Saturday, December 31, 2011

Video Game Assessment: Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (2011)

Hell yes. Hell yes!

My review of this game was originally going to be me saying that simple sentence above about fifty times. That's what this game is. It's a can of "Hell yes!" This game is fantastic through-and-through, great levels, great gameplay, great characters, and great story. There's almost nothing to dislike here, unless you dislike mass slaughter in video games or Nathan Drake as a character. Well, I guess you could be in the audience that doesn't like it because it rips off of Indiana Jones. Fair enough, I say.

Well, despite being a bit of a rip-off, it's a fantastic rip-off. It's a game that looks and feels original even while seeming to be a bit of a love letter to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It's a good movie to give a love letter to, easily my favorite Indiana Jones film, and despite being similar to the movie, Uncharted 3 does a lot differently. The story is wholly original. The gameplay feels sublime. The characters are realistic and wonderfully done through and through. Sully is fantastic. Cutter, a character introduced in this game, is also fantastic. Drake himself is wonderful as well. The game plays the same as its always played, but there are some interesting innovations, mostly with fighting mechanics. Boy, did they love those fisticuffs mechanics.

And you know something? It works. The fights have weight behind them and never really feel old or tiring. The places where a gun fight is going to be difficult, the gun fight is difficult. The places where climbing or running from something is going to be difficult, it's difficult there too. The game feels right. It feels good. Certainly there are some rougher things, but innovation is going to get you that. Some of the scenes and story moments go on a little too long or don't make as much sense as they should, and, like the second game, some parts of the game can be incredibly frustrating and trial-and-error.

Now, that's not a bad thing. It just simply is. Games should be difficult to feel like you've accomplished something in the end. And I feel like I have simply by playing this game. I feel like I can't say as much as I want to or need to. I can't say enough good things about this game.

The locales are gorgeous as is expected in these games. And the first half of the game is brilliant in my opinion. The pacing, the gameplay, the look and feel of the game... everything is right. The characters and situations works well together, blending ideas and emotions, and making something suitably awesome in its wake. The villains are some of the best villains I've ever seen. They're easy to hate and wonderful to hate. There was even a scene near the middle of the game that made me recoil from the screen seeing how ruthless the main villain of the game is. I don't think that any other game has ever made me do that, and that's a testament to the power of writing in this game.

The second half is also well done, but also very challenging. There are fewer characters to interact with, and that buddy system throughout the first half of the game seems to go away in the second, and, honestly, it felt disappointing to leave certain characters behind. I did like the Arabic levels though. I can speak and understand a smattering of basic Arabic, and it was cool to hear and understand some common phrases. I thought it was neat, but that's just because it personally wowed me.

The ending and some of the more psychological elements to the game are also fantastic, but knowing me, they would be, wouldn't they? I have a thing for well done psychological stuff and this game has a good heap of it, especially towards the end. Hell, it kind of throws in some dark psychological horror like stuff, and how could I not like that? Seriously.

I also loved the voice acting and the music and everything about this game. The difficulty could be a bit bad at times, but never bad enough that I couldn't finish a level. Honestly, altogether, it was a fantastic game and I have nothing bad to rant about and only good things to say, so I'm going to recommend it and stop.

Anyway, this was my favorite new game of the year, and what a year it's been. I've played through a few games for the first time this year, including Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts IIDragon Age II, Uncharted 3, The Lord of the Rings: War in the North, Portal 2, Psychonauts, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Honestly I've liked them all. Uncharted 3 is still my favorite of the year though, and, honestly, I kind of like it better than the second game as well. But anyway, those are my two cents.

I do have some more reviews coming in January, don't you worry, but this will be my last review of the year. Expect a heavy review of Mass Effect 2 as well as a possible review of Dungeon Siege III if I finish it in time. I have some movies I'll probably check out as well, and maybe a book or two if I get the time to read. Anyway, I'm off for this year! Have a great new year! 2012, fun times, right there... yup.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Video Game Assessment: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)

This game is a juggernaut of immersion and space. This is... you know what? It's not just a game. It can't be simply a game. It feels like a reality simulation. Not that it, in fact, deals with reality at all, being fantasy and all, but it feels more real than reality, looks more real than reality, and takes you in more than reality. It's incredible. This game has an immersion level that, I think, is unprecedented. Its locales are topnotch, beautiful and wonderfully rendered. The weapons have weight behind them as you swing them, or shoot them at enemies. The items are all there, from cups to any kind of food a fantasy realm should have, to books full of words. It's incredible how much detail is in this game.

Now, I'm going to put a few things out in the open right now. In my opinion these kinds of games have very specific weaknesses, and I'll get into that in a few lines. The biggest thing to remember though is that this game is quality whether you like it or not, and you'll probably like it, it is a well put together video game that is basically everything a video game should be. You fight things, you explore, you do quests, you level up. BAM. And that's just on a basic level. You want to do other things, you can do those things too. Kill off an entire village? Go ahead and do it, buddy. Want to go and explore thousand year old ruins of a forgotten civilization ending up in a place called Blackreach that glows and is full of that civilization's former slaves that are now insane and evil creatures bent on destruction of all other forms of life? Well, you can do that too.

There's so much here for Bethesda to be proud of, and I hope they are. Their sales numbers for the game should be making them happy at least. And that's fantastic. Despite what I'm going to say later on, this is the direction video games should be taking. This is the right direction despite Skyrim's faults and missteps. And thats what you should take away from this review. I have a huge recommendation for you to go out and buy this game and play it if you have the time and the console (or PC) for it. Seriously, if you haven't played it yet, you're missing something special. It will take up a bunch of your time. There's no escaping that. There's no 100% in this game either. It goes on, quite literally, forever, having sidequests that appear randomly and the ability to just keep doing things for as long as you want to do things.

The exploration is done well in that Oblivion and Fallout 3 kind of way in which dungeon exploration is unique and feels like an adventure within itself. You'll want to explore every dungeon, but God speed on that. There are a lot, and by a lot, I mean a ton, of dungeons to explore. And every one is unique and worth exploring. WOW.

As for the negatives, sure there are negatives, and anybody who tells you there aren't is just stupid, not paying attention, or maybe they hate you. That could be a good reason for not telling a person the faults in the game.

Well, the first fault is the bugs (and the glitches). Whew boy are there a lot of bugs. People seem to trade the bugs they've seen in Skyrim like old war wounds or something. It's kind of incredible. I've never seen a game's bugs be almost as popular as the game itself before, well except maybe in Red Dead Redemption when people acted like animals. But that was incredibly strange too. The biggest bugs I found in my game were pretty mundane in comparison to a lot of people's bugs. I found a lot of textural issues, especially with water just disappearing and I'd be swimming through... what seemed to be nothing at all. So, yeah, that was odd. I also found myself, once, dying from a foot high fall. For some reason the game decided that I was falling from a huge height when i was just stepping down  about a foot or so. So, yeah, that was odd. Some enemies also acted kind of strangely in my game, not attacking me simply because I was on the opposite side of a door they were standing on the other side of. Well, it made it easy for me to kill them, but it was strange, again. For the most part I didn't encounter a ton of glitches. Floating things happened quite a bit too, like floating cups or corpses, but that happens in all of Bethesda's games, so I'm used to that by now. But the biggest glitch or bug I encountered was rather game breaking though. I was in a dungeon and tried to go back through a door I had come in previously and the game would crash every time I went through that door. I had to go forward. The game was making me go forward. It didn't help that I thought I missed something important in that last room and I was really lost. That was particularly bad.

But those are bugs. Who cares about bugs? I usually don't complain about them unless they are like that one bug in Dragon Age: Origins- Awakening, the expansion pack for the first Dragon Age game, where certain quests literally couldn't be completed, some of them important to characters or plot. I hated that bug so much. I also have to say one more thing, I hate people complaining about some games with bugs and praising other games with bugs. I like Fallout: New Vegas. I like it a lot. It was one of my favorite games last year if not my favorite besides Deadly Premonition, and people constantly complain about it having bugs when I have not seen a single one in THREE PLAYTHROUGHS. Yes, the game crashes on me a few times, but there's a chance that any game will crash. Mass Effect crashed on me last month when I was playing it. It's stupid to complain about something that happens in every game. I hate the people who rag on New Vegas for seemingly no reason. Go get a life, trashwads. If you're not going to complain about Skyrim, Fallout 3, or Oblivion, do not complain about New Vegas when it is clearly better than at least two of those other games. Actually I like it better than Skyrim too, but that is literally personal preference.

And I guess this is the time I go and say why my opinions of Skyrim have gone down since really playing the game in depth. Not that I think it's a bad game. I don't. It's just that there are some very shallow aspects of the game and it really takes me out of the immersion. And they're things that the studio should have concentrated on more. It was always their weakness and... they could make a brilliant game if only they concentrated more on it. The thing I speak of are realistic characters and good plots. Yes, the game goes on forever, but without good quests and sidequests, why the hell would I want to play it forever?

First up: characters. Why, oh why, Bethesda do you insist on making games without good characters? Yes, there are several good characters in this game, almost all exclusively in the Dark brotherhood sidequest like Oblivion, but most of the characters are shallow to the extreme, with no discernible personalities or characteristics. Even the main characters in the game like the ones involved in the rebellion or killing the main enemy of the game... well, even they're mostly very shallow. Why? Companion characters have no real depth besides what the player put on them. They have no sidequests, no real anything... And this is where New Vegas wins, with its focus on character (Think of almost any companion character from that game or House or Benny or Caesar or... the list goes on and on.) and plot. Skyrim's characters are just weak messes on the floor compared to New Vegas and it shows. It shows time and time again. I like strong charactered games. It's why I liked Dragon Age II so much despite seemingly every person who has a computer literally hating that game so much that I feel their brains are going to have rage aneurysms. Characters matter to me and Skyrim did not do its best there, and I feel bad about that. I dislike that failure on their part. The depth and the immersion is gone when I realize that all the characters around me are shallow automatons. And maybe this is just a problem specific to me, but I doubt it. I think it's an issue for everybody. Maybe you don't actively see it as an issue, but your brain certainly does when you finally put the game down because you can't get into it anymore.

Second: plot. Why is the plot so shallow and irrelevant? You don't really even need to do the plot. I know that's almost standard in these types of games but... come on! Go kill a dragon. It's vitally important. Okay, I'll do it after I explore for fifty hours in dungeons and such. But VITALLY IMPORTANT! Nah, bro, game's not going to end. I can do what I want. The whole issue here is that there is never a feeling that you have to do anything... which means that the plot is literally unimportant. It's about exploration, not about story, and, again, there is a shallowness to it. This could very well just be me and my own preference as well. My girlfriend who's been playing the game as well has no issue with this complaint, liking the freedom, but she also hasn't played it anywhere near as long as I have, so there's that. This doesn't bother me as much as characters, but it does bother me when there is a strongly put together plot in the Dark Brotherhood sidequest and the VERY END of the main quest and nowhere else. I mean, yes, I guess the Thieve's Guild quest is all right, but again... the plot is just nowhere near where the Dark Brotherhood's quest is. And I love the Dark Brotherhood and that quest. It works so well and is brilliant through-and-through. I mean, the only good quest with believable characters from Oblivion was the Dark Brotherhood one too. Well, at least they're consistent... I guess I want more from my quests, some sense of urgency, some reason to care and I haven't really gotten those at all, not in Skyrim, not in the way I feel urgent about New Vegas, or even Fallout 3. It just... it feels like it was made to be a wandering simulator with characters and plots as an afterthought, and when those are two of my favorite things about a video game, it ruins my desire to play the game more. I just reviewed War of the Ring and I really liked it. It had good characters and a plot that I could get behind and support. I wanted to end the bad guy and win the game for the good guys because it made me care by good writing and a good plot. Skyrim really has neither with the exception of the Dark Brotherhood. For such a big game, it is quite shallow.

Well, those are my complaints. Altogether though, this is a good game for the people who have the time to play it and get really immersed into it. I complain because I like the game and want it to be better, not because I think it's bad at all. A lot of people have put this game as their best game of the year, and I can see why. It's brilliantly crafted and put together even with the faults, but this isn't my favorite game of the year  because of those faults and because I think another game or two were better in terms of a lot of things including characters and plots. So, this game is tied for third in my game of the year title with Dragon Age II, both good games in their own rights, but both with some fairly fundamental flaws.

My game of the year will be my next review by the way. Portal 2 came in second for me.

Anyway, my final thought for Skyrim: great game, well put together, great music, great gameplay, repetitive voice acting, lack of plot and characters besides Dark Brotherhood, a great time sink, fun game, dragon killing is the BEST, and draugrs appear way too often and lose their mystery. Seriously though, if you have the means and opportunity to play it, I recommend it. It's an experience at least, one that won't soon be forgotten. There's something about wandering the beautiful environments that's ridiculously awesome. And everything looks gorgeous. Get out on your adventure, and have a great time killing those stinkin' dragons!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Video Game Assessment: The Lord of the Rings: War in the North (2011)

So, let's end the year with a few reviews of various video games, shall we? I think I'll be reviewing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, and The Lord of The Rings: War in the North.

First up is this game, The Lord of the Rings: War in the North, and let me say what a game it is. You might be expecting a weak video game here, based off the movie, hastily put together, a big cash cow for the new studio that took over the Lord of the Rings video game franchise. And you know what, you silly person you? You'd be wrong.

Now, I have to say that EA Games has never really enamored itself to me, and the Lord of the Rings video game franchise is one of the BIG reasons that I have a dislike of the publisher. There seem to have been a lot of missteps with the franchise... The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, the only "RPG" game in the franchise before this one, really sticks out in my brain as one of the subpar ones. I played that game, years ago now, and hated it. I wanted to like it. The Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite things in all the world, and I wanted to play through it in the worst way... and I came away from that basically vowing to never touch another LotR game again. It was just that bad. But then I heard some good things about this game, War in the North. A new studio had taken control of it, Snowblind, and everything seemed to be moving in the right direction.

Then I saw some reviews. The first review I ever saw was a brilliant one, telling of the game's positive qualities for fans of the movie or the book. The reviewer seemed to be positively beaming during the entire course of his writing the review. So, that was good. Then I saw some other reviews tearing this game to ribbons, and I grew worried and anxious. I was still very anxious about the game until I started playing it and...

Well, the game is interesting, I'll give it that much. It's brilliantly put together in a bunch of ways and combines tactics, RPG elements, lore from the book and the movie, and interesting characters and locations to make a decidedly very decent idea for a video game, but does it hold up? I guess that's the question. Does it perform well under scrutiny? Especially for the game having an M rating, the first in the franchise to have one... Does the game blow my socks off? Or does it disappoint?

Well, this is going to be a somewhat different review than I usually do. Sure, I'll go over what makes it good or bad, but mostly I want to talk about how this game is put together lovingly.

Yes, lovingly. I have to talk about it because, damn... it's absolutely true. I want to clap and cheer for Snowblind for absolutely loving this franchise enough to make something that FEELS like LotR and acts like LotR. It's not just the lore or the locations that they use that tells me this. It's the dialogue, which sounds like it should in the settings. It's the characters that act like they ought to act. It's the voice acting in general that really speaks of the fact that everybody involved seemed to have a stake in this franchise. Maybe I'm reading too deeply into it. Maybe none of what I'm saying is true. I guess it seems like these things are true to me. It's seems that this game was put together with loving hands, and, to me, it shows and is fantastic.

Yes, this game is really good. No, it's not the best game ever. It's certainly not a great RPG, but that's not what I wanted. I wanted a good LotR game and that's exactly what I got with this game. It's a pretty weaksauce RPG all around, being some kind of strange hybrid of a hack-and-slash game and a RPG like Dragon Age II or Mass Effect 2, going around with a hub system of friendly areas and fighting areas. There are sidequests and there are elements of exploration, and those feel great. I have to say I really like that here. In general though, the game is mostly an RPG in name only. Certainly there are choices one can make throughout the course of the adventure, and there are three characters that one can play, but there never seems to be a reason to really explore the RPG elements in depth. It feels very lightly put in, and that's neither good nor bad. It just kind of is. It works well here though, for what it's worth, and that's not always true with every game of this type. I think it's because the story has a foregone conclusion. But anyway, it works in my opinion.

The characters that are unique to this game and the characters that don't appear in the movie, but are mentioned in the books... those two groups of characters... well, they have fantastic voice acting and are really great to listen to. The characters that were in the movie though... UGH... it's painful to listen to Aragorn, Elrond, or Bilbo... I think because their actual actors were better... or maybe because the voice actors were trying unsuccessfully to imitate. Anyway, it didn't work.

The gameplay is mostly fun, but can be on the challenging and even frustrating side, especially in the areas of Mirkwood and, God help me, the defense of the Dwarven city... my God that was the frustrating side of difficult. Man, oh man... I must have died about fifty times there. It was particularly painful there. Anyway, for the most part though, the gameplay is fluid and fun without too much hassle or problems. It works like it should and I like it for what it is.

The soundtrack is also quite good, having a fantasy feel all around. It reminded me slightly of the Dragon Age games, and that's a good thing, I think. It sounded good.

The environments and locales are pretty well done, but sometimes felt a little too large, especially earlier on in the game. Fornost and Rivendell are examples I have to point out about this because they seemed such strange ones. Fornost is the first real area, fighting-wise in the game, full of goblins. You meet the big bad guy of this game there too. But it goes on so long, much longer than so many of the other levels in the game, and I'm not sure why. It's not really particularly engaging. Rivendell is pointed out here too because, for a hub world, it feels a little too large. Only select members of the Fellowship are there too... and I'm uncertain why. Why have any of them at all if you're not going to show all of them? It seemed strange. Rivendell is much larger than I would have thought as well and I have no idea. It sticks out in my mind because I don't quite get it.

Other than some hiccups in level design (which do seem to get better as the game progresses, just pointing that out), most of the game is really solid. I've seen a lot of average scores for this game, and, to me, it's easy to see how a person who isn't a fan of LotR can give this a middling review. It's nothing special for the audience of regular people out there. I'll tell you something honestly here: Don't get this game if you aren't a fan. You won't appreciate it. You won't. I'm sorry, but I think the reviewers just don't seem to understand how good this game is for the fan of the movies or the books. It's basically perfect because the game developers seemed to really care and put that extra effort into it. The eagles were a particularly nice touch, as well as Radagast the Brown, and the Barrow-Wights. Those were some of my favorite things in the game and they worked really well. Oh yeah... the dragon too. He was all the right kinds of awesome.

This game mostly made me want more of it and that's never a bad thing. It made me want The Hobbit to come out sooner than next year and that's not a bad thing either. Hell, in general I really enjoyed this game. It had an interesting a solid story and worked for the most part. I recommend it to fans. The game also looks very good at times if you're into that kind of thing. The ending is particularly noteworthy, but the eagles in general were lovingly rendered.

Anyway, that's my two cents about this game. I really liked it, maybe you will too.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas: A Review

Hey, everybody, I hope you all have a great Christmas and happy holidays in general! That Harry Potter book review took a lot out of me, but I was thrilled to finally do it. Expect some more reviews sooner rather than later. I have Skyrim, Mass Effect 2, and a few movies on my radar before my next semester starts up.

Anyway, I'm reviewing what I think Christmas is all about.

So, here goes nothing: Christmas is somewhat hard to categorize. You could find yourself like Scrooge or the Grinch, or a thousand other characters in Christmas movies. Maybe you get excited like Jack Skellington or maybe you hate it all... well, Christmas isn't a movie. It's a time to spend with your family, friends... or, I guess, yourself if it comes down to it. I can't say what Christmas means objectively, so I'll tell you what it means to me.

A Christmas Carol is a good place to start with what I love about the idea of Christmas. Scrooge finding the true meaning of it has always been a soft spot in my heart. Perhaps that story, with its ghosts, was the first real "horror" story that I absolutely fell in love with. Also: I'm showing my hand here about what I like, but Retsupurae makes the holidays special with their lighthearted humor in making fun of people playing video games or video games themselves! It's like an MST3K for the internet-goers among us! I recommend it. That video in general has a nice holiday feel to it, and should warm your heart if it's not warm already.

A Christmas Story, which plays on TBS for God knows how long on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is another movie that has defined Christmas for me. I love that little guy's pursuit for his Red Rider BB Gun. God speed, little man. Actually, I like the father's leg lamp best myself, but who doesn't? Am I right? It's sad, but I have a cousin who was literally the spitting image of little Ralphie when he was younger. It was seriously uncanny. So, the movie was always a favorite around this time of year as it continues to be today.

I'm not going to say that I'm in love with Christmas or that you should take away some message to my utter Christmas morning ramblings, but... I think the thing that makes me the happiest is seeing someone's eyes light up as they open that gift they really wanted or never expected. I also like getting stuff too. I can't deny that one.

Anyway, have a Merry Christmas and this was stupid, I know, but I felt like writing something... so here you go.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Series Criticism: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1998) by J. K. Rowling

The Harry Potter series is like a wave. Everybody (and by that I mean people who have the chance to live in first world countries and to read) knows about it, knows the little guy with the circular glasses on the cover above this writing, with his orphan-status, his sad state of affairs living with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, and his entrance into the magical world of witchcraft and wizardry. That one is kind of a main point for this series, wouldn't you say?

I'm actually going to be rereading all of the Harry Potter books, and I will be looking at them from, I think, a unique perspective. I was a crazy little person in love with this series from around the time I was eleven until I hit about eighteen, when the final book of the series came out. I was really into the books for about the same amount of time that Harry Potter was in his magical school having his tales told to us... but then the seventh book happened as well as all of the abortions that call themselves films, and I became jaded and cynical. I had a deep and terrible falling out with the Harry Potter series. I started hating the world. The ending of the Harry Potter series along with the Star Wars prequel trilogy, the fourth Indiana Jones film, and Futurama and Firefly being cancelled all helped to create the jaded and cynical madman writing this review. Sure, there were probably other reasons, like maybe possible mental imbalance and a massive overload of psychological horror films (and Jacob's Ladder), college, House of Leaves, and massive overdoses of caffeine, but those are totally not the point of this review.

This review is about the first book of the Harry Potter series as reviewed by a person who can no longer stand Harry Potter. I say this because I lived in the years of this book series. I was ten or eleven when I read the first book and all of eighteen when I read the final abomination of the English language, but you know, I'm going to be fair here, not letting my own personal history hating the Harry Potter books get in the way of an honest and reliable review for all of you who might want that. I will be rereading the books, even the ones that make me angrier than I've ever been, bringing me to the verge of a heart-attack and a massive brain aneurysm together making a double-hatred death... but I will do this, mostly because I love torturing myself, and partially because I feel like I should give the series another chance, let it try its best to redeem itself in my eyes. And well, I wrote this introduction before reading the first book, so everything that follows will be my honest opinion of the book twelve years after first reading it, taking into consideration that I am no longer ten, and pretending very strongly I have never read the books before. Expect a large review, full of plot analysis. I will be going all out here. I will be looking at the five musts of book writing as well: tone, theme, plot, characters, and setting, and will also drive a focus on writing style and skill, trying to accurately describe my experience. Anyway, this will be a ride-and-a-half and I hope to get it all done before the end of summer, so sit back and enjoy this sucker. I hope I do too!

Okay, I did not finish the book by the end of the summer. Hey, you get busy, it happens. Then my October reviews came along and college, blasted college, and I've been playing catch up for a while now, but here it is: my crown jewel reviews, the ones that I am really looking forward to. This first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Also subtitled as Philosopher's Stone in most other markets that aren't America... and that would make more sense too. The Sorcerer's Stone isn't anything, while the Philosopher's Stone is what is featured in this book as used by Nicholas Flamel and desired by Voldemort and his "host" Prof. Quirrell.) Oh, by the way, expect spoilers. I say this after I just wrote a major one, but I am heavily expecting only people who know about Harry Potter to read this. If you don't, it's been out for over ten years! I think I can spoil something that was spoiled over ten years ago, you hypothetical stupid git.

Okay, I'm going to start with plot and plot analysis first because the plot here is pretty meaningful to the book. It starts off years before with an opening prologue discussing the recent deaths of certain characters we won't see again for some time. These characters include Harry Potter's parents as well as Voldemort, the great evil wizard who has it out for the wizard world because he's evil and terrible and likes death and pain and he's evil. Did I mention that he's evil? Because he is evil.

Well, we are introduced in the prologue to Dumbledore and McGonagall, a wizard and a witch who respectfully work as the headmaster and Transfigurations professor (and deputy headmistress) at Hogwarts, a school for witchcraft and wizardry. Oh, God... this is hurting to write. You all should know this already if you're reading this review... Anyway, eventually a hairy big dude named Hagrid comes down from a flying motorcycle thing owned by one Sirius Black with a hairy potter in his arms... uh... wait... I mean, Harry Potter, the titular character of the series in his arms. Harry's a baby by the way and he has this wicked lightning scar on his forehead, surviving the spell of death, which his parents had succumbed to, and vanquishing Lord Voldemort (he's evil by the way) because he's a baby who's pure and innocent and bleh. I get it, book. I get it. Evil versus good. Fight!

So, little Harry Potter is given to his aunt and uncle because he has no other family to speak of. They happen to be horrible guardians of this unnatural  ilk, often treating him as one might treat a dog or a cat rather than a sensitive young person who needs to be nurtured and made into a hipster. Wait... look, he's treated pretty awfully, to the point of it being incredibly fairy-tale-like. And I have to say, it's pretty well done. You sympathize with him. You want him to get out of his bad situation. And yet you know that he's stuck there, stuck there with no way out, under the thumbs of guardians who can't stand him and a cousin who uses him like a punching bag. He has no friends to speak of, rarely goes outside, and is basically stuck in a cupboard constantly. In short, he has a pretty horrid life.

This is all written in a highly convincing manner. Certainly there are some amateurish parts here and there, but you can certainly feel what's going on. The language is not superb, but it is well done and sufficient to get the point across. There is a little while spent on Harry being weird, doing stuff no normal person should be able to do, disappearing glass, talking with a snake... you know, the usual. And then he starts receiving the letters, the letters of his acceptance to Hogwarts. Well, the Dursleys, his aunt and uncle, are incredibly unhappy about this, going so far as to nail things shut and never go outside so that the letters will not reach their nephew. They eventually flee to a house on a rock in the middle of a body of water and are confronted by an angry Hagrid, telling them off for not saying that Harry Potter is a................. WIZARD.

Most of the introductory chapters are written in an almost surreal fashion. It is extremely over-the-top, but not unenjoyable. I could compare it to Roald Dahl and some of his more absurdist books that I read when I was younger. James and the Giant Peach and  Matilda really stick out, both having somewhat similar feelings and even plots to this book in the very beginning of it. And yet... it's enjoyable. It's fun. You like the main character of Harry Potter. Hagrid is new and interesting. The Dursleys are horrible people, petty and antagonistic in some ways, and Harry's goal is one of being accepted, growing in a nurturing environment rather than being stifled and stepped-upon. And it works. The tone is fitting, the plot interesting, the characters, while not three-dimensional, are engaging and mystifying.

And then the book gets better.

Think about all the possibilities that a normal kid, treated in a subpar way, can think of after this. The scenarios, the everything... it's mindboggling. And this giant, Hagrid, basically kidnaps Harry away to a sleazy alley. Oh... oh God... Hagrid... I hope this isn't going where I seriously don't want it to go. No. No, of course not. Hagrid's a good person, which is very good, and the sleazy alley is Diagon Alley, the mall of the wizards. I have no idea if British people... I can call the British, British people, right? Well, I have no idea if they even have malls or if those malls are all set up like this, but where I'm from it sounds like some kind of cozy little seedy mall. And I like it. The feeling here is somewhat claustrophobic and hectic, but neither feeling is wrong in this circumstance.

Hagrid leads Harry to Gringotts, a wizard bank, and learns that his parents were fairly well off before they died. Harry takes out as much money as he'll need and goes off to get the things he'll need for the upcoming school year. He gets a wand, robes, books, and... well, of course, a pet owl from Hagrid because owls are where it is at. Hedwig becomes Harry's friend throughout his adventures, a stalwart and constant companion. Anyway, Harry also meets a few other people in his adventure in Diagon Alley, including one little blond boy named Draco Malfoy and scores of strange characters.

Well, the story has to keep moving on. Harry is brought back home by Hagrid and Harry has to wait for a while until school starts up. He feels like a prisoner and a villain within his house and is glad when he gets to leave for school. He's eventually, after the long summer, dropped off at the train station with everything in hand, only to discover, OH NO! The platform that he needs is nine-and-three-quarters. Well, that's strange and kind of weird and probably doesn't exist. Harry's been duped! And the rest of the story is him getting legal action on Hagrid for fraud.

No, I'm yanking your chain, foolish reader. Harry just has to believe in it. Yes, he starts doubting, but then a family of friendly gingers come and board the platform, helping Harry out because they are simply very nice people. Harry meets Mrs. Weasley and some of her children, namely Ron (a new student like Harry), Percy, a prefect, twins George and Fred, and the young lady who is not old enough for school yet, Ginny.

Well, it's all very interesting. Harry and Ron become fast friends as Ron explains to Harry the knowledge of Hogwarts that he has gained whilst being in an actual wizard family. Some shenanigans ensue, Draco Malfoy is met again, this time clearly disliking Ron and very much desirous of Harry's friendship, which Harry does not seem to want to give.

The story moves on then. Hogwarts is seen, the Sorting Hat sorts the kids into one of four different houses in the school... uh... kind of like how you might have been in different teams in middle school or something. Each house has its own flavor and only certain personalities go into a certain house. Gryffindor is populated by smug, self-righteous people who think they're better than the rest of the school population. I suppose they are supposed to be courageous or something, but that's not always entirely true and seems vaguely stupid. Ravenclaw is full of know-it-alls and clever people even though nothing interesting ever seems to ever come out of Ravenclaw. Slytherin is made up of evil people and bullies, which seems kind of smart if you want a way to get rid of them all quickly, but really stupid if you have a house made up of the biggest pricks of the school population just reinforcing their own shoddy ideas. And then there's Hufflepuff that... uh... I still have no idea what Hufflepuff does. I think they're the rejects or something...

The rest of the story is about Harry and Ron learning about their studies, learning about their classmates, and finding adventure in the worst places. Harry joins a sports team as their seeker, which is him basically playing a big game of hide-and-seek with a small golden ball called a snitch, while the others on the team play the actual game. Quidditch sounds interesting, I suppose, if impractical. Ron and Harry meet a girl named Hermione eventually, who is Gryffindor and a know-it-all, which shouldn't be the case given the rules for the houses, but... okay, I guess? Anyway, she becomes their friend as well and they get into all sorts of trouble with an invisible cloak that they, for some reason, can all fit underneath, a baby dragon, and detention in the forest which leads Harry to start looking for some great Unicorn killing villain. Also, there's Neville Longbottom, who has one of the most unfortunate names in history and is treated like a butt-monkey throughout the book by our lead characters and others despite being a fairly good person. Let's yell our praises to the heroes for that, huh?

I like the Christmas scene for some reason. I feel that it is incredibly appropriate to the feeling of the book as a whole. Characters opening presents and being happy on a day that should be happy is kind of neat. Harry's awkwardness around Christmas also expands upon his character quite a bit. He has never really had a good Christmas and... well, it works here. It is very effective.

The forest scenes, though, are some of the best of the book, equal parts mystery and creepy. Harry being forced to share the scene with Draco makes it all the more interesting as the two characters act as interesting foils for one another even this early in the series. Draco is somewhat selfish and somewhat cowardly, but is only eleven years old, whereas Harry is much more brave and willing to put himself in harm's way to do something good.

The story moves on and reaches its climax as Harry suspects that Severus Snape, his Potions professor, is up to no good. Ron, Harry, and Hermione go and explore a labyrinth of tests to reach a magical mirror introduced earlier in the novel. They solve these tests saying once again that one should not design an impregnable labyrinth to be solves by an eleven year old. Well, solved it is and the figure at the maze is none other than cowardly and stuttering Professor Quirrel who wore a turban to disguise the fact that he had Voldemort on the back of his head. Huh, that's an incredibly odd climax to this book, I have to say.

Well, Harry defeats Voldemort with the power of his mother's love somehow and ends up happy and alive in the end while Dumbledore praises him all over. Then Harry goes home and... that's it.

Well, the book was certainly fairly good for a while. The earlier half of the book is incredibly well thought out and well paced. Once the train is boarded though, it seems as if the pacing goes all to hell and the story starts making some peculiar choices. The houses being made up of the stereotypes I mentioned is just the tip of the iceberg. Why are there no math classes here at Hogwarts? Isn't math important? What about literature classes? Or... anything really? How can an entire society be absolutely removed from the "muggle" (non-magical) world? I guess that always confused me. It still does, especially with what little we see of actual magical society. They seem completely removed from the muggles, almost a completely separate offshoot of humanity, ignorant of our life as we are ignorant of theirs... but that makes no sense. Certainly it makes sense in something like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere because it's all happening underground or secretly, but that's because they can't get back up into the real world. They're stuck beneath society, forgotten. The magical society though, is right next to the muggle one, right in the same area, and everything and yet... they don't meet, or at least rarely do. I don't quite get it and it doesn't seem right to me.

The latter half of the book, besides the forest part and Christmas, mostly feels too quick-paced and unneeded for my taste. There's a lot of hints for the ending of the story, what with fluffy, the mirror, and Quirrel, but they are absolutely superfluous and just seem to make the story longer without any real character or plot development to speak of. Honestly, besides the Quidditch matches, classes, Christmas, and the forest, there is very little development of anything in the latter half of the story. With such an interesting opening, the ending of the book feels very much stagnant and dry.

Certainly there are some other set pieces that work well, like Harry and Ron saving Hermione from a mountain troll in the girls' bathroom, and some of the scenes that Neville gets kicked around in. I have a lot of sympathy for Neville and also for Draco. Both characters are very well characterized, but mostly seemed very undeveloped, used instead as comic relief, butt-monkeys, or as a distinct bully character. Both have the issue of not appearing three-dimensional despite the reader's desire to want to make them three-dimensional. It almost seems as if J. K. Rowling had an issue with both character types.

The fantasy elements are mostly well put together, if a little amateurish, and the school itself very much feels like home after just a little while there. There's something cozy about it, something very much warm about its atmosphere except in the very depths of night. That being said, the writing for the most part is well done for a young adult/kid's book, and for the most part flows very well from beginning to end even in the more extraneous parts. The tone is fairly consistent throughout, with a fairly dark feeling that emanates from every corner of the story. The characters are mostly fairly strong except those that are very one-sided, like Snape, Draco, Neville, and most of the side characters. Only Harry, Dumbledore, and perhaps Hermione have any real depth to them, something that becomes more apparent over the course of the series rather than less apparent. 

Anyway, I have to end this review now. It's taken a long time to get this one out because of the complicated nature of the material and also the fact that I have a dark history with the Harry Potter series. It took a lot of cajoling to get me to read this book again, and... the second half of it I wasn't very happy at all. The main characters solving the puzzles despite being eleven seems to be a particularly glaring example of lazy writing all around. Why would the school even do that? It seems so dumb and ridiculous. Yes, the story is fairly ridiculous already, but come on, you know exactly what I mean here.

In the end, I found this book to be satisfactory. It's nothing incredibly special, but it is certainly not terrible. The beginning is very well put together and the character of Harry Potter is both complex and interesting. I guess the next book beckons.

God help me.
God help us all.
Six books left and I could barely get through this one. Somebody help me. Somebody shake me and tell me "No!"

*Sigh* I do this for the writing, readers. I do this because I want my voice to be read by somebody and maybe, just maybe, I'll have somebody agreeing with me... or people screaming at me telling me that the story is perfect, how dare I say anything critical about such a masterpiece... I don't really care what people say. These are my thoughts and opinions and... well, first book down...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wait... What's Going On?

Here's a picture of two ferrets sleeping next to one another. Their names are Syphilis and Donovanosis.

They have nothing to do with what I am about to write, I don't think, but they make a good picture because they are sleeping ferrets and they're adorable, especially the fat one. Look at how fat he is! He is gargantuan! He is mega-fat-ferret!

Anyway, I'm just going to write about a few things that have been getting me incredibly annoyed. Mostly final exams and the whole final exam system. That's about as stupid a system as has ever been invented. Yes, let's make people tear their hair out and lose time from their lives because we require them to memorize everything you'd ever need to know about John Milton's Paradise Lost, even down to specific quotations. Because, right there, that is more important than things like: working, living, breathing, doing anything else... etc. I'm sorry, I hate to be that guy, but it makes no sense to me. Why do I have to memorize this stuff when the professors themselves don't even know it? I digress. That's not the rant I want to pull out today.

I've been spending my time mostly between studying, writing papers, and every once in a while playing an hour or two of video games, mostly Mass Effect 2 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I'll put reviews out for both in the eventually, but that's not my point either. My point is video games as a genre... or maybe it's ferrets. Maybe that's what the past month has been for me: all about sleeping fat ferrets. I'll have to think about that one.

Video games are really good today. They are really good. Look at that "really" that I wrote there. It's kind of important for those sentences to work. The "really" implies both truth and a statement way above that of simply good. While movies and books go to hell, video games move to a place of importance. Well, not all movie and books are bad. Older books still rock my socks, and there are some good authors out there that consistently write the bees' knees kinds of books... men like Stephen King and arguably Clive Barker. F. Paul Wilson too. That man can write a solid novel. I suppose there are others, but I can't think of them at the moment. Books are a dying art-form, being replaced wholesale by digital media. That sounds like a good thing... until you realize the future of what books will become. Why do you think that books are more and more like fanfiction? Why do you suppose that the writing has gotten worse and worse over time? Well, there are easy answers to this. First is the demand among teenage girls (the most likely to read books and read in general) is trending towards crappy supernatural romance crap. This started, arguably, with Harry Potter (I'm still working on my reviews for that series. Just you wait, children. Just you wait.), but became noticeable with Twilight and the crappy television shows and movies that are all about romancing a vampire or some crap like that. I mean, yes, teenage girls are the worst decision makes in the world (unless you reading this are a teenage girl, in which case: keep on trucking!), but at least they read. They also are so much more likely to read or write fanfictions, draw or look at fan-art. Deviantart, a website full of fan-made stuff and some original stuff, is mostly made up of teenage girls.

Now, this isn't what I wanted to rant about either, but it's a good start. It isn't that teenage girls are ruining are society, it's more like society is trending towards teenage girls. Teenage guys are into naked women, crappy music, and video games. but teenage girls... they are exactly where society is. They are in between, wanting to fulfill fantasies that can never be fulfilled. They will end up, like most of society, disappointed that they can never truly be happy, and will find out eventually that, yes, they are going to lose their beauty and die a lonely death more than likely.

Now, that's a sad reality. It's a blunt truth. But I'm a twenty-something guy who's been jaded longer than many of the people I know have been alive. I can't get angry about the way society and books are moving. They are trending towards the teenage girl market and the market of digital media, which in turn is going to make every book that comes out averagely worse as a result... but there are reasons for this. It's sad, but it's reality. Good stories, good novels, good paper books... well, they're history and it's awful.

Movies are in even worse shape. Hollywood, that overencumbered fat-bottomed idiot, seems to have no desire for even the simplest of intelligences. They want to make money. They need to make money. And mindless drivel makes money. That's why there are no profound movies that do well in theaters. Writing is dead in movies, replaced by big names, mindless CGI, and flashy girls. And what do we care? Movies are either sequels, rehashes, or the same plot done over and over again. The only place where an intelligently minded director or writer can get his or her kicks is in the independent film market, which makes little in the way of money. No, better to release drivel that makes millions, hundreds of millions, than release a movie on par with Casablanca or even Dirty Harry. There are some filmmakers that are consistently good, but for the most part the value of movies has gone down. I just want to see better movies. I want to see something that piques my interest. Instead, all I've seen is nothing. It's awful.

Music and television seems to be moving along as they always have, so I'll not speak of them.

Then there are video games. They are the place to release content, intelligent content, content for the person who wants a brain challenge, who wants something viscerally pleasing (not just in terms of viscera either). Portal 2 is a great example of fantastic writing, intelligent story, and brilliant everything else. It brings more to the table than simple drivel. It has becomes something over the course of its existence. It has become an interesting story to follow, one that shows elements of character, AI, and the bleak future. And it's fantastic. Let's look at Skyrim. As buggy as it may be, it has a world that is, for all intent purposes, almost as real as our own. Characters have personalities and you can care for them just like you might care for your own friends or family. The game is brilliant a bountiful, showing so much more than just a simple fantasy realm. It shows a life, a story... Fallout: New Vegas brings philosophy into the gaming world, both in terms of political philosophy and in terms of actual philosophy. Mass Effect, as a series, provides us with science... maybe not the best science, but at least something approximating science. Certainly as hard science fiction as any video game can manage. And there are others besides, classy games like Red Dead Redemption or LA Noire. I may not love either game. They're a bit too mainstream and free-roaming-without-any-characters-that-I-care-about for my taste, but they show that the future of gaming looks fantastic. There can be improvements and for the most part, besides the gimmicks that Nintendo seems to love offering, the future of gaming is as bright as it gets. There is a right direction for these things and a wrong direction, and it seems that gaming as a whole is working towards innovation, improvement, and overall quality rather than drivel.

I think that's my rant. I hope you liked my ferrets. One was fat and both were sleeping, and I'm am going to start posting more, just let me get through final exams, which ends in like two days for me. Then I'll start posting like mad again. I promise... probably...