Saturday, December 22, 2012

Kotas Reviews The Hobbit

Today I saw the Hobbit. First, a little background. The Hobbit was THE book that got me into fantasy literature. I was sick for a week or two one summer as a small kid, and I couldn’t really do anything. I found a copy of The Hobbit amongst my parents books. I read that thing like 3 a row. My grandfather recorded the original animated movie off of HBO or something the next year, and I watched the hell out of that too. Wore out the tape. I love this book, perhaps more than any other book written so far. Be warned, beyond this point thar be spoilers. Skip to the final paragraph for the FACE rating and final word.

This film is not the movie of the book. It is a movie based on the book, and more to the point, it is a movie based on a book as seen through the lens of the previous Lord of the Rings films. This is not a children’s bedtime story, this is an epic tale that is clearly a prequel to an even more epic tale. The themes have been increased in scope, and in doing so have changed some of the underlying nature of them. Bilbo is still our unlikely hero, but he’s much less...bumbling. In fact, the entire set of dwarves, mostly comical figures apart from Thorin in the book, have become more of a rough and tumble assemblage of adventurers. Thorin is an appropriately brooding “King Without a Kingdom but Gonna Get it Back” fellow. Gandalf is, of all the characters, the least changed. Enigmatic, yet with a twinkle in his eye and a penchant for sage advice, as is befitting a wizard.

The opening narration is a particularly good bit of work. Ian Holmes and Elijah Woods reprise their roles as Old Man (er Hobbit) Bilbo and Frodo in the framing device of “Bilbo finally getting around to writing down his story in full.” Both of the actors looked comfortable back in the roles and I enjoyed it. The transition to “60 years ago” was nicely done. I must say, Martin Freeman does a simply wonderful job as Bilbo, always giving off the right impression I would have for the hero in his situation. In fact, the acting is excellent from almost everyone. The dwarves at the party hits all the correct notes from the book, and the cleanup scene is well executed. From this point however, the movie makes some considerable departures from the book. Oh, none of the main story elements are changed, but...well, I’ll get to it.

Take for example the troll scene. I enjoyed the portrayal of our dear friends Bert, Tom, and Bill Huggins. But the scene is different. The dwarves didn’t lose their baggage when a pony fell in the river, instead Fili and Kili are counting up the ponies and realize two are missing. They draft Bilbo to assist in the recovery. The trolls have taken them, of course. Bilbo sneaks in to try and set them free, but due to a bit of bad luck is found out when he tries to pick pocket a tiny knife (for a troll) to cut the rope for the ponies’ pen. Kili leaps in to try and save him...along with the rest of the dwarves. A frightful row ensues, with the dwarves attacking and beating up the trolls with their many weapons, and only stops when the dwarves are forced to surrender or the trolls will pull Bilbo in half. They are in sacks or tied to a spit, but Bilbo manages to stall them for long enough for Gandalf to show up and smite a boulder in twain, revealing the dawn and turning them to stone.

This scene hit all the basic elements of the scene in the book, and served the same purpose. It showcases Bilbo’s inexperience with adventuring, puts the dwarves in a pickle, and Gandalf saves the day. But it is much more the scene it had to be, viewed through the lens of the previous films, rather than a scene from the book. Bilbo was caught this time, not because he was doing something somewhat foolish in order to impress the dwarves, but some rather unfortunate bad luck (grabbed by the troll when he reached for his handkerchief, which just happened to be right where Bilbo was standing to grab the tiny knife) instead of an enchanted coin purse. It is Bilbo, not Gandalf, who keeps the argument going over how best to cook the dwarves, and he does so directly, rather than trying to sound like the trolls. These dwarves are not the comical lot who get stuffed into sacks, but capable warriors put in a tough position (though they are vastly more comical than say, Gimli). Gandalf doesn’t trick the trolls into taking too much time, he straight up splits a fucking boulder to let the sun in. Don’t get me wrong, the scene is actually a lot of fun, but you can see the alterations made in the name of “seriousing it up” a bit for the movie.

Many of the film’s other scenes are in this vein, making things a bit more serious than they would otherwise have been had the other Lord of the Rings films not existed. There is actually an excellent character moment between Bilbo and Bofur right before the orcs attack them in the cave, but it drives home one of the new themes of the movie: Everyone Needs a Place to Belong. The actors play it well...buuuuuuut it is not exactly Tolkien’s writing here. Same with the entire thing with Azog the Defiler, the Primary Antagonist of this film. There is a whole heaping helping of stuff here that’s dolloped on top of the Hobbit to give it some of the epic scope of the previous films. It’s not badly done, but it seems to be a bit of “trying too hard” to make Thorin into the dwarfiest of all dwarves...for actual reasons as opposed to being stereotyped. There’s a bit during a flashback to the fall of the Lonely Mountain where we learn why Thorin has a severe dislike of elves...which isn’t even in the book to begin with and sets up some antagonism between Thorin and the Wood Elf King in the next film...that doesn’t really NEED setting up. It just seems so...superfluous and a little off putting, making out the Wood Elf King to be “kind of a huge jerk”, way moreso than in the book. Hell, Thorin is totally an asshole to Elrond, when in the BOOK he’s a little standoffish, but otherwise seeks council and rests up for a good long time and they part as friends.

Most of the stuff they added in about the “rise of the Necromancer” and so forth isn’t bad. It’s just..rushed. In the book, the Necromancer is a “far away bad guy who’s been around for a long time” and the reason why Gandalf isn’t with the dwarves for everything after Beorn. This time? Radagast the Brown finds out he’s set up shop in an abandoned fortress and is fucking with Mirkwood. Sauruman dismisses the threat, but Galadriel and Elrond do not take it so lightly. These bits are interesting, but again they “serious up the story” because of how epic the OTHER films were. I know I harp on this a lot, but it really, really changes a LOT of the tone and theme of the story.

Ugh, let’s talk Radagast. I should fucking love this character to death. He’s played by Sylvester “I am the Seventh Doctor” McCoy, and does some interesting wizard shit in the name of healing an animal, has a rabbit drawn sledge, and is all around an eccentric character with some clever tricks, underestimated by his enemies and friends alike. But...he’s got shit all over his face. Radagast lets a couple of birds nest under his hat. The character design for this calls for a veritable RIVER of bird shit to run down one side of his head, face and into his beard. This bothers me on a very fundamental level and I could NOT get over it. In every scene he is in, I just could not stop thinking that he’s gotta bowl you over with his foul bird shit stink. No one EVER calls him out on it, even though it is RIGHT ALL OVER HIS FUCKING FACE and is TOTALLY DISGUSTING. Just awful and it made me hate this character so very much. There’s “eccentric old nature loving hermit wizard” and then there’s “crazy old homeless guy covered in shit.” This falls into the latter category.

On the other side of the spectrum, there is Gollum. GOLLUM. This may be the very best scene in the entire film, is when Bilbo meets Gollum. Andy Serkis nails this performance to the wall, and Gollum is absolutely terrifying. He straight up bludgeons an orc to death with a rock on screen! The dual personality from the other movies is played up a little less here, but is still an essential part of the character. This IS Gollum as he needs to be for this film, given the Gollum from the other films. It is brilliant and wonderful. The other CGI character I enjoyed was the Great Goblin, huge warty pustule covered goiter and all. Just a delightful character, and pretty much spot on from the book too.

The climax of the film is the “Fifteen Birds in Five Fir Trees” scene from the book, but it is VASTLY different from the book, as it is the climax of the film. Everyone heroes it up, though Gandalf’s role is slightly downplayed, and the eagles are shown to be more a tool of the wizard then as acting of their own accord. It’s still a pretty fun showdown and puts the movie in a good place to pick up the story in the next one. Bilbo gets to show why he’s the protagonist of the movie and everyone gets a small moment to shine, all ending on a very clever representation of the Carrock, with a lovely shot of the Lonely Mountain in the distance.

On a scale of five frowny faces to five smiley faces I give this a sold three smiley faces. It did not feel like a three hour movie to me and I enjoyed it very much. However, it is very, very different in a lot of ways from the book, and this may bother people. The main themes of the book are here, and there are some additional ones that add a bit of depth and scope, in keeping with the “movie universe” that the previous films created. Definitely NOT for small kids though. It is PG-13 for a reason.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Kotas Reviews FTL

Let's talk indie games today. For those of you who know my history, I don't play a ton of indie games. However, upon recommendation from an old friend picked up a game called FTL on Steam for $10. Did I waste my money? Read on to find out!

FTL was produced as a part of a Kickstarter. It is in fact one of the first successful Kickstarter projects to actually hit the market. It is a strategic space simulator, with elements of Rogue-like style games. What does Rogue-like mean? I'll get into that later. The premise of the game is that you are a crew of three who has discovered vital information for the Federation so that they can turn around their otherwise losing battle with the Rebellion. Who is the Rebellion and why do they fight against the Federation? Who knows, but trust me, they are the bad guys. This game is not heavy on story, though it does have a relatively interesting lore.

When you start, you get to pick your ship, customize your crew if desired, and set off on your epic journey through 8 sectors, trying to stay ahead of the Rebel Fleet and deliver your information to the Federation leaders. The graphics are...minimalist, as befits its Rogue-like origins. You can figure out what everything is, but this game would be right at home on an NES (except for the backgrounds, which are much nicer). Everything is shown from a top down perspective of the inside of your ship, which has the rooms laid out. You have stations for weapons, life support, medical, shields, engines, and piloting. If you have a drone system, you have a room with that in it. There are also subsystems: Sensors, Auto-Pilot, and oddly enough, Doors. Some of these systems can be manned for bonuses, though Piloting MUST be manned if you want your jump engine to work.

Sectors are made up of a number of randomly generated "jump points" that you move through by waiting for the "jump meter" to fill, and then pressing the Jump button. The meter only fills if your engines are not disabled and you have someone manning the Pilot station. When you jump, you get to pick which jump point you go to. Each jump point only connects to a number of nearby jump points. Some will be marked with things such as "Store" or "Distress Beacon", indicating the type of encounter you are likely to have there. If your sensors are high enough, you can sometimes see if a ship might be there too.

When you jump, you receive a text description of your random encounter. If it is a non- combat encounter, you may make a choice to do something, or elect to just jump to the next section. Sometimes your choices lead to positive things, like gaining a crew member or some supplies or Scrap (money). Other times you get negative things like a ship invasion or hull damage. You can also get a "mixed bag" result which gets you a good and a bad thing together.

If a ship is there, they may be friendly, neutral, or hostile. Friendly ships are like any other non-combat encounter. Neutral ships are usually mercenaries that you can ignore, hire, or attack. Hostile ships initiate combat. Combat is a real-time affair, though you can pause at any time to issue orders and evaluate the situation. Weapons start off uncharged, and once they are charged you aim them at the enemy ship. You can target individual systems on the other ship too, though the crew may attempt repairs. If your sensors are good enough, you can see the contents of the individual rooms of the other ship and not just what systems are where. Different weapons have different effects: missiles ignore shields, beams can hit multiple targets but are blocked by shields more easily, and lasers just hit hard. Some weapons cause fires when they hit. Fires are bad because they consume your oxygen and damage systems. If you run out of oxygen, your crew will die of asphyxiation. How do you put out fires? Well, either your crew can (not super effective, but easier to manage for small fires), or you can vent the room with the fire of oxygen. This can be harder to manage than you might think, but through a combination of good door controls and the pause button can be managed.

You can issue orders to your crew to man various stations, fend off boarding parties, put out fires, and repair damaged systems and hull. It sounds complicated, but it is more like "tell your guy where to go, and they will do what is needed", though they may take damage. You can heal your crew by sending them to medical, so long as the medical bay has some power. Power is a constant source of micromanagement, especially before your ship is upgraded. Your crew can be one of several races such as Human, Engi (friendly borg), Mantis (exactly what it says on the tin), Slugs (ditto), Rock Men (ditto), and so forth. Crew that are assigned to tasks get better at those tasks and learn skill ranks if they do things enough, so they will eventually specialize if you keep using the same people for the same things.

Your ship can be equipped with weapons such as ion cannons, missiles, and lasers, along with semi-autonomous drones that mostly attack, but can also do things like repair the hull or systems, or defend against enemy missiles. The rest of the ship can be upgraded too, and is mostly a two step process. The reactor determines how many bars of power you have to distribute, and your level in all your systems (but not subsystems, which require no power) determines how many bars of power you can assign to a particular system. So you might have 10 bars of power to distribute, but you could only put 3 into weapons if you haven't upgraded that system. Lastly, you can install equipment which does things like "pre-charge the weapons for a fight", "heal crew throughout the ship a little bit if medical is online" and my personal favorite "recover drones if you jump after winning a fight", which saves a lot in parts.

Upgrading the ship is accomplished by spending the money of the game, Scrap. You gain scrap via random events or after fights. You can spend it to upgrade your ship, or to buy weapons, drone schematics, hire crew, or supplies like missiles, drone parts, and fuel. Oh yeah, did I forget to mention you have a limited fuel supply for your engines and a jump consumes one fuel? I probably did. Anyway, you have full control over what systems get upgraded, but you are at the mercy of the Random Number Generator (RNG) as to what weapons you will get or have available for purchase.

You can name your ship and your crew, as well as select the gender of any human crew. I recommend not bothering. Why? This game is a Rogue-like and that means a few things. First, no save/reload. You get one save game, period, so while you can resume a game if you stop playing, you cannot reload a previous save ever. Second, perma-death. That's right, if you die, you die. And trust me, you WILL die. A Lot. "But Will, this sounds pretty harsh!" Yes, yes it does. It is okay though because whole games can be played in about an hour or so, and you can unlock new things even if you don't win the game. My first game ended terribly in Sector 4 when I forgot to close the outer vents to the ship and my crew choked to death on my incompetence. The next game, I got a little farther. In fact, I haven't ever beaten the game, though I've seen most everything it has to offer. It has two difficulty modes labeled Easy and Normal. These labels are lies. The actual difficulties are You're Gonna Die and Fuck You. A lot of the difficulty comes from the random nature of the game. I cruised through one game all the way to Sector 8 without any real issues...only to find I hadn't upgraded my ship NEARLY enough to take on the final set of encounters. Other times you'll get jumped in Sector 3 by a pirate ship during a solar flare and both of you will roast to death.

I really, really enjoy this game. The random nature of it means you never know exactly what you are going to get on a playthrough, and the fact that a full game is fairly quick means it is easy to pick up and put down. There is a mildly steep learning curve, but the in game tutorial gives you the basic controls while the deeper strategies will emerge as you try different things. There are a ton of things to unlock (new ships and layouts, several tiers of achievements) that keep things interesting even if you haven't beaten the game. The gameplay is unique and entertaining, reminding me a LOT of some of the other "ship simulators" I played years ago (like Star Trek: Starfleet Captain or Command or something like that), in a compact package. The story is...well, nigh non-existent, but that is okay because this is not a very deep game. What will hook you is the gameplay and the thrill of discovering new encounters you've not seen or choosing alternate paths on different play throughs.

Overall, this is a fun game that was well worth the $10 I spent on it. On a scale of 5 frowny faces to 5 smiley faces, I give it a solid 2 smiley faces. It is a great casual game, but it has a lot of gameplay depth to keep you coming back for more. The story is a bit thin and the graphics are modest at best, but I had a great time with it.