All posts by Mark Smith

I've been an avid gamer since I stumbled upon ZORK running in my local Radio Shack in 1980. Ten years later I was working for Sierra Online. Since then I've owned nearly every game system and most of the games to go with them. Not sure if 40 years of gaming qualifies me to write reviews, but I do it anyway.

Dishonored – Dunwall City Trials Review – Xbox 360

Dunwall is such a fantastic setting. With its rich backstory and incredible design, the plague-ridden, pseudo-Steampunk city is easily the star of Dishonored. The game’s first piece of DLC, Dunwall City Trials, should have focused more on its namesake. Instead, it emphasizes the “trial” aspect. It is a set of challenges far removed from the campaign. Though some diehards will enjoy the extra mileage, many will be put off by the complete lack of any tie-in to the rest of Dishonored. Furthermore, Dunwall City Trials is an uneven experience that fails to add anything meaningful to the experience.

In spite of the title, Dunwall is strangely absent from Dishonored’s first piece of DLC. All of the trials take place within The Void, the murky dream-like world of the Outsider. Assumedly, players are in Corvo’s shoes once again. The complete lack of context renders this meaningless. There is no story here and no larger goal in sight. Players can unlock pieces of artwork and a few extra achievements. Aside from some leaderboard rankings, that’s about it.

At first glance, Dunwall City Trials seems promising. It contains 10 new stand-alone challenges, and many have unlockable expert difficulties. They are divided into four categories: stealth, combat, puzzle and speed. Starting with the stealth trials impressed me. The levels are like miniature versions of Dishonored. Players have to find a set of clues to discover who to assassinate. The target changes each time, along with the locations of the clues.

Had all ten of the challenges been stealth-based, they may have grown old quickly, but at least they would have been consistent. The other three types of trials grow old quickly. The combat ones are particularly grating. Dishonored was designed to be more about stealth, and this definitely comes through. One of the combat challenges has players shooting explosive barrels as they are dropped from a train. It feels completely out of place, more like Raving Rabbids than Dishonored. The controls definitely fall short here. They are far too sloppy to offer accurate shooting.

The two puzzle challenges are novel in concept. In one, players stop time as soon as they enter a room. They then have to kill a set number of people before time resumes. Doing well earns points and moves players to the next challenge. The other puzzle trial features inactive enemies strewn about. Players have to find ways to kill all the enemies with no more than three seconds between each kill. The glaring flaw in both of these puzzle trials is the procedural nature here. Immediately after completing one stage, players move to the next. There are bonus stages, but they do little to alter the formula. Rather than forcing players into a set of challenges, these should have had their own sub menus with a level select feature. As they are now, they get stale very quickly.

Speed challenges comprise the final three trials. These are a little more entertaining. They involve either racing through a level, racing to random checkpoints in one level, or racing and performing drop assassinations. Though all work fairly well, they’re completed very quickly. The only remaining incentive to revisit any of the trials is to improve one’s score.

Playing through Dunwall City Trials reminded me of the various challenge modes in the Timesplitters games. The main difference is Timesplitters’ modes were packed with variety and had boatloads of unlocks. Dunwall City Trials is an insubstantial add-on. It offers a modicum of entertainment, but none of the intrigue found in the campaign.


Far Cry 3 Review – Xbox 360

The original Far Cry game shattered all sorts of barriers when it came to graphically lush, huge, open-world sandbox shooters when it debuted on the PC in 2004. The following year Ubisoft attempted to release a heavily modified version of the game on the Xbox, and to their credit, the game was remarkable, but admittedly fell short due to hardware limitations. Well, we don’t have to wait a year to find that history does indeed repeat itself.

Far Cry 3 is out now for both the Xbox 360 and the PC. I’ve played them both extensively even though I got the proverbial short straw and ended up reviewing the console version. That’s not to say the 360 is inferior to the PC in any “major” way, but more accurately lacks the polish of the PC game. Let’s face it; the Xbox 360 is seven years old now – good luck trying to get the PC game to run on a system built in 2005. And the only real reason I even mention the 360 shortcomings is because of just how damn amazing the PC version is (top 3 best looking games of 2012), and if you own a capable PC then you owe it to yourself as a gamer and to the artistic wizards at Ubisoft to experience this game in all its DirectX 11 tropical glory.

So, if you are still with me I’ll assume you are “stuck” playing the 360 version. Never fear; you get a few nice features that the PC people don’t including a much easier co-op and multiplayer experience, and some cool social features with people on your friends list. And frankly, if you haven’t seen the PC version running on a high-end system you won’t even know what you are missing.

Far Cry 3 is hugely ambitious, both in the size of its explorable world and the blurring of at least a half-dozen genres. Throw GTA, Just Cause, Tomb Raider, Hitman, Splinter Cell, Assassin’s Creed, Cabala’s Dangerous Hunts, Red Dead Redemption, and Skyrim (yes…Skyrim) into the blender, and enjoy the tasty smoothie that is Far Cry 3. You’ll pilot all sorts of land, sea, and even air vehicles as you explore the Rook archipelago. You’ll explore lost tombs in search of ancient relics, you’ll relieve fallen Japanese soldiers of their lost letters home, you’ll hunt everything from rabid dogs, pigs, boars, and goats to tigers, bears, and sharks, just to name a few of the soon-to-be-endangered species that will offer up their hides to fuel Far Cry 3’s mighty crafting system – a system second only to Skyrim. You’ll harvest all sorts of colorful plant life and mix and match these herbs to create all variety of injectable buffs. And this is just the filler material. We haven’t even gotten to why you are on this island.

You play Jason, one of a group of rich friends on a whirlwind vacation, when a fateful skydiving jump lands you all on islands inhabited by pirates and slavers. When you wake up, the girls are missing and you find yourself in a cage with your brother being taunted by the villain in charge – Vaas. One of the more satisfactory elements about this game is that you aren’t playing some badass dude or one-man killing machine, but actually some spoiled little punk who has to learn to not only kill but survive, especially when your military-trained brother eats a bullet ten minutes into the tutorial. This triggers an exciting chase through the jungle that ends with you falling from a Temple of Doom-style rope bridge and waking up days later under the care of Dennis Rogers.

Dennis is the leader of his own tribal village and the key to Jason following his destiny that will take him down the Path of the Warrior and restore peace to these trouble isles. Dennis not only serves as the hub for many of your earlier quests, he is a wealth of information that will slowly trickle into your encyclopedic handbook you can reference from the pause menu. He will teach you to hunt and forage and guide you through the three skill trees that allow you to enhance Jason’s abilities; skills that are brilliantly represented by a mystical tattoo that slowly creeps down your left arm. Later, he will introduce you to Citra, and that is when your real training begins.

At its core, Far Cry 3 is a survivalist game. When you start off you can only carry one gun, a few syringes, and limited cash. You’ll need to start hunting, skinning, and crafting to build bigger holsters, loot sacks, and wallets, not to mention quivers for your arrows and larger med kits that can hold more syringes. It’s a diabolical balancing act that rewards both casual hunting (moments of opportunity) as well as sending you off on a dedicated quest when you realize you can’t carry any more cash. When you have acquired the right amount of components a crafting prompt will indicate you can create a new item, but other times necessity demands you actively seek out a species, so if you want a wallet that holds $6,000 you are going to have to kill and skin yourself two sharks or if you want a quiver for your arrows you’ll need to carve up a goat. Crafted items all have multiple tiers, so the larger the capacity the more number of rare animals are required. You’ll need to go on very specific hunting missions to acquire the best in each category. And then you have all the herbal concoctions from simple healing to giving you enhanced hunting instincts, holding your breath longer under water, and even making you temporarily flameproof.

The amount of activities available is overwhelming to say the least, and you can play this game for hours without ever advancing the story. The first thing you need to do is start deactivating these jammers on the top of 18 radio towers spread across the island. Doing so triggers an Assassin’s Creed-style spinning camera that highlights some cool landmarks in that sector and lights up a new grid on your map. Each deactivated tower also means more free weapons at the various shops and vending machines. I found it a bit refreshing that I was able to live almost entirely “off the land” using the stores mostly for buying and equipping various attachments to my weapons. I spent most of my cash on the numerous treasure maps that will reveal all the loot and special items in this collectibles paradise; items like SD cards, war letters, and relics.

Far Cry 3 not only gives you the freedom to go wherever and do whatever, it also gives you the freedom of how to play. The skills are cool but don’t really allow for customization of Jason since you always have enough skill points to purchase them all, so it’s not a matter of what to unlock but when. The real freedom lies within the person playing. You can Rambo through a level or you can stealth it like Sam Fisher; a tactic that will reward you with bonus XP in some missions like Outpost assaults. Nothing is more satisfying than using your camera to lock in the locations of all visible enemies then creep into a camp and start disabling alarms and slitting throats. You also get Hitman abilities of distraction by tossing an endless supply of rocks to lure guards away and concealing leftover corpses after a takedown move.

Unlike any game before it, Far Cry 3 really captures the feel of being a “hunter”, but sometimes the hunter can also become the prey. On multiple occasions I was stalking human or animal targets only to find myself being stalked by a tiger or worse. I was sneaking up on two slavers escorting two prisoners and just as I was about to attack and free them I heard a hiss, turned and was face to snout with a Komodo dragon, and you can’t really fire without alerting the slavers, so I am slashing away at this giant lizard with my knife when two more rush in. But thanks to a fully functional ecosystem, when I got up and sprinted away, the two slavers saw and followed and the dragons attacked and killed them. I love that about this game – you can use the world as a weapon. I was witness to several leopards clearing out an entire beach camp, and on another occasion there was a snake inside a hut. I tossed a rock through the window which prompted a guard to go inside and investigate and a moment later I heard a hiss, followed by a yell and a thud as his body hit the floor. Far Cry 3 is perhaps the most realistic and unpredictable game I’ve ever played.

My only real issue with the overall game design is that the core story is nothing more than a series of side missions of their own. I might know my girlfriend is at a certain location, but I don’t have a clock telling me to go there and free her. Normally, the story is what carries you through the game and you have to force yourself to do the side stuff, but in Far Cry 3 I almost always had to make a conscious effort to hit that mission that would advance the story, and even when I did lock in that waypoint on the map I would still try to grab a few collectibles along the way.

As hinted in my opening, the Xbox 360 just isn’t up to the task of doing this game the justice it truly deserves, but that doesn’t mean the game doesn’t look good. Just expect a lot more textures snapping into focus, foliage magically appearing a few yards ahead of you, and frequent framerate issues and screen tearing, especially when you take to the skies or start speeding down a road in a car or across the ocean in a boat or jet ski. Playing Far Cry 3 on the Xbox 360 is like being stranded on a tropical island after losing your prescription glasses. Playing on the PC is what it would be like if you found them.

The rest of the presentation if film-worthy from the incredibly professional voice cast to the perfectly place sound effects and environmental sounds of a living breathing jungle, to Brian Tyler’s score that blends suspense, action, and adventure with some cool tribal themes. One of my favorite audio treats in the game is whenever you get close to a hidden relic you start hearing this sinister tribal chanting like you’re about to be cursed.

Far Cry 3 supports both online co-op for 2-4 players and up to 14-person multiplayer, both of which are much more accessible on the 360 than the PC, but are sadly not nearly as fun as playing alone. The co-op campaign deals with four survivors from the S.S. Astrid, a black-market cruise ship who was abandoned by its captain leaving Leonard, Mikhail, Tisha, and Callum at the mercy of Vaas. These characters all have complementing skills but are much weaker than Jason in the solo game, so you end up relying on each other a lot more to revive fallen friends. You also have a cool Battle Cry that will temporarily “buff” your abilities. The only things about the co-op I didn’t like was that the missions are more linear and shooter driven, so you don’t get to do as much of the cool stealth or tactical attacks you would expect when you have up to three other players.

Competitive multiplayer doesn’t fare much better and just seems like a forced addition because it’s expected these days. The various modes deal with the two opposing forces on the island, the Rakyat and the pirates, and have cool ideas like XP and leveling, which in turn can trigger airdrops of burning oil or mind-alternating Psych Gas. As you win matches you unlock SD cards that can be decrypted for special signature weapons. It’s not that the modes aren’t original or fun, but the maps are poorly designed with questionable spawn points, and it is all too easy to get stuck on random objects in the level when you are trying to get somewhere fast.

Modes includes Domination where you capture and hold control points on the map, Team Deathmatch where you can actually reduce your enemy’s kill count by reviving your teammates, Transmission where you need to find and protect various broadcast transmitters for as long as possible to keep increasing your score, and finally, Firestorm. Firestorm is my favorite mode and has both teams trying to destroy the two enemy supply depots while protecting their own. You only have a short time to ignite the second stash before the first one burns out, but if you can get them both lit at the same time a firestorm ensues. At this point a radio appears on the map and it’s a race to see which team can reach that radio first. If the team who triggered the firestorm gets there first a plane will fly over and dump fuel on the rest of the map burning out the enemy and ending the game, but if the defending team gets the radio that same plane will dump water on the supply depots and reset the match.

Second only to Skyrim, Far Cry 3 is perhaps the most epic of game worlds ever created for this generation of gaming. It’s just a shame there wasn’t a better story to carry me through that world. I was left feeling probably very much like Jason, lost and directionless and completely overwhelmed. There was one five-hour game session where I did nothing but search for relics and lost letters, and the simple act of getting from those visible icons on the map provided so much random entertainment. I would come across some pirate roadblock and a jeep chase would ensue that would lead me up a mountain road where I would escape by hang glider, or I was hunting a group of Cassowary only to have them stampede and knock me off a cliff into the ocean below where a shark was waiting forcing me to swim for my life to some half-sunken shipwreck that had a hidden relic in its hull.

Everything in Far Cry 3 is alive and seems interconnect, both in the elaborate ecosystem as well as the cascading mission design and the tiered structure of unlockable skills and crafting levels. I’m guessing there is more than 40+ hours of gameplay spread across the Rook Islands, and much like real life, what you do during that time is entirely up to you.


Finding Nemo 3D Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray Review

I’ve been waiting for Finding Nemo to show up on Blu-ray ever since the format was confirmed as the next industry standard. I’ve watched as Disney worked their way through their legendary “vault”, rereleasing their classics in HD, and now they are just beginning their second pass through the vault updating select CG favorites into 3D, not just for home release, but even theatrical engagements to the delight of a whole new generation of kids. Finding Nemo 3D swam into theaters a few months ago, so I knew the Blu-ray release was inevitably close,and just in time to stuff in that Christmas stocking (assuming you can wait that long to watch) is the impressive 5-disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition of Finding Nemo 3D and yes…it was worth the wait.

As with any Pixar movie there is a poignant story lurking beneath the pixels. In this case it centers on a young fish named Nemo (Alexander Gould) and his overly-protective single father Marlin (Albert Brooks). This relationship does a surprisingly good job of mimicking most any human adolescent struggle to seek their independence and pushing the boundaries of parental rules, but in Nemo’s case, his disobedience gets him captured, taken from his home, and ultimately lands him in the aquarium of a dentist’s office in Sydney, Australia.

Finding Nemo then begins a parallel tale that follows not only the adventures of Nemo and his new fish tank friends, Bloat (Brad Garrett), Bubbles (Stephen Root), Gill (Willem Dafoe), Peach (Allison Janney), Gurgle (Austin Pendleton), Deb (Vicki Lewis), and Jacques (Joe Ranft), but also the much more exciting and dangerous quest of Marlin to find his missing son. With only the name of the city and his new companion, the absent-minded Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), Marlin sets off in search for his boy.

Marlin and Dory’s adventures quickly become the forefront of the film as they meet all sorts of interesting characters including migrating sea turtles and even some sharks who have formed their own support group in order to try and stop eating other fish. Obviously, their trip is long and fraught with danger, which provides ample opportunities to cut away to Nemo and his friends for some of the more comical scenes as they plan their own elaborate “prison break”.

Pixar created pure magic with Finding Nemo, magic that looks just as good today as it did a decade ago. Whether you dive into the 1080p AVC 2D version or the 1080p MVC 3D experience (yes…it is an “experience” in 3D) you won’t be disappointed in this flawless Blu-ray release that rivals any of their more modern projects. The very nature of the film with its bright colors and contrast of underwater lighting and every variation of the color blue in the spectrum is a spectacle that will make this the new reference material for your home theater. While the main characters have all been tweaked to include features that allow for a more humanistic approach to animation and conversation, any creature that is merely there for background purposes (like the jellyfish or the massive whale) looks completely authentic.

The 3D blew me away in the theater earlier this year and it remains just as impressive, perhaps more so, at home. Creatures seem to swim right out of the screen while the scenery seem to push through the back of my flat screen creating my own virtual aquarium – it’s the ultimate screensaver with a story. The 3D is so flawlessly integrated into the picture that it seems Pixar had designed this to be in 3D from the very beginning. There are no ghosting issues or other annoying anomalies normally associated with a 3D conversion, and Finding Nemo is one of the few movies that may just look better in 3D than 2D.

Disney has long since mastered their sound design and is one of the few studios that almost guarantees I get to use all 7.1 channels with each new release. Finding Nemo 3D does not disappoint and delivers a masterful Dobly TrueHD 7.1 experience that will dance around your living room in delightful aural perfection. Unlike any move in my collection, Finding Nemo has some of the most active side and rear channel use ever, and not just for positional sound, but to create that unique underwater sensation of reverb and occlusion. This is one of the first sound designs that demands a full 360-degree panoramic screen from start to finish. Even my subwoofer got a good workout with plenty of exciting moments that made maximum use of LFE output. Dialogue was perfectly mixed, so you never missed a word, even when the sound effects and the magical score would seem to dominate.

Finding Nemo is loaded with sunken treasure when it comes to it collection of bonus material. This 5-disc set has a dedicated disc for the 3D version, a second disc with the 2D version and a few extras, and a third disc dedicated to all the bonus features that wouldn’t fit on the second disc. Disc four is your standard DVD with limited extras and the final disc includes your digital copy that will have you glued to your iPad or iPhone for countless hours – nothing like a retina display to properly showcase this incredible movie.

The collection of extras is impressive, even if a lot of them are simply the SD versions you may have already seen in the original DVD release back in 2003, but there are several in HD including some newly produced features for Nemo’s 10th anniversary. Disney has spoiled me and I was totally expecting a Second Screen experience, so I was mildly disappointed there wasn’t one, but that in no way detracts from the excellent Cine-Explore PiP commentary with Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich, and Bob Peterson, who go into thorough detail on the creation of this film while keeping it entertaining as well as educational. “Finding Nemo: A Filmmakers’ Roundtable” is an 18 minute retrospect roundtable discussion with Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich, Bob Peterson, Graham Walters, Ralph Eggleston and Oren Jacob created new for this release. “Reinventing the Submarine Voyage” is a 15 minute look at one of Disneyland’s most famous attractions. Disc two features wrap up with a few short items like “A Lesson in Flashbacks, 3 minutes of Deleted Scenes, the Pixar short, “Knick Knack”, and 6 minutes of various trailers and coming attractions including Monsters University and Planes.

Moving on to disc three we find the bulk of the 2003 extras starting with the 26-minute Making Nemo, the 7-minute Exploring the Reef with host Jean-Michel Cousteau, a 9-minute Art Review with Ralph Eggleston, Ricky Nierva and Robin Cooper, a 5-minute Studio Tour that will make you want to work at Pixar more than ever, a 9-minute collection of extras called Old School, 6 minutes of Deleted Scenes, 2 minutes of Outtakes, and 13 minutes of PR features such as trailers and promos. The final extra on the third disc is Mr. Ray’s Encyclopedia, a delightful and educational interactive resource with all sorts of fishy facts and video of the real sea creatures that inspired this film.

Spread across the first three discs are various looping screensavers that will turn your TV into an impressive aquarium – no fish food required. There is a single screensaver on each of the first two discs and the third disc has no less than six virtual aquariums that feature their own setting and specific type of marine life. My only regret is that there is no way to store these in my TV and play without the disc; otherwise they would be playing whenever I wasn’t watching something.

Finding Nemo took forever to get to Blu-ray but it was worth the wait. With an incredible 2D and equally impressive 3D experience, not to mention one of the best sound mixes in their library, and a huge collection of extras, Finding Nemo is the must-own Blu-ray of the season. Kids will marvel at the enchanting characters, mom will love the story about family, and dad will have a new reference disc to show off the home theater. Everyone is a winner when you add Finding Nemo to your home video collection.


Dinotasia Blu-ray Review

I’ve always loved dinosaurs, even before Steven Spielberg made them even cooler in Jurassic Park, so when Dinotasia came up for review on Blu-ray I jumped at the chance thinking it to be the next “Terra Nova”. Sadly, I couldn’t have been more mistaken, but even after learning that Dinotasia was more documentary than fantasy/fiction I was still interested; after all, this was coming from the Discovery Channel, the people who brought me Planet Earth.

Sadly, Dinotasia lacks any of the gorgeous real-world photography seen in that series and settles for some rather poor CG leftovers from another dino-related Discovery Channel miniseries called Dinosaur Revolution from 2011. That four-part documentary failed for its own reasons, so just imagine a movie compiled from the cutting room floor scraps of a previously failed project.

German director/actor Werner Herzog provides some basic narration to the 80+ minutes of assembled clips that come together as pretty much just a bunch of dinosaur fight sequences that lack the charm of the old stop-motion animation from the original Land of the Lost TV show, but seldom achieve the polish of the Land of the Lost movie remake. There is a reason this footage was cut from the original project and trying to assemble it into its own entity is just insulting. Even pre-teens have more sophisticated tastes and will likely laugh at this film.

Blu-ray can’t save this floundering title as it is only being presented in a 1080i (yes “i”) 1.78:1 AVC transfer. There are moments of pristine brilliance but just as many other moments of poor compression, jaggies, soft focus, and murky contrast, not to mention the dated CGI that you would expect from a high school filmstrip. And even when the CG looks “good”, the animation of the dinosaurs is nothing short of comical. The larger ones lack the weight and presences you experience in Jurassic Park, and the smaller faster creatures jump around the screen almost as if they are missing frames of animation. The live action plates are much better than any of the CG creatures, but the two don’t always blend as seamlessly as they should – certainly nothing like Disney’s Dinosaur masterpiece.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix provides a bit of 3D ambience in certain instances but for most of the film you’d be hard pressed to distinguish it from the stereo mix that is also available, and there is very little LFE to drive your subwoofer – something you kind of expect in a dinosaur movie. As previously mentioned, the narration is laughably bad with Werner just rattling of dinosaur names and stating mundane facts.

Bonus features don’t provide any additional encouragement to buy this disc. You get four 1080i featurettes like; “Rivals – Extended Cut”, “Troodon – Tom de Rosier Animatic”, “Mating Rites”, “Forbidden Fruit – Performance Reference”; in all, totaling about 45 minutes of additional information that is no better (some even comically worse) than the feature event.

The real deal-breaker is that Dinotasia is now streaming on Netflix, so you have no reason to plunk down the $20-30 asking price for this laughably lame “documentary”. The Discovery Channel should be ashamed for trying to gouge the public by selling their scraps from one bad documentary as a standalone feature. There is nothing to learn from Dinotasia other than how NOT to make a documentary. Skip this disc and watch on Netflix if you are desperate for some prehistoric laughs.


Titanic: Blood & Steel Review Blu-Ray Review

It’s a safe bet that everyone knows the tragic story of the sinking of the Titanic by now. Lord knows James Cameron has released enough versions of his fictionalized account of the disaster-turned-love-story, but Titantic: Blood & Steel takes a more profound, and in my opinion, far more interesting look at the creation of this infamous ship in this 3-disc set that brings all 634 minutes of the original miniseries to stunning Blu-ray.

Much like Cameron’s opus, this miniseries blends real-life characters and events with fictionalized trappings to create a more compelling and entertaining drama lest the series devolve into a how-to-build-a-boat documentary. The timeline is quite thorough as we begin at the beginning with metallurgist, Dr. Mark Muir (Kevin Zegers) who joins the ranks at Harland and Wolff in Belfast to research and create the new steel that will be used for the new White Star ships. Muir will soon find himself working with various other individuals such as Lord Pirrie (Derek Jacobi), J.P. Morgan (Chris Noth), Sofia (Alessandro Mastronardi), the prerequisite love interest, and the ship architect, Thomas Andrews (Billy Carter).

The story not only revolves around the building of the ship but the people who built it, mostly dealing with the various class distinctions, both socially and religious, creating a unique parallel of Protestants vs. Catholics to the rich vs. the poor. These class issues become front and center when Jim Larkin (Liam Cunningham) comes in to champion the working class. While there is a surprisingly large number of historically real characters and situations, much of the drama is heavily fictionalized, and other supporting characters are tossed into history to keep things freshly dramatic such as the New York Times Writer, Joanna Yaeger (Neve Campbell).

The story wanders at times and the pacing is a bit off as you get into middle third of the 10+ hour event, but there are enough characters and side plots to keep you interested until the inevitable climax. But it is a long and unpredictable road, so make sure to spread your viewing out over several days, much like the original presentation. For those looking for a story about the ship, keep in mind this miniseries deals with just about everything but, and the Titanic is merely a backdrop for a lot of human drama unfolding around it.

To their credit, the cast performs admirably despite a script that stumbles on occasion, and the overall production value is tremendous with great locations, incredible wardrobe, and mostly seamless CG effects for virtual sets and period effects. The 1080p AVC transfer looks great while preserving the 1.78:1 original aspect ratio. Contrast is good, colors are realistic, and the detail levels are razor sharp. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix is functional and mostly underutilized with the exception of a few of the larger scenes around the shipyards and such. Those are immersive, but for the most part this is a front and center, dialogue driven experience, and as such I have no complaints.

For those looking for more after the 10+ hour drama you won’t find much in the way of bonus features; just two relatively short features including The Making of Titanic: Blood and Steel, and The Visual Effects of Titanic: Blood and Steel, that cover the production of the film and the use of CG visual effects.

The title and even the DVD cover art is a bit misleading in that viewers might think they are getting another shipboard drama that unfolds onboard the infamous cruise ship, but in reality what you end up with is a lot of interesting drama about the people involved in the creation of the Titanic as well as an unique look into the class and religious distinctions of the period. Not many miniseries ever achieve, let alone maintain a film-worthy presentation throughout, but Titanic: Blood & Steel does just that from start to fateful finish.


The Dark Knight Rises Blu-ray Review

I have a love-hate relationship with Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy; I hate them in the theater and love them a few months later when I watch them at home. Don’t ask me why, although I do know I didn’t like The Dark Knight Rises in the theater mainly because I couldn’t understand what Bane was saying beneath his mask. I left the theater muttering that I would at least be able to turn on captions when I had the chance to revisit the film on Blu-ray but thankfully; somewhere between my local multiplex and my living room, the sound engineers worked some serious magic, and now Bane’s poetic tirades sound like a mix of Darth Vader and Sean Connery and are completely intelligible.

With that major obstacle removed, The Dark Knight Rises is a crowning achievement in this darker and more brooding adaptation of the Batman saga. While nothing will ever top the iconic Joker (Heath Ledger) from the second film, Bane is a formidable nemesis with roots that creatively link back to characters and events from the first film. Other prominent links like Harvey Dent’s fabricated legacy tie this sequel neatly to the previous installment, a legacy that has created a virtual crime-free Gotham where all the major criminals are locked away in a super-max facility and Batman is still a fugitive in hiding.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse, a figment of speculation and rumors as Gotham’s finest gather at his very mansion to memorialize Harvey Dent. It will take the seductive cat burglar, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), posing as a maid to rob Bruce of his mother’s pearls to bring him out of hiding. Along the way we have the delightful banter and chemistry between Bruce and Alfred (Michael Caine), as well has his main gadget guy, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). But even before all the Wayne Manor drama we get to meet the main villain, Bane (Tom Hardy), as he performs a daring mid-air kidnapping of a nuclear scientist; the only man in the world who can turn Bruce’s clean energy source into a neutron bomb and setup the main plot of the film.

The Dark Knight Rises takes some daring risks. It not only removes Alfred from the story by the second act, it removes Bruce/Batman from the equation for nearly an hour, as we get to watch anarchy descend upon Gotham under Bane’s till-doomsday rule. This gives the third act a unique feel of desperation as we watch a rebellion slowly simmering beneath the tyranny only to come to a full boil when Bruce returns to Gotham to save the day. The story is delightfully complex with plenty of twists, at least for the first-time viewer, and many of the scenes are loaded with so much action this will be one Blu-ray you will be watching multiple times just to appreciate the details.

Videophiles will be delighted with the marvelous 1080p AVC transfer that brilliantly preserves and seamlessly transitions between the 2.40:1 letterbox and the 1.78:1 IMAX sequences. Contrast is sharp and perhaps even boosted to create a darker and grittier Gotham, but the black levels are solid and when color does make it into the picture, it is warm and lifelike. Textures are detailed and sharp and everything from set design to wardrobe to gadgets like the Bat-cycle and the Wing are meticulously crafted and become an integral part of the film. Even the city of Gotham becomes a prominent and evolving character in the overall story.

Ironically, my biggest complaint with the theatrical viewing is my greatest joy with the Blu-ray version; that being the outstanding audio presentation, and not just Bane’s powerful dialogue that seemed to emanate solely from my subwoofer and vibrate the bones in my body. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix is superb at complete 3D audio immersion with all channels firing in perfect harmony while perfectly balanced dialogue comes from the front and Hans Zimmer’s score permeates the room with its emotionally manipulative music. When my subwoofer wasn’t trembling beneath Bane’s formidable presence, it was working overtime for scenes like the opening mid-air hijacking and any of Batman’s cool motorized gadgets; especially when the Wing comes roaring out of that dark alley. I was as stunned as the cops.

The Dark Knight Rises is loaded with bonus content starting with the Second Screen Experience that you can download to your favorite mobile device and sync to the film for all sorts of exclusive content that can be enjoyed while watching the film. The bulk of the content is on the second disc and includes a 68-minute Production feature that goes into great detail on many of the major scenes and stressing just how little CG Nolan used to create this film. Also on the disc are three Character featurettes totaling 28 minutes and going into greater detail on Bruce, Bane, and Selina. Reflections is a 15 minute piece that focuses on the cinematography, sets, locations, lighting, and IMAX specifics. And perhaps my favorite extra on the disc, a 58-minute documentary on the Batmobile, every version and variation from comics, TV, and all the films; not just Nolan’s military-style Tumbler. There are four theatrical trailers as well as a standard DVD copy and an UltraViolet digital copy, but sadly, no iTunes copy.

The Dark Knight Rises is a fantastic movie and the perfect way to simultaneous cap off the Batman trilogy and, unless I was completely mislead by hints and the events at the end of the film, usher in a new hero for a new age. I may just have to give up the theater entirely, as the Blu-ray presentation of The Dark Knight Rises is a far superior and much more enjoyable experience that my initial viewing. With gorgeous visuals and one of the best sound mixes of 2012 this is one movie that deserves a place of distinction in your Blu-ray collection.


Hitman: Absolution Review – PC

After six long years Agent 47 makes his triumphant return in Hitman: Absolution. Ask any fan of the series and they’ll tell you, Blood Money is a tough act to follow, but a lot has been happening with the stealth-action genre lately; just look at the recently released Dishonored, and of course Assassin’s Creed has taken covert killing to all new heights.

Absolution continues the tradition of “freedom of choice” by providing you with these elaborate scenarios set in highly detailed levels, often populated with dozens of brilliantly designed AI bystanders. Your mission objective is clearly laid out but the way you execute that mission is entirely up to you. It’s no wonder I played through the opening prologue tutorial level five times before moving on to the first missions – there were just so many ways to approach not just the final target, but every encounter leading up to her.

The story involves 47 going after a rogue agency handler who has wiped the organization’s hard drive and gone into hiding in a luxurious safe house in Chicago. It is there we meet up with 47 as he pulls up in an ice-cream truck and begins his expertly guided tutorial that teaches you the new stealth mechanics as well as 47’s new powers of observation, body concealment, distraction, and multi-shot takedowns. By the time the tutorial is over 47 will have rescued a young girl who has secrets of her own, but rather than turn her over to his boss he stashes her in a monastery, making 47 the target of his own agency’s manhunt.

Hitman has always been about experimentation and even a bit of trial and error. Sometime the solution is obvious and other times it may take painstaking exploration of the entire level to unlock all the possibilities. One of the earlier missions in Chinatown you are tasked with killing a target who is heavily guarded by police. The obvious tactic would be to take down a lone cop, use his disguise to get close and strangle him, but there are so many other more interesting ways to get the job done; many of which I didn’t even realize until the final mission tally screen where these methods are revealed. Somewhere in the level is a sniper rifle. You could also find some poison and dose a plate of food, or in my ultimate solution, I planted a car bomb, hit the car to trigger the car alarm and when the target came to investigate, detonated the device remotely and casually walked to the exit. Ironically, this method ended the level after only five minutes of play, but it also netted me the highest score.

Scores and checklists give Hitman: Absolution incredible replay value, especially since many of these levels can be finished in less than 30 minutes once you know the “secrets”. The entire time you are playing an ongoing tally of your progress will be shown in the corner in the form of a score that is compared with your friends, your region, and the entire world. There are goals that are checked off for completing your mission in each of the various methods as well as unlocking guns and disguises for all the possible NPCs in each level. Perhaps the most difficult achievement is completing the Suit Only goal, as this requires you to finish the level without using any disguise. Obviously, this method requires more action and gunplay than others, and that is where the new point-shoot gimmick comes into play. If you played the last Splinter Cell you know exactly how this works. You freeze time and mark your targets then watch them all go down in a hail of glorious scripted gunfire.

Hitman is all about stealth and despite your trademark silverballer pistols that can be dual wielded or used alone and silenced, you have your other trademark weapon, the piano-wire garrote that you can keep readied yet undetected. Your new instinct mode allows you to scan the area for enemies as well as key objects you can interact with. You no longer have an endless supply of coins to toss to distract the AI, but you can find other objects that serve the same function. Then it’s up to you whether you slip past or strangle them while their back is turned. You’ll want to stash dead or unconscious bodies so they aren’t detected by patrolling guards, and there are usually ample boxes, lockers, crates, or other human-size hiding spots that can hold one or two bodies including yourself if you need a quick place to hide.

Disguises play a huge part in Hitman by allowing you to access new areas of the level without drawing undue attention, but even disguises have their own rules. Disguises only get you into certain areas and anyone wearing the same outfit has a greater chance to see through your deception, so if you are dressed as a landscape worker you need to be careful when approaching other landscape workers. Of course, you can also enhance your disguise with a momentary use of Instinct.

Using your instinct, either to analyze the levels or blend into the crowd, will slowly drain your instinct meter, but this can be refilled by simply doing your job. On the higher difficulty settings the instinct feature will no longer show useful items in the level and manual checkpoints will be disabled, adding a bit of pressure to the mission. While the game auto-saves at key moments, you will occasionally find optional glowing checkpoints to save your progress – usually right before a particularly challenging situation.

At times, Hitman: Absolution is more of a puzzle game than an action game. Unlike any other game in the genre, your situational awareness of not only your surroundings but the people in those areas and all the tools at your disposal are paramount in completing the levels and earning top scores. While it is entirely possibly to trigger an alarm and still finish the level, the gamer in me had me clicking on the Restart Checkpoint countless times in the game, or better yet, once you “blow the mission” you can race around the level gathering valuable intel for your next attempt or trying to locate the hidden evidence in each level.

Absolution is a 10-hour game that will take you 20-30 hours to complete out of the sheer joy of experimentation and original replay value, but that doesn’t even include the Contracts mode; perhaps the most ingenious aspect of Absolution. Contracts allows gamers to create their own missions, not with some fancy level editor, but by merely using the existing missions and letting you create a custom rule (or restriction) set; anything from limiting the weapons used to the disguises worn to imposing an impossible time limit for completion. You can then share these contracts with the online community and compete for the highest scores. For something so simple, Contracts is deceptively addicting, not only in creating your own diabolical rules, but attempting the ones created by others.

Released on console and PC, our review was done with the PC version and I have to confess, this is one of the most gorgeous games I have played in 2012. Even my 2-year old PC manages to run this game flawlessly at the highest of settings and the lighting, textures, animation, and sheer spectacle of complexity blew me away level after level. There is one scene early in the game where you open these doors and enter Chinatown, and the way the designers framed the event then pushed the camera into this congested area with at least a hundred people milling about – you just know they were sitting back smugly saying, “yeah…we can do that.” The designers go even further with their crowd designs in a later level as you make your way through a congested train station.

To complement the outstanding visuals is a masterful soundtrack, flawless sound effects, and impressive voice acting by some major Hollywood talent. The open credit sequence reads like a major motion picture. Since you’ll be spending a lot of time either eavesdropping or blending in using a disguise, there are numerous chances to overhear some amusing conversations, some of which may even provide a valuable clue.

When it comes to Agent 47, Blood Money will always have a special place in my heart, but given the six years of evolution for stealth-action gameplay, Hitman: Absolution is definitely the crowning achievement for this franchise. The game is more cinematic and more story driven than ever before, the Instinct is a much better alternative to the old map view, and you have never been given this much freedom when it comes to killing in a video game. Absolution is a brilliantly designed game, perfectly executed, and looks and sounds amazing on the PC.


Red vs. Blue: Season 10 Blu-ray Review

Halo turns 11-years old this year and following right behind it is the insanely popular machinima web-series Red vs. Blue celebrating its tenth anniversary and its tenth season. What started off as a simple series of sketch comedies designed around manipulating the in-game graphics of Halo characters and dubbing in hilarious and often edgy dialogue has now turned into an extremely ambitious and polished effort by a massive group of talented folks who now combine classic machinima with state-of-the art motion-capture and stunning CG animation to create something that transcends both unique art styles.

I was a latecomer to the RvB universe. I knew the series existed and I even watched a few episodes in the early years but it wasn’t until the series arrived on DVD that I really dove into the franchise, consuming the Blood Gulch Chronicles (first five seasons) in a single marathon session. I was hopelessly hooked and have enjoyed each new seasonal installment since, but I have always resisted the urge to watch the episodes online, and after watching Season 10 I simply couldn’t imagine watching these 20+ episodes trickled out on a weekly basis.

There are no obvious breaks in the narrative, even when the action shifts to a new planet or even a new timeline to focus on a different set of characters. The individual parts of Season 10 seamless merge to create a 165-minute masterpiece of story, action, drama, and incredible special effects mixed with some classic old-school machinima manipulation. What started off as fairly random sketch comedy has evolved into a story so deep and compelling at times it rivals the game it is based on.

Season 10 continues the blend of game graphics and stunning CG work that is quickly approaching theatrical quality. The motion capture is exquisite (kudos Monty), especially in the numerous choreographed fight sequences that will not only blow your mind but have you scrambling for the remote to watch them all over again. To complement the visuals we get some high-energy music courtesy of Jeff Williams and Lamar Hall, but the real treat is the return of Trocadero whose music works much better in the non-action sequences.

The deeper story continues to be difficult to follow if you aren’t paying attention, and often it would take a second viewing or even bits of the insightful commentary track to smooth out the rough plot edges. There are so many characters spread across two timelines, and characters that were gone are now back and other characters aren’t who you thought them to be. Even more problematic for newcomers to the franchise, there is no midway access point for those wanting to join the fun short of starting at the beginning, as this is one of the most self-referential series of all time. Thankfully, Rooster Teeth is releasing a 10-year compilation box set so you can do just that.

Season 10 also makes its debut on the Blu-ray format. While the first two-thirds of the series really doesn’t benefit from the high-definition treatment these past few season have come to feature more and more CG with Season 10 actually tipping the balance in favor of CG, whether it be full-blown 100% computer created sequences or just rampant digital trickery to enhance the classic machinima techniques. Needless to say, the episodes are all 100% digital, so their transition to Blu-ray is fantastic, even when limited by the source material that may reveal a less-than-stunning texture or some jaggy angular edge that suffers from improper anti-aliasing.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is greatly appreciated, especially in the more open and more epic fight sequences and especially the opening space chase in the prologue. The dialogue is perfectly balanced and along with the sound effects, all placed flawlessly within the 3D space, although as expected, the experience is a bit front-channel focused with the rear speakers chiming in for very specific effects.

As with any project where the guys making it have just as much fun as we do watching it there are plenty of extras starting with a feature-length commentary with several of the creators including; Matt Hullum, Miles Luna, Kerry Shawcross, Monty Oum, Burnie Burns, and Kathleen Zuelch. And in keeping with tradition you have 16 minutes of PSA’s, 7 minutes of Outtakes, and 5 minutes of Trailers.

Season 10 takes the Freelancer saga into exciting new territory as we learn more about these soldiers and how their experimental AI’s work, and it also marks the return of the original group of red and blue warriors to their more classic state of irreverent sketch comedy. The final moments of Season 10 were created using the new Halo 4 engine and look incredible. It won’t be long before the machinima looks just as good as the mo-capped CG stuff, but until then I look forward to seeing the characters, story, and technology evolve in Season 11.


Red vs. Blue: RVBX: Ten Years of Red vs. Blue Blu-ray Review

Halo turns 11-years old this year and following right behind it is the insanely popular machinima web-series Red vs. Blue celebrating its tenth anniversary and its tenth season. What started off as a simple series of sketch comedies designed around manipulating the in-game graphics of Halo characters and dubbing in hilarious and often edgy dialogue has now turned into an extremely ambitious and polished effort by a massive group of talented folks who now combine classic machinima with state-of-the art motion-capture and stunning CG animation to create something that transcends both unique art styles.

To celebrate their 10th anniversary and their debut on Blu-ray, Rooster Teeth has released a massive 14-disc compilation box set featuring all ten years of Red vs. Blue and hours upon hours of bonus content, extended footage, and special features. If you’ve never gotten into Red vs. Blue or you are looking to convert your existing DVD collection into high-def then look no further than this definitive release.

While the first two-thirds of the series really doesn’t benefit from the high-definition treatment these past few season have come to feature more and more CG with Season 10 actually tipping the balance in favor of CG, whether it be full-blown 100% computer created sequences or just rampant digital trickery to enhance the classic machinima techniques. Needless to say, the episodes are all 100% digital, so their transition to Blu-ray is fantastic, even when limited by the source material that may reveal a less-than-stunning texture or some jaggy angular edge that suffers from improper anti-aliasing.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is greatly appreciated, especially in the more open and more epic fight sequences that become staples of the later seasons. The dialogue is perfectly balanced and along with the sound effects, all placed flawlessly within the 3D space, although as expected, the experience is a bit front-channel focused with the rear speakers chiming in for very specific effects and modest use of LFE when appropriate.

Rather than dissect ten years’ worth of story in yet another review I would simply refer you to our past reviews for the individual seasons.

Red vs. Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles – Season 1-5
Red vs. Blue: Reconstruction – Season 6
Red vs. Blue: Recreation – Season 7
Red vs. Blue: Revelation – Season 8
Red vs. Blue: Project Freelancer – Part 1 Season 9
Red vs. Blue: Project Freelancer – Part 2 Season 10

I will save this review space to comment on what you get exclusively in this amazing box set. While much of season-specific content remains the same, even to the point of being offered in SD, the actual episodes have been upgraded to MPEG-2 1080i quality in 1.78:1 While Blu-ray certainly enhances the richness of color it also reveals several shortcomings in the production; all of which find their limitations in the source material and not the creative efforts of the production team. As we get halfway into the 10-year run the bonus features start showing up in HD, some even in 1080p. So take a deep breath and let’s dive into 14 discs of Red vs. Blue:

Disc One: The Blood Gulch Chronicles Season One
This disc features 5+ minutes of Outtakes, nearly 18 minutes of classics PSAs, and two feature-length commentaries; one from 2003 and an updated track recorded in 2010 with more people chiming in. And finally, you have a special edition of Episode 1.

Disc Two: The Blood Gulch Chronicles Season Two
This disc has 9 minutes of Deleted Scenes, nearly 5 minutes of Special Videos, 8 minutes of Outtakes, 14 minutes of PSAs, and another amusing feature commentary.

Disc Three: The Blood Gulch Chronicles Season Three
The third disc is home to 8 minutes of Outtakes, 9 minutes of Deleted Scenes, nearly 19 minutes of Special Videos, a 4-minute Coming Soon section and a more technically oriented commentary track.

Disc Four: The Blood Gulch Chronicles Season Four
Look for nearly 19 minutes of Special Videos, 7 minutes of Deleted Scenes, 10+ minutes of Outtakes, a 2-minute Intermission and a fairly casual feature commentary.

Disc Five: The Blood Gulch Chronicles Season Five
The Blood Gulch Chronicles wraps up with 15 minutes of Special Videos, 5 minutes of Deleted Scenes, 15 minutes of Behind the Scenes, 12 minutes of Alternate Endings, a 15-minute feature called “Out of Mind”, and another feature commentary that makes you feel like you are just watching the show while hanging with the guys.

Disc Six: The Recollection Season Six
Things get more serious this season, both in story and bonus features. “Recovery One” is a 16-minute feature you don’t want to miss followed by the standard 21 minutes of Special Videos, 6+ minutes of Deleted Scenes, 24+ minutes of Behind the Scenes, 3 minutes of Outtakes, and one of the better commentaries up to this point in the series.

Disc Seven: The Recollection Season Seven
We start with the 20 minute feature, “Relocated” followed by 19 minutes of Special Videos, 4 minutes of Deleted Scenes, 4 minutes of Outtakes, and an enjoyable two-man commentary with Burnie Burns and Gavin Free

Disc Eight: The Recollection Season Eight
“Holiday Plans” kicks off this bonus package with 12 minutes of hilarity followed by 20 minutes of Special Videos, 4 minutes of Outtakes, 11+ minutes of Behind the Scenes with a focus on the female cast, and another cool technical commentary.

Disc Nine: Project Freelancer Season Nine
17+ minutes of Special Videos get you started before diving into 3 minutes of Deleted Scenes, 3 more minutes of Outtakes, 27 minutes of Behind the Scenes, and an extremely interesting commentary track; especially if you are interested in the visual effects aspect of production.

Disc Ten: Project Freelancer Season Ten
PSAs are back and in HD with 16 minutes of amusing and not-so-educational content. 7 minutes of Outtakes, 5 minutes of trailers and my personal favorite commentary of the series wrap up this rather short list of bonus features.
Disc Eleven: The Blood Gulch Chronicles Bonus

This is the only disc in the box that isn’t an actual Blu-ray disc and features a massive assortment of SD extras, so much in fact they had to divide it into three menu options:

Red Team – this section includes footage from various press tours and festivals as well as numerous trailers, a Halo 3 Launch Mini-series, and some cool insider looks at Bungie and Microsoft.

Command – this section has numerous ads and trailers, various missing scenes, lost footage, event footage and galleries for fan art and staff photos, all sorted by date.

Blue Team – this section starts off with all four parts of the Recovery One mini-series with commentary, a cool history of Red vs. Blue, information on the cast and crew, and plenty of community fan art and photos and a neat PAX Q&A.

Disc Twelve: Grifball Volume 1
This disc has three features including the 22-minute Expansion Mini-Series, the 11+ minutes Zero Tolerance Mini-Series, and the Rules of the Game PSA.

Disc Thirteen: Grifball Volume 2
The 10+ minute Franchise Player Mini-Series and the 12 minute Double Agent Mini-Series barely begin to fill the thirteenth disc.

Disc Fourteen: Behind the Scenes of Red vs. Blue
Ten years of Red vs. Blue are summed up in a 42 minute Rooster Teeth retrospective followed by a repeat of some Season 10 content that goes deeper into the visual effects with more outtakes, deleted scenes, and a live table read. The Music of Red vs. Blue is also celebrated in a 17+ minute feature with interviews for Jeff Williams and Trocadero.

Red vs. Blue: RVBX: Ten Years of Red vs. Blue is an easy recommendation if you are just getting into the series, but it’s a tougher sell if you already own the original DVD’s. The nature of the machinima limits what Blu-ray can bring to the table and it’s really only the final three seasons that even start to showcase the HD goodness of their CG creation. I also have to question not only the ridiculous size of the package, but the fact that they used 14 discs to store what could have fit on 11. Griffball could have easily been combined on a single disc rather than waste two 25GB Blu-rays on 30 minutes of content each, and why does disc 14 repeat much of the Season 10 extras already found on that disc. Perhaps the size of the box and the number of discs is meant to offset the sticker shock since you will be paying anywhere from $125-$180 to add ten years of Red vs. Blue to your Blu-ray library.