Saturday, July 13, 2013

Kotas Reviews Pacific Rim

Science fiction is experiencing a minor resurgence at the box office. There have been a fair number of new original intellectual properties emerge on the scene this year: After Earth, Oblivion, the upcoming Elysium, and today’s subject: Pacific Rim. What is Pacific Rim? Well, Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Planet Terror) really, REALLY wanted to make an old fashioned kaiju movie in homage to the kaiju films of his youth that inspired him to make movies. What is a kaiju film? Ever watch a cheesy Godzilla movie? Yeah, that’s the stuff. Giant monsters brawling it out in Tokyo, occasionally with human intervention. That’s kaiju, in a nutshell. So, how does Pacific Rim stack up? Let’s find out! Warning: I will be giving out tons o’ the spoilers. Scroll to the bottom for the TL;DR version and FACE rating.

The opening sequence sets up the basic plotline for this movie: At some point in the near future, giant monsters named kaiju (Japanese for “Giant Monster”) start appearing from a portal under the sea to menace humanity. In order to combat these creatures more effectively, humanity has developed equally large and impressive giant robots named Jaegers (German for “Hunter”). With the Jaegers, humanity is able to curb the attacks, and the Jaegers become the equivalent of rock stars, movie stars, and sports stars. Jaegers, for “reasons”, require two pilots to synchronize and share memories. Why giant robots? Why two pilots? Why not just “lots of big ass guns on ships, planes and tanks? Shit son, what kind of movie you think this is? Now sit your ass back down and pay attention.

Enter our hero, Raleigh, and his older brother OhSoFuckingDead. They are the pilots of the Jaeger named “Gypsy Danger”, who is voiced by GLaDOS. Yes, I am serious. The two brothers are some of the best, but are known for going outside of orders if the situation demands it. Also for being good at fighting. A kaiju named “Knifehead” appears, and these two go out in Gypsy Danger to meet it, to some really kick ass theme music. There is a fight. It is god damn amazing. Our hero and his brother appear to win, but in a surprise to exactly no one except the characters in the film, the kaiju is “not quite dead” and in the ensuing rematch DeadMeat is killed, but Raleigh manages to not only finish the fight but also to walk his ass back to shore solo. This kind of fucks him up.

5 years later Idris Alba (yeah, he has a name, but you don’t care it’s fucking IDRIS ALBA), the commander of the Jaeger program is being chewed out by the Council of Vaguely Different National Leaders. Seems that the kaiju are coming faster and furiouser, and the Jaegers are taking a beating. Clearly, the solution here is to shut down the program and build a big fucking wall, the poorly named “Wall of LIfe”. He’s given 8 months to fix shit in Hong Kong, and then he’s done.

Raleigh is working on the Wall of LIfe, when news comes of a kaiju attack in Sydney, Austrailia which a) busts through their edition of the Wall of Life and b) is effortlessly stopped by the Jaeger “Striker Eureka”. Uh, neat? Alba shows up to pick up Raleigh and gather the remaining Jaegers and their crews. This is done. We meet the Japanese girl from the trailer. Her name is Mako. Because of course it is. She might have a tragic past where her family is killed by giant monsters and now she has trained all her life to get revenge. We meet the quirky scientist crazy guy, his very British Odd Couple counterpart scientist, and Ice Man, from Top Gun, as an Australian. Also, his dad. Why? They FIGHT CRIME, er, MONSTERS as the pilots of Striker Eureka. There are two other Jaegers: The Giant Russian One and the Chinese One. They have crews. That’s pretty much the end of their characterization, but damn do they look bad ass.

British Scientist predicts that a) the monsters will show up faster and b) they will start coming two at a time, and then three. Gypsy Danger is refitted with stuff, including a second nuclear core. Because one is just not enough. There are tryouts for the co-pilot position. Make wins, Flawless Victory. Crazy Scientist figures out how to neural link with a kaiju’s brain fragment. It goes...surprisingly well, but as expected for these types of films. He is shuffled off to the B Plot, which involves going into Hong Kong and tracking down a dealer in “kaiju parts”, which is apparently a thing. Long story short, he runs into Fucking Ron Perlman, who chews the scenery and steals every scene he’s in. He is awesome.

During the test run for Gypsy Danger, there is a nice GLaDOS reference mixed into a scene where Mako gets lost in her memories and starts re-living the monster attack that inspired her to be a pilot. She might also have accidentally turned on Gypsy Danger’s GIANT GODDAMN PLASMA CANNON. Raleigh talks her down, but she and Maverick, er Raleigh are now grounded until further notice. Also, Idris Alba is Mako’s adopted father. He also piloted one of the early Jaegers. This has apparently given him cancer or something, because getting into a Jaeger again will absolutely kill him. Everyone got that? Good. Anyway, his current plan is to strap a nuclear bomb to Striker Eureka, have the other Jaegers run interference, and shove it through the portal to Kaiju World while it is stabilized to let in multiple kaiju. Where did they get the bomb? The Russians can get anything. TruFax.

Two kaiju show up, looking for Crazy Guy because “neural links are two way”. Three of the four Jaegers are dispatched to deal with them. After putting up a showy fight, the Russian Jaeger and the Chinese Jaeger are destroyed in various unexpected ways, as the kaiju are considerably bigger than any before and also especially well equipped to deal with Jaegers, targeting the cockpits and spitting acid at them. When Striker Eureka joins the fray, one of the beasties pops out an EMP gland and shuts the whole mess down. Gypsy Danger, by virtue of being “nuclear” and “analog” (say WHAT?) is still operational, so it is sent out. Australian Ice Man and his dad, in their now crippled Jaeger, decide to do something really stupid to keep the monsters’ attention on them for as long as possible: they get out of their robot and shoot them with flare guns.

Suddenly, a New Challenger Appears! Gypsy Danger shows up and there is a fight scene. It is goddamn amazing. EMP Beast is wrecked, and Acid Beast gets smacked around with a battleship. Acid Beast has enough of that shit, grows wings, and flies our hero into the sky. That’s when Make turns on the sword. That’s right! It has a sword, and they cut that motherfucker in half. Ultimately, everyone survives. Except the Russians and the Chinese. Poor bastards.

Crazy Scientist and Fucking Ron Perlman are out to harvest the brain of Acid Beast. It’s damaged, but turns out Acid Beast was a MILTRSITF. A Mom I’d Like To Run Screaming In Terror From. Acid Beast Baby emerges, and it’s gross. It dies because it’s not developed enough. Fucking Ron Perlman stabs it in the face. Then it eats him, and dies again. Crazy Scientist and British Scientist are gonna neural link with the brain of Acid Beast Baby. Why will this work? Kaiju apparently have a “hive mind”. While they set this up, the two remaining Jaegers are going to travel to the portal with the nuke. However, in an astounding twist, Idris Alba has to take over for Australian Ice Man’s dad, who was injured in the previous fight. He gives a rousing speech too.

The two Jaegers walk to where the portal is. They meet up with 2 kaiju. There is a fight scene that is pretty cool. Uh oh, Striker encounters a 3rd kaiju, this one bigger than any they’ve ever seen by a large margin. Gypsy Danger is assaulted by a kaiju, and heavily damaged in the fight. The other two converge on Striker Eureka. Since Gypsy Danger is “nuclear”, Idris Alba tells Make that she’s great and then, with Australian Ice Man’s consent, they blow the nuke, taking out the two kaiju and allowing Gypsy Danger to throw itself into the portal to blow up. Crazy Guy and British Guy inform them that the portal will open only for kaiju, so they are gonna use a carcass to fool it. But oh shit, ROUND 2 MOTHERFUCKER. Here comes Mega Kaiju! Gypsy Danger tackles it into the portal, burns it to death, and then explodes in Kaiju World after the pilots eject. It looks like Raleigh isn’t going to make it, but then he does. The End! Oh wait, Fucking Ron Perlman! The Really For True End!

This film is an unabashed love letter to giant robot anime and the kaiju films of old. The story is simple, but told very effectively. The tone throughout the film is maintained, and all the proper beats are hit to move the story along. There is nothing truly unexpected about this film (with the exception of pretty much anything to do with Fucking Ron Perlman), but it is told well. The characters are archetypal in just about every way. If you have seen any giant robot anime, they are all there: the Grizzled Commander, the Young Hotshot out for Revenge, The Arrogant Yet Skilled Rival, The Hero with the Tragic Backstory, the Comic Relief. However it is done in a way that says “inspired by” rather than “completely ripped off from”. All the standard tropes are here, but it is okay because it knows what kind of film it is and never strays from that message: If we all work together, we can make GIANT FUCKING ROBOTS to fight HUGE FREAKY MONSTERS and save the world.

The visuals are simply astounding. The soundtrack is bad ass. The comedy is not completely odious, and even actually amusing. Fucking Ron Perlman. For the anime fan, there are a few nice callbacks. One of the “cameo’ed” Jaeger designs resembles one of the robots from Neon Genesis Evangelion (Unit 02 in D-Type equipment). One of Gypsy Danger’s weapons is the “Rocket Elbow”, which is an homage both to the “ROCKET PUNCH” of several Super Robot shows and to the series Big O. The kaiju themselves have a fairly consistent yet unique look about them, with blue glowy bits that resemble the glow that Godzilla would often have, and thus remember their roots.

Overall, for me, Pacific Rim hits all the right notes in a super summer blockbuster about giant robots fighting giant monsters. On a scale of 5 frowny faces to 5 smiley faces, I give it 3 smileys. If I were not such a huge anime or giant robot fan, I might knock off a smiley. It ain’t high cinema, but I knows what I likes.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Kotas Reviews Magic the Gathering 2014 Duel of the Planeswalkers

Steam is both Best Thing Ever and Evil Incarnate. The convenience and ease at which I am able to buy games is great and terrible in equal measure. So a few weeks ago I noticed a buddy of mine had pre-ordered "Magic: The Gathering 2014 Duel of the Planeswalkers" for $10. Intrigued, I plunked down my money and pre-ordered it myself. It was released on June 26th, and I've been playing it off and on since then. This is my review.

Back in my ill-spent youth I was a pretty big fan of Magic: The Gathering, though I was never a "serious player" by any standards. I bought them regularly for a number of years, played in a few local tournaments, and stopped really playing shortly after Visions was released. I still have a large box full of them, and I played the heck out of the old Microprose computer game. Could I recapture the fun of my youth in a $10 video game? I decided to find out.

This game is clearly a piece of "promotional" software. Give the people a taste of what the game is like for a small sum of cash in the hopes that they will seek out "the real deal" and become steady customers of the crack that you are dealing. That said, it's a pretty slick piece of software. The game is a "no frills" sort of affair with a fairly intuitive interface. The game revolves around pre-packaged decks and unlocking cards to tweak them with through gameplay or with a microtransaction. You start off with one deck to play with, and unlock more through the single player campaign, as well as unlocking up to 30 cards within a specific deck. Because I pre-ordered through Steam, one deck (a mono-red speed deck called Firewave) came fully unlocked...though it is the first deck you unlock after the tutorial. Having all 30 "unlockable" cards already unlocked was nice for tweaking.

The Single Player campaign is a modicum of story bolted onto a series of fixed "encounters" with AI opponents. The campaign is divided into 5 Planes with 4 encounters each: 3 plane-themed encounters and a planeswalker encounter at the end. Winning an encounter unlocks a card from the deck you used to win (if any are left to unlock) and beating a planeswalker encounter unlocks that specific deck for use in future play. There are also some general Planeswalkers you can choose to fight for more deck unlocks. Other single player modes include Free-For-All, with up to 3 AI opponents and Two-Headed Giant, where you and an AI partner battle an opposing AI team. Winning here will unlock a card from a deck.

Multiplayer has the Free-For-All and Two-Headed Giant modes, along with a "Quick Match" randomized game from the waiting queue. You can host private games and invite-only games, or host/join public matches. There may be some sort of Tournament play available but I have not poked around too much in the multiplayer yet.

The "hot new feature" for this year's edition is Sealed Deck Play. The way this works is as follows: You open 6 virtual packs of cards and assemble the best deck you can from them. If you really hate the cards you get, tough, though you are given two "slots" with new cards in each slot. More slots are purchasable via micro-transactions. With your Sealed Decks, you can go through a single player campaign of 6 encounters to unlock up to 3 more virtual packs, play random AI matches, or take on others in multiplayer matches against their deck slots. Slots cannot be "reset" to get a new batch of cards.

The interface is pretty clean and easy to understand, though the timing for certain things (like creature abilities) takes some getting used to. The tutorial section does a pretty good job of teaching you how the game works, especially for us veteran players who might not be up on the current rules. Card animations are minimalistic, but the card images are crisp and easy to read (at least when zoomed in), though you might have to adjust the resolution from the defaults.

The Sealed Deck feature is generating a lot of "Pay to Win" complaints given that the only way to "redraw" cards beyond your 2 slots is to pay for additional slots and hope you get a "godly" set. There has been clamor (on the forums at least) to allow "slot resets. I think it's fine, given you pay $10 for the whole game, which is less than a single Sealed Deck tourney buy in. If you want to play computer Magic with a full range of deck building options and "true" Sealed Deck rerolls, well, I will point you to Magic: Online, which is the virtual equivalent of the physical card game.

On a scale of 5 frowny faces to 5 smiley faces this game gets a solid two smiley faces. It's a perfect game for the casual Magic fan, and while it would be nice to have full deck customization, the ability to jump in and play quickly is a boon to time-strapped people like myself. For $10, it's a great value. If you like Magic: The Gathering.