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[Movie Review] The Thing prequel… remake… whatever this is October 16, 2011

Posted by Colin in Humor, Opinion, Review.
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Here it is: the thing we’ve all been waiting for. They’re finally getting the band back together. That’s right, it’s… The Thing we’ve all… The Prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing!

Coming next year: The Squeakuel

Now, I thought it was a little odd when they announced that not only would they be telling the story of the Norwegian outpost that dug up the alien specimen, but they would be hiring back the entire cast of the first movie.

You see, through the miracle of digital reverse aging (ala Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy) the original actors from John Carpenter’s The Thing have reprised their roles as grizzled Antarctic scientists engaged in a deadly ‘whodunit’ with an alien-murder-beast.

Suddenly, 'The Thing' isn't so cool anymore...

“But Colin,” you say, “they can’t bring back the WHOLE cast. Isn’t Wilford Brimley dead? And also, weren’t you supposed to do something with Sid Meier’s Civ World like two months ag-” “WE DON’T TALK ABOUT THAT,” I scream, eyes wild and mouth frothy, quickly changing the subject back to dead celebrities.

Pictured: crack cocaine for civilization fans

While no, Wilford Brimley may not be technically dead, but for the purposes of this review, let’s pretend he is (besides, when has Hollywood ever let a little thing like an actor’s death stop them from making a movie?) For this production, Brimley’s character has been re-imagined as a kind-of-cute twenty-something scientist modeled after Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

The designers on this project clearly cared for her the most: she has, by far, the most expressive face of the motley crew, showing a diverse range of emotion from ‘mild fright’ to ‘terror,’ and all the confusing feelings between.

However, her uncannily human features only serve as a reminder that this film’s special effects budget was slashed mid-production, forcing the designers and editors to frantically  cut anything they could. Their answer, as you can already guess, was to give each character increasingly grandiose beards. Yes, I know, eyebrows and eyes can be the most expressive parts of the human body, but covering for your lack of lip-syncing with man-fur is an animation trick students use to finish projects in a crunch. Most of the time these digitized Norwegians don’t even open their mouths when they speak.

Actually, keep your mouth closed. I'm sure it smells like pancakes and Zach Galifianakis.

The film opens as a Norwegian researcher goes to recruit the Wilford Brimley stand-in (honestly, I can’t remember her name so we’ll just call her Wilma Brimley) to come to an Antarctic research base and help get the alien specimen out of the ice. Thirty seconds later, Wilma and her awkward-yet-undeveloped-love-interest are on their way, escorted by a helicopter pilot and his black friend, who we’ll name Kurt Russell Jr. and Keith David II.

Wait, which movie came first?

Pretty soon all hell soon breaks loose. People die, The Thing replicates, and parts of the base catch fire. Wilma quickly discovers the alien can’t recreate inorganic material (fillings, etc.) which recreates the blood-test scene from Carpenter’s film, but minus the tension and dramatic payoff. But Five minutes later, this fact is neatly forgotten in favor of a pop-out-and-yell-BOO type scare. Yes, this movie uses the same scare-tactics as Scary Maze.

There is never any dramatic tension. It might be because I knew everyone on the base was just a computerized semi-human, or because the monster itself is also completely digital so it looks less like a creepy insect-puppet and more like the boss monsters in Resident Evil 4, but I just didn’t get a sense that these people were in danger.

Or rather, I knew they were in danger, but I didn’t care – that is the biggest flaw with this movie and it isn’t one that anyone could avoid. This movie is trapped in the series canon. It’s a prequel to a remakebased on a short story, and even though it’s four degrees away from the source material, it is stuck a circle of continuity that doesn’t let the filmmakers expand their universe in any significant way.  If you watched John Carpenter’s The Thing, you already know how this story ends: everyone dies. Everyone. There is no ambiguous ending; the monster wins this round. It’s just a matter of piecing together who died in what way.

And speaking of John Carpenter, a number of scenes from that movie are recreated shot-for-shot in this one. It’s a nice homage, but it fails to recreate the sense of isolation and danger that Carpenter’s film had. Couple this with the utter failure of the computerized actors to distinguish themselves with anything resembling personality, and you have a movie that’s literally forgettable. When it was over, I walked out of the theater and couldn’t remember a single character’s name, or even how many people died on the base. And what happened to Wilma Brimley? She just kind of disappears towards the end. Is that supposed to be ambiguous?

As far as I can tell, this movie is about a group of computerized Norwegian Troll-Hunters who dig up the parasites from Resident Evil and receive a visit from a digitally-remastered and gender-swapped Wilford Brimley and… actually, yes, I would see that movie, even if it sounds like obscene fan-fiction.

Pictured: everything I know about Norway

Even taking into account the potential geek-sci-fi appeal, I can’t get over how indistinguishable the characters are in this movie. It’s like the writers put the traits of the original cast up on a wall and threw darts at it to develop their personalities, but all they could hit was the word “Beard.”

It just goes to show that a computer still can’t display true emotion the way humans can. Or maybe they weren’t computers. Maybe they were some creature trying to trick us into believing it’s human, studying its prey, waiting for the perfect moment to… wait a second.

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The CivWorld Experiment: A Preface July 29, 2011

Posted by Colin in Humor, Opinion, Personal.
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Starting on Monday we’re going to engage in a little experiment here in the Pixelation Room. If you’re not aware, Kotaku’s Civilized Game Club will be looking at Sid Meier’s CivWorld – the persistent, free-to-play (yes, that again) Facebook iteration of Sid Meier’s Civilization. I’ll be participating in the discussion about this game and posting a review here on Pixelation Room. That being said, I want to lay out some points I’ll be exploring as this experiment goes on. First and foremost,  gamers can’t really ignore mobile and browser games anymore. Zynga, the company behind Farmville and other games your mom plays on Facebook, has the potential to make over a billion dollars in the next year: Face it, mobile games are a real thing. They’re addicting time sinks that expertly play on the psychological reward system built into the brains of human beings, and they’re one of the big reasons people use facebook. As late as last year, sixty percent of Facebook’s traffic came from people playing online games. Mark Zuckerberg should probably thank Zynga for all the traffic, but his future looks grim right now:

Read more at The Oatmeal

Lastly, I want to address this game not just as a social game but as part of the Civilization pantheon. I’ve been a huge geek for the Civ series ever since my house was gifted with a computer fast enough to run Civ III, and I can already see some similarities in mechanics between Civ V and this Facebook-based social game. It’s going to be an interesting experience, and I hope we learn something.

[News] [Analysis] The F2P Storm: Blizzard, Valve and the sudden rise of microtransaction games June 29, 2011

Posted by Colin in News.
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Says everything you need to know right?

Blizzard seems to be doing its best to enable former (and soon-to-be) World of Warcraft addicts. Starting today, WoW is free to play up to level twenty. The new “World of Warcraft Starter Edition” lets anyone with an internet connection and a Battle.net account log onto the 7-year-old MMORPG, but with a few restrictions. Starter accounts are limited to ten gold, cannot trade in auction houses or join guilds, and take lower priority in login queues than full accounts (full FAQ here).

But Blizzard has not been alone in announcing free-to-play updates for their games. Valve announced last Thursday that their class-based slaughterfest Team Fortress 2 would now be completely free to play. Obviously this move puts more emphasis on Valve’s Steam Wallet, a handy little feature that shipped with last September’s Mann-conomy update that allows players to create a steam-exclusive paypal account. Players can use these funds to purchase games through Steam or, more importantly, for microtransactions.

A trend has developed in which companies are trying the free-to-play and microtransaction business models. Many gamers remember the period following WoW’s initial release, when the MMORPG market opened up and imitators flooded in, trying to cash in on Blizzard’s now-billion dollar model which includes the monthly subscription pay structure. City of Heroes did it, and as of June 20 announced they would be implementing the City of Heroes: Freedom subscription model sometime in 2011. Dungeons and Dragons Online originally charged a monthly subscription, but switched to its unlimited “freemium” version in 2009.

Seven years after WoW’s release and Blizzard is still on top of the market, while the imitators have had to switch. But the funny thing about microtransaction in video games, especially MMOs, is that it’s profitable. No, it’s not as profitable as Blizzard’s addictive cash cow, but it’s enough for studios to stay afloat and offer WoW alternatives. And it’s clear that over the past seven years, companies have learned that as long as WoW still holds millions of subscribers (and growing,) a “WoW alternative” is all they can offer. There are no “WoW Killers” – not even Warhammer Online, which has allowed unlimited free play (until level ten) since 2009.

At the moment, World of Warcraft boasts twelve million subscribers, each paying $11-$15 per month. For that kind of money, Blizzard has been smart enough to deliver the complete MMORPG experience – the type that people lose their free time and spare change to enjoy. Simply put, WoW is an investment in both time and money, an investment that millions of people enjoy on a regular basis. Of course sometimes players burn out and get sick of the grind.

Sometimes they even switch to another game, but most of them end up coming back – if not for the game, then for the community the game has created. And while this community may be laden with spammers and jerks, the guild and party loyalty within the game is so strong that players who leave end up feeling guilty about the people they’re letting down. Check out this old Joystiq article (and the links therein) for examples of players feeling bad for not helping their guilds.

A gaming experience as pervasive as WoW does not leave room for seconds, especially not when a monthly fee is involved. Thus, microtransacions have become more popular and it is here that Valve has really stepped up its game. The week before Team Fortress 2 went free, Valve offered up a hardy selection of five Free-to-Play games on their Steam client. Here is a brief rundown of each:

Spiral Knights – an adorable top-down dungeon crawler from Three Rings and Sega that takes art cues from Ian McConville, whose artwork you might recognize from the webcomic Three Panel Soul.

Forsaken World – A World of Warcraft clone with generic fantasy characters in a generic fantasy setting. However, publisher Perfect World demonstrates some considerable influence from Eastern MMOs in character designs:

This is a Dwarf. Could you tell?

Champions Online: Free for All – The revamped, microtransaction based version of Cryptic Studios’ Champions Online. Cryptic is the same studio that brought us City of Heroes and City of Villains, which was dropped by Atari and more recently acquired by Perfect World. The game itself has added a lot of content since its release in 2009, and offers a large number of options for character and nemesis creation.

Global Agenda: Free Agent – the free-to-play version of the class-based sci-fi third-person shooter that quietly debuted in February of 2010. Like all these titles (except Spiral Knights) it wasn’t free to play at release. The class system in the game pulls heavily from the Team Fortress model of class balance, minus five classes. A full breakdown is available here.

Alliance of Valliant Arms – Another class-based shooter but set in more modern times. A.V.A uses the Unreal Engine 3 and rekindles the East vs. West tensions of the cold war, but with the European Union v. the Neo-Russian Federation. Unlike other class-based shooters, A.V.A. sports only three playable classes, forcing players to think more strategically about class choice in the heat of the moment.

Altogether, these games represent a wide spectrum of play styles (okay, maybe only RPG and Shooter) that have embraced the F2P model for online gaming. Valve has opened the door for its 30 million steam subscribers to browse cheap, free-to-play games and Blizzad has responded in kind. It seems that a bidding war has begun, and as companies continue to lower the pay wall, more people will get online – Just look at Team Fortress 2, which just supplanted Counterstrike as the most played game on Steam.

Of course none of these are “WoW Killers,” although the upcoming release of Star Wars: The Old Republic may loosen Blizzard’s grasp on MMORPGs. But as time goes on it seems more likely the great WoW behemoth will simply die of old age.

[News] [Analysis] Supreme Court knocks out California video game law June 27, 2011

Posted by Colin in News.
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In a 7-2 decision the Supreme Court upheld an appeal to California Civil Code sections 1746-1746.5, which banned the sale of violent video games to minors (read the technical version here). The case (now known as Brown v. EMA) has been awaiting resolution since last November, when the State of California and the Entertainment Merchant’s Association presented their arguments.

The discussion, which you can listen to or read here, came down to an argument of definitions: are violent video games obscene? Or, more astutely, does violence qualify as obscenity?

Justice Antonin Scalia delivered the court’s opinion, stating:

“Our cases have been clear that the obscenity exception to the First Amendment does not cover whatever a legislature finds shocking, but only depictions of ’sexual conduct.” Under Miller v. California (1973) the Supreme Court ruled that ‘obscenity’ (a particular type of unprotected speech) refers to specifically sexual content – not violent content, as the California law proposed.

This is the seventh such law banning violent video games to be struck down in the United States, but the first to make it all the way to the Supreme Court. The full text of the Supreme Court decision is available here (.pdf)

The decision seems to extend (or at least solidify) First Amendment protection for video games. 2011 has been a banner year for video games: in May, the National Endowment for the Arts rewrote its guidelines for the Arts in Media category, allowing video games to qualify for grants.

Roger Ebert is not pleased

Could it be that video games are gaining ground as a “serious” medium? With increasing publicity and legislation, it is easy to hope so. Plus, consider the facts: Americans spent over 25 billion dollars on video games in 2010. The average age of a gamer is now 37. This could be the start of a bright new future for the medium…

*Sigh* ... Just... NEVER MIND