Monday, June 30, 2008

Boned in the Dark - game review

Alone in the Dark 5 teaser-trailers have been all over YouTube of late, and most of them looked extremely promising. Sadly, the PS2 (and Wii) version of this title was handled by a different company - Hydravision, and the reworked result is, if you'll pardon the pun, a shadow of its former self. While fans have hardly reached any kind of consensus regarding the quality of the X-Box version, citing sluggish controls, baffling plotline and a pair of abrupt, disappointing endings; the old-gen port is, without question, just plain awful.

In a Playstatic interview, Lead Designer Lionel Fumery (Hydravision is a French company, responsible for the recent and pointless Obscure sequel) is quoted as saying
“while there’ll be slightly less of the park to explore, your enemies possess a slightly less razor-sharp intelligence and the physics effects will have slightly less 'oomph.'

I don't know offhand the French word for understatement, so I'm gonna go ahead and call merde on this one. Visually, the differences can be summed up thusly:

360 screencap on left, my screen on the right..

The game has no boss-battles to speak of, no truly challenging puzzles, and is linear to the point of hand-holding. The "zombies" are a complete joke; rendered as neither frightening nor threatening, they serve merely as background furniture you can mow down with your car or shoot with your pistol. The inventory is woefully incomplete; not only are the new features such as customization absent, the items you collect don't even have ID screens. One item - a cellphone - seems designed to establish contact with other characters in the game during key events, but every bloody time I dialed a number I got the same "circuits are busy, try again later" message. So what was the point? Not that any of these characters were really worth talking to, as there was an awful lot of strong profanity being spouted for no discernable reason.

What I loved about the previous installment, "AitD 4, A New Nightmare", was the utterly charming locale - Shadow Island. It's one of my top three gaming environments of all time. It had a mansion complete with an astonishing multi-tiered library, an observatory, a zombie-infested swamp, rain-swept ruins, ancient Indian burial sites, and a huge trippy underground netherworld to explore.

The premise of hell-beings invading our plane of existence during blackouts - only to be fought back with light-based weapons worked very well. From a powerful photon-gun to a lowly flashlight, the number of clever ways to dispatch your photo-phobic enemies was limitless. In this new adventure, in which Shadow Island is replaced by Central Park, your flashlight does exactly dick.

Though I knew the PS2 port had to cut back on some scenes and levels, resulting in a shorter playtime, I had no idea the end would come as quickly as it did. One minute I was bashing down a wall to collect some gemstone that was apparently going to help me face off against my enemies, and the next thing I knew, I was watching the last cut-scene of the game. No big fight, no plot resolution, nowhere to try out all those molotov cocktails I'd saved up...just a short FMV basically telling me all my efforts were in vain. End of world, end of game.

As for replay value? None. Zip. The game didn't even give me a final save option after the interminable credit sequence. Since I didn't skip any levels, why in hell would I start a new game all over again without so much as a change of costume?

Colour me disappointed. Not bitterly so, as I will eventually fork over the bucks for a console that can play the top-notch Eden Games version, as well as the upcoming Resident Evil 5. But just because my trusty old PS2 doesn't have the power to handle the much-hyped unscripted flame effects, doesn't mean it deserves to be put out to pasture quite yet. Especially not after playing such a sour final note.

X-Box game cover v.s. Playstation game cover.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Big Trouble in Little Britain

When Stacie Ponder at Final Girl offered her readers a choice for the next Film Club selection, I jumped at the chance to partake in that uniquely American institution they call democracy. Being Canadian, however, I botched it magnificently. "Schizo" was my first pick, and when that horse started coming up lame I panicked at the prospect of potential minority status and changed my vote. After the polls closed and the ballots were tallied, the winner was...Lifeforce! Hooray, my guy won! I was finally among the political elite!

As I busied myself affixing my "Food of the Gods lost, GET OVER IT" bumper stickers, however, it occured to me that the movie I thought I was voting for whilst pulling that virtual lever was actually an entirely different movie from the one rattling around in my election-addled brain. You see, Lifeforce is a 1985 vampire shocker from Tobe Hooper, whereas I was thinking of John Carpenter's 1988 aliens-among-us paranoid opus They Live.

Oops. Oh well. I suppose, like Waldo-spotting and parallel parking, democracy doesn't come as naturally to some as it does to others. I resolved to watch the movie anyway, having not actually seen it, and having absolutely nothing better to do.

The first section of the film is familiar territory for Dan O'Bannon, as he riffs on his own "Alien" script by placing his star, Steve Railsback (Helter Skelter, Ed Gein) aboard a spacecraft which has gone off-mission to investigate an alien ship.

They find the dessicated corpse of a gargoyle-like beast and a trio of nude humanoid aliens apparently in stasis.

After the decision is made to carry the their discoveries back to their own ship (The Churchill), a title card informs us that Some Time Has Passed.

A team of astronauts (piloting the ill-fated shuttle "Columbia" no less) are sent to dock with the silent and drifting "Churchill" to investigate. They find the fire-blackened interior wrecked, the crew dead, and the escape pod jettisoned. I would have blamed droids at this point, except that not all of the unlucky astronauts are accounted for. The three capsules containing the naked sleepers, however, are discovered undamaged and returned via the shuttle to Earth.

These sequences are rather impressive, by the way, and the visual effects and modelwork overall look great.

The next bit of the movie introduces us to various British actors (the remainder of the film is set in London) and stuntpeople (Tip Tipping, Stuart Fell), most of whom have appeared in at least one episode of Doctor Who. It's really sad how I know this.

Anyhow, the femalien vampire escapes her confinement and promptly sucks the "lifeforce" out of anyone she and her monumental bosoms encounter.
Beware the vampire's shadow-puppies!

Get used to these. You'll be seeing a lot more of 'em.

The two (less aggressively naked) male aliens also awaken, but are quickly blown to bits by a couple of hastily-thrown grenades. Since it's the lady vamp who's running the show, it's a pretty moot sequence.
The guy on the right is Mick Jagger's brother Chris, and the other guy once played a Cyberman. Seriously not kidding.

Next we meet Peter Firth's character, a refreshingly intelligent and perspicacious military type who begins conducting an emergency manhunt for the escaped soul-sucking crumpet. When her victims begin spontaneously re-animating, we learn that the vampires' curse is dangerously contagious.
Winehouse - Live at Leeds. Kidding!

Actually, it's more of an excuse to show off the level of animatronic sophistication those effects wizards had back in the pre-CG days. Nice for its time, but probably too hokey for most modern audiences, especially considering the female corpse looks suspiciously like the bisected zombie from O'Bannon's "Return of the Living Dead".

Steve Railsback's escape pod is recovered in Texas, and after a quick shave, he returns to London to assist in the investigation. Once hypnotized, he establishes a psychic link with the body-hopping harlot, which proves invaluable in causing Patrick Stewart (yes, that one) to holler dramatically, in that inimitable way only British actors can.

And then they kiss.
Yeah, just go with it.

Aboard a military helicoptor, Railsback confesses he was the one who torched his ship in order to prevent the aliens from reaching Earth. Suddenly, a message from the research lab confirms that the creatures are indeed vampires, and can be destroyed with whatever elaborate, lead-shafted, medieval weapons one has handy. Good to know!

Picard and another drugged passenger choose this exact moment to get airsick.

It's quite gross, actually.

We're talking Tubgirl gross.

Peter Firth gags accordingly.

London erupts into chaos as the vampire spaceship enters Earth's orbit. Not even doubledecker buses plastered with giant gin adverts can escape the carnage...

Alien ship with brolly attachment at full extension.

Deftly evading (or just plowing through) the hordes of clamoring zombies, Firth hotfoots it back to the lab to grab the sword-of-swords while Railsback "homes in" on Chesty McBreastie's location - St Paul's. Not without a sense of irony, these space-vampires.

Firth, sword in one hand, pistol in the other, heads to the famed Cathedral for a little payback. Only one man can stop him...
And his name is Rick Astley. Ok, no, it's the remaining male vampire, who is quickly dispatched.
Bleargh! Pierced by the Sword of Convenience!

Firth enters the church, and is nearly blinded for his troubles:

After some extended canoodling, finally the hand-off. The sword is thrust, and the lovers are dust.
Or...are they?

Wow. I totally want to watch that again. It was goofy, quotable, batshit crazy, gory, and somehow still very, very British.

Regarding the title of this post - I'm reminded again of John Carpenter. His career started out with "Halloween", an independent horror flick that rocketed him onto Hollywood's radar, very much the way "Texas Chainsaw" worked for Tobe Hooper. A few years later, buoyed by bigger budgets and industry clout, Carpenter made "Big Trouble in Little China", a wild, perhaps undisciplined vanity project that baffled critics and many moviegoers at the time. And yet honestly? It was, and still remains, an awful lot of fun.

I'm not proposing that "Lifeforce" is on par with BTiLC, nor even half as good, but isn't it at least analogous in the sense of sheer unrestrained, joyful abandon? And if this is, indeed, Tobe Hooper's cinematic "grand folly", then why not enjoy it for exactly the same reasons?

I sure did.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Guess I'm just fussy that way...

The Doctor Who novelizations of yore, published by Target Books - imprint of the popular BBC television series - were a collector's delight. Each was issued haphazardly in relation not only to the serial's broadcast order, but to the various incarnations of the Doctor himself. Often current releases were interspersed among classic sixties adaptations; one never knew which of the four Doctors' adventures you would be introduced to next, and this uncertainty was easily half the fun for eager fans.

For the better part of the seventies, I scoured the shelves of bookshops for the latest Who novels. The staff of Coles and WH Smith pretty much knew me by sight, if not by name. The thrill I felt stalking those titles during trips to Sherway Gardens and the Eaton Centre was something I'm not likely to ever experience again.

My interest in Who waned dramatically during the vast interregnum between televised broadcasts of seasons sixteen and seventeen. The last book in my stalled collection would be "The Horns of Nimon", and it would be two years before I got the chance to see this serial (or indeed anything from that disappointing season) for myself.

The final insult, however, was the logo change. The neon-style title configuration was crude, tacky, and quite simply ruined the books for me. While still entirely of the Target line, and bearing the same roster of familiar authors like Terrance Dicks and Ian Marter, they seemed utterly foreign and unworthy of inclusion. I suppose my nascent obsessive-compulsive tendencies were partly to blame, but the way I hurried past these sullied treasures while browsing in comic shops was very much akin to the manner in which Pee-wee Herman avoids the snake terrariums during the pet-store fire at the end of his Big Adventure.

While my collection of (homogeneously logotyped) Who books was eventually boxed up and moved to storage, those Target titles kept a-comin', and I just kept ignoring them. Finally, novelizations ceased with the demise of the Target division in 1991.

Looking back, I've come to regret my fastidious purism. These books are damned hard to come by now. However, thanks to the wonders of today's technology, I can at least see what I was missing. To wit: On Target (The Changing Face of Doctor Who) is a lovely tribute site and exhaustive archive for Who book collectors.

And just for the sake of pretendsies, I'm going to show you some of my "What If" covers, and some of my "improved-artwork" covers using the magic of Photoshop. (Forgive the artistic licence, and all apologies to you neon-logo-loving freaks out there.)

Here we have "An Unearthly Child", the first Who serial ever broadcast, novelized in '81 (missed it by that much), and spoiled by the pointless red banner and the hateful neon logo.

And here's the book I wish it could have been. The denim colour works very well, I think. Sets off Andrew Skilleter's Tardis rendition nicely.

Below is one of two non-Target novelizations from Virgin publishing, with a decent cover by Alister Pearson. Oh, but that Sylvester McCoy-era logo will never do...

While not an artistic improvement, it's hopefully an aesthetic one.

Next we have John Geary's terrific Axos cover, but with a minor error. He's coloured the tentacled Axons green instead of reddish-orange.

An honest mistake, as those costumes were re-used in "Seeds of Doom" and painted green. He was probably given the wrong snaps to use as a source. Here's a corrected version.

Speaking of "Seeds of Doom", here's Chris Achilleos' cover for that book. He's got Tom Baker nailed, but Liz Sladen frankly looks...a little odd and out of place. (Look at the positioning of her feet!)

So, as much as it pains me to take Sarah out of any equation, here's the re-do (with an attempt at a colourized Doctor).

Another one that doesn't quite work is "Brain of Morbius". This is the serial that took the Gothic themes that the show was exploring to new heights. Decapitations, organ transplants, castles, witches, disembodied brains and patchwork monsters were all featured in this story. Sarah even goes blind for a bit, while the Doctor is rude and belligerent throughout most of the proceedings. So why is this man smiling?

Ah, that's better. That's Alister Pearson's Tom Baker from the "Pyramids of Mars" reprint, replacing Mike Little's grinning scarf-attack victim.

"Planet of Evil" is next. It's another gothic thriller, though possibly more Lovecraftian than Hammer-inspired. The cover, to a degree, is a bit laughable.

Goodbye, anti-matter wolfman.

Probably my least favorite of all the covers was John Geary's "Image of the Fendahl". The figures aren't bad, but the background looks rushed and incomplete.

Don't know if this would pass muster with WH Allen's art department, but I think it's at least an incremental improvement.

By the way, I agree with the fans who felt that going from hand-drawn art to photographic covers (as they did during the Davison era) was a bad idea.

Of course, many of the painted works produced, such as Alun Hood's superb Nestine creature from the "Terror of the Autons", Roy Knipe's 3-D Sontaran on the "Time Warrior" cover, and Jeff Cummins' full-cover treatment for Leela on "The Face of Evil" were realistic enough to pass for photographs. Or very nearly.

Here's a Cummins cover with a more flattering background colour. I always hated the original's sky-blue, for some reason.

As some of you know, not all the classic serials have been novelized. "Shada" was the famous serial scuttled by a BBC strike, a couple of the later Dalek stories were never tackled because of licensing issues. Douglas Adams was intending to adapt his "City of Death" and "Pirate Planet" scripts, but sadly never got around to it. Unofficial fan novelizations of these in-limbo properties have cropped up, but since this post is nothing if not an exercise in fantasy...

We miss you, D.A.

If you're wondering if there is a practical point to any of this, I can't say. Perhaps if I had a laser-printer, I could theoretically reproduce some of these "re-imagined" covers onto the appropriate glossy one-sided card stock, and then...I don't know, tear off the old book covers and possibly find a way to glue the new ones on without ending up with a sticky pile of worthless pages of ruined memorabilia.

What do you think, Pee-wee?

Perhaps not.