Monday 23 June 2014

Mario Kart 8 - Pet Peeves

Mario Kart 8 sold 1.2 million copies worldwide during its first weekend, and boosted Wii U sales in the UK by 666%. Anti-christ reference aside, that's pretty damn impressive. Everyone is currently in love with the game, especially myself, but it isn't devoid of flaws. I could go on all day about the beautiful graphics, improved AI, amazing tracks...but that's just repetitive nonsense, right? Ranting about the bad stuff is always more fun, so here are seven things that ticked me off in this game. Brace yourself.

The Piranha Plant

This isn't a flaw that makes me scream in frustration, but rather laugh my ass off. Whenever I bust out the Piranha Plant, tears flood my eyes as I admire it eating everything in its path - other racers, coins, stray items, and even the Blooper that sprays ink on your screen. Nothing can escape its wrath during the ten seconds or so that you have it - and while it's awesome to assault others, the simple fact remains that it is overpowered as hell and needed to be toned down a little. Much like the ungodly annoying Bullet Bill, this item can carry the most appalling Mario Kart racers past the veterans in an instant, despite them performing poorly for the majority of the race.

Defenceless Hang Gliding

Some people criticised the hang gliding segments in Mario Kart 7 for only providing a superficial illusion of variety and not really innovating the formula. I'm all for the the hang gliding, but I propose a good idea to further justify its existence: make it so Red Shells, Lightning Bolts and other items cannot hurt you when you're gliding. While this may seem greedy, it would certainly make the hang gliding portions of the track more justifiable and less of a dramatic risk. Remember when you hop into the cannon in DK Mountain and no items could harm you? Now on the cannon in Sweet Sweet Canyon, and the similar launcher in Rainbow Road, Red Shells continue to pursue you and can knock you straight to a grizzly demise. This practically makes the hang gliding segments the worse place to be during hectic races, and removing items from play during them would be a much better concept.

Mushrooms and Stars

Mushrooms and Stars are more common than ever in Mario Kart 8, which can create some irritating balancing issues. Whenever I use a Star, I find the once amazing boost of speed is now entirely absent - I seldom catch up with the players in front of me, and I've had as many as three people behind me gain Stars at the same time. Mushrooms suffer a similar problem; while they may not be as weak, they are ridiculously common, meaning you can't drive for three seconds without someone boosting past you. The fact that everyone is doing it really dilutes the advantage they give you, making them sometimes useless in chaotic races.

Bumper Cars

Bumping was a astronomical annoyance in Mario Kart Wii - a small nudge from a larger character could send you soaring off the edge of a course in a split second, especially when the other character is at high speed. Sadly, bumping remains a serious problem in Mario Kart 8 - when 12 player online races begin, everyone speeds off at once and the amount of bashing between karts is so incredibly irritating that it makes me want to throw my GamePad out the window. This is the biggest problem I have with the game - it is such a pain to be racing along, then have everyone slip stream your ass and hammer down the item button with a Gold Mushroom, zooming past you on a cluttered track and knocking you off the edge or into a wall in less than a second.

Triple Red Shells

I don't care how uncommon this item is - and I will not praise it simply because it is satisfying when you're the one dishing out the attacks. I stand by this opinion when it comes to every Mario Kart game, but online in Mario Kart 8 is where it has annoyed me the most: triple Red Shells should not be a thing. It is the cheapest and most unfair item, rivalling the much hated Blue Shell. The amount of times I have held a comfortable lead on the final lap and then collapsed into 10th place because of three consecutive Red Shell impacts is ludicrous. I hate this item.

The Coin Item

I have absolutely no problem with the coin being an item in Mario Kart 8. Coins are valuable as ever in testing online races and being able to acquire two of them this way is a useful addition. The problem is that the item is given to you at pure random without understanding the context of the race. You can have 10 coins - the maximum amount - and still get a coin item. Hell, you can have ten coins and be in first place and still get the coin item. The latter is where you'll really understand the annoyance of this, as you'll be dying to quickly get an item to use as a Red Shell defence but the game will often give you coins just to subversively mock you.

Online Lag

Mario Kart 8's online mode is absolutely fantastic, offering one of the best multiplayer packages to date for the Wii U. While generally smooth and sturdy, the online understandably isn't without latency issues. This wouldn't be a big deal if the lag didn't create some really irritating scenarios. A lot of people are talking about this so I'm glad it's not just me whining; items such as Red Shells and even Stars sometimes appear to do nothing when you hit other players. That player will appear to be hit by the item, but will not come to a complete stop and will merely flip over and remain at speed, as if the item did absolutely nothing.

Now it's possible that the game is perhaps incorrectly displaying what is actually happening, and your item did not hit the person at all - which still makes no goddamn sense as the victim will drop their coins. What's most annoying is how it can drastically affect your perception of the race - you're using items to try and climb into first, but they're not doing anything. How do you know what's even happening? How can you use items and plan ahead to win when the game isn't displaying the other racers properly? This glitch is uncommon, but when it happens you simply have no idea what's going on. I hope it can be patched in future updates.

After reading this you may think I hate Mario Kart 8, but trust me, I really like it. It's not perfect, but I'm just nitpicking, and my temper is on par with Donald Duck so perhaps this game isn't always the right one for me to play. The Mario Kart formula is something you really have to accept before you can enjoy the games - skill and luck both have an equal input in the outcome of the race, and this affects every player, which in some ways is what makes it so much fun. At the end of the day it's not always about winning - it's just a game, so who gives a shit.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday 14 June 2014

Movie Review - Edge of Tomorrow

With a meagre $28 million opening weekend, it looks like this year's Edge of Tomorrow may fail to even reach $100 million at the US box office - a massive disappointment considering its enormous budget of $178 million. Watch a trailer for the film and the reasons for this seem evident - we are shown a generic, loud action blockbuster, bombarding us with explosions, shouting and lightning fast cuts. A type of film we're surely tired of seeing, right?

Yes. But when you sit down and watch Edge of Tomorrow, you'll find it is anything but that.

The film sees Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) stripped of his rank and forced into battle with extraterrestrial invaders dubbed Mimics, who are on the verge of bringing humanity to its knees. Though killed during the disastrous beach assault, Cage inexplicably wakes up the previous morning with the memory of the events intact. His power continues to thrive as every death results in the day being reset, allowing him to alter events and anticipate the future. His ability is soon shared with Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who teams up with Cage to bring the invading Mimic race to an end once and for all.

Edge of Tomorrow may be poorly advertised, but the content within it is truly admirable. The plot is surprisingly clever, with a simple premise to avoid over complication but still enough twists and turns to keep audiences hooked. The script also embraces its chances at comedy without being too silly; this dark, thematic 'Nolan' approach a lot of summer movies are adopting is not embraced, so the film is just as fun as it is thrilling. Tom Cruise truly shines as William Cage, whose development is much more interesting alongside the time loop plot; he relives all these events but develops as a character, resulting in some interesting restructuring of certain scenes as we revisit them. Emily Blunt shares a nice chemistry with him, and represents yet again that women can be just as badass as men in action films.

The time loop is never gimmicky, and neither are the alien invaders. There's plot holes, which are pretty much unavoidable in time travel, but never do they distract from the meat of the story and usually they're quite insignificant. Perhaps the most widely discussed problem about the script is the ending; it slightly retcons the entire narrative, but remains a satisfying conclusion that isn't as cliché as people are making it out to be. You may be marketed a generic budget blockbuster with dazzling special effects, but Edge of Tomorrow is far from a superficial bore - great characters and a clever script make it an essential watch for young and old audiences alike, and I hope more people will start to support it.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Nintendo E3 2014 - My Thoughts

Last year Nintendo adopted their new format for an E3 presentation - instead of hosting a massive conference in a huge convention centre, they opted to stream a 40 minute video online showcasing their newest games for both the Wii U and 3DS consoles. This year Nintendo have chosen to follow the same formula - Play Nintendo was their 45 minute presentation posted yesterday, and within it were some wondrous details on upcoming titles for both of Nintendo's newest systems.

So without further ado, let's take a look at what was displayed...

Everyone has been psyched for the latest installments of the Super Smash Bros. series since Nintendo lightly announced them way back at E3 2011 - it wasn't until E3 last year that we finally got our first glimpse of the new games, which will both arrive towards the end of 2014. While it's a shame they're keeping the literal and dull titles, the games themselves certainly look like they'll deliver - Smash Bros. for 3DS offers a variety of single player and multiplayer modes similar to its Wii U counterpart. Nintendo have worked hard on debugging the games and preparing them for release, and so the 3DS version has been delayed from a summer release to October 3. The Wii U version currently does not have a specific release date, but it'll arrive towards the end of this year for sure. I'll probably be grabbing both versions and am curious to see how they can interact. What's also amazing is that Nintendo will release a Gamecube adapter for the Wii U, allowing you to plug in and play Smash Bros. with GC controllers once again. The adapter will see a bundle release with the Wii U game and a Smash Bros. GC controller for around $100/£60, which is sweeeeet.

Next, Nintendo revealed a series of toy figures, dubbed Amiibos. These figures act very much like the ones seen in Disney Infinity and Skylanders. They can be scanned on the Wii U GamePad and downloaded into compatible games, offering customizable characters. The data can be sent back and forth to the Wii U and the figure itself, meaning your influence on the initial data in the game is transferred and stored back on the original figure itself. I'm not 100% sure how this really works, but hopefully this will not force you to dish out more money to get new characters in Smash Bros, as that's a concept I've never been fond of. Following this, Nintendo showed a presentation of the upcoming Yoshi's Woolly World, the second Nintendo title to adopt a yarn based visual style following Kirby's Epic Yarn in 2010. While it's not something I've been overly hyped for, it certainly looks creative and fun, and the visuals are absolutely gorgeous.

One of E3's most anticipated titles was finally unveiled around 20 minutes into the presentation - The Legend of Zelda for Wii U. In the past, Zelda co-creator Eiji Aonuma has always wanted to create a Zelda title with an open world feel. Zelda games are known for the expansive worlds, but there has always been a clear segmented feel to them - you walk down a path, the game loads, and you come out in a new part of the world map. A lot of the towering background details are just for visual flare and not actual places within your reach. Nintendo tried to create an open world feel with The Wind Waker in 2003, but the Great Sea was lacking in activity and all the islands were once again clearly segmented from the main world map.

But now, thanks to the power of the Wii U, an open world Zelda reminiscent of Skyrim is finally possible. My biggest disappointment following the games reveal was the use of a cel-shaded visual style - hear me out before you go apeshit. While Wind Waker and Skyward Sword are beautiful games, the realistic tone of Zelda is also one I've constantly admired. At E3 2011, the Wii U had a Zelda tech demo which displayed HD visuals much like those seen in Twilight Princess, and I would've killed to see this game have that same style. What I'm hoping is that Nintendo have not settled on cel-shading as the definitive visual style for Zelda, as the series has always explored multiple artistic styles and graphical capabilities and I want that to still be possible. But I digress; the brief clip showed the expansive world beyond the horizon, which is all within reach to the player. An open world feel means objectives are far less linear and can be tackled at your own pace. The rest of the footage shown showed Link (maybe) racing through the field on his horse, being chased by a giant mecha-octopus thing shooting lasers. The battle culminates with Link (maybe) jumping into the air and firing some mechanical explosive arrow at the monster. Perhaps a technological aesthetic will influence the games design? Who knows. But damn, it looks cool.

Nintendo next gave us the first footage of the upcoming Pokémon Omega Ruby and Pokémon Alpha Sapphire. Enhanced remakes of the 2003 GBA games, these next instalments of the Pokémon series adopt the 3D visuals first seen in X and Y last year. I found myself interestingly disappointed with Y when I eventually got it - while the visuals and music were superb, a disappointing lineup of new Pokémon, a god awful story and OP and underdeveloped Mega Evolutions resulted in me trading in the game before I even finished, which is a first for me when it comes to Pokémon. On the flip side, Ruby and Sapphire had some of the best Pokémon characters within one of the series' best regions - the story of those games was also epic in scale and thoroughly entertaining. Combining this with the updated 3D visuals, tons of new features and all the newest Pokémon will surely make Omega and Alpha essential titles when they release on November 21.

I'm gonna wrap it up here as I'll be going on all day otherwise. Next we saw more footage from the upcoming Hyrule Warriors, which also received release dates of September 19 and September 26 for Europe and North America respectively. A combination of Nintendo's Zelda and Tecmo Koei's Dynasty Warriors, Hyrule Warriors is a hack n slash video game where players can journey in teams across the world of Hyrule, slashing away at opponents and taking down gargantuan bosses. Dynasty Warriors 3 is the only game of that series I've played, and while I did like it, I've never been a huge fan. Still, Hyrule Warriors sure looks to be a lot of fun. We were next shown a preview of the upcoming Xenoblade Chronicles X, which frankly I couldn't give less of a fuck about as I hated Xenoblade from 2011. So moving on - Mario Maker! This upcoming Wii U app slated for 2015 will allow players to create their own Mario levels in both 8 bit graphics and the 512 bit New Mario Bros. graphics, which is sure to be tons of fun. Following further announcements of Wii U titles Splatoon and Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, the show ended with an interesting speech from Miyamoto himself - who claims to be working on loads of new experiences for the GamePad. In the background, we see something on the TV that looks very much like an Arwing...

Great stuff from Nintendo overall, and easily the best of E3's many conferences. Not only were the announcements great, but the 45 film itself was wonderfully pieced together with entertainment value in mind. Those Robot Chicken segments, man...

Thanks for reading!

Monday 9 June 2014

Worst to Best - Mario Kart

Who doesn't love a good ol' game of Mario Kart? The kart racing video game series starring Nintendo's popular mascot has had eight main releases since it began in 1992, along with two titles exclusive to public arcades. With 35 million copies sold, Mario Kart Wii is the second best selling game for the Wii. With nearly 10 million copies sold, Mario Kart 7 remains the second best selling game for the 3DS. And, let's not forget, Mario Kart 8 recently sold 1.2 million copies across its first weekend and boosted Wii U sales in the UK by a staggering 666%.

So, the franchise is still as popular as it always has been. And to commemorate this, I have decided to comprise a list of all the main games, ranked from my least favourite to the very best.

#8 - Mario Kart 64 (N64, 1996)

Mario Kart 64 is definetly the black sheep of this franchise, simply because it was a slow paced and boring affair which only really appealed to me in terms of music and track design. The game is ludicrously slow and relatively unexciting, and looks like crap compared to other N64 titles. Perhaps its biggest weakness, however, is the god awful AI, who are so badly programmed that they can easily overtake you with minimal effort when you're in the lead simply due to their rubberbanding structure. During this time I'd much rather have been playing Crash Team Racing.

#7 - Super Mario Kart (SNES, 1992)

Super Mario Kart is definetly one of those games that people love so much because of the nostalgia of playing it as a kid. Not owning many Nintendo consoles when I was much younger, I never got to experience it at a young age and thus my judgement is much different. While great fun and visually stunning for SNES standards, the game feels a bit underwhelming compared to its franchises latest installments and hasn't aged particularly well. It gets quickly boring in single player, and thus it's not something I'd keep revisiting.

#6 - Mario Kart: Super Circuit (GBA, 2001)

Super Circuit for the Game Boy Advance handled a lot like the SNES original, with similar 3D graphics and controls. It's ultimately a lot more fidgety on the GBA pad, but thanks to its more dynamic track designs it becomes a hell of a lot more fun. For portable standards at the time, Super Circuit was a thoroughly impressive entry to the franchise, but again it hasn't aged too well over the years.

#5 - Mario Kart Wii (Wii, 2008)

Mario Kart Wii boasts some of the series' most impressive factors since its inception in 1992 - the addition of motor bikes, the stunt system and online play so well developed that it was more fun than any offline mode. Unfortunately, what stops it climbing any higher is its atrocious rubberbanding AI and unbalanced structure, which can make races overly reliant on luck and thus incredibly frustrating. It's got some of the series' best tracks and is fantastic with friends, but single player is often too brutal to be any fun.

#4 - Mario Kart: Double Dash!!! (NGC, 2003)

Double Dash is perhaps the most notable game of the series due to its prominent feature of 2 racers per kart. This feature has one person driving and the other throwing items, both controlled by one player who can switch the positions of the characters whenever they wish. This gives a vastly different handling to the karts and makes races more manic than they've ever been before, and since. Some of its tracks are annoyingly short and bland, but Double Dash still remains one of the series' finest outings.

#3 - Mario Kart 7 (3DS, 2011)

Mario Kart 7 brought a bundle of new ideas to the franchise, including hang gliding and segments of the course that took place entirely underwater. This made for not only an excellent range of new track ideas, but the game's retro courses were updated with similar mechanics to make them even more dynamic. The 3D effects compliment the already lovely visuals, and controls are spot on with the 3DS' wonderful circle pad. My biggest grudge is the lack of a single player VS mode, preventing you from playing any course you wish with CPU opponents. Why did Nintendo remove it?

#2 - Mario Kart 8 (Wii U, 2014)

Ever since I got Mario Kart 8 a mere week ago, I've been unable to keep away from it. The single player has been highly refined since Mario Kart Wii, and all the best things from previous instalments are brought together beautifully - the stunts, the bikes, the hang gliding, underwater segments, and the brand new addition of anti-gravity based courses. The online combines the best things about Wii and 7 in order to form one of the most enjoyable multiplayer packages on the Wii U. I hope Nintendo can patch up the communication errors, occasional glitches and slightly unbalanced item roster that sometimes plagues online play, but otherwise, Mario Kart 8 is another fine installment to the series. Just remember that you know nothing of hell until you've played it online...

#1 - Mario Kart DS (DS, 2005)

Many consider Mario Kart DS to be the finest game of the franchise, and this is not without good reason. Though its online mode was primitive compared to today's games, it was still seamlessly integrated and tons of fun to boot. Its most compelling attributes include the superb controls, which make racing in 3D with the D-Pad a lot better than it sounds, and the outstanding track designs which were far more creative than those in previous games. Mario Kart DS was also the first game in the series to bring retro tracks into the equation - from here on, all future releases offered 16 redesigned courses seen in previous Mario Kart titles. In terms of items and difficulty, it's by far the most balanced of the franchise, making cheap losses a rare issue. Being able to play it all on the go makes it even better, and easily makes Mario Kart DS the best game in the series yet.

UPDATE: This video has now been adapted into a video for the gaming channel ProjectFalconPunch! Check it out via the link below!

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Movie Review - Maleficent

Maleficent comes at the end of a ludicrously crowded and financially disappointing May 2014 schedule. It hopes to be a box office hit in the style of CGI heavy Disney flicks Alice in Wonderland and Oz: The Great and Powerful, and with Angelina Jolie starring you can hardly go wrong.

But wait. Yes. Yes, you can.

Maleficent retells the classic story of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of its iconic villain, played superbly by Jolie. Long before her descent into evil, Maleficent guarded the magical land of The Moors as an elegant faerie with a stunning pair of wings. When her wings are eventually stolen in a heartbreaking betrayal, Maleficent curses the firstborn Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) of the nearby kingdom whom she holds responsible. Aurora is taken into the forest to be guarded her curse, but only encounters and grows closer to Maleficent, who has watched over Aurora since childhood and begins to develop regret for her sinister actions.

Maleficent struggles to find the true focus of its story, or perhaps it just can't deliver it with enough emotional strength. Anyone who has researched the film may know that the opening 20 minutes or so had to be reshot due to such clumsy direction and if this is the final cut, I hate to think what the original version looked like. The opening does nothing to make us like or care for these characters; instead, it simply opens with dull and bloated attempts to elaborate on the story ahead. It gets boring relatively quickly and in the end I was just waiting impatiently for Jolie to actually become the villain I saw in the film trailers. To create a narrative over these 97 minutes, they've forcibly stretched simple scenes and half of the film feels completely pointless. Not good.

The CGI heavy nature of the film creates some lush landscapes and visual thrills galore, but there's sometimes a very synthetic feel to almost everything you see, especially the three pixies whose blend of actual actor's faces onto small CGI bodies is absolutely terrifying. That aside, the visuals are one of the film's strongest merits; the other being Jolie's performance in the title role, which is far from award winning but still superb given the weak material she must work with. But these factors aren't enough to save Maleficent from what it is; a boring, poorly focused and joyless mess, which ruins one of Disney's best villains by turning her into a misunderstood hero and slapping her into a poorly directed visual effects showreel.

Monday 2 June 2014

Movie Review - X-Men: Days of Future Past

This latest installment of the X-Men saga acts as a joint sequel to 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand, 2011's X-Men: First Class and last year's The Wolverine. Jeez. To unite these different narratives, a time travel plot is put into action - when the Mutants face extinction at the hands of the villainous Sentinels, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) must journey back to the past to unite the younger X-Men and save the future before it even begins.

The journey though time means we see both the young and old characters from the original trilogy and rebooted First Class series. Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy return as Charles Xavier, while Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender portray Magneto. Jennifer Lawrence also reprises her role as Raven / Mystique, who is integral to the film's narrative. Supporting characters are played by a range of newcomers and reprisals, including Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters, Kelsey Grammar and the ever so charming Peter Dinklage.

For the most part, the tricky narrative carefully constructs itself to avoid any serious plot holes or conflicts in logic. The pacing is spot on and everything keeps moving forward to the benefit of the story - almost never does it feel like the plot has taken a back seat to bloat the run time. Things do get a bit convoluted towards the finale, but in general the script is superbly written. All this is topped off with some superb action sequences, especially the climax which creatively combines set pieces in the past and future eras.

The performances are generally fantastic, particularly Jackman as Wolverine and McAvoy as a troubled young Charles Xavier. Though his role is small, Evan Peters is notably exceptional as Quicksilver, who ends up being a neat heroic addition and a delightful source of comic relief. The balance of humour and seriousness is flawless, creating a film that doesn't feel too depressing but still has serious themes and high stakes. It all comes together to make the best X-Men film yet, which is really saying a lot following the stellar First Class.