Friday 30 November 2012

Nintendo Wii U - Initial Thoughts

First announced at E3 2011 after much speculation, the Wii U is the successor to Nintendo's immensely popular Wii console first released in 2006 and known for its motion based approach which helped it compete (and eventually outmatch) rivals PS3 and X-Box 360 despite the inferior hardware. The Wii U is Nintendo's first step into HD gaming - the technology began with game consoles over seven years ago, but Nintendo's first use of it has had a big impact on the gaming community. The console was finally released in Europe on this day, and my long awaited pre-order arrived this afternoon - having set it all up and played for a bit, how does it hold up?

The Wii U is available in two packs: Basic and Premium. The Basic Pack comes with a white Wii U and GamePad with 8GB of internal flash memory (not massive, but an immediate improvement on the pathetic 512MB for Wii) as well as a HDMI cable and AC adapters for the Wii U console and the GamePad. The Premium Pack comes with all of the above, except the console (as well as the controller) is black and built with 32GB of memory. The extras include a charging cradle for the GamePad, a regular stand for it and the console, a sensor bar (exactly the same as the Wii one) and Nintendo Land. The Basic Pack retails for about £250 in the UK whereas the Premium goes for about £300, though this can differ amongst retailers. In comparison, the Wii and 3DS launched at a price of around £180. I myself purchased the Premium Pack.

The console itself very slightly larger than the Wii, but aside from a sleeker and thinner design, not much has changed. You still have a slot loading disc drive with eject and power buttons alongside it as well as the trademark red sync button to connect GamePad and Wiimote controllers to the system. Secluded under a small panel is the SD card slot, again like the Wii, only it is joined by two USB ports. There are also two USB ports at the back of the console as well as the generic ports for the AC plug, HDMI cable, sensor bar and AV cables should you not want or be able to use HDMI. The console is much less attractive than the Wii when positioned vertically due to the ugly and cheap looking stands; it looks best on its bottom. The GamePad is almost the same size as the console, with the touchscreen itself stretching out 6.2 inches - it is resistive, meaning multi-touch is not possible, but thats really not been a problem for myself. The GamePad's screen is surprisingly high quality and sensitive, and the controller itself is nicely light and feels great to hold and play with. Its size may seem off putting, but I assure you it's a well designed and gorgeous piece of kit.

Setting up the Wii U was an absolute catastrophe and took well over 90 minutes, which doesn't include transferring Wii data. The basic initial setup was simple until it came to connecting to the internet - no matter how many times I tried and how many settings I messed around with, the console would just not connect to my perfectly functional router. I learned that this was a widespread issue, and the fix was easy but tedious - input all the settings manually, including the IP address and Subnet Mask. This will eventually allow the console to connect properly, and then you're greeted by the infamous system update: to get the complete package of software and features, you'll have to download this, and for me it took a whopping 75 minutes. Ouch.

Nintendo Land is packed with enjoyable if short lived minigames.
The Wii transfer took just over half an hour or so, and was a relatively easy process. Once that was done, I could delve into some Nintendo Land - this game is much like Wii Sports in a sense that it demonstrates the capabilities of the GamePad and is, in the case of the Premium Pack, bundled with the console to get newcomers started. Though Wii Sports was a dull and lifeless game that only really became fun due to well implemented motion controls, Nintendo Land is a colourful, varied and enjoyable experience that feels like an actual game instead of a controller tour. I have yet to fully experience all the Nintendo Land minigames, but it's safe to say I am really enjoying it at this stage, my only main gripe being the irritating screen tilting that matches the movements of the GamePad in the hub world. Visually, it's a beautiful game full of colour and charm, and the HD influence is clear from the beginning - everything is extremely crisp (the same can be said for the menus) and it gives us a good indication of what the Wii U is capable of.

I also tried out some of the other features, namely Miiverse, which plays out like a Facebook for Wii U gamers. You can visit forums for available Wii U titles and post messages and drawings conveying your thoughts or queries. You can like other people's posts, which is dubbed 'Yeah!' in this app, and can also reply - in a manner also similar to Facebook, you'll receive notifications when a person replies to or likes a post of yours. Though it seems basic, it opens up a whole new dimension of social interaction on the system, making it feel much less of an isolated experience when compared to the Wii and its terrible messaging service. Other things I tried include Youtube, which works well enough despite meh video quality and the Daily Log, which simply records your gaming activity including the number of times each game or app has been used and the total playtime. It feels a bit less deep than the 3DS one, but is still a nice little feature.

The Wii U GamePad prototype from E3 2011 - it has changed quite a bit since!
So, that concludes my initial thoughts. I'm very excited for the prospects of the Wii U this generation and I am looking forward to seeing how it competes with not only the new consoles from Microsoft and Sony but also its predecessor, which has topped around 100 million in sales. At this stage, if you really want the console, then it's a worthy investment - the launch lineup is much stronger than the 3DS and Wii, and the system itself will easily entertain you outside of gaming alone. Who knows what will happen in the future, but I believe this generation of home consoles is set to be one of the biggest yet.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Movie Review - The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2

Loved and hated by many, The Twilight Saga has established itself as one of the most controversial franchises of our generation; each installment has been progressively beaten to a pulp by critics yet raked in huge profits at the box office and pleasing its large fanbase. And now, after four years of this crap, we come to the second part of the 'epic' conclusion - that is, if there was anything to conclude in the first place.

Immediately after her rebirth as a vampire, Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) lives in peace with her husband Edward (Robert Pattinson), their daughter Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy) and the rest of the Cullen family. Having initially been accepted by the The Volturi, Bella's status as a vampire and the lives of the Cullen family are at stake when their baby is mistaken for an immortal child, a breed of vampire incapable of restraint, leading to a race against time before The Volturi's punishment is made for a crime never committed.

What's so bad about The Twilight Saga overall? There are too many things to answer that question with. Not only is the contrived, poorly written romance a bad enough aspect, but the terrible scripts, atrocious acting and non existent overall narrative threads together a string of five awful films into a forced mess. Nothing is emotionally stirring nor gripping, and the characters portrayed exude no likeable factors. Being consistent with this poor reputation, Breaking Dawn - Part 2 recycles these negative conventions and tops it off with some extra awfulness.

The main factor that contributes to the poor quality of the film is the fact that it does not feel like the epic finale it is marketed to be - okay, I'm not saying film marketing is ever the pinnacle of honesty, but this is a film that concludes a major franchise. What it actually feels like is a clueless, mindless cobbling together of boring scenes with no sense of direction. The majority of the film seems to revolve around the main characters sitting in nicely furnished houses and discussing plans of action, annoying vampire jokes and the dull, droning narrations of Bella. Rather than deliver subtle exposition, the film seems to explain even the most obvious of plot points to the audience as if we're idiots. Then again, anyone who's attending a screening of the film might as well be treated as such, even myself.

The film culminates with a rather good if absurd final battle, but a huge anticlimax drives this into the ground and leads to to one of the worst 'resolutions' in film history. The film has little to redeem itself from the nonsensical and pale story, the bad characterization and the above awful CGI special effects, and in comparison the explosive nature of other conclusive films like Deathly Hallows - Part 2 and The Dark Knight Rises, Breaking Dawn - Part 2 is just another dull entry to a dull franchise and is, praise god, the last we have to endure.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Movie Review - Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

Dreamworks and sequels tend to go together like bread and butter; you can pan the concept all you want, but the franchises churned out by the famous (and sometimes infamous) animation studio enjoy box office success beyond all measure and reach audiences of a variety of ages. Their Madagascar series, which began in 2005, has now stepped forward to receive its latest iteration: taking our favourite bestial quartet across the countries of Europe.

Continuing their everlasting quest to get home, lion Alex (Ben Stiller), zebra Marty (Chris Rock), giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) and hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) track down the penguins at Monte Carlo for assistance, where they are pursued by the ruthless animal control unit lead by the psychotic Captain Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand). Finding refuge on board a departing circus train, the animals are tangled up in a conflict of interests to restore the circus' success in the public eye for their personal gain of arriving back home in New York - something which may be more difficult than they originally expected.

Madagascar 3 adopts the same quirky and cartoonish visual style that its predecessors used to such great effect, allowing for over the top slapstick and charming character designs. Despite their clean and polished appearance, the graphics never aim to simulate or mimic reality; something that helps to maintain the zany vibe the film carries throughout. The visuals are also complimented by a decent if forgettable soundtrack by Hans Zimmer - though one mostly built off recycled and, regrettably, tired pop songs.

The stellar voice cast from the previous films reprise their roles with the same comedic appeal, which mainly stems from the hilarious Ben Stiller and equally funny Chris Rock. Newcomers Frances McDormand, Martin Short, Bryan Cranston and Jessica Chastain also perform well, even if a few of them have forgettable roles. Madagascar 3's main problem lies with pacing, which is often shunted aside in favour of comedy and sometimes forced set pieces. The film kicks off within minutes and comes to an almost abrupt end which doesn't feel all that organic; not only this, but the plot structure is overwhelmingly formulaic, making certain scenes lacking any sort of punch or purpose.

Madagascar 3 is a funny and entertaining effort from Dreamworks, which in hindsight is all it's meant to be. It won't win any awards for narrative development - but do you care? I sure hope not. A great laugh for adults and kids alike and one packed with charming characters and hilarious slapstick gags, Madagascar 3 pretty much succeeds and what exactly it aspired to do, albeit without a great deal of originality or innovation.