Saturday, November 30, 2013

My First Two Weeks With My PlayStation 4

I wanted to write a 24 hour, instant, from the gut, opinion piece of my time with my PS4. It would have been easy, I would have written about how good/meh/good again Killzone Shadow Fall is, and how I’m afraid of playing Knack because of the reviews, and it would have totaled a paragraph or two in length. But I decided that I needed more time with this new beast from the house of Sony, so I held my thoughts, only for me to regurgitate them now. Side note; still afraid to play Knack, maybe after some… a lot of… whiskey.
Still don't know why I dropped $60 for this.
Let’s start with the most important part of any console; it’s controller. The PS3’s DS3 was fine. It fitted the mold that had been established since its introduction on the PlayStation, but Sony always seemed afraid to do anything major to it. The DS4 on the other hand is a great step up. It reminds me of the old PS3 boomerang concept controller, but you know, a serious effort this time. It’s really comfortable, fitting in my hands nicely. I also am fond of the touchpad, which so far in Killzone and Assassin’s Creed IV has been implemented nicely, but nothing revolutionarily. When it comes to live streaming from the PS4 I am genuinely surprised at how easy it is to just tap a button, choose my service of choice, and just go. I plug in the headset and begin talking. It’s really intuitive, and something I intend on using more once the holidays have passed.
On second thought, disregard everything I said about this controller.
The L2/R2 triggers have been given a vast overhaul this time. They are really comfortable to rest my fingers on, and I never feel like I am wrestling to keep them in place. The joysticks too have been vastly improved. I’m no longer having to readjust my thumb placement on them mid game and risk loosing a life due to a momentary lapse in concentration. I just haven’t had to think about the DS4, it’s just sat between my hands and has worked well, unlike the DS3 which upon reflection I was constantly battling with. Finally, the DS4 has a built in mic, which has been great when I played through Sound Shapes and Killzone, listening to various in game sounds/audio logs. Pro tip, its volume can be adjusted in the settings section under controller. The DS4 is great, comfortable, and feels solid in my hands.
Finally some triggers I can use.
Let’s move on to the user interface of the PS4. I’m surprised at how clean it looks and how easy it is to navigate. The shadow of the PS3’s XMB is still there, with the basic tabs you would need such as settings and friends list, but the meat and potatoes is a level below, where all your media is kept. First on the list is the recent games you’ve played/downloaded. Moving along you have various tabs that contains apps such as Netflix or Music Unlimited. It’s grouped smartly, and once you’ve logged on, it’s a simple click and you’re off. On the games front, once you’ve made your selection, the game loads up quick (Killzone very much so), allowing you to jump right in and begin the campaign/multiplayer without much effort. Want to take a quick break and check some messages, load up Netflix, or sync trophies, just hit the PS Home button and it flips you back to the main PS4 interface. All this points to an interface that feels like it was designed with ease, for a gamer who might change his/her mind halfway through a game and want a change in scenery. A vast improvement over the PS3.
It makes me feel so relaxed.
Now let’s talk some games. I’m going to start with Killzone Shadow Fall, which started great, dragged in the middle, only to bounce back in the final third. I’ve always found Killzone a little odd, mainly because I’ve always thought a far more interesting storyline would involve some alien force invading to kill off the Vectans/Helgans, forcing these formally two enemies to be allies. It would be interesting see how a fragile alliance works, with a lot of research going into battling aliens and keeping the former advisories from taking advantage of any lapses in security. However, we got the cold war this go around, which was fine, but I get the impression that Gurrilla took this far more seriously than they should have. If they had had a little fun with it, I might not have laughed at the end when The Flower Duet (Lakme) played. Overall, Killzone is very pretty, controls well, but like that stupidly hot girl from high school, would have been better served doing porn than attempting Shakespeare.
Sadly, no shiny Batnipples anywhere in this game.
Moving onto Assassin’s Creed IV. I bought the game on the PS3 and spent the $10 upgrade price to get it on the PS4. I’m a big AC fan. It’s my third favorite franchise of all time (after MGS and Uncharted), so barring it being an AC Revelations clone, there wasn’t much that was going to disappoint me. Thus far (I’m not even close to complete because I keep distracting myself by following the shiny objects here and there) I’ve had so much fun. I briefly compared my PS3 and PS4 version, and though I’m no expert, I could barely tell a difference in graphics between the two versions (Killzone does have it beat graphics wise). However, its story has been so much fun, and the lead, Edward, has so much charisma it really forces me to question why Connor did his best Harry Potter from The Oder of the Phoenix impression throughout ACIII. ACIV is great, but you can get a very pretty version on the PS3/Xbox 360, and outside of some controller enhancements, there is no need to get a PS4 just for this.
You can hear the dub step, and now that it's in you head, it will never leave.
Now it’s time to move on to the true killer app for PS4, and no, I’m talking about Sound Shapes or Resogun. I’m referring to remote play via PSVita. Now obviously, this would require you to have invested in a PSVita, something I did on its day one, and boy have I been glad. Gravity Rush and Tales from Space notwithstanding, the Vita has been a great little handheld, and definitely needs a price cut, but is a worthy addition for any gamer. However, when I put down the money to get one, I had no idea that I would be using it to stream my PS4 when others in my house want to use the TV. But you know what, I’ve been using it so much, that at times I’ll just find myself remote playing my PS4 through Vita while having Netflix on in the background via PS3. It’s a great little extra that I never thought I was going to use. It doesn’t hurt that Ubisoft released a companion app for ACIV that allows me to use my iPad as my in game map. I wouldn’t recommend streaming a first person game, let alone online multiplayer, but if you need to run around and collect items, why use the TV when you could watch some good old Legend of Korra or Star Trek? The PS4/Vita combo is great, and I can’t wait for the possibilities of the PSVita TV (if my daydreams are to be believed, it will be able to do everything!).
Killer app indeed!
So where do I stand with my PS4? I’m loving it. Just like I love my PS3, my PS2, and my PlaySation before it. But could I recommend it to someone who isn’t just looking for a new piece of kit? No. Wait a year. See how the PS4 does compared to the Xbox One. See if there will be more games that tickle your fancy, and if not, see if the Xbox has them. Look at the services offered by both companies, and see if there is something that you prefer over the other. Ultimately, your choice should be personal, so do the research, see if a friend or two has one or the other console, and compare. Figure out what you want, and don’t be afraid of spending some money. The PS4 is very good, just not good enough if you aren’t a gamer who needs to play Killzone, and eventually InFamous, The Order 1886 (incidentally the year the great Arsenal FC was founded as Dial Sq) and of course, Uncharted. Oh, and if you do get a PS4, do yourself a favor and invest in a Vita, it’s worth the price. 
One box to rule them all?

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Legend of Korra: Darkness Falls & Light in the Dark Review

Finally, the Vaatu has come back, to civilization. Man what an episode. I’ve had a week now to sit on my thoughts and figure out how much I valued this two part finale, and whether or not it lived up to the season or exceeded it. This episode was by far the best balanced this season has offered, and brought everything together nicely.

Let’s start with Mako/Bolin Vs. Unalaq/Desna/Eska. What a mismatch. Don’t get me wrong, Mako and Bolin are both accomplished fighters, but Desna/Eska alone have already proven this season that they can hold their own against Korra, and Unalaq has been so emboldened by his recent victories, there was no way Mako/Bolin had a shot at this one. Poor kids, maybe they will have a more important role in the seasons to come other than cannon fodder.

Let’s move to the spirit world, where Tenzin/Bumi/Kya are on the mission to save Jinora. This allowed us to get a deeper insight into this daunting yet charming world. Once again we are introduced to a spirit that has little to no love for humans, but she ended up inadvertently helping our trio. Put into a spirit ‘prison’ Tenzin is confronted with a lot of the complaints that I’ve personally leveled against him since season 1. Tenzin is not centered, not in control of his feelings, not as spiritual as he would like, and does live within his father’s shadow. It’s something that has been apparent since season 1, and something that has always bothered me. What makes all these insecurities meaningful now, is that fact that they led up to the moment where Tenzin must overcome the fog of doubt within in order to save those that he loves. And whether he was able to able to accomplish this with the help of his father, or by himself is immaterial, because Tenzin has grown, and it was necessary if the characters was to ever be depended upon again. Once finally cleared of all that held him down, Tenzin was able to save his family. On a side note, it was great to see a mad Zhao the Moon Killer, and surprising to see just how many humans were trapped in the fog of madness.

Now for the main match, Korra/Raava Vs. Unalaq/Vaatu. I expected this to be a difficult fight. Fighting evil always is, and Korra has had a long journey this season. But when Unalaq and Vaatu fused to become the Dark Avatar, I did not expect them to be as powerful as they were (after all, they were limited to only one form of bending). However, Unalaq fought Korra to a standstill. As seen previously, Yakone brought Aang to his knees, but Aang was able to Avatar State out of that situation. Here, Korra was up against someone who could match her almost power for power, and no Avatar in the known history of this universe has ever had to fight against something as powerful as a Dark Avatar. Korra had no reference point for this. She was truly on her own.

So Vaatu extracted Raava from Korra. Then Vaatu, in a very ultimate evil move, extinguished the light of Raava, seemingly destroying Korra’s connection to her past lives, and left to plunge the world into 10,000 years of darkness. When Amon blocked Korra’s ability to bend earth/water/fire, Korra was really shaken, but she still had air ending, and she still (at the time unknown) had Raava. Now everything she has ever known about herself was taken from her. She gave it her all, lost, and was stripped bare of everything she thought it meant to be Korra. Thankfully, a rejuvenated Tenzin was able to guide her thoughts and help her realize that there is more to her than Raava. It’s a very human problem, trying to reinvent oneself once everything you have ever known fails you, but she lived up to the task in a very Korra way, by becoming a giant blue mecha spirit thingy. With Korra off to fight Vaatu, Jinora off to find the light for Korra, Tenzin, Kya, Mako, Desna, Eska and Bolin are left to protect Korra’s body from an army of dark spirits.

Have you ever been in one of those situations where you are so painfully overwhelmed, that nothing but doubt governs your mind despite the fact that you still have to keep fighting, and no matter how hard you fight you end up losing? I have, and just when I was at my limit, a helping hand came along to ease the burden. That was the role Jinora played in this fight. She was the dark horse, the grand unknown, and ultimately the most important person the Avatar needed in order to ensure victory for peace around the world. Jinora has had an exceptional season, guiding Korra and Tenzin, and if we are to ever see these characters all grown up, I get the feeling that Jinora will be one of the greatest, if not the greatest spiritual leaders this world has ever seen. I’m glad that ultimately victory hinged on a human, and not the Avatar or some spirit.

With Vaatu defeated, Unalaq’s body destroyed, it was time for some housekeeping. Korra may no longer have the connection to her past lives anymore (at least for now), but I’m not so sure if that’s a bad thing. Korra has always been a free spirit, someone unafraid of making big decisions and dealing with the consequences head on, so I feel that now she is free of these shackles, she will do just fine. Korra is the new Avatar Wan for the next 10,000 years of Avatar, and sure, I’m going to miss Aang, a lot, and I can’t even imagine this show without a little Kyoshi, but like Unalaq said, the world is entering a new age, and who better than Korra to lead them through it.

More notes; the always great Varrick sprung outta jail in absolute style; Korra and Mako are thankfully no longer an item (but Asami too has to get over him); Bolin, despite his best(?) efforts could not win Eska back; and Korra chose not to close the spirit portals, allowing the spirits into the human world freely, reversing Wan’s legacy. I’ve said before that I’m not convinced that Wan was a very good Avatar, and I don’t know if what Korra has done is the right thing, but she has shattered the glass ceiling that separated humans and spirits, and now her role in the brave new world will be instrumental in shaping it for the next 10,000 years.

This season was not as smooth as season 1, but the story it told was easily more important than everything that has come before it. I’m going to hold judgment over the entire season until I watch it again, but this two part finale was really a joy to watch. It was animated beautifully, complimented by a great sound track. It wrapped up a very bold season that undoes many things that this show has set up since debuting in 2005. The rest of Korra is going to be defined by this season, for better or for worse, and if the show continues past Korra, the rest of the series will be held to what happened in Book 2: Spirits, at least until the next big reset. So now we have to wait till the next season, Book 3: Change, in 2014, but until then, I’ll be going back and watching this season, and going back to the beginning of Avatar and re-watching Aang’s adventures once again, because why not.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Legend of Korra: Harmonic Convergence Review

The second part of this week’s episode brought our main characters to the doorstep of cataclysm, with Harmonic Convergence just hours away, it was time to deal with Unalaq and Vaatu once and for all. And how does the team decide to go about fighting a superior army with literally only 10 or so people? Head on of course, because why not? Sure it was a weak battle plan. They could have tunneled underneath everyone and gotten right to the portal, I mean they have two earth benders, but that would have deprived us of one of the funniest episodes of the season.

Tenzin’s siblings have lived in his shadow for the entire season, and apparently life too if they are to be believed, but in this episode Bumi had his chance to shine. Since his introduction, Bumi has always seemed like he’s compensating. Maybe it’s because he’s older than his siblings and is starting to feel his age, or more likely it’s that he’s the only non-bender in a household that contained four, so he had to be loud and in your face to get some recognition. Regardless of the source of his inner feelings of inadequateness, Bumi is a cheerful spirit, much like Sokka and King Bumi before him. So when everyone else gets caught, only someone who can truly think outside the box could save the day.

Watching Bumi fumble his way past guards and evil spirits was truly enjoyable. He was funny, something the show, especially this season, has lacked to a certain degree. Sokka was always lightening up the mood in the previous series, and Bolin, before his ‘I’m an actor now’ shtick broke the tension more often than not. Varrick had his moments, but when he took a turn to the dark side, his funny antics were put on the back burner for a more sinister approach, so watching Bumi save the day Jack Sparrow style really stood out.

What was great about his rescue mission was how it was foreshadowed the entire episode without you really realizing it. He was constantly telling everyone of his crazy missions when in the army, and all the kind of kooky ways he would save the day. No one took him seriously, and to a certain degree, as the viewer, you couldn’t either. I mean some of the things he was implying were outlandish. But in the end, he saved the day with nothing but his flute, and a stolen mecha tank. It was hilarious to see him angering evil spirits, try to fight them one on one, and eventually lead them on a chase that brought down the entire enemy camp. He truly lived up to the namesake Bumi, and no doubt uncle Sokka taught him a thing or two about quick thinking.

With all free, everyone had a goal. Tenzin, Kia and Bumi were off the find Jinora’s spirit. Mako and Bolin were to hold off Unalaq. Korra was to close the portals and prevent Vaatu from becoming free and Unalaq from becoming the Dark Avatar. Unfortunately for Korra, she was too late. The planets aligned, and Harmonic Convergence commenced, freeing Vaatu. This is a fight 10,000 years in the making, and one I am very excited to see.

This episode was pure fun, and we needed that. It’s been a while since I genuinely laughed without the sense of tension in the background, and one more episode earlier in the season like this might have helped this season flow a little better. It was animated well and had a great soundtrack. I’m going to hold off on publishing my review for the two part finale until they air, even though it is on the Korra site. For the review of part I click here

The Legend of Korra: Night of a Thousand Stars Review

Last week, I was hit with the emotional heart strings when Iroh came on screen, bringing back fond memories of the original cast of the Avatar series, and I may have reacted harshly to Team Avatar 2. This week’s episode reminded me that though they are vastly different, Team Avatar 2 are a great cast of characters. If the Gaang were the Justice League, a group who works well together though not necessarily seeing eye to eye on everything, Team Avatar 2 are the Avengers, who constantly step on each other’s toes and work best with one another when their backs are against the wall.

Let’s start with Bolin. The kid never had the angst of Mako, or the drive of Asami. He has been content with drifting around, being pulled in one direction or another until it’s time to move on. And you know what, that’s fine, he’s 16. He’s still trying to figure out who he is and where he belongs in this world. Hell, many people in their 40’s struggle with those very issues. But when push came to shove, Bolin stepped up to the plate and did the bold thing, which was to save the president, capture the assailants, and prove his brother innocent. I forgot just how powerful and resourceful Bolin can be, and he did a good job cleaning up Varrick’s mess.

Speaking of Varrick, the man who is full of endlessly good quotes finally pushed things too far and got caught in his web of deceit and trickery. I am a little disappointed; what’s up with all the industry giants being baddies, is this a reflection of the current crop of Wall St executives? At least Varrick wasn’t trying to help the goals of some mad despot like Asami’s dad, he was just in it for the money; there was no ideology. I liked that. It was simple, neat, and the fact that Varrick himself was so self-aware of the boundaries he was pushing and unsurprised when the rug finally got pulled from beneath him, I couldn’t help but be once again charmed by the man who was the best new character introduced this season.

Combining Asami’s and Mako’s character ark this season is simple. Once again, like season 1, Asami didn’t really go anywhere, which is surprising because she has some very interesting story lines the writers could deal with (dad in jail, 18 year old CEO who is trying to keep a company, her love life, and competitors in place), but she didn’t get much screen time, and was reduced to flying Team Avatar from one place to the next. Mako too didn’t have much ground to cover. He figured that Varrick was the bag guy, got put in jail due to some very questionable character judgment calls by Lin, and was proven right in the end. There really isn’t much to discuss about these two, which in the case of Asami is a shame because there is more to her than just puppy love over Mako, and it should be told.

Some may question President Raiko’s decision to not help the Southern Water Tribe with his army, but from his point of view why should he. The United Republic is not the USA of 1900s. It’s the USA of the 1800’s, despite how much it looks like the 1920s. They were a collection of former colonies from the most powerful empire the world has seen, and have quickly developed into a cultural hub, but not a world leading influence. And in that regard, President Raiko is like a James Monroe, or a John Quincy Adams; they aren’t the legends that were the founding fathers, but their role in sustaining the young country they were now in charge of allowed the other, more Abraham Lincolny type presidents to make the bold choices and make big history. In the end Raiko was right to keep his troops in his country, let the rest of the world figure its own problems out.

Finally, let’s talk Tonraq. When fighting, he may not be as swift as Korra, but he is just as straight forward and head strong as she, and it really is great to see where she gets it from. We now know that for so long Tonraq has run from his past, not willing to confront it till it was too late (something Aang did for about a 100 years), but the truth eventually came out. Tonraq had to fight, not just for his family and the personal injustice, but because he is the rightful leader, and if he wasn’t willing to fight for his position, then no one would. But he decided to act too late, and Unalaq, feeling emboldened from his recent victories, was no longer afraid of his big bro, and unsurprisingly beat him into submission! What’s to come for Tonraq, time will tell.

This was a good episode, animated well with a great backing soundtrack. I will continue to post a separate review for each episode.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Legend of Korra: A New Spiritual Age Review

I wrote a review for last week’s episode of Korra, and as I reread after writing it, it came off as so mean spirited that I chose not to publish it; after all, if you have nothing good to say, why say anything at all? However, before I get into this week’s review, here is the most important sentences of what I had wrote; “Once again, like I’ve said in many of my previous reviews, Tenzin proves how much of a poor teacher he is, especially when compared to someone like old General Iroh, who was measured, smart, confident, and above all loving. Tenzin just comes off as a spoiled brat.” I did not like that episode! This week’s, on the other hand, more than made up for it.
The only important thing from last week is the Unalaq and Vaatu are in cahoots.
With Korra and Jinora now in the spirit world, the show finally picks off where Avatar Wan left us. Watching the two kids (yes, I know Korra is 17, and yes, that means she, and possibly you, are still a kid) explore the spirit world for the first time was interesting. Aang was so connected to his spiritual side all this came easy to him. His troubles were with confronting adversary head on, something Korra has no issue with, and something that proved to be her undoing in the spirit world, as seen when she gets overwhelmed by all the spirits.
Jinora taking Korra on a journey.
In the show previously, from The Last Air Bender up to The Legend of Korra, it has always been apparent that spirits are extremely powerful beings. We have seen them crush armies, steal faces, swallow up libraries, while humans have been constantly at their mercy. This still holds true in this episode, but they have one glaring weakness; they are hugely dependent upon the moods of people, and more so with the Avatar. As soon as Korra goes on the defensive against a bunch of confronting spirits, Korra did what comes naturally, takes a stand and try to force them away from her. This proved to be wrong, instantly turning them ‘evil’, and that’s when I realized that quite possibly humans might be worse for spirits than spirits are for humans. But who’s to know for sure, spirits did force humans to live on the backs of the Lion Turtles!

From here, the two are separated. Jinora, much like Aang, is quite confident and happy with the spirits, finding a companion quickly thus moving her adventure along. Korra however, reverts back to a childlike state, feeling overwhelmed, scared, unsure, and sad. It’s in this moment where she needs the guidance of someone wise, measured, smart, and competent. Enter a character I did not realize I had been missing for so long; the one true General Iroh.
Oh how I have missed you good sir.
I almost cried when I saw Iroh again. Maybe it was because of the great characters his original voice actor Mako portrayed, or because after Toph, Iroh was the best character on the old show, but watching him come into frame made me very nostalgic for the old show, and reminded me of how much I miss the old Gaang, and how much more I actually prefer them (sacrilege)! It’s not because Korra is doing her best impression Harry Potter during The Order of the Phoenix , or that I just don’t like Mako, or that I find Bolin to be increasingly one note, or that I don’t know why Asami still has a thing for Mako, but it’s exactly all of that actually. I found the Gaang more interesting.

Iroh, in his brief 10 to 15 minutes of show time, helped Korra more with his advice that Tenzin has been able to help Korra since the first season. And I love that fact that once he was done with the material world (translation – died!) he transcended into the spirit world to live with them. Of course, none of this is surprising if you know the good General’s history, and it was so good to finally have a steadying hand guide the Avatar, she’s been in desperate need of someone competent for quite a while now. With Iroh guiding her, Korra was able to find strength from within, and help a bunch of spirits too in the process.

Jinor, on the other hand, put her trust in the wrong spirit. Wan Shi Tong was an arrogant, mean spirit, who I always personally blamed for the theft of Appa, because blaming Toph is unfair, and blaming Sokka is like being annoyed at a baby for being cute. So when he reared his ugly face on screen, I knew we were in for trouble. Sure he was going to side with Unalaq (I mean he has a sinister sounding voice), and sure Jinora was going to get caught, how else was Korra going to be forced to open the last spirit portal, but I hope this doesn’t cause Jinora to distrust spirits. She is light years ahead of anyone else we have been introduced to this series in terms of spirituality, and she has the potential to be one of the greatest Air benders because of this connection. I’m sure this experience will inform her moving forward, but I doubt that it will have a lasting negative affect (that is if she survives!).
A face even a mother couldn't love!
So with Jinora trapped, Korra forced to open the spirit portal and almost caught herself, and harmonic convergence only days away, this episode helped move the plot along far more competently that last week’s effort. We now have purpose. Tenzin needs to get Jinora back. Korra needs to stop Unalaq and Vaatu, and Mako (uhg) needs to something something Varrick. This season has been interesting thus far. When it’s all said and done, I am very much looking forward to going back and re-watching it from beginning to end. Whereas each episode from the first season could stand alone with characters making tough, yet smart decisions, this season has thus far come off as a little messy and questionable at times. But like season 4 of Arrested Development, it’s very possible that it all comes together in the end to prove just how smart it was all along. Time will tell. This episode was great, both the animation and music brought this episode alive organically, like ‘leaves from the vine, falling so slow’.