Pacific Rim Gives Guillermo del Toro a Chance to Shine

titleBefore I get into it, I told myself I wasn’t going to write another glowing review without saying something first: I don’t love all movies. While it might seem like I offer up glowing praise for every piece of celluloid on the planet, the simple fact is that I don’t go to bad movies. I skip the White House Downs and the Texas Chainsaw Massacres. Those I watch when I have the time… On Netflix or cable or whatever. I also don’t feel the need to write reviews of the shit I do see. 2012-movie-collage31 Does that make me a bad reviewer? I don’t think so. It makes me a practical one. I don’t write reviews for idiots. If you don’t know what you’re getting into when you go see Step Up 2 the Streets, then I’ not going to waste my time or yours telling why you shouldn’t. People go to see movie because they like the subject matter, they hear it’s really good, they like the people making it, or they’re just curious. If Grown Ups 2 is your thing… By all means go see it! I won’t pay to, but that’s cause I have to pay to see my movies and I’m not rich. I go see the ones I really want to see, and if it is a great story, or even just deserves to make more money, I want to spread the word.

That being said:

Screen-Shot-2013-07-12-at-12.32.35-PMIf any movie deserves to make a billion dollars this summer, it’s Pacific Rim, and if there is any justice in the world it will. Not since Avatar have we seen such an original universe so rich and full of life from top to bottom. We don’t get a lot of big-budget Hollywood action movies that aren’t sequels or adaptations, and here is a glaring example of why originality still counts for something. Director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy I & II, The Devil’s Backbone) already proved his big-budget chops with Hellboy II,  one of the best comic adaptations ever made. With Pacific Rim, he gets a chance to shine. You hear a phrase every once and awhile, that “here is an auteur at the top of his game…” And to some degree this is completely  right. However with a Guillermo del Toro film, you feel something more, something you don’t often get mid-summer:

Life.

You remember when George Lucas went back and added all that digital crap to Star Wars to make it seem like a busier, more complex universe? PACIFIC RIMWell what he was trying to do (albeit failing) was inject life into the “world” of the movie. Details, details, details. You see, if you provide a vibrant, believable backdrop to the action going on, the setting and the story feed off of each other… A perfect storm of yarn-spinning if you will… And it all stems from the imagination.

Guillermo del Toro chocks more life into Pacific Rim than 10,000 Hollywood-reboot-blockbuster-franchises put together. That’s easily his greatest talent. He takes these huge, fantastic ideas set in lush, vibrant settings, and sells them like gold on the screen. I mean come on, a future where giant monsters start coming through a dimensional tear at the bottom of the ocean? That’s a huge pill to swallow when it comes to suspending disbelief. Del Toro does it without breaking a sweat.

XXX PR-TLR-2052.JPG D ENTEvery single second of Pacific Rim had me glued to the screen, shoving candy and popcorn in nervously as I ran the gambit of emotions from suspense and scares to awestruck fascination at the amazing display of sheer kick-ass robot power… To even real human connection, humor, love, and grief… This film contains all of the reasons why we like to go to the movies in the first place. It has heart, it has a fantastic story, the special effects are seamless, and the entire time I felt as if I wasn’t just watching a movie, but that I had a front-row seat to del Toro’s endless imagination.

Despite the marketing machine that would have you believe this movie is another Transformers, don’t believe it. Pacific Rim is one of the few that breaks the mold. There are bits and pieces of different stories we’ve heard before, but never like this… And the best of all? There so man of those Karate Kid, stand-up-and-cheeer moments that you’re going to find it hard not to yell at the screen during some of the fight scenes. Screen-Shot-2013-07-02-at-11.04.01-AM-e1372788275310It’s epic action film making at it’s best. For what it is, there’s nothing else like it in the history of film. Seriously. This is the special effects bonanza that all the other CGI actioneers in the last few years have promised. It’s the perfect summer movie.

Can you tell I think you should go spend your money on this? Guess what I get for saying so? Not a goddamn thing… In fact I’m paying to tell you… But that’s ok… Cause hopefully some people will agree!

Set in the near future, giant skyscraper-sized monsters called Kaiju start attacking the major coastal cities. After we kill off the first few with conventional weapons tanks, missiles, bombs, (all at the cost of tens of thousands of lives) it becomes clear that the attacks aren’t going to stop. A new kind of weapon must be built:

Pacific_Rim_Under_Attack_06The Jaegers. Giant battle machines that are driven by two pilots. There has to be two pilots because, of course, the neural load of the Jaegers systems is too much for one to handle alone.

pacific_rim_jaegerSo teams of pilots join minds, linking to the opposite hemisphere of the other pilot’s brain in what’s called “the Drift…” a place inside the memories and minds of the pilots, where their special suits allow them to become the giant machines in body, mind, and even spirit.

They’re Rockem-Sockem robots, there’s no denying it… But I’ll be a monkey’s uncle it’s as if del Toro captured all those childhood toy-time fantasies and served it up on the screen. I forgot I was watching a movie, got lost in the story, and loved nearly every second of it.

pacific-rim04Let’s face it, most movies just sit there on the screen. You watch them, they’re done. You might talk about them afterward with your friends, but for the most part movies are fast-food. Pacific Rim is like a kick-ass, authentic, seven-course meal at La Casa Del Toro.

I don’t want to spoil any of the plot, but let’s just say the war goes well for awhile… but the Kaiju keep getting bigger, stronger, and meaner. Until one day the unthinkable happens to the world’s most hot-shot pilots. Faced with a growing threat, and dwindling support, the Jaeger program is mothballed in favor of building giant walls along the shorelines of the world. Soon the Kaiju start coming more often, and it’s up to the a rag-tag group of heroes, rejects, and geeks to save the world.

PACIFIC RIMIt borrows heavily from Independence Day, but thankfully not in a Randy Quaid kind of way… More like a Will Smith/Jeff Goldblum chemistry kind of way. The cheesy-yet-still-easy-to-swallow way.

Go see this movie in IMAX but bring your ear-plugs if you’re not deaf like me. It’s big, loud, and bad ass… It’s more than the sum of its parts, and it deserves to be seen. I’m ready to see it again, it’s one of those movies where you miss half off what’s going on because there’s just SO MUCH GOOD STUFF!

If there’s any justice in the world Guillermo del Toro will now be cemented as an A-list action director who can deliver the goods when it comes to original, thought-provoking films that appeal to all ages and tastes… And hopefully it shows that not all blockbusters have to be sequels, reboots, or rehashes.Pacific-Rim-Monster

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The Last of Us (PS3) – Review

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Let’s talk about magic. Not the Harry Potter, wave your wand kind of magic, but the real kind. The kind you feel on a first date, or a beach, or any time when events, emotions, thoughts, everything just seems to flow in harmony. When your ears are ringing from the comprehension that something truly special is happening… It doesn’t happen as often as it should in life. Especially in the realm of entertainment. Entertainment is another beast altogether. It’s manufactured magic… And most of the time you can tell the glaring difference between the two.

Movies, and lately TV, have always been the perfect medium for manufactured magic- just as any other art stirs emotion, thoughts, questions, etc… But at the same time, for every Godfather, Unforgiven, or Indiana Jones, there are 200,000 direct-to-video Steven Segal movies hoping to cash in. That’s the thing about entertainment. In it’s most refined form, it’s strictly for profit. last2It’s not coincidence that movies make billions of dollars these days, they’re designed to. However, luckily for us, even manufactured magic is magic. Let’s face it, there are great movies, and then there are Apocalypse Now’s… Just as there are great shows and then are Mad Men‘s.

Well, the 8th dimension has just been blown open. Now we have great video games, and then we have The Last of Us.

I’ve never played anything like it. Technically it’s a video game, in that it comes on a game disc and you play it on a console… But when the opening scene of this unfathomably fantastic adventure begins… It’s all magic from then on.

imagesThe Last of Us is the story of two people, Joel and Ellie, and how they survive 20 years after the world as we know it ends. Do you remember that scary picture of the tarantula that had been over-grown by the Cordyceps fungus? I do. It looks like some kind of monster from under the sea. As the spores from the fungus replaced the spider’s cells with its own, it changed it into the freakish alien-looking horror it became… While the spider was still alive. Ultimately, the spider dies and the spores are released into the air to find the next host. Scary right? Well imagine it happens to people. The spores have mutated, speeding up the process, turning regular people into mushroom-headed nightmares that attack and kill anything they see or hear.

It’s a twist on the old zombie apocalypse, one that’s rooted in real, disgustingly terrifying science.

the-last-of-us-hd-wallpaperThe Last of Us starts off on the night of the outbreak, with animation done so well it looks Pixar-real. Animation in a game is key, and the motion-capture technology used to bring these characters to life is as good as it gets. The movements are real, the faces, eyes, and the mouths all move perfectly to suspend the disbelief. The characters have weight, they don’t spring like normal video game avatars. They move deliberately, it’s one of the dozens of tiny details that work together seamlessly.

After the heart-wrenching opener we cut to Joel in Boston, 20 years later. He’s older, greyer, and hard as f*cking steel. The story picks up when Joel and his girlfriend Tess, a pair of morally-ambiguous smugglers, people who ferry goods and services in and out of the Quarantine Zone, get roughed up by a local henchman. Boston is one of the few remaining Zones that are still functioning, although the more time you spend in the Zone, the more it feels like these people are just dying a little slower than the infected that roam the dark corners of the world. The_Last_of_Us_Preview_1The story doesn’t fall back on exposition, it drops you in the middle. It doesn’t stop to explain everything that isn’t vital to the main story, and therefore doesn’t insult the intelligence of the player.

In fact, this “game” is all about not insulting the intelligence of the player. It takes every zombie-horror-survival cliche and turns it sideways. There is never a moment in the entire 17 hours of play that feels stale or tossed in… And did I mention no load times? Usually in games you’re waiting for a little bar to fill up in order to play the next mission or level… Here, it’s all one seamless experience. There’s no breaking the fourth wall to pull us out of the world we’re submerged in.

Seriously, there were times I referred to things in the game in the first person. Like, “well she’s been traveling with me for this long,” that never happens for me. I play a lot of video games and not once have I felt personally responsible for the outcome of the story. Why not? Because I’ve never been invested like I have in The Last of Us. I’m telling you, this is not a video game. It’s a simulation.

images2There are moments of pure shit-your-pants terror, where the controller is slipping from your hand because your palms are sweating from adrenaline. All because Naughty Dog, the makers of the uber-popular Uncharted series, plays it straight and lean. There’s no over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek here… There is brutal, unforgiving, and yet ultimately beautiful “game” play. From the scariest depths of spore-ridden basements to the stunning views of an over-grown world where nature has taken back what man had built, this is a phenomenal experience.

I won’t spoil a thing that you don’t already know. Joel and Tess meet up with Ellie, a young teenager, and they are paid to smuggle her out of the Quarantine Zone to the local militia/freedom-seeking Fireflies outside… But of course, things go wrong along the way, and it’s up to you to guide these characters across a ravaged landscape chocked full of scary fast zombies and even scarier fast people. Early on one character muses, it’s not the infected you have to worry about, it’s the people that are unpredictable.

elliesThe Last of Us is a triumph in every way. It succeeds in flushing out a world only glimpsed in films like The Road, Children of Men, or I Am Legend, in which the environment itself becomes a central character. It take you out of your living room and into a world so dangerous, so unforgiving, that the only choice is to be even more brutal. Eventually you come to truly care about the characters on the screen. When they’re hurt, you feel it… You really do. More than once I found myself tearing up, feeling grief, feeling betrayal, feeling the cathartic struggle for life. I cannot recommend this “game” enough. It’s the reason why the PS3 was made, and a fitting swansong for one of the best entertainment consoles ever made.

Bravo Naughty Dog. This is truly a work of art.

X-tended Terran Conflict 2.0 Brings Modding to a New Level

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Let’s talk fans. Not the plug-in kind, but the obsessed kind. There is a level of fanaticism out there that goes beyond fan fiction, beyond long hours spent twiddling away with whatever the focus of the obsession might be. In the world of video games, that level of commitment has a name, and it’s called Modding. Modding is when you take the original code of a game and tweak it, re-write it, add-on to it, and re-release it. This can take weeks, months, years to do, and the bigger the game, the bigger the task.

XTC_Release_1_12After 4 years of blood, sweat, and tears (and apparently a consensual, adult relationship with an office coffee-machine), X3: Xtended Terran Conflict 2.0 has been released to the masses. Do you like learning curves served in healthy portions with your Space Combat Simulators? Then this game is for you. XTC is one of the most beautifully built “unofficial” games I have ever seen. From the ground up, it is filled with gorgeous solar systems, gigantic space stations, and absolutely killer ship designs.

x3screen00018The basic premise is, way in the future mankind exists in a universe with many other races. The galaxies are linked by star gates that allow instant travel between solar systems. These gates are always popping up as they were built millions of years ago, and we’re only finding them and turning them on. Now Pandora’s Gate has been found, a new link to an unkown portion of the galaxy, “the expansion zone.” Of course everyone is hot to settle the zone and exploit it for profits and resources. When you load the game you have many options on how to start out, as there are at least a half dozen different playable races in this game, everything from the human Argons or Terrans, to the aquatic-planet based Boron. the profit-based Teladi, holy crusading Paranid, or war-mongering Split… These are just a few of the different species you can start as, or run into the during the course of the game. Either way you cut it, you start out with a ship and a dream. Plopped down in the heart of a newly discovered galaxy, this expansion zone is being swept up by the different races for their own reasons (the strongest of which is always greed).

FXTC_Release_1_16or the first few days, maybe even weeks of playing, it’s all about learning and exploring. As you fly through different “jump gates” to map different sectors (fully contained solar systems with planets, suns, resources, etc) you come into contact with all manner of pirate, military, and friendlies that want you to go here and shoot down this, haul this over to there, keep pirates off of this transport ship, or give rides to passengers needing to get to other places in the galaxy.

Of course this is all based on your “notoriety” with each race, which can be bad simply based on the color of your skin or the genes in your DNA. The Boron are at war with the Split, the Pirates are at war with your wallet, and the Terrans are at war with everyone else (go humanity!). If you want to get your notoriety up, you’ve got to grind away these missions… Cause the point of this whole thing is to stockpile $ and create an empire..

news_2006_08_24_003The economy of the X Universe is all-encompassing and fully functional. There are space stations that need “energy cells’ in order to produce their products, so you need to buy a freighter to go get some energy cells at a low price, and sell them to a factory that is willing to pay higher. Profit, period. This example is repeated throughout the galaxy. Someone ALWAYS needs raw materials, and YOU’RE the one who can bring it to them, or they’ll get it from some computer-controlled “other guy.” This is how the second stage of any X game unfolds, at first it’s all flying around and exploring, then it’s moving on to trading and expanding.

XTC_Release_1_10The ultimate goal is to get your notoriety up enough to be able to purchase more items from the different races. Cause at first, if they don’t like you, you’re shut out at the door- they won’t even let you in their solar systems, less dock at their stations. In order to fix this, you’ve got to be crafty.

This is empire building in an elegant, grass-roots kind of way. You have the ability to work away building up a fleet of transport ships, and eventually enough cash to start building space stations of your own. The stations can produce anything from energy to weapons to shields to food for the masses… Or if you’re a crafty space pioneer, you’ll hook a bunch of stations together to keep the intermediate raw materials in-house. For instance to build weapons you need a few things, silicon, energy, and a food source for the workers (simplified of course), and each one of those items needs intermediate products as well (to mine silicon you need energy, to produce “energy cells” you need special crystals that are made from silicon and a food source… See where I’m going with this?)

XTC_Release_1_01If you connect enough space stations, you get yourself a self-sustaining space factory pumping out profits. One of the more lucrative business opportunities is the production of more illicit forms of entertainment. Mainly booze and weed. Space Fuel and Space Weed are highly profitable products, but if you’re caught with them in your hold in 90% of the galaxy you’re at least getting your cargo yanked… And possibly getting shot down by pirates who want your goods. If you build a space-still in the wrong race’s territory, they’ll send giant capital ships to blow your station away.

destroyerne4While you’re grinding away at missions and flying materials around the galaxy earning profits, there is a threat hiding out there in the unexplored sectors of the expansion zone. No one knows where the zone goes, exactly, so no one knows what else might be out there, waiting in the dark. You see, thousands of years ago Artificial Intelligence was born, and machines were built to fly out into space on their own to “terraform” found planets, and ready them for colonization. Well as things go, those machines eventually evolved beyond their initial mission, they learned how to build themselves… and disappeared. They are known as the Xenon, a race of terraforming machines that see biological life as an anomaly to be eradicated. That can put a damper on your space-exploring fun if you go through the wrong gate. And who knows… Maybe there’s another threat out there in the darkness of space. Something even more terrifying than a genocidal race of machines. Watching the races, studying them as they expand, colonize, and lay claim to the new areas of space.

galleonxq0This is just some of the complexity of this game. Xtended Terran Conflict is frustrating, it’s buggy, and it’s imperfectly perfect. Made by fans for fans, this is truly the best of the best here. The team behind this re-invention deserves all the kudos, pats-on-the-back, and lots and lots of good booze sent their way…  This game is awesome. Dive in and say goodbye to your social life… And do yourself a favor, stay as far “south” as possible. Good hunting!

The X: Legend Continues With X: Rebirth

I’m talking revolution… One of the greatest space simulation games I’ve ever stumbled across, is about to be reborn. For those of you who know, the X: Universe is a fully formed universe whose mantra is TRADE, FIGHT, BUILD, THINK. Complete with interstellar trade, governments, militarism, and a complex economy, X:3 is a milestone in gaming. For years, German gamemaker Egosoft has been transporting players to a galaxy full of humans, aliens, pirates, peace, glory, war, and most of all: cash in it’s X: series. A fully explorable universe that players will either conquer, or get chewed up, and spit out by. Flying stealthy advanced fighters, to giant turret-filled destroyers, the X: games have brought the universe to your home desktop. Now it’s time for a rebirth.

Long after the events of the previous games, a  supernova renders all previous modes of interstellar travel useless, and the universe much, much “smaller.”

Even the Future has Light Rail!

“In the distant future, the X: Universe faces a period of profound and irrevocable change. While the universe stumbles towards an uncertain future, countless adventures await as new enemies rise in search of power.”

Space-Traffic!

Staying true to the “sandbox,” go anywhere, explore anything format, X: Rebirth brings us a revolution in one of the most popular and critically acclaimed space simulation games ever made. You enter the shoes of a new, brave young hero, who, along his unlikely female ally, will travel the universe in an ancient, battle-worn ship with a glorious past. Two adventurers, alone against the galaxy, the fate of the universe (indeed their very existence) rests in your hands!

Blade Runner Anyone?

From the looks of it, X: Rebirth, is changing (and adding) some serious changes to it’s fundamental formula. With the traditional “jumpgates” obsolete now, more emphasis has been put on interaction. Whereas before, the entire game was played from the cockpit of a spaceship… every indication now points to an out-of-ship experience for players. If you look carefully at some of the screen captures I took from the official teaser, you can see everything from “traffic lanes” in space to highly-populated stations. Even Egosoft has announced that a new interface is going to revolutionize the game. This has really got my interest peaked more than the other big 3 sequel releases this fall: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3, and the ever-anticipated Uncharted 3 (seriously, if you’ve never played an Unchartedgame, go buy a PS3 and do yourself, and your life, a favor).

An interview with Egosoft’s Bernd Lehahn detailed

Q: “Why another X game? What happened to the “end of the X trilogy” statement?”

Open-Mouthed Galactica? 🙂

A: “Well that is still true. At least partially 😉 We worked on the old X games from 1996 until 2007. That was 11 years of development and 11 years mostly filled with adding features.
Adding features is pretty cool, as you have this solid foundation. You never have to start from scratch. We replaced the graphics engine twice, and we made many other big changes to the technology, but we were never at a point where nothing would work. That’s a very luxurious position for a game developer to be in.

Escaping Orbit

BUT (and it’s a big but), adding features to an existing game design has limits. Especially when we talk about the actual gameplay design. Adding so many features that were not originally planned for was a bit like building a higher and higher tower. You run into problems. Problems like a user interface that gets more and more complex and that’s rarely a good thing.

So in 2007 we decided we need to cut off that legacy and do a fresh start.”

The Rebirth begins this winter this Christmas… stay glued to TOOMBLOG for more details!

X3: A Universe, Open For Business

There is another galaxy (not so far, far away…) just waiting out there and I bet you didn’t even know it existed. I’m serious, it’s a universe where each planet is linked through a system of jump gates that allow instantaneous travel. In this galaxy live 5 different species, each with their own history and culture that has survived for thousands of years. The best part is, the galaxy is open for business.

When you first boot up a new game of X3:Reunion or X3: Terran Conflict, you have a choice whether you want to be a certain type of character. Let’s say a Teladi trader, or an Argon pilot, it’s up to you- and each pick has a certain amount of either $ or power (a bigger ship to start). From there the universe is yours. Either way you start the game, you’re going to be unknown in the galaxy… Especially in the sectors outside whichever you call home. Sometimes run ins with other races can be downright explosive, so it’s advisable to listen to any patrolling police officers or military presence you might hear hailing you when u jump into a new sector.

Map of Sectors

The thing about the X- Universe games, is that they are open for you to explore any avenue of the games basic point- money=power. Whether you decide to join up and fight the good fight, blasting away squadrons of pirates and ancient alien invaders known as The Ka’hK… Or decide to spend your time hunting down some of the many floating goodies in space- X3 has got all the epic space gameplay you can handle.

Save up cash early and buy yourself a freighter, begin to make some trade runs, get to know the galaxy. X3 has a fully-realized economy, where factors influence locally and universe-wide. There’s always a station or a mine that needs supplies and it’s up to you to find the best deals to buy, and where to sell those goods for prifitssss. Or there’s the less subtle route, hire some mercs to ride a suicide-mission in a shaky troop-transport long enough to board and capture a bigger ship, then hire more mercs and repeat.

Whatever tickles your space-flight fancy. As time goes on and you rake in the cash, you can buy bigger ships, huge TL tankers with compressed cargo-bays that allow for more freight. They also let you buy your own mines, solar-power plants, food processing stations, equipment docks, the works. You can even purchase special custom complex construction kits that allow you to hook stations together in order to minimize the amount of secondary resources it requires. It’s possible to build your own self-sustaining weapons factory, for instance, or if you really want to make money- and don’t mind attracting shady characters- then a space weed plant is for you! Or an equally profitable Space Fuel Distillery!

Any way you cut it, X3’s open economy and diverse universe is fun, fast, and dangerous. Join up with the military and fight the war against a new threat- the Xenon horde. X3: Reunion, X3: Xtended X3: Terran Conflict, and now at long last X3: Xtended Terran Conflict… Designed, written, built, coded, and animated by fans for the fans. I played the MOD of X3: Reunion, it added new story lines, new bad guys, and a whole lot of fun! This time the saints behind the last one have bled, sweat, and teared- to bring us X3:XTC 1.1, the best iteration of the X3 universe yet… and it’s completely done off the books! By a coolest group of people around- the mod team.

I’ve been flying the unfriendly skies of the latest installment, and so far (even though no story-mode levels are included yet, have to wait for the 2.0 update) so good. The universe is complex, new, and this time: ever-expanding. The plot takes place several years after the last game, in a new portion of space known as The Expansion Territory. Linked through the recently rediscovered Aldrin system, the expansion territory is huge, adding over 100+ new sectors as time progresses in the game. Also revamped this time is the ever-important Galactic News Service, which is now used to update the player on the progression of the expansion, the skirmishes in the galaxy, pirate hunts, and if you get neat enough ships, your name in print! Seriously thought, XTC is amazing so far. The artwork is brilliant, the music re-scored, each of the hundred plus sectors with a complete backstory and history. These guys have been busting their hump… and have put out a superior beta. I cannot wait for the official “game” release, to see how it all ties together in this ever-expanding galaxy.

Find your copy of any X3 game, and you will be addicted in no time. It’s a very different game than any I’ve played, sometimes a lot of the game can be waiting, programming, waiting for huge space battles to finish (if you’re a fleet commander like me, with eyes on taking over the known universe), and of course: making money. Thank you Egosoft for such an interesting universe to explore, and bless the mod team for making it the beautiful galaxy it is today. Until then, it’s your fleet versus mine.