, but with a lot of needed refinement. The cutscenes are far less overbearing, which is welcome. As much as I enjoy the cutscenes in Metal Gear games, it becomes annoying having to wait upwards of an hour and a half to play the game again, only to have another cutscene interrupt me 30 seconds later. In Ground Zeroes, the cut scenes are still key, but they are spaced out far more infrequently, and don't meander nearly as much. The open world trappings also work very well and provide a lot of freedom and replayability for the player. Some people wondered if an open world was appropriate for Metal Gear, but I always thought such thinking was very short-sighted - these games have always aspired for an open world setting (yes, even since the original Metal Gear on MSX), but always lacked the technology to make that a reality. Instead, they've been restricted to maneuvering through linked corridors and open jungle and urban settings, but I can't have been the only player to think "damn, how awesome would it be if all these areas were seamlessly linked without loading screens?" Now that is a reality, and I couldn't be happier.


As far as the gameplay goes, it feels a lot like 2010's Peace Walker. Gunplay is certainly better than it was in the early games in the series, although it doesn't feel quite as smooth to me as something like, say, Uncharted does. Luckily, the game is about avoiding combat as much as possible, and so that's not a major issue by any means. Appropriately, Ground Zeroes also seems to have taken some cues from Splinter Cell: Blacklist, most notably the "last known position" mechanic, marking enemies on the HUD and Reflex mode. Reflex mode was a bit of a controversial addition, but I welcome it - sometimes it can be incredibly frustrating to sneak through an area, only to have an unseen enemy suddenly spot you and set off an alert phase. Reflex mode gives you a last chance to take that enemy out, although if you panic fire there's a good chance you won't pull off the shot. Perhaps best of all though is the fact that the developers made Reflex mode completely optional for those who want a challenge. I really appreciate when a developer gives players this sort of option, and it's just further incentive to become more skilled at the game so that you won't need to activate Reflex mode at all.

I would also like to point out that the game looks gorgeous on PS4. I've seen some comparison videos online and it looks quite good on last-gen too, so you really can't go wrong in terms of graphics (although current-gen is clearly superior). On the negative side though, there are still some issues I noticed with the engine which need to be ironed out before The Phantom Pain is released. Most noticeably, there's some considerable pop-in. I've tranquilized enemies, looked away from them and then looked back, only to have their bodies disappear for a couple seconds before the game reloaded them into the scene. It's not a major issue, but it is distracting and a surprising issue to see in a released title. I also notice that objects completely disappear at long distances, but can reappear when you zoom in on them. In the helicopter extraction side op, I noticed that exploding barrels were completely missing until I zoomed in on them - a pretty egregious issue because I could need to shoot those to kill enemies (or, theoretically, could accidentally shoot one and kill my target). These are relatively minor technical issues, but noticeable and annoying none-the-less.

I should also probably mention that the enemy AI can be pretty stupid at times. They're fine in general until an alert gets triggered, at which point they crouch through the open to try to attack Snake head on. When a full-on shootout occurs, it's not uncommon to gun down a half dozen idiots as they try to get closer to Snake (although I'll admit their animations when they get shot are very nice). That said, I was playing on Normal, so maybe they're improved in Hard mode... but somehow I doubt it. In my opinion, MGS2 continues to reign with the best AI in the series.


Moving on from gameplay, how is the story in Ground Zeroes? After all, for all its convoluted threads, story is just as important as gameplay to a Metal Gear game. In that respect, I'm pleased to announce that Ground Zeroes lives up to the previous games in the series, despite its short runtime. Of course, it's merely a prologue, but it lays the groundwork for The Phantom Pain very well, and am absolutely certain that that game is going to be gripping. It's also a far more mature story, touching on themes of torture and suffering in war (and explicitly drawing real-world parallels to Guantanamo Bay). Of course, there are still hammy bits, and lots of signature Kojima humour, but in general the story feels much more dark than normal. The ending is also not very satisfying, but it definitely leaves you pumped for the next chapter.

However, there are some rather shocking, and dare I say gratuitous, moments due to this mature emphasis. Paz ends up being subjected to some truly awful stuff - she has to have a bomb removed from her stomach sans anesthetic (which is shown in gory detail), and we find out that she was raped by the villain as well. That's pretty dark stuff, although it definitely tows the line of the "rape as plot device" trope. It certainly fits into the themes of the game overall, but Paz herself is reduced to nothing more than a torture plot point... a distressing reality which doesn't bode so well for Quiet's characterization later on. To be fair though, these sorts of dark moments have been a part of Metal Gear for quite some time now (probably most memorably with the origins of the Beauty and the Beast unit in MGS4, whose stories could probably rival anything on display here), but such moments tended to be off-screen and de-emphasized compared to what we have here.

All-in-all, it really is hard to score this game. It's fun, but it's clearly divisive. There's also some technical issues that need work, and its narrative leaves you hanging, but the core game play is very liberating. I think the best I can say is that you probably already know if you want to buy Ground Zeroes, and what price point you'd consider it to be worthwhile. If you aren't yet ready to take the plunge, hold off until it gets cheaper, or wait for the inevitable The Phantom Pain pack-in. If we take price out of the equation though, Ground Zeroes is undoubtedly a ton of fun.

7.5/10