Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Continuum: Pilot - A Review

Showcase has been putting out really good shows lately. First there's Lost Girl, a supernatural crime drama about a succubus who takes a job as a private detective solving unusual crimes while investigating her own mysterious past. It's basically Joss Whedon's Angel, but it has its own unique flavor and an interesting universe to work with, putting a modern spin on mythological creatures akin to The Dresden Files. Next they released XIII: The Series, an adaptation of the French comic about an amnesiac spy who has to uncover a massive conspiracy (no, it's not The Bourne Identity). Good acting and great action choreography, with a developing plot that keeps you invested. Really looking forward to that second season...

I first learned about Continuum from the side of a bus, and that was as good a recommendation as I needed to check it out. The year is 2077, and after the world's governments went bankrupt in a massive financial crisis, private corporations have taken the reins of society. The result is a futuristic utopia of holographics and chrome (think Perfect Dark, or Shadowrun), but crime is still an issue. This is the responsibility of Vancouver City Protective Services, and our protagonist Kiera Cameron, played by Rachel Nichols. You might remember her as Tamara from the recent Conan remake, or Scarlett from GI Joe, or...

You better put her in the sequel, J. J. Abrams...
...yeah, she's been "the hot girl" in a lot of her films, but as the lead actress of this series, she gets to flex more of her acting talent than her previous roles allowed. Kiera's a dedicated officer, wife and mother, and we get plenty of chances to see her kick ass throughout the pilot while she comes to terms with her new situation and the loss of her family.

Apparently the change from government rule to corporate ownership came with a loss of individual rights, which means the loss of free speech, right to peaceful assembly, and the rest of the contents of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms we learned about in high school and promptly forgot. A group of terrorists known as Liber8 (because there are eight of them, and they want to liberate, get it?) blow up a bunch of corporate office buildings in order to assassinate the CEOs and board members of said corporations. To me, this seems like a really inefficient assassination plan, since the collateral damage of 30,000 deaths to kill 20 people is not likely to get popular opinion on your side. But despite this, I do appreciate making the dividing issue more morally ambiguous, so we can see both sides. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, and it's easier to see that when you're the one without freedom. I would even be inclined to favor such a view, if it wasn't for the aforementioned bombings and murders.

As the members of Liber8 are about to be publicly executed for their crimes, they stage an escape. Using some presently undefined piece of technology, they create a focused energy burst that sends them back in time to present day Vancouver, appearing in the middle of downtown along with Kiera, who was standing near the prisoners and had been caught up in the burst. Trapped in the past without backup, it is now up to her to capture the prisoners and prevent them from altering the future. Wait, this sounds familiar...

 It's surprisingly similar.

Filmed locally, it actually takes place in Vancouver as opposed to standing in for Seattle or other Midwestern cities as it often does. Rachel Nichols shares the screen with several other noteworthy local actors you will probably recognize. Erik Knudsen (Saw II, Scream 4) plays Alec Sadler, a young tech whiz who invented the technology used by Kiera in the future, and thus is able to provide her with tech support; the voice in her ear, as it were. She also has an ally on the police force in Detective Carlos Fonnegra, played by Victor Webster (Mutant X). The fugitive terrorists include Roger Cross (First Wave, 24) and Lexa Doig (Andromeda, Stargate SG1), who will likely gain prominence in later episodes. Also keep an eye out from William B. Davis of X-Files fame in a cameo that raises several interesting questions for later.

The pilot showcases plenty of special effects gems, with special focus on Kiera herself. Her shiny gold jumpsuit (fanservice ahoy!) serves multiple functions, as we see it giving her optical camouflage abilities, absorbing bullet impacts, and generating electric charges to stun enemies. Her body is also implanted with a kind of neural recorder, allowing her to playback anything she's seen and heard for later review, giving her literal photographic memory. Pilot episodes tend to have bigger budgets than the rest of the series in order to draw audiences in, so it's likely that we won't be seeing as much of this sort of thing later on, but it's still cool.

Ratings were quite high for the first episode, but shows like this need to be able to maintain consistent viewership in order to convince executives to sign on for more than one season. There's a lot of room for development with this one, given the possibilities inherent with a time travel story (altered futures, multiple timelines, and so on). Some of you might remember The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which was cancelled at the end of it's second season right when things were starting to get interesting (watch it if you haven't, it's awesome). So I strongly recommend that you check out Continuum. You can watch the pilot and learn more about the show at and catch the next episode Sunday at 9pm, ET/DT.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Max Payne 3 - A Review

The first time I ever played Max Payne, it was as a store demo on one of the computers at Future Shop in Metrotown. I spent roughly 20 minutes glued to that PC until one of the staff finally pried me off. It blew my 13 year old mind when I first hit that Shootdodge button, time slowed to a crawl as I dove through the air, watching bullets whiz by and firing back dozens of my own. Every sniper rifle bullet fired was tracked by the camera as it left the barrel and rocketed into a bad guy's crotch (I was aiming for his head...) and when the final opponent went down, the camera spun around them in all 360 degrees as the final bullets hit home.

Not only was it absolutely kick ass from a technical perspective, it featured a gritty film-noir story of a man at his most desperate, facing insurmountable odds with nothing to lose. Though the course of the game, his wife and daughter are killed, he is framed for his partner's murder, hunted by the police, the mob, and the shadowy corporate forces determined to protect their secrets. Everybody lies, everybody dies, and Max is the last man standing.

Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne was very similar to its predecessor, with slight enhancements. Max now has the ability to stay prone after a dodge to continue shooting, and Bullet-Time 2.0 enabled him to reload faster to keep the action fast-paced. Max's character also faced more development with the re-introduction of Mona Sax, an assassin from the first game who develops a relationship with him, complicated by the fact that he is investigating a murder in which she is the prime suspect, and she's been given orders to kill him.

You might be asking yourself why I'm going to the effort of describing the first two games in the series, since this is a review of Max Payne 3 and not a series analysis. Well, early previews of the game had fans worried that it would be a radical departure from what made the games great. Max is no longer running around New York City in the dead of night in a black leather coat shooting mobsters, he's now a fat bald guy in an ugly shirt shooting gangbangers in broad daylight in South America.

So the big question: Does Max Payne 3 live up to the legacy of the series? For the most part, yes.

Let's address the story first. Eight years after the second game, and Max has been fired from the NYPD, drinking every night and addicted to painkillers (layers of irony!). An old friend from his academy days comes along and offers him a job with a private security firm, protecting a wealthy businessman in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Seeing it as a chance at a fresh start (and having recently killed the son of a local crime lord, making him the most wanted man in New Jersey), Max takes the job protecting Rodrigo Branco and his family. When Branco's wife is abducted for ransom, Max and his partner set off to save her, and in the process he uncovers multiple hidden agendas and a deadly conspiracy. In an effort to avoid spoilers, that's as far as I'll go, but for all its intrigue and drama, there are a few issues I have with the story of Max Payne 3. Firstly, the story lacks the personal significance for Max that the first two games did. In the first two games he had a personal stake in the situation and thus his motivation was clear. Here the only reason he sticks around is either because he's getting paid to or he's decided that this whole thing is suddenly his problem. There are at least three points in the story where Max could simply have given up and moved on, with no repercussions. Secondly, Max is quite the dumbass. He constantly fumbles around and fails at almost everything. This could be explained in character with his constant intoxication, but it diminishes the character to see him as such a screwup. Thirdly, there are a couple random WTF moments in the story that make absolutely no sense:
  • A major villain responsible for horrendous actions is turned into a psuedo-ally later in the game with no real justification, and gets off relatively scot-free.
  • A hostage is held at gunpoint by four enemies, and despite being repeatedly shown that Max has the ability to shoot a half-dozen guys in a single breath, he decides to walk into the room, loudly announce his presence, throw away his gun, and attempt to negotiate.
  • Max will occasionally fit a silencer onto his pistol and attempt to stealth his way into an enemy stronghold, only to completely abandon any pretense of stealth after about a minute and start mowing people down with machine gun.
It's worth noting that this entry in the franchise was developed by Rockstar North, unlike the first two which were developed by Remedy. I can't say for sure that this is the cause of all the changes, but it's not a big deal either way. A couple levels of the game do occur in New York as flashbacks, so we get a little bit of classic Max to go with our new flavor. It's a worthy entry into the series, even if it's a little different.

Gameplay wise, the game is very much Max Payne, with a significantly greater push towards realism. Unlike the first two games, Max no longer has bottomless pockets to carry every gun he finds. He can carry a maximum of three guns, consisting of two one-handed weapons which can be holstered and a larger rifle or shotgun that is carried in the off-hand when not in use. Using both small guns in tandem forces you to drop the big gun. It's very realistic and never feels overly complicated or compromising. Shootdodging and Bullet Time are still alive and well, along with new features. Bullet Time is accumulated when you shoot enemies (or get shot at), and is employed when you need an extra edge against multiple incoming enemies. Painkillers are still the go-to healing item, but now if your health is depleted while you still have one left, you initiate the Last Man Standing feature. Time slows and you start to fall, but if you can return fire on the enemy who killed you and kill them in response, you regain some of your health and get to continue the fight. The game also employed a cover system, complete with the ability to blind-fire around cover when you just don't want to poke your head out to aim. It's a different feel from the first two games, but considering that you spent most of those games strafing left and right to duck behind pillars and boxes, this is an improvement.

The graphical leap from the previous game is very noticeable, allowing for some impressive set pieces and frantic action. Individual bullet trails are visible again, after their conspicuous absence from Max Payne 2, and several guided bullet time sequences allow you to focus on your shooting while Max is running, sliding, or falling, as the case may be. Further cinematic elements have been introduced for the sake of style, including a fancy bullet cam that is triggered by the death of the last enemy in a given group. By holding a button down, the bullet can be slowed to a crawl, and you can also continue firing to riddle your enemy with dozens of shots before their lifeless body finally drops. The level of violence in the game is severe, as well it should be. Enemies react to gunshots in a visceral manner, jerking and collapsing until they finally take enough damage to stop entirely. Gore is present, almost to a grotesque point, which serves to emphasize the brutality. Bullets travel through the body leaving exit wounds, and blood sprays from the holes, particularly with head shots. The moment you finish someone off with multiple slow-motion close-up shotgun blasts to the face and see the resulting mess, you gain a new respect for video game violence.

Surprisingly, Max Payne 3 also features an intricate multiplayer mode, similar to Call of Duty. You can customize your appearance, as well as your loadout of weapons, items, and armor to suit your tactics. Too many guns and armor make you a slow tank, but going in light makes you faster and regenerates health. You also get to choose from a selection of special abilities, called "bursts", which can help you or your allies, or hinder your enemies. The balance is well-handled, particularly with respect to the team-based gameplay modes. Of special note is the Gang Wars mode, which has two teams competing in a series of challenges (defend a location, retrieve a package, hunt a moving target, etc), culminating in a final battle that is handicapped based on the outcomes of the previous challenges. These challenges actually maintain a narrative structure that ties into the main story, which is impressive. If I have any tips for those of you starting out in multiplayer, it would be to take the high ground when possible, use cover, and remember to use your bursts when you get them. At higher levels they can really screw with an enemy team, like turning off their Friendly Fire or jamming their weapons intermittently. It's just as action-packed as the main game and a lot of fun.

Overall, I'm happy with Max Payne 3. While some might be turned off by it's linearity compared to most of Rockstar's other games, its longevity will be enhanced by additional difficulty levels, collectibles, and the multiplayer experience. I would highly recommend Max Payne 3 for anyone who enjoys an action-packed gun fest.